Good First Sign: I Have A Strong Desire To Keep Using Google+

I’ve spent the last several hours using Google+. That’s a good sign.

While I first got a glimpse of the project when meeting with Google last week ahead of today’s story, such meetings are usually little more than fast-paced tutorials or worse, sales pitches. I definitely prefer to sit down and use things myself in a somewhat regular setting and see how I react. And seeing as the roll-out for Google+ is very limited right now, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

First of all, Google+ is easily already the most compelling social project Google has ever done. Yes, I know that’s not saying much — but it is saying something. That statement includes Wave, which was more ambitious, but was not nearly as polished at any point in its brief life as Google+ is right now.

That’s not to say Google+ doesn’t have bugs — it does. But they’re relatively minor and the team seems on top of all them. They should go away long before most people actually use the service. Even in this trial phase, Google+ is solid.

To me, Google+ feels closer to Google Buzz — but it feels like the version of Google Buzz that should have launched. There is no question in my mind that Google Buzz is now dead as a result of what Google+ is. It’s better in every way.

To that end, Google+ actually may remind me more of FriendFeed than anything else. But instead of being the ghost town that FriendFeed became after its acquisition by Facebook, Google+ feels like an frontier town that could erupt with growth if gold is found.

But it’s also substantially different from both Buzz and FriendFeed in that those services rely heavily on users importing data from other services to populate feeds. Google+ doesn’t give you any options to do that beyond manually brining in outside links. This is important because it means that any information users put in, they explicitly want to put it. As a result, they’re more likely to both be more discerning and to interact with it.

One thing that Google appears to have learned from the failure of Wave is that there needs to be some sort of notification system alerting you to new activity. The activity email options which are on by default will be annoying for users with a lot of activity (I turned those off within a few minutes of signing up). But for casual users, they’ll be key.

More vital to me is the new black toolbar which spans all of Google’s properties and brings with it a notification system. It’s brilliant. A few times today I left Google+ and probably wouldn’t have come back for a while, but these notifications pulled me back in. I’d be reading an email in Gmail and I’d see the red number calling to me. Or I’d be doing a Google search. Same thing.

I even found myself looking for the notifications when I wasn’t on a Google property. That’s how I know the idea is a winner. Google needs to release browser extensions ASAP to give you these alert no matter where you are. And if they really want to ensure that Google+ takes off in the long run, they should bake this system into Chrome itself.

Would that be evil? Some would say so. Facebook, for example, might. But remember, Chrome is Google’s — they control it. Chromium is the open source one that they don’t control. I’d be in favor of such an option. I’m sure Google is going to take a long wait-and-see approach there. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Regardless, the notifications are great. The fact that you can interact with the content (+1, comment, etc) right from the drop down is brilliant.

The +1 Button, which now resides beneath every Google+ post and every comment, still strikes me as a bit silly. But all of this usage of the button coming together is bringing it into perspective. It is Google’s “Like” button, and they want it to be just as ubiquitous as Facebook’s.

Have I mentioned how nice Google+ looks? Oh I have? Well, I’ll say it again. The design work here is well beyond what we usually see from Google. The Circles stuff in particular is good. That shouldn’t be too surprising given who created it.

The whole Circles concept is still going to be difficult for many users to understand at first. They’ll understand that when they share something, they’re doing it with a certain group of people, but when something is shared with them and random people start commenting, it will seem a bit strange. If they comment back, who sees that? — will be a common question. Google has a way to show you this, but it may need to be more apparent.

Overall, it took me about 15 minutes to get fairly comfortable with all the major elements of the Google+ system. That’s good, especially given how much you can do. At first, it seemed a bit overwhelming, but the concepts are actually pretty easy to learn once you experiment and understand how things work.

The Sparks area sounds great in concept. In reality, it needs a lot of work. Still, there’s a lot of potential there.

The Incoming area (where you see the updates from people who have connected to you but you haven’t connected back with) won’t make sense to most people at first.

The concept of “Extended Circles” is interesting but also odd. It’s not public, but it’s not your circle. It’s not clear who exactly you’re sharing with at all. I guess you’ll just have to trust the people you trust enough to put in a circle.

While the Stream will be the focal point at first, the real power of Google+ could eventually be the ancillary features. Hangouts are one such particularly promising feature right now. It uses the Stream to draw users in, but doesn’t over-pollute it. Hangouts work well, and as a bonus, they don’t require Flash (though they do require another plug-in which you already have installed if you have gChat video installed).

The “+” concept to add people to a conversation (or share) makes a lot more sense than using “@”, which is of course the norm on Twitter and other services these days. This change takes a little bit of getting used to.

Google+ finally gives Google Profiles a purpose. And the new editing functionality for them is very, very slick. The “View profile as” area is also great.

Right now, most people seem to be sharing information publicly. This is to be expected since there are relatively few users of the service, so Circles are being fully fleshed out. But as Google+ scales, the publicly sharing will have to slow down significantly or it will be chaos. Can you imagine a million (which would be a low number for Google) people using this and sharing publicly? Conversations under shared items would be filled with nonsense.

Mobile may be the real key to all of Google+. While it’s being largely downplayed for now, I suspect that when (hopefully when) the iPhone app is approved, that will be the primary way I interact with the service. Notifications will be key there, just like they are on the web. The mobile web app is great, but lacks the necessary push notification.

Overall, I’m impressed by Google+ after day one. Of course, like many, I also had fairly low expectations of anything Google tried to do in the social sphere after Wave and Buzz. Still, I used Google+ for hours and kept coming back. And I have a desire to come back tomorrow. That’s never a bad thing.

Google has done a very good job with the early execution. Can they maintain that? Once the novelty is gone, will there be a reason to use it? And will the idea scale — meaning both in absolute size and in terms of moving beyond an early adopter market? Remember, as great as FriendFeed was, it never really went beyond the early adopters.

Of course, you could also make the case (as I once presciently did) that a lot of what FriendFeed was is now being used by hundreds of millions of people around the world inside of Facebook. Google, given its size, will have a similar opportunity to take their concepts to the masses. It didn’t work with Buzz, will it with Google+?

Let’s revisit the question in about a month.