Not a day passes without the question “Can Google Get Social?” popping up in the tech punditry. After several ill-feted answers (Buzz, Wave), the search leader has a new social reply: Google+.
Actually, it’s the Google+ “project.” VP of Social Vic Gundotra says that’s an important distinction, as this is an evolving set of tools and services, not a finished product. It’s in limited field trial, available by invitation only.
Before the conversation abruptly turns to whether this latest social attempt can make Google a genuine Facebook challenger, let’s dig into the component parts and feature sets that make up the first iteration of +.
The entire interface is centralized within a black toolbar, adapted from the basic toolbar (Images, Video, Docs, etc.) that headlines all Google sites. Clicking the first menu item, +You, accesses a series of embedded social functions that can best be described as modules. There are five in this first rollout.
+Circles: Google’s play on social lists, only it’s baking it in from scratch, not building it later like Facebook. And at first blush, the ability to grab people from recommended contact lists (Gmail, for instance), and drag and drop into literal circles is appealingly simple and intuitive. Let’s call this selective sharing.
+Sparks: Google terms this its “online sharing engine.” Again, the process looks dead simple: enter your interests (e.g., rock climbing), and Google goes crawling the Web in search of content that hits your sweet spot. This sounds like Amazon.com meets the personalized news apps (News.me, Zite, Trove) that algorithmically curate and serve up customized content experiences. Let’s call this the content recommendation engine.
+Hangouts: Simply put, it’s group video chat. Within a “circle,” a user can see if fellow circlers are “hanging out.” Up to 10 people can join in, and Hangouts even allows for simultaneous group consumption of and discussion about content.
+Huddles: Think GroupMe, Google style. Let’s call this “group texting.”
+Instant Upload (photos): Exactly as it sounds, Google+ will add photos “to a private album in the cloud” as they are snapped. They can then be shared with Circles.
While this is only phase one, Google is ambitiously trying to synergize several social elements and feature sets that heretofore have existed in different capacities across different networks. The early brew has dashes of Facebook/Twitter lists (though more intuitive), Skype, GroupMe, Amazon/Flipboard and Flickr. Now, can Google actually pull it off? That may be more a consumer acceptance/adoption question than a technological one. For all the imagination and intuition baked in, will socialites see Google+ as critically additive to their existing -and likely sizable — social set?
More and more, Google is taking a “close the loop” approach to products. That tack is evident here in it its fusion of multiple functions. This fundamental philosophy also shows up in its emerging Local focus. What began as a stream of experiments is now crystallizing into a more cohesive set of products (Boost, Offers, TalkBin) that live within merchant Places pages, leveraging Maps and soon utilizing Wallet for mobile customer checkout.
Take the Google+ tour here, and see the video below.