On first glance Google+ is very much like Facebook. Your homepage has your entries on, then you see notifications from friends and acquaintances. Your profile photo is to the left, the search bar above and the menu to change settings all on the top right. It feels familiar to start with.
However, Google+ features something which is very new – Circles. This is likely to be the single feature that will encourage more people to migrate from Facebook to Google. In the news tech reporters are talking about Google+ being more secure and having better privacy settings than Facebook. The main reason for this is that you have much better control over who sees you and your content.
Google+ Circles allow you to place other Google+ users and non-users (they receive an invite when you share something with them) into seperate “circles”. This allows you to avoid embarrasing situations such as your parents hearing about what you have been getting up to in the evening, or your boss hearing what you really think of the company that you work for. Here is how it works.
You start with 3 main circles; Friends, Family and Acquaintances. There are also Following and Blocked, which allows you to Follow people without them becoming your friend and also allows you to Block annoying people.
So, whereas with Facebook everyone will see your latest status update or photo, in Google+ you can upload a photo and then select the Friends circle to share with. Everyone else will be unaware of your new photo.
You can of course break this down further, for example you may want one group just for University friends and another for your friends in the football club. Likewise, you could use acquaintances for everyone in your work and business life, or use it exclusively for people you have met online but do not know very well. For example, I had added many people to Acquaintances who I have chatted to on forums and known through blogs etc.
So if I post something specifically about me or my family, I can share with just friends and family. If I post an article about a great new service I have found, such as MyBlogGuest.com, I can share it with Acquaintances only as many of my friends are not interesting in the business of the Internet. You can select people to individually share items with too, which makes it like a private messaging system. This is really what Circles is about. It is simple in theory but can become very powerful.
The other main features are the integration of Picasaweb photos into Google+. Any Picasaweb photos that you upload or comment on from now will appear on your Google+ homepage and be visible in accordance with the rules set in your Picasaweb settings. This is the first of the negative points though. If you chose to follow someone who is very popular then you may find that their photos infest your homepage as each time a new comment is added the photo will jump to the top of the page again. This is where the Mute button comes in very useful – you can chose to stop seeing updates on a post / photo / video etc.
Sparks so far seems to be lacking in any substance. The sites that come up in Sparks are generally not very well chosen. I have nothing else to say about Sparks at the moment other than it is a disappointment.
The other main feature is the Hangout. Here you can chose to arrange a Hangout with up to 10 people and chat in live with video or just audio, and generally use it to hook up. This is another feature which Facebook is severely lacking in and could be something to draw in the younger crowd.
Some Tips for Google+
When you first sign up by default you will receive email notifications for everything that you are involved in. You may want turn off these emails as your inbox will quickly get flooded. I chose to only receive notifications for when someone shared something with me for the first time. This seems to work well.
At the moment it is very clear that the Googlers are still doing a lot of testing, which is why not many people have been invited so far. Down the bottom right there is a “send feedback” button which will allow you to send a screenshot of any problems you are seeing.
The main difference between Google+ and Facebook at the moment, other than the lack of people, is that there are no diversions. No games, no extra add ons. It is refreshing in a way, but Facebook’s strength is that people login in the evening and stay glued to it all night as even when their friends are busy there are games to play or groups and pages to discuss things in. Google+ is a little quiet at the moment, and no groups either – apart from your own.