Google+ passes first tests; now what?

Google avoided repeating its past social networking failures, but it has a lot of work ahead to dethrone Facebook

Showered with intense praise and criticism during its first month out in a limited beta trial, Google+ has eluded the failures of other Google social networking efforts, but it's too early to tell if it will fulfill its ultimate mission as a Facebook slayer.

Compared with Google Buzz, the Twitter-like service that ignited a disastrous privacy firestorm, and Orkut, the seven-year-old social networking site popular mainly in Brazil and India, Google+ represents an initial victory for the company.

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Google+ has had privacy glitches, but none of a Buzz magnitude, and some early adopters have criticized Google for deleting profiles set up by organizations and by individuals using pseudonyms, both of which are currently prohibited.

Critics have also grumbled that the world's foremost expert on search hasn't found the time to add a search function in Google+, and others are bewildered that the developer-friendly company hasn't yet made it possible for them to create third-party Google+ tools and applications.

However, on the whole, Google+ has emerged from a first month of close scrutiny in fairly good shape, certainly positioned to continue pursuing its goal of triggering a mass exodus of Facebook members.

Of course, accomplishing that is far from a sure thing at this point, and it remains to be seen if the average Facebook user will find Google+ to be a compelling enough alternative to justify the effort of moving their online social activities from one site to the other.

Not that it hasn't happened before, as the collapse of the once-mighty MySpace proves, but Facebook's dominance in social networking is unprecedented, with 750 million members whose average time spent on the site continues to rise.

"It's very early to tell whether Google+ will appeal only to a group of insiders who like to use it a lot, which is the case with Twitter, or whether it will become a broad threat to Facebook," said Forrester Research Senior Vice President Josh Bernoff.

Google+ has so far exceeded Bernoff's expectations. Meanwhile, Charlene Li, Altimeter Group founder, sees a clear potential for success in Google+. "It's got the whole package to take on Facebook," she said.

Sensing the threat, Facebook has been quick to respond to Google+, launching video chat to compete with Google+'s Hangout feature and reaching out to businesses interested in setting up a Facebook page, while Google scrambles to allow business profiles on its site.

Li predicts that Facebook changes and improvements will continue flowing out quickly, particularly in the area of managing friend lists, connections and content sharing, in response to Google+'s Circles feature.

Li expects that Facebook will make it easier to segment one's friend list into different groups, something that she finds is too complicated to do on the site now, and which Google+'s Circles makes much simpler.

She also forecasts that Facebook will begin to allow members to "follow" the public posts of others, the model popularized by Twitter and incorporated by Google into Circles.

Google+'s main selling point has been that, compared with Facebook, it simplifies privacy controls and gives people more confidence that they're sharing content with their intended audience.

Facebook takes exception to this knock, saying that its privacy settings give users granular, unparalleled control over their sharing. It is also not certain that the average user will take the time and effort to create multiple Circles, Bernoff said.

If most people don't take advantage of the Circles feature, that could remove a major reason for using Google+.

"In the long run, Circles matters only if people join Google+ and make the effort to put friends in different groups," he said. "It does put a maintenance burden on the user."

Despite Circles, Google is far from done addressing potential privacy issues with Google+, Bernoff said. Although it doesn't now, Google+ eventually will carry ads, feature business profiles and open up its platform to third-party developers, and Google will have to handle those in a privacy-sensitive way, he said.

"The minute Google brings in third-party participation, both from application developers and from marketers, you're going to see the potential for privacy violations, if it's done wrong," Bernoff said.

"So Google has the opportunity to build something similar to Facebook in a way that is more usable, but they could also screw it up," he said.

Privacy issues aside, success in social networking depends by definition on there being a critical mass of people on a site that others want to connect and interact with. The market is littered with cool services that never gained enough traction.

Hitwise reported that after weeks of skyrocketing growth, visits and time spent on Google+ dropped last week, a sign that some early arrivals to Google+, finding that their friends aren't there, have stopped checking it out.

Of course, that problem is a by-product of Google's decision to limit access to the site by allowing only people who are invited by current members or by Google. Once the site opens its doors to everyone, the issue could be moot.

Li also said that Google+'s "follow" model coupled with its allowance of long posts could help draw people to the site, regardless of whether their friends are on the site or not. The key is to get members to create compelling content others will want to follow.

"Can Google+ get enough people on it creating unique content that though you may be happy on Facebook, slowly but surely you may evolve some of your social activity to Google+, if only to follow someone there?" Li said.

Initial indications are promising, because already many in this first wave of about 20 million members are posting very interesting information, and the Google+ commenting feature is outstanding so it fosters exchanges and discussions, she said.

It's hard to tell how much ill will has been attached to Google+ over the business profile and pseudonym profile deletions. To its credit, Google addressed both controversies quickly.

It admitted it should have made business profiles a priority and said it has put their development on a fast track, hoping to open them up in the coming months.

Although it is sticking to its policy of requiring people to use their real names in personal profiles, it has made the process of dealing with infractions a friendlier one, providing more details to affected users and giving them a chance to appeal before deleting their profile.

Whatever ends up happening with Google+, end users are clear winners for now, Li said. Google is one of a few companies with the resources to attempt unseating Facebook, and its entry into the market adds an option and spurs competition and innovation.

"It's very good for consumers that Google is offering an alternative to Facebook," Li said.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.