Google has finally unveiled Google+, the company’s top secret social layer that turns all of the search engine into one giant social network.
Google+, which begins rolling out a very limited field test on Tuesday, is the culmination of a year-long project led by Vic Gundotra, Google’s senior vice president of social. The project, which has been delayed several times, constitutes Google’s answer to Facebook.
The search giant’s new social project will be omnipresent on its products, thanks to a complete redesign of the navigation bar. The familiar gray strip at the top of every Google page will turn black, and come with several new options for accessing your Google+ profile, viewing notifications and instantly sharing content. The notification system is similar to how Facebook handles notifications, complete with a red number that increases with each additional notice.
At its core, Google+ is a social network. The first thing users are introduced to is the Stream. It’s much like the Facebook News Feed, allowing users to share photos, videos, links or their location with friends.
That’s where Google+ begins to diverge from Facebook, though. The focus of this social project is not on sharing with a mass group of friends, but on targeted sharing with your various social groups. To do this, Google uses a system called Circles.
Gundotra explained that most social media services (read: Facebook, Twitter) haven’t been successful with friend lists because they’ve been designed as a “tack-on” product rather than being integrated at every level. Gundotra also believes that current friend list products are awkward and not rewarding to use.
Google+ Circles is an attempt to address that challenge. The HTML5 system allows users to drag-and-drop their friends into different social circles for friends, family, classmates, co-workers and other custom groups. Users can drag groups of friends in and out of these circles.
One of the nice things about the product is its whimsical nature — a puff of smoke and a -1 animation appears when you remove a friend, and when you remove a social circle, it rolls away off the screen.
Photos & Group Video Chat
It’s clear from the extended demo that Gundotra and his team have thought about every aspect and detail of Google+ thoroughly. The photo, video and mobile experiences are no exception.
Google has created a section specifically for viewing, managing and editing multimedia. The photo tab takes a user to all of the photos he or she has shared, as well as the ones he or she is tagged in. It’s not just photo tagging, though: Google+ includes an image editor (complete with Instagram-like photo effects), privacy options and sharing features.
The video chat feature might be one of the most interesting aspects of Google+. Gundotra and his team thought about why group chat hasn’t become a mainstream phenomenon. He compared it to knocking on a neighbor’s door at 8 p.m. — most people don’t do it because it isn’t a social norm. However, if a group of friends are sitting on a porch and you just happen to walk by, it’s almost rude not to say hi.
That’s the concept behind “Hangouts,” Google’s new group chat feature. Instead of directly asking a friend to join a group chat, users instead click “start a hangout” and they’re instantly in a video chatroom alone. At the same time, a message goes out to their social circles, letting them know that their friend is “hanging out.” The result, Google has found in internal testing, is that friends quickly join.
One cool feature of Hangouts is that it doesn’t place a chat window on the screen for each participant. Instead, Google changes the chat screen to whoever is currently talking. It quickly switches from video feed to video feed, moving faster in bigger groups. The maximum members in any video Hangout is 10, though users can get on a waitlist and wait for someone to leave.
Content Discovery Through Sparks
To spur sharing, Google has added a recommendation engine for finding interesting content. The feature, Google+ Sparks, is a collection of articles, videos, photos and other content grouped by interest. For example, the “Movies” spark will have a listing of recent and relevant content for that topic.
The system is algorithmic — it relies on information from other Google products (e.g. Google Search) as well as what is being shared via Google+ and through +1 buttons.
The goal, according to Gundotra, is to make it dead-simple for users to explore their interests and share what they find with their friends. Google+ is attempting to become the one-stop shop not only for sharing content, but for finding it as well. In some ways, it reminds us of Twitter and its mission to become an information network, and “instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to them.”
Google will also be launching mobile apps for Google+, starting with Android. The Android app includes access to the Stream, Circles, Sparks and multimedia.
The addition of these features in a mobile app isn’t a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is the app’s auto-upload feature. Any photo or video you take on your phone through Google+ will automatically be uploaded to your computer, ready to share. These uploads aren’t public, but the next time you log onto your desktop, the photos button in the status bar will have a number, indicating how many new uploads are available for sharing. It keeps these photos and videos available for sharing for eight hours after upload.
Gundotra says that Google intends to launch apps for Google+ on other platforms in the future.
Google freely admitted to me during our conversation that its previous attempt at social, Google Buzz, did not live up to expectations. Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president of product, says that part of the problem was that Buzz was just “tacked on” as a link on millions of Gmail accounts, something that Google won’t be repeating. Horowitz also says that, unlike the Buzz rollout, Google+ is a project that will roll out in stages.
In many ways, it reminds us of Gmail’s rollout. Invites to Google’s email service were so sought after at one point that people were selling them for $50 or more on eBay. While that type of fervor may not hit Google+, we expect the artificial scarcity will drive up interest while giving Google time to work out the kinks.
No matter what Google says, Google+ is the company’s response to the rise of Facebook. The two companies are in heated competition for talent, page views and consumers. While Google controls the search market and has a strong presence on mobile with Android, it hasn’t been able to crack the social nut. Its most successful social product, YouTube, had to be acquired, and it still ranks as one of the most expensive acquisitions in the company’s history.
Has Google finally nailed social with Google+? We’re going to publish more of our thoughts on Google’s new social network in the next few hours, but we will say this: Google no longer gets a free pass in social. It must prove that it can draw users and keep them engaged in a way that doesn’t replicate Facebook or Twitter’s functionality. Only time will tell if Google has finally found its magical arrow.