Google Plus revisited: a social networking service you should not ignore

When the social networking service Google Plus (Google+) launched in June 2011, I was a fairly keen, early adopter and have been reasonably active over the intervening time.

But back in 2011 I was cautious about recommending it to clients.

It was early days, and the memory was still fresh of a couple of earlier Google forays into social media — Google Wave and Google Buzz — that had fizzled.

But as time went by and Google+ continued to grow, with some 250 million users now and 150 million of those active users, I began to encourage clients to at least establish a presence and “test the water”.

Now, just over a year on from the launch, I have taken a much closer look at what Google+ is and how it works, and I am now convinced that this service should be part of the social media strategy for most or all businesses, small or large.

My key reasons for that are:

  • I now understand better the concept of Google+ as the “social overlay” of Google services.
  • I have a better appreciation of the value of specific Google+ services, especially Circles, Hangouts, Photos and Events.
  • The new Search, Plus Your World service is a game changer for search (and therefore for being found).

The social overlay

To understand Google+ and how it can work for businesses, see it not as a standalone social platform like Facebook, but as the Google engineers see it—namely as the “social overlay” for the great array of Google services.

Google+ Senior VP of Engineering (and formerly of Social) Vic Gundotra explains, “It’s really the unification of all of Google’s services, with a common social layer.”

Or as Daylan Pearce wrote on this blog back in December, “It isn’t (just) a social platform, it’s the glue of the Google led Internet. The hub that links your online activity to you as an individual.“

When we say “Google services” we are talking about more than 50 such services, some of which we are all familiar with, such as YouTube, Gmail, Calendar and Google Maps, and some more recent and not so well known, such as the Circles and Hangouts services that come with Google+.

So, given this pivotal, connecting, and socialising role Google+ has, together with the continuing rollout of new services, I’m quite convinced that Google+ is here to stay.

Specific Google+ services

Services delivered directly under the Google+ banner are:

  • Stream – the discussion, commenting, sharing stream
  • Circles – segment the people and businesses you follow into groupings you choose
  • Hangouts – instant, self-managed, live video conferencing
  • Photos – advanced features for uploading, sharing and finding
  • Events – the new service which provides great tools for offline and online event management
  • Games – doesn’t seem to have caught on in a big way

Circles

I love the Circles feature. I can place followers in a circle that’s appropriate for my purposes, and as my Circles are private to me unless I decide to share them, the people concerned do not know what circle or circles they are in.

A practical application of this is that out of the 900+ people and business I follow, I can choose at any time to tune into the discussion and sharing of people in that specific circle or to share a message, a thought bubble or an uploaded image or video with just that circle or a select group of my circles (and/or specific individuals).

So, for example, a company could have a circle just for its own people, another for a select group of clients, another for prospects, and so on. This provides a great way to manage our social media engagement systematically.

Hangouts

With Hangouts you can set up video conferencing sessions with select invitees or have an open invitation to one or more Circles or a Public invitation. There is a limit of 10 for video, but others can participate via audio.

To get an idea of how powerful this feature is, read what Neville Hobson has to say about his experience of using the enhanced version, Hangouts On Air.

Photos

The Photos feature is actually for videos as well as photos. It allows for unlimited photo uploads and an unlimited number of videos, currently limited to a 15-minute duration for each video. There are good privacy controls to help you manage the sharing of your photos and videos.

Events

The new Events feature, launched on 28 June 2012, the first anniversary of the Google+ launch, has been very well received.

Some highlights of Google+ Events:

  • Can be used for offline or online events
  • Integrated with Google Calendar
  • Contains aesthetically pleasing invitation themes to choose from (or upload your own)
  • Features prominent placement on profiles
  • Enables planning before the event and sharing photos afterwards
  • Optional to have online-only event with Hangouts
  • Activating Party mode synchronises an offline event with online presence
  • Allows anyone to be part of an event with the “on-air” option

This Events feature, combined with Circles and, where appropriate, with Hangouts, has great potential for creating and nurturing engagement with staff, business associates, clients and prospects.

Search, Plus Your World

The Google+ feature launched in January 2012, Search, Plus Your World, http://www.google.com/insidesearch/features/plus/index.html , is a game changer for online search. It combines search-based content with data about people and relationships.

It introduces three new elements to how search results are served up:

  • Personal Results, which enable you to find information just for you, such as Google+ photos and posts—both your own and those shared specifically with you (Only you will be able to see these personal results on the search page.)
  • Profiles in Search, both in autocomplete and results, which enable you to immediately find people you’re close to or might be interested in following
  • People and Pages, which help you find people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest, and enable you to follow them

You can read an explanation of the service, with some screenshots of how it works, at this link.

Some people have criticised Search, Plus Your World, on the basis that the search results are not impartial and in fact favour Google+, and people and businesses with pages on Google+.

My pragmatic, business-focused takeaway on this issue is that even if Google is favouring Google+ and its users in the search results, whether by default or by design, that is all the more reason for all of us to make sure we have a good presence on Google+.

A catch for us locally is that, as far as I know, the service has not yet been activated for Australia or New Zealand. But it is not too early to get organised, so that when it does arrive our information will more readily feature in search results.

Action steps

Here are ten practical steps to take, to capitalise on the potential benefits of using Google+.

  1. Set up a Google+ profile and complete it with information about yourself, your business, your website, social web links and so on.
  2. Create a short URL  for your profile page to make it easier to share (my full URL is https://plus.google.com/u/0/114280709508745356731/ but the short one is http://gplus.to/deswalsh —much easier!)
  3. Add a professional profile picture (and make sure you see how it looks – some images get quite pixelated, not flattering!)
  4. Use one or more interesting “cover” photos http://googleplus-covers.com/  (hint: don’t leave it as the boring default picture, and don’t feel you have to use another from the Google+ gallery: see for instance, MYOB Pulse bloggers Natalie Giddings’ and Tracey Sharah’s profiles and how they have used the cover photo space creatively to promote their businesses).
  5. Put a Google +1 button  on your website.
  6. Add content such as discussion topics, photos or videos, just as you would on Facebook or other social platforms (in doesn’t all have to be about business).
  7. Grow your Google+ network. Invite friends and quality connections, find people to follow relevant to your business, join in discussions and offer helpful comments, and create Circles appropriate for your business. Also promote your Google Plus profile in your email signature, on your Facebook profile page, and on your website or blog
  8. Use Hangouts and Events to build engagement.
  9. When you feel you have a good understanding of how Google+ works, set up a business page, and promote that too.
  10. Ignore the siren song of those who say none of your friends are on Google+ and you should be on Facebook all the time. Just remind yourself that Google is so dominant in search that you should not miss out on every chance Google+ offers you and your business to feature more prominently and effectively in Google search results.

There you have it. These are my views and suggestions on what is frankly a somewhat vexed topic. Many social media experts will no doubt disagree.

But why not at least explore and see if there is a fit for you and your business? You might be pleasantly surprised!

What has worked for you with Google+? What challenges would you alert new users to?