After the launch of Buzz I have believed that Google could make a successful stab at social as long as they played to their strengths; I have since posted a range of thoughts detailing what I would like or expect to see from a social network or service from the search giant.
Sometimes I've been right, others not so right but it's finally nice to see Google come out with something that, at last, places them on the playing field.
History repeating itself
A lot of what we're now thinking about Plus is exactly the same as was thought about Buzz when that launched and how it took the torch from Friendfeed. Seeing as the steam component of Plus is essentially a reworking of Buzz this is hardly surprising.
It's like stepping in to a time warp back to the launch of the earlier service, take this quote from my previous post:
"With a service such as Buzz we must remember that users want control over what they see. The search and filtering functionality suggested by Robert Scoble, as mentioned before, is a natural progression for Buzz and I can imagine a number of his suggestions being implemented before long. The ability to find all items that a particular person has commented on or to ignore items from a particular source (e.g Twitter) would be ideal additions and vastly improve the usability of the service."
Sure enough, Robert is banging the same drum with Plus and rightfully so. While some lessons have been learnt from its predecessor it also seems that Plus has taken a few backward steps on things that should really have been there from the outset.
Outside of Gmail
The one big thing I have been advocating is that until Google found "a mainstream, standalone destination it will only be a social bit-part player" - getting people to stick around rather than sending them elsewhere (as with search results).
When Buzz began I said it made sense in a way that it soft launched within Gmail in order to take advantage of that existing user base but that it really needed to be made available outside of Gmail - at least as well as being integrated - in order to appeal wider. Plus has certainly met this wish whilst not losing a lot of the integration that being a component of Gmail offered its predecessor.
Additionally, Buzz has the disadvantage of being tied to your Gmail account which made no sense if Google were serious about the service gaining mainstream acceptance. Luckily, this has been rectified and a Google+ account can be created with an email account although it makes sense to use Gmail due to the advance integration afforded us.
Based on all the evidence so far Plus is definitely getting people to stick around. Perhaps it's "shiny new toy syndrome" but certainly my Twitter usage has suffered greatly since being on Plus and I was never a big Facebook user anyway. Others are saying similar things.
Profile is home
While we all debated as to whether Google would release a full social network or a "social layer" which sat on top of all existing services I said:
"I feel that, with some careful work, Google could build on its Profile system and integrate the services you use into one coherent offering despite them being independent applications."
Needless to say, it is a relief that Plus has grown from, and replaces, the previous Google Profiles system with photos, videos, your +1s and Buzz posts all available as tabs in addition to your Plus posts. This feels like just the start and Google have promised more.
Integration, integration, integration
I had originally suggested that, perhaps, if everything was included as components of our Profile then we would need a public version of the profile (for others) and a private version for ourselves so that we could manage our services. The new Google navigation bar has done away with this need as we now have full access to our Plus notifications from anywhere which includes the ability to view posts and comment without even visiting Plus itself. Google is looking to hook us in and having the permanent distraction of out Plus notifications means we are more likely to nip in on a more frequent basis.
This integration across the whole Google ecosystem - by enhancing the functionality of everything we already do under the Google umbrella - means we get a better experience and are encouraged to do more. And, because everything is to be linked, we are more likely to dive in to other areas we had maybe not considered. All in all a far better solution than a monolithic profile.
I like it
I suggested that, unlike even Orkut or Buzz, +1 could be the first offering to really cement social in the mind of Google users and now, within the context of Plus, the +1 makes even more sense and is as simple to grasp and use as Facebook's "Like" button. Additionally, use within the service will familiarise users enough that they will be more likely to use +1s in search and on other sites even though they are currently two very different beasts.
Before Plus establishes itself further this disparity must be rectified.
Fighting the good fight
I stated previously:
"Google must accept the fact that no-one will come in and beat Facebook at its own game. Facebook OWNS social, period!"
It is undeniable that Facebook currently rules the social roost and Google+ will likely not persuade 700 million Facebook users to up sticks and move because Facebook provides everything they currently need - if it ain't broke... Users have a lot of time and effort invested in their community and the act of trying to move this and recreate it on a new service is impractical.
Perhaps, however, we are looking at a paradigm shift. We may instead see a co-existence with Facebook with the different services offering different things to different people. Those who do not currently use Facebook for one reason or another may be enticed into Google+ because of its connections to other Google services.
Whilst being a surprisingly solid and fleshed out service already there are a number of areas that need to be addressed the biggest of which, considering that we are dealing with Google, is search.
Admittedly, Google have already announced that search is coming for Plus and that they did not want to release it until it was ready so it will be interesting to see what they can do with it. Personally, I would like more than just search within Plus.
Search integration must be a two-way affair using the site content and +1s to improve search results on the main Google page and the primary search database to provide a wealth of data back to Plus. We have the rumours that Plus data will replace the now expired Twitter deal in real time search so, if this is true, it is a big step in the right direction.
Sparks is the intended poster child for bringing external data in to Plus but, at present, this does not draw on a sufficiently large data source or provide enough functionality to be as effective as intended.
The other area where Plus can be of great use is in the collection of both data and social behaviour. Google has a ready-made data collection mechanism available in the goo.gl URL shortener. As I have said before:
"The real power for Google comes in linking services and utilising the data you generate so another huge lost opportunity in the shape of goo.gl. Better integration of the URL shortener would make it more usable – why not wrap urls with goo.gl as Twitter does with t.co? Just as with Twitter, this could be presented as a 'security feature' (protecting us from dodgy redirects) whilst – at the same time – providing Google with a wealth of click-through data."
As Google+ is all about sharing just imagine the data and trends that will be recorded just from normal use of the service.
A new era
After a history of false steps it was never certain that Google would ever compete on the social stage but I maintained that:
"With the right person leading the way Google should be able to regain control and create a comprehensive social policy and ... turn Buzz (or a descendent) into a world-class offering."
We are now seeing that descendent emerge from the shadows of its parent.
Image by R_rose