Google’s Facebook-Killer Falls Short of Target: Tech by Rich Jaroslovsky

With its new social network, Google Inc. (GOOG) has scored a huge blow against its archenemy.

Yes, Google+ delivers features and functionality that Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Bing search engine can’t touch.

Wrong archenemy, you say? Google+ is supposed to be a Facebook-killer? Ehhh, not so much.

At least not now. While Google+ brings some welcome new features to the social-networking space, there’s no great innovation that would make you want to use it as your primary online identity, or that Facebook couldn’t emulate if it chose to.

Google+, which launched about a month ago, is officially a beta, or test, service; to join, you need an invitation from someone who’s already a user. Judging from the evidence, invites aren’t very hard to come by: Less than three weeks after launch, Chief Executive Officer Larry Page announced that the service had already signed up 10 million members.

That sounds like a lot, and it is. But considering that Facebook is up around three-quarters of a billion, Google+ has a long way to go before your friends are as likely to be hanging out there as they are on the competition.

Instantly Familiar

The core of Google+ will be familiar to Facebook loyalists. Users can post items that friends can comment on, just like Facebook’s Wall. There’s also what Google calls the Stream, a flow of items posted by others -- essentially, Facebook’s News feature. On Facebook, if you see a post you like, you can “Like” it; on Google+, you can "+1” it.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Rich Jaroslovsky, technology columnist with Bloomberg News. Close

Rich Jaroslovsky, technology columnist with Bloomberg News.

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Rich Jaroslovsky, technology columnist with Bloomberg News.

And it isn’t just Facebook that Google+ borrows from. In addition to people you know, you also have the ability to latch on to those you don’t, as on Twitter, and add their posts to your Stream.

The Google+ system for managing all this is its most interesting feature: Circles. They’re an easy and logical way for you to organize the people in your network and decide whose stuff you want to see, and who you want to see your stuff. In some ways, it isn’t all that different from Facebook’s “Friend Lists,” but Google+ makes Circles far simpler to establish and manage.

Moving in Circles

You start off with four pre-configured circles, labeled Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Following. You also have the ability to easily create and name additional circles.

People in your address book, or potential contacts that Google suggests, are represented by small rectangular tiles with their profile pictures. All you do is drag and drop a tile into one or more of your circles. Those you add are notified that you’ve put them in a circle, but not told which one. So they’ll have no idea if they’re in People I Idolize or Former Co-Workers I Never Want to See Again.

When you post something, or upload photos, you decide which of your circles you want to share with. Those embarrassing party photos? Let’s keep ‘em away from the professional circle.

On the other hand, if you want a wider audience, you can make a post visible to “extended circles” -- people in the circles of people in your circles -- or to the general public.

Working Both Ways

Circles works both ways: You can filter your Stream to see only posts from your family, for example, or only those from professional colleagues.

It all serves to make your online connections different, and more nuanced, in Google+ than in Facebook. The latter is largely a reciprocal relationship, where both sides have to agree before you become friends. In Google+, it’s more like two separate relationships, mine with you and yours with me, that may or may not be parallel, since I may choose to share less with you than you do with me.

On the other hand, Google+ affords opportunities for other types of interaction. One is the ability to start a Hangout, which is a multiparticipant video chat room to which you can invite others. It’s a neat idea that requires you to know folks who want to participate -- which, until there are many more users on the system, may be in short supply.

Tying Things Together

One unexpected result of using Google+ was that I found myself much more likely to use other parts of the Google ecosystem. Things like Gmail and the Picasa photo-sharing site, which have been around longer than Google+, felt less like disparate products and more like features of a unified, personal service.

Google describes its new network as a “project,” and I encountered a number of issues that made clear this is very much a work in progress. For example, I was unable to install the hangouts feature on a Mac using Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s Safari web browser; I finally got it working in Google’s Chrome browser.

Until the bugs are worked out and the service is opened to all comers, we have no way of knowing whether people really want or need another social network -- and if so, whether this one’s features are compelling enough to attract them.

For Google, the best-case scenario is that the service proves so flexible and easy to use that it creates a network effect, where more and more people join because so many of their friends are already on it.

The worst case is that Google+ becomes to Facebook what Bing is to Google, less a real competitor than simply an alternative with some interesting features that aren’t sufficiently compelling to ever lift it above being a distant No. 2.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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