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Why Google Plus is about to change the Web as we know it

After a series of failed attempts at social networking, Google may have nailed it with Google+. See why and how it could have a major impact on the future of the Web.

This is the way Google always wanted social networking to work, and this time the company may have pulled it off.

Google's previous social attempts have been unmitigated train wrecks, if we're being completely honest. Open Social failed because Google couldn't get Facebook and other social networks to buy into the idea of a shared social identity. Google Wave missed the target by not being useful enough to attract any users. Google Buzz freaked people out by naively overstepping its bounds on privacy.

So, when Google unveiled its latest social experiment last week -- called Google+ -- I was extremely skeptical. Still, Facebook is so malignant in terms of privacy and such a mess to use and configure that I was more than happy to give Google+ a try. I just expected that it would be a speed-dating relationship like most of my product reviews and destined to last no more than a few weeks at the most.

Damn, was I wrong. After almost a week, I fully expect this Google+ thing to turn into a long-term relationship. I mean, we're not buying matching workout suits or anything yet, but this is definitely more than just a crush on the hot, new thing.

To start, Google+ is what Google calls a "field trial" -- a fancy way to say that it's still in beta. For now, it is open mostly to technology industry insiders and the press. Google reasoned that since reporters were going to be writing about Plus anyway, they might as well let them kick the tires. Wise move.

Vic Gundotra, Google's SVP of Social and the head guy in charge of Plus, said, "We chose the initial seed very carefully. We wanted a lot of diversity, so we have people that represent over 42 of the world's languages... We're trying to really test the product, make sure that we meet people's privacy expectations, that the systems are working, [and] that we can scale. We'll slowly grow that initial seed as we're ready."

The other Google executive running the Plus project, Bradley Horowitz, added, "Field trial is the right term. That's not a euphemism. There's a lot of rough edges in there and a lot of learning we have to do. The feedback we got in the first 24 hours is tremendous."

Even with its rough edges and without the masses of humanity having access to Google+, the core experience is pretty powerful, and it's easy to see where Google is going with this.

As I wrote over the weekend while diving into Google+, the most attractive part is how easy it is to find, add, and organize your friends (I cited that as the main reason you won't hate Google+). The friend issue is the heart of all social networks, although it's so obvious that it's often overlooked. In fact, Twitter still isn't very good at it, Facebook is a little better, but both of them now look like neophytes compared to the way Google+ does it.

The friend feature on Google+ is called "Circles," and it turns out to be an intuitive mashup of friending (from Facebook) and following (from Twitter). Circles are basically sets of friends that you can drag and drop into groups, mirroring your existing social circles -- Family & Friends, Colleagues, Local Techies, etc. -- rather than just the one big lump of friends you have on Facebook that can result in moments of "worlds colliding," since you have to share all of your updates with all of your friends. On Google+, you can selectively send updates to different circles, and you can quickly click between the news streams of your different circles.

You can also make circles for people you don't necessarily know but are interested in following their updates (e.g. Tech Journalists, Famous Engineers, Web Celebrities, etc.). This is where Google+ echoes Twitter, because people don't have to follow you back in order for you to add them to one of your Circles. At that point, you'll see all of their public updates, and most of these folks make the majority of their updates public in order to be seen by more people (it's the whole social media narcissism meme, and it has already transplanted itself on Google Plus).

The real killer feature to Circles in Google+ is how easy it is to find and add friends. Everywhere you see a user's name or avatar you can simply mouse over it, click "Add to Circles," and then select which circle to add them to. On Twitter, it took me about three years to find about 200 really interesting people (mostly in technology and the media) worth following. It took me less than three days to find that many on Google Plus. Of course, most of them are the same people, so Google+ has the advantage of speed by letting us quickly re-coagulate our existing social graph on the new service.

I'm not predicting Google+ will replace Facebook and/or Twitter. This will definitely not be a zero sum game. Facebook has the most to lose from Google Plus, but it's going to be years before Aunt Jenny and your plumber show up on Google+ the way they recently showed up on Facebook (and it's possible they never will). All three of these social networks -- Facebook, Google+, and Twitter -- will still be going strong three years from now. People will gravitate to them for different reasons. They'll go to Twitter for news and to cyber-stalk celebrities. They'll go to Facebook for private networking, water cooler chats, and games.

So, where will that leave Google+?

I'm glad you asked, because that's the real point here (sorry to bury the lede). To start, Google+ is mostly going to be made up of digital influencers -- technology executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals, as well as social media mavens and technophiles in the press. Don't underestimate the power of this broad group. It's the same group that has catapulted Twitter and Foursquare into mainstream consciousness in recent years. A large percentage of this group is already in the "initial seed" of Google+ users, and they are the ones who have been raving about it for the past week. Look for a lot of them to decrease (but not eliminate) their Facebook usage and spend more time on Google Plus.

However, once you get past the technorati, then the story is going to get really interesting, because in the long run, Google+ is going to be less of a destination and more like the connective social tissue of the Web. I'm talking about social networking moving beyond a walled garden like Facebook or even a controlled ecosystem like Twitter.

Pieces of Google+ are likely to be decentralized with tentacles extending across the Web, the mobile Web, and various computer, smartphone, and tablet platforms. In some ways, Facebook and Twitter have started doing this already. They've put share buttons and boxes on external sites. They've launched client apps for multiple platforms. Facebook has even allowed sites to use the Facebook platform as their engine for user comments. However, the ultimate goal for Facebook and Twitter is to drive users back to their sites where they can be monetized.

Google has a different goal. It needs all of this social data about what people like, how they are socially related, what content they share the most, what context they share it in, and more in order to power its search engine and better organize the world's information. That means Google's social motivations have little to do with driving people back to plus.google.com. It's ultimately about enhancing search and not allowing Facebook to hoard so much of the world's social data.

That's why Google has already submitted it's iOS app to the Apple App Store. That's why it is already talking about opening up Google+ Hangouts (group video chat) to other video services and clients. It's why Google is putting little +1s all across the Web and in its search results (even though they aren't very well connected to Google+ yet). In order to satisfy its appetite for social data, Google ultimately needs Google+ to be ubiquitous across virtually all platforms -- both in terms of accessing the service from devices but even more so in terms of micro-connections to the service from third-party apps and sites.

Think of +1 integrated into mobile content apps, Q&A sites, blog comments, product reviews, music services like Pandora, etc. Now, imagine reading a product review, giving it +1, and then instantly seeing what all of the people in your "Tech Pros" circle have posted about that product -- all without leaving the site you're on. That's where I see Google going with this, and that's where this could permanently change social networking on the Web into a much more integrated experience. And if Google+ succeeds, it would likely force Facebook and Twitter to move in a similar direction.

Nevertheless, one big question here is how far will Google go with the open strategy? Can it avoid the temptation of giving Google+ pre-eminence to its internal platforms, such as Android, Chrome browser, Chrome OS, Gmail, and others? Will it build great apps and functionality for other platforms as well? For example, will it build a client for Windows Phone 7, even though Microsoft is its biggest rival in search? Will it work with Apple to make FaceTime (which has also promised open standards) compatible with Google+ Hangouts? Those are the kinds of litmus tests I'm going to be watching for.

Still, "Google+" is the perfect name for this, because it's ultimately an add-on and a force-multiplier to the existing Google experience, especially its search engine but also to the broader Web in general. Google+ will be a social layer on top of the existing Web. At least that's the vision. This time, Google might just pull it off.

When you make it into Google+, you can find my profile here.

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About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

31 comments
sperry532
sperry532

Given Google's past performance on trying to duplicate other companies' services, I have strong doubts. They formed Google Groups to compete with Yahoo! Groups. G Groups is a mere shadow. They picked up Picassa to go head-to-head with Flikr. They're not getting much traction with it and I've read that they're planning on closing it down. And GMail is still in flux. I don't have high hopes for G+

bills754
bills754

And where is Linkedin in all of this?

PRINCETONBROOKE
PRINCETONBROOKE

I actually don't see GooglePLUS+ friendship as being the big bite once it actually launches. I believe the overall streamline of services makes going with Google the better choice. Google has done an excellent job of creating all these unique apps and they just needed to bring them all together in a way that spells FUN and here we have it with GooglePLUS+ social glue. The black google bar will be the dashboard of the century. I must disagree with you in that people don't use Twitter for NEWS and as a long time Twitter user we all have come to know that you cannot trust or depend on Twitter for current events. Twitter has allowed it's self to become similar to WikiPedia in that professors all over warn their students that it is not a valid or acceptable source. Just think about all the celebrities and politicians who have "DIED" already this week according to Tweets. Let's get serious LOL. My take on Facebook is its time to say goodbye. Their lack of concern about privacy and their auto opt-in features are just rude. I also don't like how Facebook never allowed users to feel comfortable in being themselves online. Something about Facebook makes me think everyone sips tea at high noon but I personally like a beer or shot of brandy instead. Facebook is for fakes. Twitter is for teases. GooglePLUS+ is for bringing your online personalities all together in a systematic approach that also lets you access and easily incorporate GoogleVoice, GoogleDocs, YouTube, and PlusMORE+

prush
prush

Not only integration but... I also see a future where I can uninstall more mobile apps I don't need.

JJFitz
JJFitz

Just like MySpace before it, Facebook is getting tiresome. It's about time for a replacement. And Jason, thanks for adding me to your Circle. :)

artlife
artlife

I think it's a little naive to think that google wants volumes of data on everyone and their habits and friends so it can make search better. They will monetize it all through advertising and any other way they can think of. As one travels around the web, the +1 will be stuck on you like a leech.

peter.cooney
peter.cooney

Err you have been able to put friends into groups on facebook and restrict posts to them, sort, restrict chat etc for ages. Surely you know this? Hardly the killer feature then is it? Maybe you just dont know how to use facebook. It is not hard, privacy can be screwed right down (you make no mention of google+ privacy settings). And the crucial point is everyone is on it, that is what makes it valuable.

h8usernames
h8usernames

I am interested in what Google is going to do with Orkut also. I have an (old) account on Orkut that I may use once every few weeks but it has been so successful in non-English speaking countries that moving it to Google+ could be a bad move annoying existing users, but leaving it be and not developing it further could be as much of a problem for Google.

Fletchguy
Fletchguy

Linkedin is the onlyt useful version of the social onliner concept out there and thats why they are valued so high. They arer staying as far away from the facebook, twitter, social crap circle as possible and retainging the saftey and respectibility they have built. It is beyond me why people use facebook or twitter other then to market something.

Bduffel
Bduffel

uh...in the LinkedIn circle perhaps? ; )

John K.R.
John K.R.

Initially I agree with you however I have been noticing 'moms and dads' out there in my life are beginning to realize that Facebooks privacy is well below par in a number of areas. Things they initially thought were private they now realize arent. Apps they thought they removed are still there. Posts they didn't want some to see are available for all to see. And they can't figure out Facebooks privacy settings to fix it. Admittedly they may be the few but hopefully (however naive I may be) its a privacy awareness awakening. I can hope

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

You are probably right when you say that they'll monitize it (duh, it's a business). And the way google makes money is exactly by harvesting loads of data. Then their search engine (which is implemented troughout every Google feature) will get better. Then people will use it (google products) more often and stick to it. Then they'll make more money. So stating that it's naive to think that they do it for the data is not entirely correct.

stephen.scholtz
stephen.scholtz

Huh? I just tried to make a status update that would only be visible to one of my groups of friends. I can limit it to certain people, I can limit it to friends, but I can't limit to members of my "Family" group, for example. I dunno, perhaps because I'm in Canada. (we don't get the same features as the US does sometimes) At any rate, as Zuckerburg has said, "the default is social". Facebook's motivation is to get people sharing more with everybody, a stance which is constantly getting them into trouble, and one that doesn't reflect the reality of the real world. "Circles" is definitely the proper metaphor/model for the people you actually relate to.

alfielee
alfielee

You may know how to do this but many folk don't have the bread-making ability upstairs to do it. That's where Google Plus comes into its own...

Fletchguy
Fletchguy

Ummm yeah not everyone is on Facebook just those who have no life and know very little about online security as Facebook has so many un secure holes and opening that leak all your account info and personal data along with a direct line to your computer or phone. It also is filled with pedophiles, stalkers, menatlly unstable people and kids. Truely anyone who uses these social networks has some kind of issue and obviously not much knowledge of secure online interaction and desrves what they get from it. Social networking is a fad that peaked and is already on the decline so Google may have the new toy but hopefully in under 3 years all will not exist and we can get back to reality and safe online expirences.

andy.holroyd
andy.holroyd

The issue that Facebook has with its privacy settings is that the majority of users do not understand how to manage groups and their privacy settings, so do not use the features. If Google have found a way to simplify this, making privacy easier to understand and implement then I would think that even if it is not a killer feature, it could certainly interest a lot of users.

SkyNET32
SkyNET32

So far as I've heard, they're shutting down Orkut. Not sure if that's just in the US or abroad too. Of course I could be wrong, and they could change their minds....;)

mswift
mswift

I used to really like LinkedIn. Lately the facebook links have brought in unprofessionals for want of a better word, followed closely by self-advertising. I was active in a vertical industry forum. It had good discussions with people of different backgrounds. Now it is most tyros who want someone else to make their decisions for them (my printer just died what should I buy) or chatting because they are bored (business is slow today, why is that). Both of those kinds of postings are legitimate but not in that forum.

adamina
adamina

me too connected on G+1, that's really awesome. Must High School

JJFitz
JJFitz

I'm just waiting for your invitation. :) You have the power, man!

mswift
mswift

I've had to contact Google a number of times when they sell my registered trademarks as ad words. You catch them and they take them down. With all the computing power they have how hard is it to search and ad words request for trademarks and web sites with that name? So if you catch them they will stop, but there is no way they are going to make you whole for the searches hijacked to a competitor or give you the money paid to use your trademark as an ad word

Richard-H
Richard-H

I think artlife was saying that it was naive to think they wanted the data just to improve our search results. I'm very uncomfortable with nearly all the social platforms, they are compiling massive databases and not deleting information, even when individuals unsubscribe. It is undoubtedly to make money, but I believe there is more to it than that. hostgator coupons

ThatITGuyTy
ThatITGuyTy

You seem to be a very biased with your words against social media but you also seem to lack a good understanding of the internet. The internet is not a safe place in any sense of the word and any form that you're referring to is an illusion. All the security suites and secure protocols, all of the filtering and authentications of the internet exist because of the very fact that the internet is a dangerous place to interact in naivety. So in regard to your comment, I don't agree with Facebook being a place solely for pedophiles or kids with disabilities, and you might be surprised how many people actually have full flourishing lives on there, and Facebook has simply become an extension to them. Trust me in three years, FaceBook and Twitter(and perhaps Google +) will still be dominant players in the industry, they will still be on the majority of societies cell phones and bookmarks, and they will still be as powerful in social movements as they are currently; granted they may have a few new bells and whistles about them by then.

Aragolth
Aragolth

Well, i have no idea what your talking about, first facebook arent filled with pedophil and retarded kids... you can control who your adding to your profile, i only have friends and co-worker plus a couple of clients in there. Yes yes, facebook leak information, but every other website does, browser informations, os information and the like and much more for those enjoying surfing exotic website. i could argue for hours, but my point is you can limit the informations you post on facebook(or any other social network) yourself, i never posted any personal or critical informations into facebook and that is why i never had any problem... sure google has my birthday and know i love mountain bike and computer... nice ! to conclude, we will never get back to a "safe online expirences" since internet has been develloped information leak, virus and spyware has been with us. if you wish to be secure, unplug your computer.

insuranceman1
insuranceman1

Forgot about Orkut. Pretty sure, even given it's foothold in Asia, Google won't keep giving attention to both platforms, especially since + sounds so intensive.

kalyan_revadi
kalyan_revadi

Orkut is still active in Asian countries. I see it is going down..lets see how g+ will survive in the Social Networking war !

ThatITGuyTy
ThatITGuyTy

Good reply to @Fletchguy, honestly the idea of a "safe online experience" is an illusion, and you are right to say that if he wanted to be secure, to unplug his computer.

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