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Posted at 12:42 PM ET, 06/30/2011

Google Plus Review: Fun, interesting and totally empty


A screengrab of the Google + menu and toolbar
Playing around with Google + last night, I had a ball clicking buttons and playing with the features the network had to offer. But I kept running into the same problem — there was no one in this sandbox but me.

That’s the main problem the network faces as it mounts its assault on Facebook.

The few people on Google + got there by special invitation, and the network’s suggestion feature didn’t make it easy to find out who else made it to the party. While I don’t want Google to automatically find, add and sort my contacts, Google should consider improving the tools that let me know who’s out there.

There are some really great features in the network worth mentioning. For one, the navigation bar, which pushes you alerts on network activity without being too intrusive, and the group video chat function, Hangouts, is way beyond any free video chat service I’ve seen.

But there are problems, too. Apart from actually populating the network, what will make or break this network is how well it works with the Google products I already use. Getting me to switch from Facebook is going to rely on whether I can fold G+ into my daily routine while I’m checking e-mail, looking at my calendar and going through my reader feed. The company is in the unique position to become a one-stop shop for work and play.

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So far, the integration choices on G+ are kind of baffling.

Google Chat is integrated, as is Picasa. You can import your contacts from Yahoo and Hotmail. But unless you get very clever, there’s no way to seek out your friends from Facebook. There’s no Twitter integration yet — surprising, given that you can hook your Twitter feed into Buzz.

And apart from the navigation bar, the network has precious little to do with Gmail, Reader, Google Docs, or Google Calendar. Even adding the widgets already available in iGoogle would help, and something I hope the company adds in the future. Right now, there’s just too much switching to be done to use your Google services. Checking your Gmail, for example, opens the service in a new tab or window, and duplicates your open chats.

On the privacy front, Google has improved what it’s done before. Google’s been careful not to hook too many things into the network automatically, but needs to be clearer about how its privacy settings work. Each feature makes it pretty clear what’s public and what’s private, but the central privacy settings are a bit convoluted.

And what about advertising? We’ll just have to wait and see. There’s certainly a lot of potential for Google to use this data for targeted advertising, but right now, there are no ads on the network.

According to Google spokesman Chris Gaither, Google is more concentrated on getting the network off the ground than it is about advertising for the moment, but he said company will stick by its rule that personally identifiable information doesn’t go to third parties, and that personal information won’t be shared without consent.

Otherwise, Google’s taking a wait-and-see approach during the field tests. “The team has been reading feedback,” Gaither said, “and making note of what people have been saying so far.”

That’s something you’ll be hearing a lot from Google. The company has made it clear that G+ is a work-in-progress and that it’s going to continually be trying to work through bugs and barbs that will inevitably pop up.

Overall, Google + was fun to use and has a lot of potential. I could see using it in addition to Facebook, but until Google weaves more of their existing services into G+ and opens it up to include more of the people I want to connect with, it won’t become my main way to socialize online.

Here’s a deeper dive into the network by feature:

Circles: Circles is that it’s not so exactly-like-Facebook as it initially seemed. Instead, it’s a hybrid of friending and following that could get difficult to wrap one’s head around. You can put anyone in a Circle, and they can choose to reciprocate or not. Regardless of whether someone you’ve added to your Circles adds you back, you’ll be able to see their public updates.

The animations for creating, deleting and modifying Circles are also, I have to say, way too much fun for their own good. I admit that I found myself creating circles just to delete them.

Stream: The stream — essentially the Google + version of a Facebook news feed — pulls in information from posts made by people in your circles. You, or anyone following you, can also give your personal endorsement, the +1, to any post or comment.

Aesthetically, it’s a big step up from the News Feed. Practically, it has a couple features that edge out the news feed. Google has the added features of letting users “mute” or hide a post in the stream as well. You can also sort your stream by Circles to see posts only relevant to work or to catch up on the latest news from your friends.

When it comes to sharing information on your stream, the functionality is very similar to Facebook as well. The only major problem I had with the stream is that it’s not possible to access some of the settings on a post before it’s published. So while a user can edit with whom they want to share a given tidbit, the options to stop others from resharing that post or commenting on it aren’t enabled until after it’s live.

Photos: The photo viewer on G+ is solid, and looks good, though it’s not amazing. Integrated with Picasa, the service lets you tag anyone’s pictures, which could be a serious problem. Users do, however, have the option to approve or reject photo tags, and Google lets you know when you’ve been ID’d in a photo.

Sparks: I was disappointed with Sparks, which pushes users content they choose to follow. As an avid Google Reader user I’m bummed to see there doesn’t seem to be a way to pull my reader feed into my Sparks. Plus, the content in the feeds you select don’t appear to be sorted by time, and there’s also no way to sort your feeds or view all of the subjects you’ve chosen at once.

Hangouts: For me, this is by far the coolest feature of Google +, and one that really distinguishes it from any other social network out there. Someone clearly put a lot of thought into the design of Hangouts, letting users mute video or audio and even giving you a second to make sure you’re presentable before joining the chat.

Not only does its group video chat feature work like a dream, Google has cleverly integrated YouTube into Hangouts to let you watch a video together. It even fires up a push-to-talk feature when you’re watching a video, so that the speaker feedback doesn’t hurt everyone’s ears.

Disagree? Anything I missed? Let us know in the comments.

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By  |  12:42 PM ET, 06/30/2011

Tags:  Google, Social networking

 
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