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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Gauging Google’s latest social media initiative

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver August 16-22, 2011 issue #1138 High Tech Office column

Clichés abound: “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door”; “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Both may represent feelings over at the GooglePlex, where Google, the world’s most successful Internet search company, is hoping that Google+, a fourth try at social networking, will succeed where previous efforts Orkut, Google Wave and Google Buzz have failed.

The company hopes Google+ will appeal to Twitter users frustrated by that service’s 140-character limit or the awkwardness of connecting images or videos to tweets, and to Facebook users frustrated by the difficulty targeting postings to only some Facebook “friends” and unhappy with that service’s apparent indifference to privacy issues.

While I never got the point of Google’s earlier Wave and Buzz services, Google+ offers easy-to-use improvements over Facebook and Twitter. The best is “circles.”

While Facebook allows users to create groups of friends, most users haven’t figured out how to do that. Google+, by contrast, makes creating circles and assigning followers to them straightforward – and a basic part of the interface. Each time a user posts, she or he is asked what circle(s) should receive the message.

Users have control over what personal information is shared with each circle: friends and family get to see my phone number; acquaintances do not.

A business owner could create circles for customers or suppliers, for specific product lines or marketing campaigns, with different posts targeted for each.

Facebook “friending” is a two-way street: each sees the other’s posts. Google+ is more like Twitter with followers instead of friends: I follow you, you choose whether you want to follow me.

A Google+ user can invite email or social network contacts to join the service and follow her or him; people who don’t join can still be sent postings as email messages but will be unable to contribute to the online conversation. Since you can post long entries, easily add photos and video and optionally make posts “public” – searchable on the web – Google+ can become a blogging medium.

But it’s more; you can post a message to a single person, making it an email replacement. Post a message to your customers or employees, making it a business newsletter replacement. Post a message to all your circles, making it a Twitter replacement – without that service’s limitations. But that’s not all.

“Sparks” is Google+ speak for topics of interest. Pick a featured topic or search for a topic of choice to see what’s been posted – and made public – on that topic. You can “pin” that spark onto your personal list, making it easy to return again and again. More Google+ speak: “hangouts.” Instant video-conferencing for up to 10 participants. The person speaking is displayed in the big window in the centre.

If you leave Facebook or Twitter your data disappears; Google+ instead has a “data liberation” tool that lets users take their data with them if they choose to leave.

Nevertheless, it’s not clear whether the world is ready for another social media service – even a better one. In the first three weeks following its June 28 launch, Google signed on some 20 million users. Facebook, however, boasts over 750 million. And while visits to the Google+ site soared over those first three weeks, both visits and average time on site dropped the following week as users found that there wasn’t a critical mass of either contacts or conversations. That made Google+ seem like a pub without many other customers. (Note that Facebook is also facing a shrinking user base, at least in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.)

Google+ is, as I write, a beta; for now, you can’t just sign on – you need to be “invited” by a current user. Personal accounts only, no businesses need apply. And real names only. If you’re interested in trying this would-be Facebook/Twitter-killer and don’t have anyone else to invite you to the party, drop me a line. You’re all my “friends,” aren’t you? 

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