Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

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