Google has finally unveiled Google+, the company’s top secret social layer that turns all of the search engine into one giant social network, thanks to a core group of social products and a new navigation bar that integrates sharing into every single Google product.
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.
Some first impressions:
Design: Aesthetically, it’s all Google — minimalist with plenty of white space. Nobody is going to complain about the design, but nobody is going to cheer about it, either.
Usability: Google+ isn’t overwhelmed by its many features. It’s easy to navigate and its icons speak for themselves. After a few minutes of exploring, I quickly got the hang of it.
Google+ Stream: The core of Google+ is the Stream, which doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a lot like Google Buzz or the Facebook News Feed.
Google+ Circles: Circles is well-implemented. It’s far easier than creating a Twitter List or a Facebook Friend List. The drag-and-drop functionality is a welcome addition, and the cute animations that appear when you perform actions give the product personality. That doesn’t necessarily mean users will take the time to create friend groups.
Google+ Profiles: Google+ Profiles essentially port the existing data on your Google Profile. There’s nothing particularly special about Google+ Profiles, yet. One of the nice things is that it includes a Tabs feature, where users can add content from their Google Buzz or their Google +1s. This feature already exists on Google Profiles, but we bet developers will be able to add tabs to Google Profiles in the future, customizing and personalizing profiles.
Google+ Hangouts: Hangouts is one of the more innovative concepts of Google+, and we think it’s a cool approach to getting users to accept group video chat. The camera switching feature (it changes who’s on camera based on who’s talking) is far superior to having multiple video feeds open at the same time. That said, it will require users checking their Google+ streams every day for potential chats to join. If Google+ gains traction, Hangouts will be a killer feature.
Google+ Sparks: Sparks may end up being Google+’s most underrated feature. The company has essentially created a recommendation engine without calling it one. It’s designed to augment Google+, and if it works as Google designed it, it will create winners and losers in the publishing world, making Google +1 buttons actually matter. Before that becomes a reality though, it needs traction and it should consider acquiring advanced content recommendation technology from a company like Trapit or my6sense.
Google+ Photos: The photo editor is essentially Facebook photos but with a photo editor. It’s quick and well-organized, making it a welcome addition to Google+. It should take a cue from Instagram and create simple ways to make photos more “artistic” and personalized.
Mobile: The mobile version of Google+ is really simple, which is fine for a first release. It only has two unique features: instant photo uploads and Google+ Huddle. Instant photo uploads is a cool idea, but we worry about auto-uploading all of our photos for privacy reasons. We can see some users not being happy about auto-uploads, even if the albums they’re uploaded to are private. This could potentially create a lot of “garbage.”
Google+ Huddle: Huddle is basically a group-texting feature for the Circles you create. It makes sense as a product, but it isn’t terribly exciting. I’m going to stick with GroupMe for now.
Finally we can say that:
Google+ is a bold and dramatic attempt at social. There’s a reason why Google calls this a “project” rather than a “product” — they don’t want people to think of this as the final product, but as a constantly-evolving entity that permeates every corner of the Google empire.
Overall, Google+ is solid. But I’m not going to call it a Facebook killer or a game-changer. The last Google product I said that about was the ill-fated Google Buzz. Perhaps that’s why Google’s rolling this out slowly via invites, the same style Gmail used to release itself to the world.
If Google can persuade users to come back every day, it has a winner. But the company will have to do even more to provide a truly compelling alternative to Facebook. At the moment, Google+ cannot compete with the king of social, but Google doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to take on Mark Zuckerberg’s giant quite yet.