Google Plus: Do You Need Another Social Network?

Google Plus makes it easy to group friends into "circles" and share information with only specific people. The million dollar question: Will enough people try another social network?

hide captionGoogle Plus makes it easy to group friends into "circles" and share information with only specific people. The million dollar question: Will enough people try another social network?

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Fitness coaches like to say that if you repeat something consistently for 3-6 weeks, it forms a habit you'll likely stick with. Google Plus turned 5 weeks old this past week. So, is the newest social media network certifiably habit-forming?

In an incredibly unscientific poll of @TOTN followers on Twitter, 6 respondents said they use Google Plus — and all six also regularly use Facebook to varying degrees. One said he uses only Facebook and 2 said they use neither. If this is a budding romance, Google Plus landed the second date but it's not love yet.

The Google Plusers who responded said they like the drag-and-drop ease and real-life organizing principle of adding friends to social "circles." Everything you post can then be easily shared with only specific groups of people — bffs, family, baseball team, students, co-workers — or with everybody.

Many said they like the sense of better privacy controls compared to Facebook and less "extraneous junk." Several also appreciate the lack of FarmVille updates (though that raises a provocative question about how men and women use social media differently and I'll get to that later). A sentiment shared by Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons, who wrote that not so long ago, Facebook was considered cool, too:

Now Facebook is the place where your mom and even your grandparents have accounts. Throw in all the creepy spammers, annoying ads, and cheesy Zynga games aimed at bored housewives in the Midwest, and suddenly the club doesn't feel so hip and special anymore.

Google Plus is clearly cool. It's shiny and new. More than 20 million people already signed up, by many estimates. That doesn't mean Facebook users are ready to ditch their accounts — something they'll need to do if Google Plus hopes to compete in the long-term. Most of the people I talked with still use Facebook. They say Google Plus feels empty.

The most common complaint I've heard about Google Plus was best described by Katherine Boehret in the Wall Street Journal. "Google+ is designed to compete with Facebook, but judging from my non-techie friends' reactions over the past two weeks, the initial setup can be confusing. Plus, many of them aren't eager to build another social network."

Basic connectivity these days means Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. FourSquare and other location sites are growing. There's Tumblr and Plaxo and, for now, MySpace. And many, many more. If Google Plus hopes to create new habits, it needs to overcome sharing fatigue: Who needs one more social network?

The obvious answer for Google: be better than everybody else. Early reviews indicate Google Plus has done that in limited ways. The main page is uncluttered and easy to navigate. Drag-and-drop circles are simple to create and delete. Chats and video chats open with a click. Plus, people generally like Google, while most complain about Facebook.

"Better," though, means different things to different people, a point blogger M.M. Faulkner thinks the Google Plus developers should pay more attention to.

If Google wants to compete with Facebook, and I think their design of Google Plus clearly indicates they do, they are going to need the insight of more women. Tailoring a product based on predominately male feedback is just not smart if the market mostly utilized by women.

Faulkner argues that women are major drivers of social networks and she wants to see more of them on Google Plus. That, she says, will likely mean more FarmVille updates. Something the snarky (and often male) detractors, including Newsweek's Dan Lyons and his "bored housewives in the Midwest", need to get used to.

While the stereotype may be true, that more women like Farmville (a Zynga game), the comments got under my skin this week as people spouted over and over that Farmville's addition to Google Plus will ruin it — claiming streams will be clogged with "Jane just won a cow. Click to get a Free Cow".
If these people's Facebook news feeds are full of Farmville updates, all they have to do is select "hide Farmville" from a drop down menu ... simple. I find it frustrating that someone else's lack of setting-knowledge means women aren't supposed to enjoy a game if she chooses to do so.

Tom Anderson also shared some unsolicited advice with Google Plus on TechCrunch. You might remember him as the former president and founder of another social network: MySpace.

Here's a few things I'd do right now, if I were Google.
  • Start seriously courting the journalists, tastemakers, and celebrities that are using and/or pontificating about G+. During MySpace's run-up, journalists continually got their facts wrong about MySpace. They wrote story after story about how Facebook was bigger than MySpace when in truth Facebook wasn't even 1/10th the size of MySpace. Why? Because the journalists' Ivy League educated children were using Facebook, and journalists have deadlines and other things to think about. Popular opinion will shape every aspect of people's G+ perception.
  • Exhaustively think through the privacy issues and tie up any loose/ends that G+ has on this front. I don't believe Privacy is a real issue to most people, but most people think it is a real issue to them.
  • Hire the best product executors & visionaries in the world, something that clearly has not been Google's forte in the past. Though I love G+, some parts of G+ are really a mess right now, and two that are incredibly important at this stage are in need of much work: onboarding & photos.
  • There must be one ring to rule them all. One leader making decisions.

Another cautionary tale came from tech blogger Brian Shaler who warned that Google Plus risks making one of the same major mistakes as Twitter by treating all posts equally. "If someone posts about eating a cracker—hey, maybe it's a really good cracker—that post is treated with the same importance of a post about a death or a divorce—a real one, not the celebrity kind."

One way to cull the cacophony, he says: Take a lesson from Facebook. "Facebook has a chronological news feed and a "Top News" view. It's simple: If a post gets a lot of comments or likes, it bubbles up to the top. Facebook's implementation is far, far, far from ideal, but it's a great illustration of what can [easily] be done."

Google Plus surged at launch, picking up users faster than most expected. But the novelty may be wearing off. Experian Hitwise reported that total visits dropped about 3% for the week ending July 23rd compared to the previous week. Average time spent on the site was also down, about 10%. Not a huge drop, but likely to catch the attention of Google developers.

Google wisely rolled out Plus by invite only. It's easy to be the cool kid on the social networking block with a big virtual velvet rope limiting access. Now, though, people like me have stormed the circles and raised new expectations for the site. If Google hopes to compete with — and perhaps one day replace — Facebook, Plus must now attract a much wider, and in some ways less forgiving, general audience — and ensure that we make a habit of coming back.

Google Plus' biggest drawback may also be its secret weapon: it's untested and unfamiliar. Or full of "mystery and potential," as Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum noted. "Like the allure and do-over possibilities of moving to a new town in ninth grade ... It's so new that it has no identity and therefore no stigma."

Pressing a big "reset" button on your social-network-self carries appeal — but also risks. Like many early users, most of Daum's friends haven't yet made — and may never make — the plunge to Google Plus. Still, she says, "For now I have to admit I kind of like it."

Given the choice between the homecoming dance (Facebook) and this awkward new dance that is Google+, I'll choose awkwardness.
Besides, right now all anyone's doing is getting drunk in the parking lot. And that can be the best part.

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