As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my internet repertoire includes a vast number of websites. Some I’ll use almost constantly, some I’ll check a few times a day, and some every now and then when I feel like it. Google+ is one that falls into the final category, and as a social network, it’s probably not where the developers of the service would want it to be. I’ve had and used Google+ for over a year now, and I think it’s time that I put on record how much of a missed opportunity it is.
To begin with, let me explain what Google+ is. It is a social network from Google, with the intention of competing with Facebook, Twitter etc. for the attention of the masses. It launched in 2011, and is the 4th time that Google has built or bought a service to provide people with a tool of easily communicating with each other. Only keen internet aficionados will remember Orkut, Google Friend Connect or Google Buzz. They simply didn’t work. Google+ received a bit more enthusiastic support from the company than the other three, though, when it launched – and as it rolled out slowly, initially as a beta, it meant that it had some sort of allure that drew more users in. Fast forward to today, and Google claims that it has 540 million “active” users, with 300 million posting statuses or photos on the site. They are impressive figures, but still far behind Facebook’s figure of around 1.1 billion. Google+ is certainly the most successful of their social networking projects (if you don’t count YouTube).
And before I lay into it, Google+ has got some nifty features. Google Hangouts, a video chat service, is a great alternative to Skype – being a bit simpler to use and entirely web-based. Another key feature is the idea of circles, with the ability to add friends to different groups in a sort of social Venn diagram, and being able to choose with which circles to share posts, photos, videos etc. It’s a nice feature which takes in to account the millions of people who aren’t keen on broadcasting every thought or event they have to all of their friends. These two things make Google+ worth having. Sadly, there are also many reasons why it’s not going to better Facebook or Twitter as it stands at the moment.
From a design standpoint, Google+ isn’t great. Facebook and Twitter have mastered their respective feeds, even though they often insist on changing them. Facebook gives you a stream of what people are up to, and lets you choose how to filter things with relative ease, and Twitter streamlines the process even further with only one default setting. Both let their feeds take up most of the page because they know that’s what people are there for. Google+ takes a minimalist design standpoint, and relegates posts to being worth only about half of the entire page’s width. That may not sound too bad, but that space is further divided into two columns for posts. These columns have relatively large amounts of space between them. Posts have big spaces in between them. In going for an uncluttered layout, Google have made a mosaic of posts that actually makes it harder to read individual statuses and distinguish between them. It’s not good. To throw a further curveball at the user, sometimes a post will take up both columns for no obvious discernable reason. The user interface for Google+ is a massive drawback.
Most social networks have followed Twitter’s lead and show users “trending” topics and posts on their service. Twitter’s is a simple text box on the side of the page, and Facebook’s recent introduction is even smaller still. Furthermore, most social networks have advertisements to keep them running, with Facebook’s being a more obtrusive set of links on the side of the page with Twitter interspersing adverts once every fifty or so tweets. Google+ is far less subtle when it comes to trending and promoted content. Whether it is because I don’t follow many pages/people on the site or not, I can’t tell – but around one in every six posts on my feed is a “recommended” post, which generally has nothing to do with my interests at all. These sort of posts would be irritating at best with a well-designed user interface, but because Google+ ranks posts on its’ feed almost arbitrarily, they become even more annoying when hunting for something specific. On a similar note, every time I enter the service I’m hit with a splash page asking me to “find more friends”. Having to go through this screen and inevitably ignore it adds precious time on to the process of getting to what I want, and at some points I decide it’s not worth the hassle. If people aren’t going to your website because of hassle issues, it isn’t designed well enough.
It’s understandable why Google want to promote their social network as much as possible. Generally everything they touch turns to gold – but their luck hasn’t extended to this genre of website and with social networks’ inherent potential for traffic – Google has to try to get people to use theirs. I don’t really like the way that they are going about it though. Interconnecting parts of their service makes sense in some ways to provide a more intuitive experience overall, but the decision last year to require people commenting on YouTube videos to do so through their Google+ account was a real fumble. In general, most people don’t want to share every comment they make on videos with their friends (something that I thought Google understood with their Circles concept) – and that is what this new level of integration has brought. Instead of improving both services by connecting them, it has made me less likely to comment on YouTube videos, and less likely to share things on Google+.
Although I have been rather scathing about it, Google+ has potential. Things like circles, hangouts and events are all handled really well, and with a few tweaks could be the best on the web. Google+’s problems are all fixable, but there is a long way for it to go before it beats the giants of social media at their own game.