When Google announced their intentions to start a social networking site, the accusations of ripping off Facebook began to fly without any real details of how the site would function. Now that Google plus has launched, the accusations and comparisons are still there. It’s becoming clear, however, that Google+ is definitely an interesting new foray into the world of social networking rather than simply a cheap clone of its competitors.
The New Google+
Navigation and User Interface
It is a bit easy to understand how some would conclude that Google+ is simply a Facebook knockoff if you only take a cursory glance at the user interface. While it does in fact share quite a few characteristics with its competitor, the looks of Google+ are a bit deceiving. A user’s profile photo is displayed in the top-left corner of the screen, the user’s list of friends is displayed on the left-hand side, and it certainly feels a bit familiar. Overall, however, Google+ has a cleaner user interface. Perhaps part of this is due to the current lack of large ads on the right side of the page, which can be a bit distracting on Facebook. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Google+ has managed to make their interface cleaner, the differences in navigation are a bit easier to spot.
The biggest plus that Google+ has going for it in terms of navigation is its integration with other Google services. All Google pages now feature a dark grey bar at the top when users sign in with their Google account, allowing users to easily access their Gmail, Google Maps, and Google+ accounts and other services. The integration isn’t just limited to this bar, either. Several of the Google+ features allow users to share pictures, videos, and other information from other Google services with the touch of a button. Other than integration, navigating Google+ is also made simple due to clearly marked tabs and links. While it’s not necessarily revolutionary, navigating Google+ is at least as easy as navigating Facebook, meaning most new users won’t have any problems getting started.
Perhaps the most talked about feature of Google+ is how it handles adding and sharing with friends using a feature called Circles. After being criticized in the past for not taking privacy seriously, Google seems to be learning since Circles is fairly privacy-oriented. Instead of having one large group of friends that you’re forced to share everything with, Google+ prompts users to add new friends to one of several social circles. These Circles not only improve navigation by grouping users into family, coworkers, friends or whatever grouping you desire, it also allows for selective sharing. Many people, for instance, may be wary of sharing photos from a wild party with their boss or parents. Or they simply may want to share information with their colleagues without boring their family and friends. Circles makes selective sharing available to everyone without the need for adjusting any clunky privacy settings.
While video chat is available on several social networking sites, Google+ Hangouts handle it a bit differently. For starters, a Hangout is more than just a simple video conference between two friends. Google Hangouts allow users to video chat with up to ten friends at once, allowing for a wide variety of social and business oriented tasks. Business users may utilize it to hold a virtual conference among colleagues. Social users can talk or even share YouTube videos from within the Hangout. While ten people talking at once may get a bit hectic, the Hangout is intuitively designed to place the user currently speaking (or at least speaking loudest) in a larger window at the center of the screen. Though it isn’t perfect, it’s certainly one of the best solutions for starting up a quick video chat with friends.
As full Google integration is one of the central components of Google+, it’s no surprise that the Sparks feature uses Google search to suggest sites, videos and pictures based upon your interests. For instance, if you add “building with LEGO bricks” to your interests, Google+ Sparks might bring up product reviews, video building guides or pictures of cool LEGO creations in your Sparks tab. If you find something you really like, you can then easily share it with one of your Circles. While it may seem a bit redundant to simply doing a normal Google search, it is admittedly nice to have a customized stream of information tailored just to your interests.
Photos and Videos
Google+ also handles photo and video sharing differently than other social networking sites. While photos are still sorted into albums and can be viewed from a user’s profile, they are essentially hosted not on Google+ but instead by Google’s photo site Picasa. This is good for users of both sites, meaning you won’t have to upload these photos a second time. Videos are also hosted from this site and surprisingly not from a user’s YouTube account. These photos and videos can also be kept private from anyone other than yourself as well, meaning that the service can double as an online storage site. While you can upload as many videos and photos as you want, videos are limited to 15 minutes in length, so you won’t be able to share a sweeping epic with your pals.
Google+ hosts a wide variety of other features that users may find interesting as well. Commenting is present, as are most other standard social networking features. Users that like a comment or other shared item can plus one ”+1″ the item, a feature not unlike Facebook’s “like” button. Google+ also has a tie-in mobile app that allows users to access many of Google+’s features on the go, including the optional “instant upload” feature that automatically posts photos taken with your phone’s camera to a private album.
Despite some similarities, Google plus shouldn’t be considered a Facebook clone. It does many things better than Facebook and it’s a worthwhile competitor to a formerly unchallenged opponent. While it has an uphill battle ahead of it getting users to switch services entirely, it’s certainly one of the most promising social networking sites on the Web.