On Wednesday Google launched its social network Google+, it’s long-awaited answer to Facebook. Currently invites to it are quite limited as it’s a Field Trial (or beta), but it looks like it could be a pretty solid contender to the amazing success of Facebook. Below I’ll showcase some of the differences between the two.
Facebook has frequently been criticised for privacy breaches and its woeful approach to privacy in the first place. You don’t know who you’re sharing your information with most of the time and the privacy settings are buried as deep as possible in the options that they’re nigh invisible. And that’s after a revamp to its privacy policies, which were even worse before.
So how does Google do it? This is where Circles come in. You share with specific groups of people, not just anyone and everyone. For example, you add your family to the Family Circle and your work colleagues to the Work Circle. Then when you share about your hard day at the office (or worse!), your boss doesn’t see it. And Google is up front about this from the beginning. Instead of automatically sharing everything with a single subgroup, you choose the group (or groups or individuals) for each individual post or photo.
The great thing about the Circles is the transparency of it all. You know exactly who you’re sharing to from the outset, and if you forget you simply have to hover over where it says, for example, Friends, and it will describe the group and even show you thumbnails of the people in that group that you’re sharing with.
There’s even a “View profile as…” button, which allows you to type in the name of a user and view you profile from their perspective. That way you can make sure someone isn’t seeing too little or too much.
Friends Versus Circles
You don’t really add friends on Google+, you simply add them to your Circles. In this way there’s no Approve or Reject options, as they don’t get to see everything immediately in the first place. If they add you to a Circle you don’t have to add them back, but they will share with you. In a way it’s like Twitter, except instead of following someone, you select someone to share with, and they can decide to share back or not. You can easily block a person by going to their page and selecting the block button, but you can also demote them to a Circle you share with less often, such as Aquaintances.
Like Versus +1
Google’s +1, which launched before Google+ did, is almost a carbon copy of Facebook’s Like button. You can +1 posts within Google+, +1 articles around the web, or even +1 websites directly within a Google search, something that Facebook doesn’t have. Another key difference is that Google+ features a +1 tab, where you can view all your previous +1′s and show them off to your friends. However, the page is private by default, so you have to manually choose to let others see – another nod to privacy.
Interests Versus Sparks
Google+ Sparks is basically a list of your interests, but it differs from Facebook by acting like a live feed of news about those interests. This obviously leverages Google’s search engine background and is a particularly useful feature for getting some updates on a favourite topic. It’s not necessarily the best medium to get the most up to date news, as I found that lots of news was left out, and the articles were in a seemingly random order, as opposed to newest first, but if the kinks are ironed out it could be quite good.
One thing it lacked compared to Facebook was the ability to see other people’s Sparks. The way Facebook highlights similar interests is quite a useful way of seeing what you have in common with someone, and this is completely missing in Google+. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before some equivalent is added or if Sparks gets expanded to add this new functionality.
News Feed Versus Stream
While at face value (I contemplated getting lots of face puns in here, but I’ll settle for just the one) Google+’s Stream looks identical to Facebook’s News Feed, there’s a subtle difference that makes it that little bit better. You can select a Circle and view just the feed from that group. This way if you want to see what your writer buddies are up to, you don’t have to wade through the chatter of everyone else. You can view it all in one go if you want, and you can even view stuff on the Incoming tab from people who are sharing with you, but whom you haven’t yet added to a Circle.
There’s a notorious lack of games on Google+, which some will love and others will hate. I have to admit that this is something that attracts a lot of people to Facebook and social gaming is pretty big, as Zynga alone can point out, but the games and countless invites to this, that and the other thing were often annoying. In fact, I have thousands of invites to play games and install apps that I’ve never read, as I’m simply not interested. Whether or not Google decided to add something like this in the future is not clear, but if it does I can only hope it will employ a bit more restraint than Facebook does.
Google didn’t even have to bother for an equivalent to the chat at the bottom of the screen on Facebook, as it simply ported over the chat from Gmail. However, one new thing is Hangouts, which are live video chats with specific Circles. The whole idea about these is that you can log into one and start chatting away without whoever in that Circe is online at the time. Of course, they need to join the Hangout too, as it’s not obligatory, but this could be a particularly useful feature, like adding a huge element of the functionality of Skype right into the core of Google+.
When Buzz launched it was a bit of a flop and no one really uses it, compared to a rival like Twitter. However, Google+ gives Buzz a new lease of life by adding a Buzz page to your profile. For some this will remain an empty page, but for me, where my Twitter feed is already linked up with Buzz, it means that people can check my latest tweets without ever leaving Google+. Handy, eh?
Groups & Pages
Google+ doesn’t really have an equivalent to Facebook’s groups and pages. Circles isn’t the same as a group devoted a specific topic that people can chime in, discuss, etc., and I couldn’t find a way to set up a page for a company, book, film, etc. Part of this is due to the way Google+ handles interests differently to Facebook, but it’s an area that is, in my opinion, a major flaw to Google+ that I hope will be addressed over time. Having a Facebook page that people can like, and a group dedicated to a specific subject, are two things that Facebook does well. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before Google tries its own versions of these, which will most likely come with a twist.
Another area that Google+ is lacking in is a messages system. In Facebook you can send the equivalent of an email directly to someone, but there really isn’t that kind of thing available in Google+, unless you simply share a status update directly with just that person and no Circles. That won’t be the same, however, as they may not see it in their feed and you may have difficulty locating it again. There is a Send An Email button, but it doesn’t show on everyone’s profile. Google might be better off adding a built-in mini-Gmail style service to make up for this omission.
Google+ is completely integrated with most of Google’s other products. Aside from Buzz and +1, you use your Google Account to sign up, which is the same account you access your Gmail from. This means you can find everything in the horizontal bar at the top of the page and can even check for status updates directly within Gmail itself, since they’re displayed in the top right hand corner. If you don’t use Google’s other products this is less useful, but it’s a surefire way for Google to get people to try out other things, such as Gmail and Google Docs.
There’s a mobile version of Google+ available, both as a web app and as an Android app, with apps for other mobile operating systems, like the iPhone’s iOS, soon. The main difference between this and the web version is Huddle, which allows group chat.
Another cool feature is an addition to the Stream called Nearby which lets you check the feed of people are who are in your current location. Obviously this would require location tracking to be enabled, but it could be a very useful way of finding out if a friend is in the area whom you might be able to catch up with.
While Facebook has apps for smartphones and tablets, the fact that Google makes Android and it is becoming so popular means it can ensure they work together in a way that outdoes Facebook’s official apps for mobile devices.
Probably the most important feature of Google+ is the fact that its logo has far more colours than Facebook’s logo.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are many other elements to Google+ that I have not fully explored. Google’s previous social networking experiments weren’t all that successful, but Google+ addresses many of the areas that Facebook was criticised for, while rethinking other areas without stepping too far away from what people like about Facebook. It’s far from perfect and lacks a few features, but it’s some major competition to Facebook that’s badly needed in the social networking arena.