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So I’ve gotten a chance really get a feel for Google+, and so far I think it’s a very creative and compelling product. But I think the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is: Is this really going to stick around or is it going to be yet another internet fad?

With 10 million new users in the first few weeks of trial launch, it seems that at some point, all Facebook users (and even those who aren’t on Facebook) are going to have to make a decision on if and when they are going to give Google+ a shot.

The two sites are mostly similar, with Google+ offering a few extra fancy bells and whistles:

  • Hangouts – Facebook just recently rolled out their own video chat feature (partnered with Skype), but Google+ one-ups them here with the ability to video chat with up to 10 other friends seamlessly. Check out the demo video for a better explanation; seeing is believing!
  • Sparks – Not much to this, other than a Google news feed that appears in your profile, on whatever topics interest you (i.e. Soccer, Cycling, etc.)
  • Huddle – This is a pretty neat feature as well, as it allows you to have group text message conversations with everyone in a “circle” (more details on that later). Unfortunately, this is only available with friends with Android phones who have the G+ app installed. (The iPhone version has reportedly been submitted to Apple and is currently undergoing the approval process.)

 

While these are all great features, they aren’t enough to make anyone forget about Facebook. To see the real differences between the two, you have to look a bit closer. Facebook and Google+ may look similar on the surface, but underneath is actually a pretty significant paradigm shift that could potentially change the game entirely.

Circles

Google+ allows you to organize friends into smaller groupings in order to make communication simpler. You may have a group just for your family, one for your close friends, one for your co-workers, and maybe one for people you’ve met once or twice but don’t know very well.

What this allows you to do is post content (such as links, pictures, or just messages) and tell Google+ exactly which groups of friends should view this content. While Facebook does have this ability, it’s not very intuitive, and Facebook doesn’t really put any effort into promoting these features. As you can see from this video, sorting you friends into Circles is really easy, and is just a matter of dragging and dropping their names into the appropriate place.

As a new father in the social networking age, I can already tell you that my friends are starting to drift into one of two camps: those who can’t get enough pictures and videos of my 2-month-old daughter, and those who couldn’t care less. Google+ makes it easy for someone like me to just post whatever I want and make sure that the people that want to see it get to see it, without cluttering up the newsfeeds (or “Streams”) of people who don’t.

But more importantly, using Circles prevents people I DON’T want seeing the content from seeing it. Which leads me to my next point.

Security

One of the biggest criticisms of Facebook is the lack of security measures in place. There have been countless stories of someone’s errant status update or embarrassing picture coming back to haunt them. This has happened to famous people and regular folks alike. It’s gotten so bad that a lot of users have started avoiding Facebook and/or may have deleted their profiles entirely.

I have one friend whose father is CEO of a nationally-renowned medical center. He actually really enjoyed using Facebook to connect with family members and old friends, however at a certain point, he ran into issues with people being able to post on his wall, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Likewise, I have a ton of friends who are teachers, and receive friend requests all the time from their students, which may lead to some awkward interactions.

It’s clear that the Circle feature is reaching out to these types of disillusioned users. In addition to the content you post, Google+ allows you to set security on everything from your profile information to your picture, just by listing the Circles that you want to be able to see it.

Cleverly enough, your friends aren’t able to see which Circle you’ve put them in, so all security is done behind-the-scenes. So teachers can feel free to add students as they wish, as long as they clearly indicate what their students should and shouldn’t be able to see.

No more “friending”

Another interesting twist to Google+ is that they have adopted more of a Twitter-like relationship model instead of the Facebook one. Instead of (awkwardly) asking someone if you can be their online buddy, you simply just add them to one of your Circles, and you receive the content that they have chosen to share with you, whether or not they decide to add you back to one of their Circles.

One of the reasons Twitter has risen in popularity is that you can just start following people like Barack Obama or the Dalai Lama (or, you know, Kim Kardashian) without having to get them to mutually agree on a relationship.

On a related note, you may not believe who is the most “followed” profile on Google+…

No more “Wall”

While it makes perfect sense, given the security conerns mentioned earlier, there does not seem to be a good way on Google+ to directly communicate with other users. Facebook users are used to being able to post messages, pictures, and links on their friends’ walls in order to bring it to the attention to that person and have other friends be able to comment on it (the most predominant being the obligatory "Happy Birthday!" wall post).

For someone like my friend’s father, who doesn’t want just anyone to be able post something on his very visible public profile, this is a great feature. But for many others, this type of cross-posting and public publishing constitutes a significant portion of the Facebook experience.

The closest replacement I could figure out is to tag that friend’s name in the text of your post while making it accessible to a larger audience, but this is not very intuitive at all, and even then there’s no guarantee that person will see it in time.

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Facebook vs. Google+: Who will emerge victorious?

It’s worth emphasizing that Google+ is positioned as a direct competitor to Facebook. This isn’t like Twitter or LinkedIn, where they offer different types of networking and communication, and there are opportunities to integrate them. Assuming users are not going to want to manage two social networking sites, eventually people are going to start to make a choice.

Clearly the security features of Google+ appeal to a certain group of users who are concerned with privacy. But how many of those users are there, compared to the 750 million (and growing) Facebook users who are seemingly happy? And for those really concerned about online privacy, will ANYTHING ever make them comfortable enough to become heavy users?

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago when the MySpace empire seemed to be insurmountable, until users decided that they preferred a site with a cleaner interface and that made it easier to find their friends. Google+ is enough of a paradigm shift that a critical mass of users who end up preferring Google+ may cause a huge exodus out of Facebook, similar to what happened to MySpace.

So far, I have a pretty decently-sized sample of friends, family members, and colleagues who have joined Google+, and it’s growing by the day. But almost all of them just seem to be adding people to circles and not actually posting or commenting on anything. It’s almost as if the entire Google+ population is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, and either the floodgates are going to open at some point, or the whole thing is going to fizzle and die completely.

There is a ton of analysis and blog postings out there on Facebook vs. Google+ in addition to this article, but at the end of the day none of it matters. The better social network isn’t the one with the fanciest features or best security. It’s the one that all of YOUR friends are using.

Justin Ong is a Senior Lead Consultant for Catapult Systems and (awkwardly) invites you to be his Google+ buddy.