Google+, the New Facebook for Professionals?

Google released their new online social networking site earlier this month, Google+, to much buzz. Tech blogs and experts were tweeting, blogging, and commenting on the pros and cons of this new network, and speculating whether the barely three-week-old site will last.  Earlier attempts by Google to enter the social networking space with services such as Orkut, Buzz and Wave failed to gain any traction with users.  Although the site is currently characterized by Google as a work-in-progress and is only available by invitation-only; according to some estimates, there are already about 20M users on Google+. Undoubtedly Google would love it if everyone were to start using Google+, but in a world dominated by Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, who is this site going to be useful for, and how will it distinguish itself?  To establish a beach head in the social networking space, one option is for Google to market and promote this tool to the professional crowd.

In the grand scheme of things, Google+ is yet another addition of Google’s ever expanding cloud-based applications. When users sign up for this network, it connects all your existing Google products (Docs, Calendar, Picassa, Gmail, etc) more easily. These products are already predominately used as professional OSM (online social media) tools, by those in business or academia. Could this then be a useful ‘professional online networking’ tool for these current users? Professionals in these communities often have a large overlap of colleagues and friends, making distinct professional/non-professional online identities difficult to separate. In our soon to be released study on scholarly use of social networking sites, for example, the inability to keep one’s private and professional lives separate has been cited as a major concern that keeps some professionals from using online social networking sites and tools as part of their work. Some Facebook users in fact already have multiple accounts to try to juggle these different identities. Considering the connection between many Google applications and the professional and academic communities, perhaps their new social network is a better option for establishing a professional online identity.

Although there may be some criticism of the copycat nature of Google+ (of Facebook), this does come with certain advantages; the biggest being familiarity. Facebook currently has over 750 million users worldwide, making a huge amount of the global population familiar and frequent users of this specific platform. The layout and basic functions of Google+ are extremely similar to Facebook, and therefore present a very low learning curve for new users who are already using Facebook.

This leads into the question of how is this site different from its competition? There are a few defining features that separate Google+ from Facebook and make it more appropriate for a professional online identity:

1) Relationships between Google+ contacts do not have to be reciprocal. Unlike Facebook, where both users must add each other as friends to establish a connection, Google+’s relationships are more similar to Twitter. A Google + user can follow another user without that connection being validated by the other user. This is useful for ‘big names’, such as prominent professionals or heads of companies, to be followed by a multitude of users, without them having to follow each one back.

2) Circles: this is a function which allows users to place their contacts, or ‘friends’ into different groups.

These groups can then be targeted with specific messages, ‘status updates’, or perhaps more importantly, left out of certain messages. You can also initiate a ‘hangout’ (video chat) with one or more specific groups with the touch of a button. The number of circles is unlimited as far as we can tell, allowing users to create as many separate groups as they want. This separation of online friends is also possible in Facebook, however requires a bit more work on the part of the user.

3)Hanging-Out: This is a feature similar to Skype, where you can initiate a video call with one or more contacts or groups (with up to nine others). Facebook has recently added Skype to their platform for users to do the same thing, however Google+ uses their own proprietary software for this function, instead of a second-party. You can also simultaneously use the chat function and watch a YouTube Video while ‘hanging-out’ – a useful feature for conference calls and meetings. We have actually tested this feature out in a lab meeting and found it easy to use.

4) Most importantly, as already mentioned in this post, if you already use other Google products, such as Docs, Gmail, Calendar, Picassa, etc, all of these accounts can be automatically connected. Picassa albums for example can be added to your Google+ profile with the touch of a button, and once you have signed in all your other Google products will be available at the top of your profile, without additional sign-ins needed.

In a world with so many OSM sites to sign into this can be a huge time-saver, especially for already over-worked professionals who are already using Google’s many other online products. One improvement we would like to see however, is the ability to connect specific Google Docs to specific circles, and/or Google+ contacts, through the network, which is currently not possible.

Although Google+ is creating a lot of buzz, the jury is still out on whether it will actually catch on with users. What do you think of this new networking site? Is it just a passing trend, or will it be useful for certain groups in the long run?

*Written by Kathleen Staves,  with contribution from Philip Mai.