After a series of failed attempts at creating a successful social network, Google looks as if it may finally be on to something.
Google+, which launched at the end of June, already has more than 10 million confirmed users, according to the Mountain View-based company's CEO, Larry Paige. Compared to the 750 million Facebook users and 300 million Twitter users out there, Google still has a ways to go. However, considering how dismal the company's Buzz, Wave and Orkut products fared after their subsequent releases, the progress made by Google+ has the technology blogosphere talking.
"So far, I'm very impressed," Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote on the Wired.com blog, Convergence. "I'm wondering how long it will be before we're all using it."
Although the search giant often chooses to downplay the notion that it is concerned about Facebook, the truth is, Google has to be concerned with the rate at which its neighbor to the north has grown in recent years. Facebook boasts a user base of more than 750 million worldwide.
Many of those users are young, and have been introduced to the concept of electronic messaging services through Facebook. Such users have little need for the Google email service, Gmail, as they keep up with all their friends and family through Facebook.
In a move apparently aimed at pulling people away from other free email products, Facebook has recently begun aggressively marketing its email system, which allows users without a Facebook account to send emails directly into the message inboxes of the social network's users and vice versa.
Additionally, more and more people are turning to Facebook as their launch pad into the web, relying on links to websites provided by Facebook contacts, rather than turning to Google to search for content online.
All of this, and more, means that Facebook is diverting advertisers' dollars away from Google, as merchants know that their ads are likely just as effective, if not more so, on the social networking behemoth.
Enter Google+, a service that functions a lot like Facebook in many ways, with a few key differences. Users of the new service will immediately recognize how the news feed and status updates work. Photos, videos, links and text can all be incorporated into a status update, just like on Facebook; and Google's instant messaging service is embedded in the interface, just as with Facebook.
One difference between the two services is in Google's video chat room -- "Hangout." While Facebook recently announced that it would incorporate video chatting in its popular instant messaging interface, Google+ has called and raised Facebook. Hangout, allows multiple users to chat with one another via video in a single virtual room. This feature obviously has applications both in peoples' personal and professional lives. It will be great for catching up with groups of friends that have moved away, just as it will work well for business conferencing.
The biggest difference, however, comes in the form of a very simple feature that allows users to share over the network in a way that more closely resembles how people share in real life.
In Google+, the user must place each new contact into "circle" before seeing any of that contact's posts. The default circles include "friends," "family," "acquaintances," and "following." Users can create and name any number of additional circles, as well as rename or delete the default circles.
The idea is to allow users to be more choosey about sharing. As a Google promotional video explaining the circles feature observes, photos that a user wants to share with friends might not necessarily be right for sharing with colleagues or family.
The circles feature functions like a combination of Twitter and Facebook's "groups." Users don't need permission to add others to a circle, just like Twitter users don't need permission to follow someone. However, by the same token, users can pick what is shared with various circles, so just because one user is following another user doesn't mean the first user will see any of the second user's status updates. Users may also choose which circles are displayed in the news feed, viewing all circles at once, or one at a time.
Though the groups feature on Facebook is similar to circles, it was added long after many people had already deeply invested themselves in the social network. By incorporating circles from the start, Google+ is making it easier for people to separate their contacts into various groups from the start.
As Mat Honan, a writer for the tech blog Gizmodo, puts it:
"Google+ is a blank slate. You can begin anew, you don't have to be burdened by the legacy of a social network that you set up before you really understood what you were doing. This time, take the time to organize your contacts into meaningful circles from the get-go, and suddenly you can have a usable social network again that lets you share things publicly with the whole electronet, and privately with just the people who you want to see them."