It’s impossible to talk about Google+ without first mentioning Google’s two failed social products, Buzz and Wave. While the reasons for their failure was different – with Buzz it was privacy and the fact that Twitter simply worked better, with Wave it was a lack of clear value – the fact remains that Google spent a lot of time and money developing products that had no real place in the market. Google+ is the company’s best social product so far, but it has its own set of problems, not the least of which will be getting people to switch.
Part of what makes Google+ so appealing is its focus on privacy. The service allows users to share information with only those users they choose. Users can connect with more people but compartmentalize them and the information those people see. It’s a nice divergence from the Facebook model, but it will take people time to get used to it. With Facebook, I find my own best use of the service is to severely limit the number of people I attach to so that I feel comfortable sharing the things in which I’m interested at will. I use Twitter to connect to a much larger user base. Google+ is somewhere in between the two. It lacks the brevity of Twitter but allows users to engage that (theoretically) large user base when they want. When a user wants that close, personal experience, Circles provide the necessary privacy.
Google’s biggest problem right now is that people that want in on the service can’t get in. With a startup, you’d never see this kind of barrier. It’s also keeping the users inside the service from seeing its value. Circles only matter to me if I have people in them. Right now, I have very few personal friends on Google+ so I haven’t been using it much. Without a significant population with which I can share the service, it’s value completely dissolves. The small user base also limits the ways that Google can draw me into Google+. When I go to create or manage circles, I get a list of seemingly completely random people. Here and there I recognize a name that I have emailed once, maybe twice, but for the most part it’s people I don’t know. That’s not what I want from social media, certainly not at the outset. I want seamless interface with the people I contact most.
One of the coolest parts of Google+ is Hangout, which allows users to jump into text and video chat rooms with customizable accessibility. It’s a product that could easily punch a hole in Skype and become an amazing productivity tool. That’s especially true for the companies that have made the transition to Google’s online products.
Sparks, on the other hand, is the service’s big flop. It’s meant to be some sort of social news feed, but it’s cumbersome instead of sleek, slow instead of fast, and skimpy where it should be overflowing with information. Sparks actually surprises me in its shortcomings. Google has mountains of information about me. I’m always signed in to its email service, I use the search engine exclusively, I have an Android phone, I use Google Reader on a daily basis, and I’m writing this article in Google Docs. Why is it so hard for me to get a decent feed on Sparks?
If Google got one thing right with Google+ it’s the mobile app. The mobile version of the service is greatly simplified, granting quick access to your Stream, Huddles (group conversations), Photos, Circles, and your Profile. The mobile app also allows for Instant Upload, which immediately makes pictures and videos taken from your mobile device available in a private album for later use. It’s a slick app, and once the main service is fleshed out a bit it will get that much better.
For all of the information you’ve read about Google+, are you dying to get into the service? Probably not, and that’s what I see as Google’s greatest threat. The limited release of the service has given the world plenty of time to look it over and breathe a resounding “meh” before they’ve even experienced it. That wouldn’t be such a problem if there weren’t existing services that directly compete with Google+. Unfortunately for Google, those products not only exist, they are also used more than any other web product by millions of people each day. Getting enough people to drop a social service in which they’ve invested hundreds of hours of use, uploaded thousands of pictures, and decided who and how and when to friend will be incredibly difficult. It doesn’t matter how much promise Google+ has if no one uses it.