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A few days ago I got my invite to Google+, the big G’s latest attempt at building out a social networking service.  The invite came (of course) from a longtime friend, who rates as even more of an Early Adopter than me.  I’d been reading about it since before it had even launched – it was something that had been rumoured, then Alpha-ed, and now it’s being Beta-ed.  I was intrigued by it, partly because of the rumoured features.  But also because Google had been letting rumours slip for so long, in a not so subtle whisper marketing campaign to build up anticipation.

Google is very good at this kind of marketing.  In any given room, if Google is there, then they’re the 1,000lb Gorilla.  Anytime someone from Google whispers about an upcoming product or service, it sets off a flurry of blog posts, forum discussions, news articles, analyses, navel gazing.  And they’ve been talking about “social” for years.  It was only a matter of time before they took another stab at it.

Currently, Facebook “owns” the social space, and that’s been a concern for the planners at the GooglePlex, because they just don’t have an in with Facebook.  They’ve tried, but Microsoft beat them to it.

Social is important because of it’s marketing value.  People reveal things about themselves – their associations with others, the types of events they attend, activities they participate in, websites the visit, and much, much more.  This information is a treasure trove to maketers.  It allows them to target advertising in ways that they simply didn’t used to.  For a company like Facebook to control that space, in a walled garden where they get to determine what information leaks out, and what information stays in, is a direct threat to Google.

The general public thinks of Google as many things – a search engine, an email service, a news aggregator, a mapping service.  And it is many things.  But first and foremost, it is something the general public rarely even thinks about.  Google is an advertising agency.  That’s where they derive their revenue from, or roughly 90% anyway.  By selling those little text ads you see almost everywhere on the web, that often seem almost prescient about what you might be interested in.

Actually, they don’t just seem prescient, they are prescient.  Google delivers these ads base on a very complex series of calculations it makes.  It takes into account the information on the page – if you are reading an article about toaster oven safety, there’s a good chance you’re in the market for toaster ovens, so guess what kinds of ads you’re going to see?  It also takes into account your personal surfing history – which it knows more about than you might realize.  Every time you visit a page with one of those Google ads, it knows.  So it knows a lot about your surfing history, your shopping patterns.  It also knows the types of things you search for, and a great deal of other things.  As a result, the ads you see aren’t just targeted based on the content of the page you’re reading, but based on you, and your web history.

But all that intelligence hits a wall when it gets to Facebook.  Google can’t really see inside Facebook, what you’re doing there, talking about there, who you’re associating with in there.  Facebook is what’s referred to as a “walled garden” – somewhat like the ads for Vegas.  What happens in Facebook, Stays in Facebook.  Except for all the information that they choose to leak out (which is a lot, actually).

But Google wants more than the breadcrumbs that Zuckerberg and his crew allow to dribble off their dinner table.  They want the full five course meal.  So it’s inevitable that Google will fight hard to gain a foothold in the social space.  They don’t even have to win the battle.  They just need to have a big enough share of the market that they can build more refined trend-lines into their algorithm.  Basically, so they can become more effective at pitching products to you.

So let’s get something out of the way:  Privacy is a non starter with Google+. By it’s very nature, it wants to learn as much about you as it can.  But that doesn’t make them worse than Facebook, or LinkedIn, or MySpace, or any other social network.  They’re all after the same thing: as much information about you as you’re willing to give them, and your friends and acquaintances arte willing to give about you.

That’s not paranoia.  That’s just business.  If you approach Facebook and Google+ with this in mind, then you’re far better off in the long run.

Now as for the service itself, my first impressions are actually fairly positive, especially when I compare it to Facebook – which let’s face it, that’s what everyone will be comparing it to.

For one thing, they’ve kept to the Google design ascetic.  Which is minimalist, clear, with lots of white space.    In many ways, it’s very similar to Facebook – a three column layout, with two narrow columns on either side containing navigation and other “tidbit” info panels, with a wide central column that contains the “stream” of posts from yourself and those in your circles.  But Facebook jams way more “stuff” into those columns.  The spacing is tight.    With Google PLus, the text size is, by default, slightly bigger.  And there is just a hint more space between lines, and even more space separating the different info boxes.  The overall effect is fairly dramatic.  Google+ seems far less busy and cluttered.  It’s easier to spot the information you’re looking for when everything isn’t all jammed together.

It’s just nicer to look at.

But really, only typography nuts and commercial artists are going to pay close attention to that.  Everyone else will sense it viscerally.  And different people will have different preferences.

The really big, killer feature of Google+ is circles.  And I’ll refrain from making too many references to The Hudsucker Proxy here.  You’re going to be hearing a lot about Circles in the coming year, trust me.  So why not try and be one of the cool kids and get a grasp of the concept early on?

Facebook doesn’t differentiate between your “friends”.  Everyone essentially gets piled into one big list.  Everything you post on your wall gets broadcast to all your “friends” – regardless of whether they’re actually friends, family, coworkers, or some random schlub you met on Kijiji who sent you a friend request you were too embarrassed to turn down.

My wife summed it up brilliantly as to why this is a bad idea.  “I never post anything because everyone on my friends list can see it – and it’s rude to unfriend people.”

Circles gets around this problem by allowing you to organize your contacts.  Google+ offers 4 default Circles to start with: Friends, Family, Acquaintances, Following.  You can add as many Circles as you want, into order to further refine how you organize your contacts.  And any given person can be in more than one circle.  My wife is both a Friend, and Family.

Then, when you go to post something, you get to choose which of your circles you’re going to broadcast to.  You can send it to all your circles, some of them, or just one.  And when you’re looking at your stream, you can do likewise.  You can look at the stream coming from just your friends, your family, or whatever.  Depending on what you want to catch up on.  And it is very neat, easy to figure out, and thoughtfully organized.

And you never have to worry about un-friending someone.  People on the far end only know that they’re in your circles.  They don’t know what circle you put them in.  I already have a circle called “Mushrooms” – for people I don’t actually like, want to hear what they say, have them hear what I have to say.  I keep them in the dark and feed them s**t.  And I can do it very conveniently without overtly offending them.  Nice!

In fact, it’s such a good idea, that I fully expect Facebook to copy the functionality in the coming months.

Other than that, it’s a typical Social Web concept.  Share photos, videos, thoughts of the day (blog posts).  But it’s very well designed, clear and intuitive (at least for me).  It’s snappy, and uses a lot of the lates AJAX tricks to keep the interface humming along.

In a lot of ways, it makes Facebook look like the 8 year old technology it is.  Dated, clutterd, with a whole lot of crap that got bolted on along the way.

Google has the advantage of starting with a clean slate.  And by the looks of it, they really though it through this time.  Is it going to knock Facebook off it’s pedestal?  Probably not.  But then, no one thought Facebook was going to knock MySpace off it’s pedestal.

One think is for certain.  When it comes to “The Social Web” – Google now has some serious skin in the game.

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