Google+: An interesting product, badly marketed

Google+ is Google’s new service for social networking and information sharing (a “Facebook competitor”, if you will). This post provides an overview of Google+: What it is, how it works and how it was created. It argues that Google has not marketed this product properly. Update 2011-07-22: Google+ – observations and future

1. The features

After you join Google+, your previous Google profile becomes the hub of your Google+ social universe. This hub has the following components:
  • A Google-wide toolbar that gives you access to your profile, shows your notifications and lets you share content (with more Google products supporting sharing over time).
  • Google+: What used to be your Google profile now is the Google+ application. There are four icons that let you switch between the main parts of this application:
    • Welcome Screen: access to feeds, Sparks and a chat.
    • Photos
    • Profile: edit your profile data.
    • Circles: manage groups of users.
  • Complementary features:
    • Hangouts: group video chat (up to 10 people so that things stay usable. Automatically bring people who are talking to the foreground). Similar to Gmails video chat, but with several people. Announce to a buddy or a circle.
    • Instant Upload: Android app to upload photos.
    • Huddle: Group texting, configure via circles.

A Google-wide toolbar has a menu with Google+ notifications [source: Engadget].

Google+’s welcome screen [source: Engadget].

Welcome Screen:
  • Streams: feeds, depend on circles. Post to your stream: status, link, photo, video. Share with everyone or just a circle.
  • Sparks: articles, photos, videos from the web. Google uses its search engine to collect new and popular articles for a particular topic. The successor to Google News.
  • Chat: like Gmail’s
  • Personal links can be added (to your blog etc.)
Personal profile: This part of Google+ has the following sections.
  • Posts: a list of text entries you have made.
  • About: similar to Facebook – Tagline (brief description), Employment, Education, etc.
  • Photos, Videos: via Picasa. People can share photos they are allowed to see with others. Starts with what is already on Picasa.
  • +1’s (note the grammatically incorrect genitive): not integrated with the rest of Google+. Google should make this a Delicious-like social bookmarking service.
  • Buzz: is widely considered a failure. You can expect Buzz to eventually disappear. Google is coy on this subject; when asked about Buzz’s future, their response was:
    The short answer is it won’t have any major impact on Buzz at launch. Buzz users will still see a Buzz tab on their Google profile, and Buzz will continue working as it always has. Google+ users can also be Buzz users or can decide to just share their content using one of the products. Over time, we’ll determine what makes the most sense in terms of integrating the products.
  • Backing up: This is a great feature; you can download much of your Google+ data – profile data, streams, pictures, contacts, etc.
Circles: groups of people, determine who you share a piece of information with.
  • Core of Google+. Making groups front and center of the service is one of the greatest differences with Facebook. Doing this makes a lot of sense, because people are very conscious who they share information with. It’s what societies are built on. I’ve heard people argue that non-techies don’t use this, but I don’t think that is true.
  • Following is not automatically symmetric: people can follow you without you following them. Facebook only does this on fan pages. This is the right way to do things, because it more clearly expresses relationships.
  • If people are not Google+ members, they get an email for every item you share.
  • You get a notification if someone puts you into one of their circles.
  • To properly manage groups, it would be nice if there could be virtual groups that combine existing groups and the ability to say “everyone except members from this group” (e.g. “my co-workers”).
Mobile web application: The mobile user interface on the iPhone looks great [source: Engadget].

2. Wired on the history of Google+

Wired’s article [4] has several interesting tidbits on how Google+ came to be. This section lists the highlights.

Google sees “social” elements as an important next step in search and fears Facebook as a competitor.

It almost beggars belief that the king of the search — the most successful internet business ever, with $30 billion in yearly revenue — would be running scared by the social networking trend led by Facebook, a company that barely rakes in a few billion. Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. As early as last August, I asked Gundotra whether he felt Emerald Sea [the code name of Google+] was a bet-the-company project.

“I think so,” he replied. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way.”

Google still wants to organize the world’s information. But this time, it’s personal.

The management style for Google+ was more centralized, a deviation of Google’s normally more democratic style:
Because of the pressure the stakes and the scale, Gundota insisted that Emerald Sea should be an exception to Google’s usual consensus-based management style. He successfully argued that he, with Horowitz’s help, would set the vision. Even the founders would step back. Even though In 2010 Sergey Brin had a desk in Building 2000 and Larry Page dropped in a couple of times a week, their role was advisory with Emerald Sea. “This is a top-down mandate where a clear vision is set out, and then the mode of moving forward is that you answer to Vic,” Rick Klau told me last year. “If Vic says ‘That looks good,’ then it looks good.”
The first version of Google+ was considered too complicated during internal testing.
It wasn’t until October 2010 that Emerald Sea was ready for “dog food,” the process by which Googlers would internally test out the product. (The expression comes from the expression “eating your own dog food,” an exercise that presumably improves canine cuisine.)
“We put the product to [dog food] before it was fully baked, before we hardened the system and polished it and knew what we were doing,” says Horowitz. “We had no getting-started screen, no intro video. It was hard for people to get their hands around what it is and how to begin interacting with it. It was as if Facebook had been in stealth mode for seven years and then launched in its entirety at once today — it would have been an overwhelming, hard-to-comprehend, hard-to-understand system. The feedback we was got was: Simplify.”
When a new version of Emerald Sea returned to dog food this spring, it was stripped down. Also, the team changed the invitation process to limit it only to people who were more motivated to use it. The response from Googlers on the second pass has been much better.

The dog food success made it possible for the milestone announced Tuesday — a “field test” where for the first time outsiders will participate in the prototype system. Depending on how that goes, the next step will be a wider release, but it may be some weeks before the public can sign up. (Is the deliberate rollout a direct consequence of the train wreck that came from Google’s failure to test Buzz externally before its launch? You betcha.)

This is a bit scary, but not surprising: Google collects a lot of data about you and could use it to make socially informed suggestions in the Google+ user interface.
Right now, Google won’t even suggest who should be in your circles. But it has the technology to do so — it’s already making suggestions on who you might include on Gmail mailing lists. So in the future it’s conceivable that Google might indeed provide plenty of nonbinding suggestions for who you might want it your Circles. “We’ve got this whole system already in place that hasn’t been used that much where we keep track of every time you e-mail someone or chat to them or things like that,” says Smarr. “Then we compute affinity scores. So we’re able to do suggestions not only about who you should add to a circle, or even what circles you could create out of whole cloth.”
Also contrary to many Google products, a lot of emphasis was placed on a polished user interface.
Page, however, seems to recognize that this project in some ways requires a different approach from the Google norm. One variation that users will notice comes in interface design — conspicuously, in Circles. With colorful animations, drag-and-drop magic and whimsical interface touches, Circles looks more like a classic Apple program than the typically bland Google app. That’s no surprise since the key interface designer was legendary software artist Andy Herzfeld.

The former Macintosh wizard now works at Google — though he loves the company, he had previously felt constrained because its design standards didn’t allow for individual creativity. But with Emerald Sea, he had a go-ahead to flex his creative muscles. “It wasn’t a given that anyone would like what I was doing, but they did,” he says.

Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. He feels that it such frills slow things down. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.” In any case, Google has recently tapped Hertzfeld as the design leader of the Emerald Sea team.

3. Observations on Google+

3.1. Badly marketed

  • Bad name: Cannot be searched for properly on the web. Looks strange in written text, especially if punctuation is involved [2]. The name suggests that it is an extension of Google search, but it is not.
  • Bad description: The official material on Google+ comprises two web pages:
    • A blog entry that fails to provide the big picture and comes with a few explanatory videos that tell you what friends are (which I always find a bit insulting), but little about the actual product.
    • A tour with a confusing user interface that requires Flash.
    Both give you the impression that Google+ is a loose collection of products that don’t hold together well. But that impression is wrong. It actually fits together quite well, under what could be considered a Google+ application.

3.2. What is Google+ really?

Google+ is a mixture of Twitter without follower count, Facebook without Farmville, Chatroulette without male frontal nudity, and Diaspora with features. [@zeitweise, via @florian_st]
Google itself emphasizes the aspect of sharing:
‘On Facebook I overshare. On Twitter, I undershare. If Google hits that spot in the middle, we can revolutionize social interaction.’ — Shimrit Ben-Yair, product manager in charge of the social graph. [4]
When asked whether Google+ is a Facebook competitor, Google again mentions sharing:
No. We realize that today people are increasingly connecting with one another on the web. But the ways in which we connect online are limited and don’t mimic our real-life relationships. The Google+ project is our attempt to make online sharing even better. We aren’t trying to replace what’s currently available, we just want to introduce a new way to connect online with the people that matter to you. [2]
Making Google+ sound like it is Google (which many people think of as mainly a search engine) plus something is part of a strategy where Google publicly downplays the importance of Google+. I suspect that Google wants to avoid Google+ to look like a failure when its user numbers are compared to Facebook’s (now and in the foreseeable future). But the easiest way to understand Google+ is as a Facebook competitor. Billing it as a collection of services instead of as an application for social networking does not help Google+’s cause.

3.3. Google+ versus Facebook

Google+’s simplicity compared to Facebook is one of its greatest benefits. Many people just need Facebook’s core services and don’t want to be bothered by apps and similar peripheral features. Interestingly, Facebook is increasing its focus on a platform for applications [5]. Thus, Google+ and Facebook cater to different audiences:
  • Social networking as pleasure – Facebook: people who see online social networking as an enjoyable way to spend time. Those people want to play social games such as Farmville.
  • Social networking as business – Google+: people looking for a simple, no-frills way of sharing information. Those people are often annoyed by games.
I’ll conclude with another tweet:
Google+ is Facebook for people who hate Facebook, right? But who would hate Facebook without also hating Google? [@ibogost]

4. Sources and related reading

  1. Here's Our Top To Bottom Tour Of Google's Answer To Facebook
  2. Google’s Facebook Competitor, The Google+ Social Network, Finally Arrives
  3. Google+ invite received, we go hands-on
  4. Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social
  5. Facebook is working on a mobile HTML5-based app platform to compete with Apple
Related reading: