It’s hard to believe that we’re still in the first year of Google+ as it feels like the service has been around for so much longer. This is probably because of the many milestones it managed to pass in such a short period of time, owing the fact that anyone with a Google account can just breeze on into the nascent social network. I personally remained positive about it as the interface and user experience paradigms suited my geeky ways but the lack of integration with other services along with the lack of migration of others onto the service means that it barely sees any use, at least from me.
Still I can’t generalize my experience up to a wider view of Google+ and not just because that’s bad science. Quite often I’ve found myself back on Google+, not for checking my feed or posting new content, but to see conversations that have been linked to by news articles or friends. Indeed Google+ seems to be quite active in these parts with comment threads containing hundreds of users and multitudes of posts. Most often this is when popular bloggers or celebrities start said thread so its very much like Twitter in that regard, although Google+ feels a whole lot more like one big conversation rather than Twitter’s 1 to many or infinitum of 1 to 1 chat sessions. For the most part this still seems to be heavily biased towards the technology scene, but that could just be my bias stepping in again.
Outside that though my feed is still completely barren with time between posts from users now expanding to weeks. Even those who swore off all other social networks in favour of Google+ have had to switch back as only a small percentage of their friends had an active presence on their new platform of choice. This seems to be something of a trend as user interactivity with the site is at an all time low, even below that of struggling social network MySpace. Those figures don’t include mobile usage but suffice to say that the figures are indicative of the larger picture.
Personally I feel one of the biggest problems that Google+ has is lack of integration with other social network services and 3rd party product developers. Twitter’s success is arguably due to their no holds barred approach to integration and platform development. Whilst Google+ was able to get away with not having it in the beginning the lack of integration hurts Google’s long term prospects significantly as people are far less likely to use it as their primary social network. Indeed I can’t syndicate any of the content that I create onto their social network (and vice-versa) due to the lack of integration and this means that Google+ exists as a kind of siloed platform, never getting the same level of treatment as the other social networks do.
Realistically though it’s all about turning the ghost towns that are most people’s timelines into the vibrant source of conversation that many of the other social networks are. Right now Google+ doesn’t see much usage because of the content exclusivity and effort required to manually syndicate content to it. Taking away that barrier would go a long way to at least making Google+ look like its getting more usage and realistically that’s all that would be required for a lot of users to switch over to it as their main platform. Heck I know I would.
In the mere months that it has been released Google+ has managed to accumulate quite the following, grabbing 40 million users. It’s still quite small compared to the current incumbent Facebook (who’s users outnumber Google+ 20 to 1) but that’s an incredible amount of growth, more than any other social network has ever been able to achieve before. Google has finally got it right with this attempt to break into the social networking world and it’s paying off for them in spades. What’s got everyone talking now is where Google is heading, not just with Google+ but also with the rest of their vast service catalogue.
Over the past 6 months or so, ever since co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO of Google, there’s been a rather interesting/worrying trend that’s been developing at Google. For as long as I can remember Google had a habit of experimenting openly with their users, cheerfully opening up access to beta products in order to get the wider public interested in them. However most recently they’ve begun to shutter these types of projects with the first signal that this trend could end coming with the closing down of Google Labs. In the months that followed many of Google’s other ancillary services, like Google Health and Google Power Meter, have been shut down with many more facing the chopping block.
For anyone following Google the writing had been on the wall ever since Page announced back in July that they were going to be focusing more closely on their core services. What’s really interesting however is that the direction that Google’s now heading in is not Page’s thinking alone, but one that was heavily influenced by the late great Steve Jobs. Just before Page took the top job at Google he placed met up with Jobs to get some advice on what he should be doing and it’s easy to see where Page’s motivation for cutting the fat from Google had come from:
Jobs didn’t mince words when Page arrived at Jobs’ Palo Alto home. He told Page to build a good team of lieutenants. In his first week as Google’s CEO, Page reshuffled his management team to eliminate bureaucracy. Jobs also warned Page not to let Google get lazy or flabby.
“The main thing I stressed was to focus,” Jobs told Isaacson about his conversation with Page. “Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out adequate products that are adequate but not great.”
Just over a week ago Google announced that another 5 services (Buzz, Code Search, University Research, iGoogle Social and Jaiku) would be shut down in favour of the features of those applications being taken over by Google+. Indeed any Google service that has some sort of social bent is getting integrated under the Google+ umbrella, with many of the sharing features in things like Google Reader being moved out to Google+. For Google this is done to both encourage people to use their still nascent social network as well as reducing their large application portfolio. Integrating everything they can into Google+ may seem like a desperate move to try and grab more market share away from Facebook but Google is betting a lot on the Google+ platform, and I believe it will pay off for them.
The momentum that Google+ has gained over the past few months has shown that Google can do social and do it well. After nailing that down it makes a lot of sense to combine services, especially those ones that are considered core to a social network, under the Google+ umbrella as that builds out the product and makes it far more enticing to end users. It’s sad to see some other services get completely shut down but that does open up the market to start-ups who can take up the slack that Google leaves behind as they increase their focus on their core products.
Google+ has only been around for a mere 2 months yet I already feel like writing about it is old hat. In the short time that the social networking service as been around its had a positive debut to the early adopter market, seen wild user growth and even had to tackle some hard issues like their user name policy and user engagement. I said very early on that Google had a major battle on their hands when they decided to launch another volley at an another silicone valley giant but early indicators were pointing towards them at least being a highly successful niche product at the very least, if for the only fact that they were simply “Facebook that wasn’t Facebook“.
One of the things that was always lacking from the service was an API that was on the same level as its competitors. Both Facebook and Twitter both have exceptional APIs that allow services to deeply integrate with them and, at least in the case of Twitter, are responsible in a large part for their success. Google was adamant that an API was on the way and just under a week ago they delivered on their promise, releasing an API for Google+:
Developers have been waiting since late June for Google to release their API to the public. Well, today is that Day. Just a few minute ago Chris Chabot, from Google+ Developer Relations, announced that the Google+ API is now available to the public. The potential for this is huge, and will likely set Google+ on a more direct path towards social networking greatness. We should see an explosion of new applications and websites emerge in the Google+ community as developers innovate, and make useful tools from the available API. The Google+ API at present provides read-only access to public data posted on Google+ and most of the Google+ API follows a RESTful API design, which means that you must use standard HTTP techniques to get and manipulate resources.
Like all their APIs the Google+ one is very well documented and even the majority of their client libraries have been updated to include the new API. Looking over the documentation it appears that there’s really only 2 bits of information available to developers at this point in time, those being public Profiles (People) and activities that are public. Supporting these APIs is the OAuth framework so that users can authorize external applications so that they can access their data on Google+. In essence this is a read only API for things that were already publicly accessible which really only serves to eliminate the need to screen scrape the same data.
I’ll be honest, I’m disappointed in this API. Whilst there are some useful things you can do with this data (like syndicating Google+ posts to other services and reader clients) the things that I believe Google+ would be great at doing aren’t possible until applications can be given write access to my stream. Now this might just be my particular use case since I usually use Twitter for my brief broadcasts (which is auto-syndicated to Facebook) and this blog for longer prose (which is auto shared to Twitter) so my preferred method of integration would be to have Twitter post stuff to my Google+ feed. Because as it is right now my Google+ account is a ghost town compared to my other social networks simply because of the lack of automated syndication.
Of course I understand that this isn’t the final API, but even as a first attempt it feels a little weak.
Whilst I won’t go as far as to say that Google+ is dying there is data to suggest that the early adopter buzz is starting to wind down. Anecdotally my feed seems to mirror this trend with average time between posts on there being days rather than minutes it is on my other social networks. The API would be the catalyst required to bring that activity back up to those initial levels but I don’t think it’s capable of doing so in its current form. I’m sure that Google won’t be a slouch when it comes to releasing new APIs but they’re going to have to be quick about it if they want to stem the flood of inactivity.
I really want to use Google+, I really do it’s just that the lack of interoperability that keeps all my data out of it. I’m sure in the next couple months we’ll see the release of a more complete API that will enable me to use the service as I, and many others I feel, use our other social networking services.
Whilst we’re still in the very early days of Google’s latest attempt to break into the social networking scene they’ve still managed to create quite the stir, at least with the technically inclined crowd. The combination of a decidedly non-Google-esque interface coupled with the simple fact that it’s not Facebook was more than enough to draw a large crowd of people over to the service, to the tune of over 25 million in the short time its been made available to the public. The launch has been mostly trouble free for Google with their rock solid engineering providing a fast, bug free experience and its straightforward privacy policies. There has been one sticking point that’s been causing quite a stir however, enough so that some users don’t see it as a viable platform.
That issue is the fact that you have to use your real (legal) name on Google+.
Now for most of us this isn’t much a problem, especially if you’ve been on a social networking site before. For the past 4 years or so I’ve been using my real name or some abbreviation thereof online for the simple fact that it helped build my online presence, rather than hiding it behind a thin curtain of a pseudonym. That’s because for the most part I haven’t had the need to hide behind a curtain of anonymity (thanks to living in Australia, for the most part) since if I feel the need to express my opinion online I also feel the need to attach my name to it. Of course I still have pseudonyms that I use (Nalafang and PYROMANT|C are the 2 most prolific) but they’re more part of my gamer heritage than anything else, as I don’t really use them in any other context.
Still I understand that many people have built relationships and authority based upon their pseudonyms rather than their real names and this is where Google+ struggles. A great example of this is Digg’s top user MrBabyMan, who has quite the following thanks to his heavy involvement in the news aggregator, has a much smaller following on Google+ due to the restriction that he use his real name. Of course dedicated followers are able to suss this out but the point remains that people are far more aware of his online presence as MrBabyMan than they are as Andrew Sorcini. The question then is why is Google being so pedantic about real name use on their new social network?
You could trace it back to Google attempting to mimic what Facebook has, where it’s almost a given that anyone on there is using their real name. Of course many people don’t use their real name (for many reasons) but Facebook doesn’t seem to take much of a stance when they do, and will even let you change your name on a whim should you feel the need to do so. Google’s stance, at least according to CEO Eric Schmidt, is that they built Google+ primarily as an identity service not the social network that everyone is making it out to be. That’s an interesting notion but, for me at least, doesn’t answer the question of why Google won’t let people use pseudonyms on Google+.
There are many people who want to use Google+ as another platform for their online presence and for some this means using it under the guise of a pseudonym. Now whilst the case can be made that people will tend towards being fuckwads when given some degree of anonymity many have their online identities closely tied to the pseudonyms which they created. If Google was really serious about being an identity service then these sorts of people should have no issue since their identity, at least online, is their pseudonym. The question then becomes what’s the benefit of forcing them to use their real name rather than the one that they have so much invested in and whether this could become a big issue for Google’s new identity service.
For Google the benefits are pretty clear. Since your Google+ account is heavily intertwined with all other Google services the second you opt into their social network all those other services, nearly all of which are pseudonym supporting, now have your real name attached to them. Whilst Google already had a pretty good profile of you built up already thanks to those other services they now have a vastly more critical bit of information that ties them all together. There’s nothing particularly sinister about this motive however, it’s mostly so they can more expensive ads targeted at you, there’s a non-zero benefit to Google requiring your real name on their social network.
Those seeking to join the network under a pseudonym are at a distinct disadvantage however as they’re basically leaving their current online identity at the door. Of course the argument could be made that they’ll transition fine and it’s just that Google+ is still in its nascent stages, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Google is doing potential users a disservice by not allowing pseudonyms. There’s a happy middle ground for both Google and potential users in the form of verified accounts (which they’re already doing for celebrities) or say letting users have a nickname displayed whilst having the real name hidden but Google doesn’t seem to be amenable to these ideas, at least not yet.
For a social network that’s basically been issue free since day one it’s a real shame to see Google get stuck on something that’s been so ingrained in the Internet community since it’s inception. I don’t think it will be the nascent social network’s undoing, but it’s definitely not getting them any positive press and has the potential to keep many power users away from the service. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this going forward as right now their focus is (rightly) on growing their network, rather than dealing with edge cases like this. However they could win themselves a lot of good press by simply allowing pseudonyms on their network, whether they will do that or not is something only Google can answer.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of what Google’s done with their latest product, Plus. Initial impressions of the service were good with the interface being clean and apart from the Huddle app experiencing some technical difficulties it was essentially bug free. It also seemed to be quite the hit with it gathering 10 million users in just 2 weeks, no small feat even for a tech giant like Google. I’ve been using the service ever since it launched to the public and now that we’re starting to get to the tail end of the honeymoon period for Google+ I’m starting to see some similarities to other social networks I once used, and that’s not a good thing.
When I first saw Google+ the first thing I thought of, and I wasn’t the only one to think this, was how persuasive Google could be in order to drag my friends across from Facebook. Now initial numbers were pretty good, with about 20% of my friends signing up in the first few weeks. They were all my somewhat technically inclined friends and I had expected the majority to come across in the early adopter wave. However the rest of my social network hasn’t shown any traction at all and in fact mentioning the fledgling social network to them draws blank stares. Thus whilst I was quick to see a good chunk of people come across the inertia for the regular user to jump ship is, at least at this point in time, still way too high.
It’s also become apparent that even these early adopters seem to value Google+ as a second rate candidate for their social networking. Whilst both my Twitter and Facebook feeds see dozens of updates every day I can’t say the same for Google+, sometimes going days without seeing anything new on my front page. I’ll admit that I too barely post anything to the service as most of my activities are automatically syndicated by way of in built APIs. There are of course solutions to this but unfortunately unlike WordPress, Twitter and Facebook which have rather elegant solutions anything involving Google+ at this point feels rather hacky. This may change once Google releases an official API and allows native apps ala Facebook, but since all my other technical friends aren’t syndicating their streams it makes me wonder if they’re that engaged with Google+ in the first place.
My anecdotal experience however doesn’t explain why Google+ is seeing such explosive growth. They hit 10 million in just a fortnight and managed to more than double that to 25 million just two weeks after that. By all rights that would seem to be an impressive number of people who were looking for an alternative to Facebook (around 5% of their users, give or take) but still a tiny number comparatively. Realistically it’s still way too early as whilst such traction is impressive it’s still very early days for Google+ and the real test will be if they can capture any semblance of that exponential growth in the next 6 months.
Google, to their credit, hasn’t been resting on their laurels since launching just a month and a half ago. Just recently they launched the games section of Google+ which includes a fair number of familiar titles. Whilst I haven’t had a play around in that section yet it does seem to be an almost straight up port of the games section of the Chrome Web Store. This isn’t a bad thing as it means that those looking to develop for the Google+ platform can already do so, just that it seems like a bit of duplication of effort even if Google+ and Chrome target different markets. Still initial reviews of the games service aren’t entirely positive but there is hope for future iterations that have tighter integration with the Google+ platform.
Google+ also seems to be sticking to its guns when it comes to being clear of privacy with it managing to avoid any scandals in that area. There has been the rather sticky issue of those users who didn’t want to use their real name getting booted from Google+ and subsequently losing everything attached to that Google account. This is really the only major issue that Google has faced with their network and whilst I can understand their position their reaction to those users has been rather heavy handed. Considering nearly all other Google services allow you to operate under a nickname many were under the impression that they could do the same on Google+. Whether Google will change this policy in the future remains up for speculation.
The next few months are going to be crucial for the ongoing success of the Google+ platform. They’ve definitely managed to make a product that a lot of people want however the competition they are going up against has a long head start, enough that such explosive growth looks like a drop in the bucket to them. Fortunately Google does seem committed to the platform with it being under heavy active development and it’s those improvements and additions to the service that will determine whether or not it becomes a viable alternative to Facebook.
If you haven’t yet got an invite to Google+ you can click here to get yourself an invite.
When I wrote about Google+ last week I was under no delusions that I’d be able to get myself into the program before they started doing their open testing. Like Google Wave and Gmail before it I didn’t have any friends who were in on the first round invites so I put my name in the email form and resigned to come back to it after all the hubbub had died down. One of my clever friends (who has recently become a fellow blogger) hit up someone giving out invites on Twitter and was himself granted invites upon joining in. Since my entire group of friends was chomping at the bit to get in and have a go with Google’s latest toy we all jumped at the chance to get in on the action, and I spent the weekend having a fiddle with it.
The landing page of Google+ looks eerily similar to that of Facebook’s, with a very familiar 3 column layout that has all the major components in approximately the same positions. This is a decidedly non-Google way of presenting a service but it appears that this will be the way they go about it from now on since the same styling has made its way onto the Google search engine. I’m definitely a fan of it since the layout is clean, uncluttered and isn’t yet ridden with ads. I’m sure eventually it will start getting ads much like Facebook has as there’s a lot of real estate on the right hand side that’s just sitting there unused currently, right in the same spot that Facebook has its ads.
As part of the Google+ implementation it looks like at least one other service, Google Talk, received a small upgrade in functionality. I’m a big user of the chat function that’s long been available through Gmail (mostly because all my friends use it) but the experience on there has never been that great. Unless you’re on an unfettered connection to the outside world the chat would likely drop out at least once or twice a day and the only way to get back into a group conversation was to be added back into it. Now it seems to be able to remember sessions quite well and I was able to access the same conversation in Gmail and Plus simultaneously, even on different computers. Having the concept of rooms would still be an awesome feature to have, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
The circles idea is an interesting one, albeit one that I don’t have much use for currently. Circles are just groups of people you can create on the fly and they’re only visible to you. There’s 4 default groups that take their inspiration from the other major social networks (Friends/Family = Facebook, Acquaintances = LinkedIn, Following = Twitter) but they’re really just there to get you started. Since at the moment the only people I know on there are my tech enthusiast friends I’ve really only needed a single group. Should Google offer an API that will allow me to consolidate all my social doings in one spot I can see this being a very handy feature but until such a time I get a feeling that this feature (and by extension much of the benefits of Google+) will be lost on me.
Two features I didn’t get much of a chance to play with were Hangouts and Sparks, although a couple of my mates gave me a rundown on how they work. Hangouts are basically Skype in a web browser which is pretty amazing by itself but it’s also meant to make group conversations more useful by making whoever is doing the talking the main person in the Hangout window. I’ve had a quick fiddle with the Sparks bit but all it seems to do is search the web with the keywords you plug into it, generating a stream of on-topic articles that may or may not be of interest to you. For kicks I tried video games and got everything from recent articles to reviews dating back a year. The curated feeds that are displayed when you first click into Sparks might be better, but none of them really aligned to my interests.
At the same time Google released Plus they also debuted the accompanying Android application, which has just as much polish as the web based product. It functions pretty much as expected with the vast majority of functionality available. Strangely however the Huddle feature, basically group messaging ala Beluga et al, is a standalone application. Huddle was up and down over the time I was using it but when it worked it was very usable, however it lacks the maturity of other group messaging apps as there’s no media or location sharing built in. Additionally the lack of a web interface for Huddle feels like an oversight on Google’s part since that would make it infinitely more usable, especially if it was available through Google Talk.
Overall I’m quite impressed with Google+ as a service and so are a good portion of my friends. However only a fifth of my direct social circle has made it onto Google+ and with no API to speak of yet (although one is coming) it’s really just another curiosity for the time being. Once there’s a bit more integration with other services and the user base hits critical mass I could see it being the one stop place for my social networking needs. The hardest challenge that Google+ faces isn’t technical however, it will be attempting to break the stranglehold that Facebook holds on the market. If there’s anyone who’s capable of doing this it’s Google, but even they are going to have a hard time drawing users away from the place where all their friends still reside.