This is the way Google always wanted social networking to work, and this time the company may have pulled it off.
Google's previous social attempts have been unmitigated train wrecks, if we're being completely honest. Open Social failed because Google couldn't get Facebook and other social networks to buy into the idea of a shared social identity. Google Wave missed the target by not being useful enough to attract any users. Google Buzz freaked people out by naively overstepping its bounds on privacy.
So, when Google unveiled its latest social experiment last week -- called Google+ -- I was extremely skeptical. Still, Facebook is so malignant in terms of privacy and such a mess to use and configure that I was more than happy to give Google+ a try. I just expected that it would be a speed-dating relationship like most of my product reviews and destined to last no more than a few weeks at the most.
Damn, was I wrong. After almost a week, I fully expect this Google+ thing to turn into a long-term relationship. I mean, we're not buying matching workout suits or anything yet, but this is definitely more than just a crush on the hot, new thing.
To start, Google+ is what Google calls a "field trial" -- a fancy way to say that it's still in beta. For now, it is open mostly to technology industry insiders and the press. Google reasoned that since reporters were going to be writing about Plus anyway, they might as well let them kick the tires. Wise move.
Vic Gundotra, Google's SVP of Social and the head guy in charge of Plus, said, "We chose the initial seed very carefully. We wanted a lot of diversity, so we have people that represent over 42 of the world's languages... We're trying to really test the product, make sure that we meet people's privacy expectations, that the systems are working, [and] that we can scale. We'll slowly grow that initial seed as we're ready."
The other Google executive running the Plus project, Bradley Horowitz, added, "Field trial is the right term. That's not a euphemism. There's a lot of rough edges in there and a lot of learning we have to do. The feedback we got in the first 24 hours is tremendous."
Even with its rough edges and without the masses of humanity having access to Google+, the core experience is pretty powerful, and it's easy to see where Google is going with this.
As I wrote over the weekend while diving into Google+, the most attractive part is how easy it is to find, add, and organize your friends (I cited that as the main reason you won't hate Google+). The friend issue is the heart of all social networks, although it's so obvious that it's often overlooked. In fact, Twitter still isn't very good at it, Facebook is a little better, but both of them now look like neophytes compared to the way Google+ does it.
The friend feature on Google+ is called "Circles," and it turns out to be an intuitive mashup of friending (from Facebook) and following (from Twitter). Circles are basically sets of friends that you can drag and drop into groups, mirroring your existing social circles -- Family & Friends, Colleagues, Local Techies, etc. -- rather than just the one big lump of friends you have on Facebook that can result in moments of "worlds colliding," since you have to share all of your updates with all of your friends. On Google+, you can selectively send updates to different circles, and you can quickly click between the news streams of your different circles.
You can also make circles for people you don't necessarily know but are interested in following their updates (e.g. Tech Journalists, Famous Engineers, Web Celebrities, etc.). This is where Google+ echoes Twitter, because people don't have to follow you back in order for you to add them to one of your Circles. At that point, you'll see all of their public updates, and most of these folks make the majority of their updates public in order to be seen by more people (it's the whole social media narcissism meme, and it has already transplanted itself on Google Plus).
The real killer feature to Circles in Google+ is how easy it is to find and add friends. Everywhere you see a user's name or avatar you can simply mouse over it, click "Add to Circles," and then select which circle to add them to. On Twitter, it took me about three years to find about 200 really interesting people (mostly in technology and the media) worth following. It took me less than three days to find that many on Google Plus. Of course, most of them are the same people, so Google+ has the advantage of speed by letting us quickly re-coagulate our existing social graph on the new service.
I'm not predicting Google+ will replace Facebook and/or Twitter. This will definitely not be a zero sum game. Facebook has the most to lose from Google Plus, but it's going to be years before Aunt Jenny and your plumber show up on Google+ the way they recently showed up on Facebook (and it's possible they never will). All three of these social networks -- Facebook, Google+, and Twitter -- will still be going strong three years from now. People will gravitate to them for different reasons. They'll go to Twitter for news and to cyber-stalk celebrities. They'll go to Facebook for private networking, water cooler chats, and games.
So, where will that leave Google+?
I'm glad you asked, because that's the real point here (sorry to bury the lede). To start, Google+ is mostly going to be made up of digital influencers -- technology executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals, as well as social media mavens and technophiles in the press. Don't underestimate the power of this broad group. It's the same group that has catapulted Twitter and Foursquare into mainstream consciousness in recent years. A large percentage of this group is already in the "initial seed" of Google+ users, and they are the ones who have been raving about it for the past week. Look for a lot of them to decrease (but not eliminate) their Facebook usage and spend more time on Google Plus.
However, once you get past the technorati, then the story is going to get really interesting, because in the long run, Google+ is going to be less of a destination and more like the connective social tissue of the Web. I'm talking about social networking moving beyond a walled garden like Facebook or even a controlled ecosystem like Twitter.
Pieces of Google+ are likely to be decentralized with tentacles extending across the Web, the mobile Web, and various computer, smartphone, and tablet platforms. In some ways, Facebook and Twitter have started doing this already. They've put share buttons and boxes on external sites. They've launched client apps for multiple platforms. Facebook has even allowed sites to use the Facebook platform as their engine for user comments. However, the ultimate goal for Facebook and Twitter is to drive users back to their sites where they can be monetized.
Google has a different goal. It needs all of this social data about what people like, how they are socially related, what content they share the most, what context they share it in, and more in order to power its search engine and better organize the world's information. That means Google's social motivations have little to do with driving people back to plus.google.com. It's ultimately about enhancing search and not allowing Facebook to hoard so much of the world's social data.
That's why Google has already submitted it's iOS app to the Apple App Store. That's why it is already talking about opening up Google+ Hangouts (group video chat) to other video services and clients. It's why Google is putting little +1s all across the Web and in its search results (even though they aren't very well connected to Google+ yet). In order to satisfy its appetite for social data, Google ultimately needs Google+ to be ubiquitous across virtually all platforms -- both in terms of accessing the service from devices but even more so in terms of micro-connections to the service from third-party apps and sites.
Think of +1 integrated into mobile content apps, Q&A sites, blog comments, product reviews, music services like Pandora, etc. Now, imagine reading a product review, giving it +1, and then instantly seeing what all of the people in your "Tech Pros" circle have posted about that product -- all without leaving the site you're on. That's where I see Google going with this, and that's where this could permanently change social networking on the Web into a much more integrated experience. And if Google+ succeeds, it would likely force Facebook and Twitter to move in a similar direction.
Nevertheless, one big question here is how far will Google go with the open strategy? Can it avoid the temptation of giving Google+ pre-eminence to its internal platforms, such as Android, Chrome browser, Chrome OS, Gmail, and others? Will it build great apps and functionality for other platforms as well? For example, will it build a client for Windows Phone 7, even though Microsoft is its biggest rival in search? Will it work with Apple to make FaceTime (which has also promised open standards) compatible with Google+ Hangouts? Those are the kinds of litmus tests I'm going to be watching for.
Still, "Google+" is the perfect name for this, because it's ultimately an add-on and a force-multiplier to the existing Google experience, especially its search engine but also to the broader Web in general. Google+ will be a social layer on top of the existing Web. At least that's the vision. This time, Google might just pull it off.
When you make it into Google+, you can find my profile here.
This was originally published on TechRepublic.