Giving Google a B- for Plus

The pluses and minuses of Google Plus

Google Plus Logo
The first and foremost feature of Google Plus (or just Google+ if you prefer)? It's not Facebook. That, of course, is not enough to sell the service entirely — but it's a good start. After tooling around the service for a short while, my first impression is that the service trumps Facebook, but still needs refinement. If you're still on the outside of Google+ looking in, here's some of what to expect.

If you're one of the few who hasn't heard of Google+, here's the lowdown — it's basically Google's take on Facebook. Google has, famously, tried and failed with social services quite a few times. Wave started off as a ghost town and confused the heck out of almost everybody, Buzz flamed out quickly due to privacy flaws, and Orkut failed to gain any traction in North America and Europe, but seemed to do pretty well in India and Brazil. (Which is fantastic if you happen to be Brazilian or Indian, not so fantastic elsewhere.)

So Google is taking another run at social, and this time it appears that they might have gotten it right. Or at least rightish, and that might be good enough. Even though Google+ is a bit outside the FOSS roundhouse, I know a lot of FOSS folks are going to be using the service. At least those who are not rabidly privacy conscious or religious about licensing. (So the cabal probably won't be signing up for Google+ anytime soon.)

The circles of friendship, or the circles of Hell?

First and foremost, I love the concept of Circles. The Facebook model of "everybody is a Friend" is a royal pain in the posterior. My friends are friends, my work friends are friends, my work acquaintances are friends, my family are friends, the person who saw a talk I did once in San Francisco is a friend. Or they're not — which leads to a whole 'nother issue. Rejection. Who needs it? Some people want to friend and share with everybody, other people (like me) want to share some things with everybody (like this blog) but don't care to share what they did last night with everybody. Facebook makes it too freaking hard to distinguish.

Circles make it very easy. At the moment I have four circles set up: Friends, work friends, following, and family. I might add more at some point (NSFW seems a logical choice). It's very easy to post something that I can share only with my family or my work friends, or just make it public so everybody can see it.

However, there's one thing I don't like about the sharing settings — Google automatically assumes you want to email anybody that you've added to Google+ that isn't using Google+ yet. Guess what? I don't. But it's very easy to overlook this setting. What's more — I don't want other people to have this option at all. People who've tried to add my non-Gmail address are sending me email notifications about what they post to Google+. And my friends are chatty. My inbox is overflowing already, I don't need more notifications from Google. So Google gets high marks for granularity, but low marks for over-sharing.

One nice geek touch in Google+? The presence of Vi-like hotkeys for navigation. You can use j/k to move up/down through the posts in your feed. Nice.

Repeat after me: Opt-in only

That brings me to the next point — The default of any service, of any kind, ever, should be opt-in. When you sign up for Google plus, you are automatically opted-into notifications for everything. Which means that it's going to get real noisy when people start using the service, until you dig into the Google+ settings and start turning that stuff off.

Google also wants to tell the world who you follow, and who follows you. It's easy to turn off, but again — this should be off by default, turned on if you want it. Google also shows who you share posts with, so if you are in a circle that sees a post, you can also see who else it was shared with. Not sure I'm crazy about that either.

Another problem is the way Sharing is implemented. Let's say I share something with my Family Circle. (See what I did there?) Unless I explicitly say "don't let people share this" anybody in that Circle can share it outside my original group. That's not what I had in mind when I created a list of people to share something with. Of course, if you post something up on Facebook or another social media site, anybody can disseminate it beyond that group.

I do like the "Sparks" feature, sort of. You can set up a "Spark" that will provide a feed about a search term, so you might (for example) have a Spark for Linux, or WordPress, or Aimee Mann. What's unclear is where Google is pulling the results from. It doesn't appear to be general search results. Also, I could do without the generic "featured interests," especially "sports cars" and "fashion." (What a shock, Android is a featured interest. No love for iOS, I suppose.)

Improvement needed

Google+ is a good 1.0. But it needs work. First and foremost, the "not ready for widespread use" issue hinders Google+ significantly. I'm lucky in that I managed to get in early, and a lot of my friends happen to have been invited early. This is an improvement over Wave, when it seemed like a complete ghost town when launched — sort of negating the utility of a collaboration platform.

It's mind-boggling and silly that Google can't launch something like this with availability to everybody. Let's hope this is sorted out soon so I can migrate my Facebook friends over to Google+ ASAP.

Second, Google needs to tone it down on notifications. Start with the assumption that users never want to get email about a service by default, and you're on the right track. Offer a digest option as well, rather than an email for each and every thing that happens.

I'm also curious about Google's plans for apps and APIs for developers to create clients that interact with Google+. I notice that the company has an Android app out already, but no iOS app. I wonder if that's because Google is prioritizing Android development, or because Apple is dragging its feet on approving the App. (Both are possible, of course.)

Finally, why isn't Google+ integrated with Reader and Buzz? Why isn't Google+ integrated with YouTube by default? And how do companies set up pages or profiles? These are all things that Google needs to address in the very short term.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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