Google recently launched Google+, the company's latest attempt to get social networking right after its social disaster, Google Buzz. After trying out Google's new social network for several hours, I think Google may have finally figured out how to do social.
Google+ is focused on letting you share photos, links, and videos with your online friends, family and acquaintances. The new service is also designed to let you target your sharing with specific people instead of the default "share with everyone" approach that services like Facebook and Twitter offer. Google+ also offers video chat and instant messaging features that let you chat with individuals or groups of up to 10 people at once.
[Related: Google+: Hands On and First Impressions]
The new service is only available to a limited number of people right now, but once it opens up to the public Google+ could prove to be a popular Facebook alternative. Here's a look at some of the features and drawbacks I found while putting Google+ through its paces.
Sharing content with friends in Google+ starts with Circles, which are basically groups of friends organized by you. The idea behind Circles is that you may only want to share certain pieces of content such as a NSFW video or a link to a hot button political news story with certain people. As Google sees it, the way we currently share on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and even Buzz is sloppy (share with everyone all the time), scary (do you really want your coworkers to see everything you do online?) and insensitive (very little nuance in the way you define a friend or family member).
That's where Circles comes in. You assign people to your Circles by simply dragging and dropping their contact card into the group you want them to be a part of and that's it. Circles is a quick and easy way to organize your friends, and it's what Facebook's friends lists should have been.
Feature: Have '+' Will Travel
Google+ is integrated into the navigation bar at the top of almost all Google products (not including Blogger and YouTube). That way you can always keep tabs on the latest notifications from Google+. Even better, you don't have to travel back to the Google+ home page to see what's going on. Just click on the notification icon and the updated conversation appears in a drop-down window on the page you're viewing. You can then add your own comment, mute the post, move through other conversations on Google+ or go back to the home page. The navigation bar also includes a "Share" button so you can share new content without shuffling between pages.
Feature: Easy data liberation
Google likes to talk about how you can get your data out of Google products whenever you want. The company even created a group called the Data Liberation Front that is supposed to make sure Google lives up to its promises. But in my experience, the way to get your data out of apps such as Docs or Gmail is cumbersome and slow. Not so with Google+. Clicking on the cog in the upper right hand corner and selecting "Google+ settings" from the social network's home page brings you to a revamped Google Accounts page. From there, you can select the Data Liberation tab. And with just a few clicks you can download data from your Picasa Web Albums, Google profile, Google+ stream, Buzz and contacts. The process is reminiscent of Facebook's new data download feature.
Drawback: Have '+' Will Travel
Keeping tabs on Google+ might be a great feature for playtime, but having a notification icon incrementing in real time could prove annoying if you need to work. The navigation bar goes almost everywhere with you in the Googleverse, including Google Docs. It would be better to have an option that lets you mute Google+ notifications whenever you open a file in Google Docs.
Drawback: E-mail notifications
E-mail notifications drive me nuts; I get too many of them already. By default Google+ was adding to the noise by sending me an alert for what felt like everything that happened on Google+. Turning them off was easy enough, all I had to do was go into my settings and the first thing I saw was a list of all my active e-mail notifications. I just deselected the notifications I didn't need and I was ready to go.
Another strange thing about e-mail is that Google lets you add contacts who aren't using Google+ yet. Let's say I added my sister and father, who aren't on Google+, to my family circle. Every time I shared something with that circle, they would get an e-mail update about my activity on Google+. That seems a little on the spammy side to me. Although, Google makes it very clear that you will be sharing content with someone who can only participate via e-mail.
While Google+ is focused on sharing and chatting with people right now, the service has a lot of potential for new features. Adding a Wave-like capability that lets multiple users collaborate on a document or project would be a nice addition. Some sort of playlist sharing feature would also be nice if Google can ever figure out licensing deals with the major record labels. But that's just speculation about what the future might bring; for now Google+ is all about content sharing and once it becomes publicly available it is well worth checking out.