A Beginners Guide to Google+

After finally getting an invitation to Google+ and a weekend to play with it, it's time to pitch in my two cents about the social network everyone is talking about. Overall, Google+ is powerful, interesting, new, and empty. Though it has great potential, the value of the network will be defined in years, not weeks or days.

Comparisons between Google and Facebook are almost inevitable, as any new social network needs to face Facebook's dominance. Personally, I've found Facebook to be influential among my friends in distributing Google+ invites and discovering who else is on Google+, instead of randomly searching names.

However, compared to Facebook, Google+ definitely feels vacant. When you start over with a handful of friends, building up a few dozen or hundred again is intimidating. On the welcome page, a warning about the “Field Trial” (read: beta version) of Google+ is limited to a small group of people. Small on Google's scale is certainly not too exclusive, however.

Google Plus Welcome Page

The welcome page of Google+ helps get you acquainted with three of Google+'s major divisions: Circles, Hangouts, and Sparks. These sections are also visible on your Stream. In your Stream, you can also see information about using the mobile version and sending those all-important invites (bottom right corner).

Google Plus Homepage

The Stream, equivalent to Facebook's News Feed, shows updates from contacts in any of your circles. You can also view more limited streams based on the circles you create. Beneath each post is the opportunity to +1, comment, or share, and a list of who else commented and +1'd (as an aside, I wonder how long it took them to decide the grammar for +1ing a post).

Circles

Speaking of circles, the interface to add people to circles is pretty snazzy, as you drag and drop the names and avatars of your contacts into the appropriate circles. You can also use a drop-down style option when viewing lists of people to add them to circles (particularly useful when viewing the people in your friends' circles to find other people you know).

Google Plus Circles homepage

One of the things about circles that you'll either love or hate is that you have to use it. I suppose you could always just put everyone in your Friends circle and pretend it's Facebook, but Circles allows you a powerful way to juggle your multiple personas – talking about your weekend away with your friends, and your latest comments about TechCrunch with your colleagues without boring your mom. Personally, I'm one of those slightly obsessive people who might get carried away “categorizing” my friends. At least no one can see the names of your custom circles.

And the great thing is that you'll never forget to use Circles – every time you share something on Google+, you have to specify which circles or individuals you are addressing. Of course, you always have the option of sharing things with your extended circle (Friends of Friends) and making posts public, but it's a conscious decision every single time.

Sparks

Sparks is a separate component of Google+, allowing users to subscribe to digests of information about topics they are interested in. This branches out further from Facebook's domain. Sparks allows you to discover new content about your favorite topics.

Google Plus Sparks Homepage

However, there are still a few things about Sparks that are not always intuitive. I had a hard time figuring out how the items within Sparks categories were curated, though they seem to be relatively accurate, and would be great exposure for any blog.

Also, whenever you are within a Sparks category, the search field remains – and though I had assumed it was to search for items within the story, it actually allows you to find different categories.

Google Plus Sparks Search

Still, even with the confusion, it will be interesting to see how fast specific channels work on

Hangouts

Like Facebook video chat, using Hangouts requires you to install a Google Voice and Video plugin. Video chat is still outside of the mainstream, so it's hard to tell how people will use hangouts in the future. For now, they are an entertainment. Plus, unlike Facebook Video, you can check what your videocam sees before you start talking to others!

Google Plus Hangout Video Chat Screen

And you can limit your Hangout to just one of your circles, or people outside your circles as well.

Our Take

Google+ is here to stay for a while. Its strong start can be attributed to the curiosity that comes with any new Google product or any new social network (and this is both). Its staying power will be found in its privacy controls, intuitive layout, and, most importantly, the presence of other friends. No matter how great the software, it is only as powerful as the people using it.

Granted, Google+ is definitely not bug-free yet! Though the use is generally smooth, I did notice a few idiosyncrasies. I also noticed myself confused by the times that Google+ decided to open a new tab or window, especially when searching for people who were not available on Google+.

Google Plus error message: "Cannot call method 'k' of undefined"

As a new service, there are still a number of features that are expected to appear. Perhaps most notably, businesses cannot create profiles or other pages similar to fan pages, though it's certainly in the works. For now, personal brands will be able to continue on Google+, since it supports fan relationships instead of requiring reciprocal friendships.

Be aware: if you're asking a friend to send you a Google+ invite, consider making a gmail address. When invites were sent to my Google Apps account, they never arrived. If you create a Google Profile, your information will automatically be entered into Google+. Plus, Google Apps accounts provide more problems when you can't stay logged into both your non-connected email account and your Google+ profile at the same time.

Do you have a Google+ account? What are your thoughts?

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