Google+ isn’t the easiest thing to understand, though. It has a lot of features that can confuse beginners. Even advanced users can miss a lot of the little gems and nuances that define Google+.
That’s why we decided to dig into every aspect of Google+, from Hangouts to Circles, from Google+ for businesses to what’s next for Google’s social network. The result is an extensive guide on all of Google+’s key features, as well as an introduction to the service and the important things you need to know about it. We’ve included commentary, videos, photos and more in our in-depth guide. In addition, we will update this guide regularly with the newest information on Google’s Facebook competitor.
So, without further ado, here is Mashable‘s complete guide to Google+:
What Is Google+?
Google+ is the search giant’s latest attempt to create a social network that rivals Facebook. Google launched Google+ on June 28, 2011 with a private beta. The project was led by Vic Gundotra, Google’s SVP of social.
The social network is a collection of different social products. These features include Stream (a newsfeed), Sparks (a recommendation engine), Hangouts (a video chat service), Huddle (a group texting service), Circles (a friend management service) and Photos. We explain all of these features later in this guide. More features such as Games and Questions are expected to launch in the near future.
Google chose the name Google+ because it wants Google+ to be “an extension of Google itself,” Gundotra explained to Mashable days before the launch. It’s designed to be an improvement to all of Google, which is why the company also decided to change the iconic Google navigation bar to include a link to a user’s Google+ profile, as well as a new icon that displays how many notifications a user has received, much like how Facebook handles notifications.
The response was overwhelming. We got more than 500 responses on the Mashable News account and my Google+ account. Since we can’t post everybody’s responses, we’ve chosen six we believe encompass why so many people are excited by Google’s new social initiative:
“Google+ is a much cleaner way to selectively share data with others. As Google integrates more of their other cloud products, like Documents, Calendar, and Reader, you’re going to see it become one of the primary means of absorbing the data streaming from the Internet and sharing it with others.” ~ Jason Poggioli
“It’s the combination of being able to share based on (hopefully!) mutual interests with the ability to get exposure to interesting people and ideas. The relationship doesn’t really have to be two way, but it doesn’t all have to be public.” ~ Holly Henry
“For some reason, the level of engagement is higher. Commenting and resharing seems to happen at a higher rate here (so far.)” ~ Bill Shander
“I’ve had a Facebook account since 2003. It’s time for something more grown up that gives me more control and has a more organic user experience.” ~ Sean Cooper
“The clean user interface of Google+, combined with the lack of distracting elements, or so-called features (such as all of the add-on games and apps on FB that clutter up your stream), that I never use, attract me to Google+. This, combined with the Circles feature, choosing who you share with, are the primary draws.” ~ Scott Davis
“If Facebook and Twitter had a baby, they’d call it Google+.” ~ Olaf Wempe
At the moment, you need to be sent an invite by a friend to join Google+. While this restriction will eventually be lifted, it’s best if you ask a friend to send an invite to your Gmail account. You must use a Gmail account to sign up for Google+. Google Apps accounts are currently not supported, though the search giant plans to add support for Google Apps email accounts in the near future.
Once you accept your invite, you are taken to a page where you are asked to create your public Google Profile. Fill in information like your name and your birthday, and you are taken to Google+. If you have already filled out a Google+ Profile in the past, you skip this step and are taken to Google+.
While we go through every single one of Google+’s features step-by-step in this guide, it’s always smart to know the basic commands and syntax of Google+. To that end, we have included a Google+ cheat sheet that explains how to mention friends in your posts (like you can already do on Facebook or Twitter), how to bold your text and more.
A Video Explanation of Google+
The following videos, produced by Google, provide a quick introduction to Google+. Check these videos out, then keep reading our guide to learn more about each of Google+’s key features.
Once you have your Google+ account set up, the first thing you should do is fill in your user profile. If you’ve already created a Google Profile before, that data will automatically be imported to your Google+ Profile — in fact, your Google+ Profile replaces it.
When you first join Google+, it will ask you to enter a few key details, such as your tagline (a brief description of yourself), your employment and your education. It will also ask you to choose a profile photo. Once you set these details, you will have the opportunity to populate your profile with a myriad of other profile details. These include “Introduction,” “Bragging rights,” “Occupation,” “Places lived,” “Relationship,” “Looking for,” “Other names,” “Nickname” and “Search visibility.” On the right-hand side, you have the opportunity to add links that relate to yourself. Most users add a personal website or blog, as well as their Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts.
While you’re on your profile page, you also have the opportunity to change some of your privacy settings. You can allow people to email you from a link on your profile, and you can set this to be public, private or somewhere between using Google+ Circles (explained below).
Your profile also displays who is in your circles, and who has added you to their circles. You can change the privacy settings on the left-hand side of your profile to make this data public or private.
Understanding Circles is essential to mastering Google+. The search giant has opted not to let you simply “friend” your friends, like you do on Facebook, or “follow” different people as you would on Twitter. Instead, Google+ gives you more control over who sees your content.
Circles allows users to drag-and-drop their friends into different friend groups, which categorizes them. This allows you to put your mom in your “Family” circle, your boss in your “Business” circle and your best friend from college in your “Friends” circle. You can create as many circles as you’d like, though making too many becomes cumbersome and diminishes the usefulness of Circles.
To add friends to a circle, all you have to do is drag-and-drop them into the appropriate circle. You can add friends into as many circles as you want. You can also select multiple friends and drag them into a circle. It initially suggests friends based on who’s in your Google Contacts, but it also lets you find friends by importing your address book from Yahoo!, Hotmail or your desktop. Removing friends from a circle is simple as well: just drag-and-drop from in the circle to outside the circle.
Clicking on a circle gives you more granular control over adding and removing people. You can also rename your circle, write a short description about it, view the stream for your circle, open your circle in a tab and delete your circle.
So why should you create circles in the first place? The answer is simple: You want to share different things with different friends. You may want to share a risqué photo with your close friends, but share a link about your company’s newest hire with just your business network. Google+ Circles gives you the ability to have this kind of control over both what you share and what content pops up in your stream.
Facebook users will instantly get the hang of Google+ Stream — it’s just a newsfeed of the latest content shared by your circles. This content can be anything from a status update to a photo.
There are a few differences between the Google+ Stream and the Facebook News Feed. Posts by your friends move back to the top based on which post has the most recent comment, though eventually older posts are eventually buried in the stream. Instead of “liking” a post, you can “+1″ a post — this is part of Google’s push for the +1 Button. You can also share posts with your circles or mute a post if it’s clogging up your stream.
Updating your status is a snap — all you need to do is type some content in the “Share” box at the top of your stream and choose who to share it with. You can share it with the public (all of your followers) or just share it with certain circles. In addition to text, you can share photos, videos, links and your location. Like Facebook, Google+ automatically detects the content of the links you share and allows you to choose a thumbnail from that link.
The left-hand navigation includes a Stream option where you can filter your Google+ Stream. If you want to see posts only from your business network, you just have to click on that circle under the stream. Under the Stream option is a link to Google+ Sparks, which we explain later in this guide. There’s also an option to activate Google Chat for your Google+ account.
The right-hand navigation includes a link to manage your circles and a Suggestions section, where Google suggests people to add to your circles, based on who is in your Google Contacts and who your friends are following. Google also lets you start a Google+ Hangout video chat from the right-hand menu (we explain this feature in another section). You can also invite your friends to join you on Google+ from the right-hand nav.
Stumped about what to share first on Google+? Want to find more stuff about your favorite animal or band? Google has you covered with Sparks, a content recommendation engine that finds the most relevant and interesting articles and videos on almost any subject you can imagine. The Spark for Android, for example, contains links and thumbnails from articles about recent Android news.
Google doesn’t publish how it determines which content is the most relevant, but we imagine it uses signals from search, Google News, Google+ and others to determine which content is the most relevant algorithmically.
Google provides a list of suggested topics, but you can type in almost any topic that suits your fancy. Some sparks have more content than others, though. You can also “pin” your favorite sparks to your left-hand navigation for easy access at any time. Sparks also lets you directly share the content you find with your circles.
In our opinion, Google+ Hangouts may be the social network’s killer feature. It’s a novel twist on the traditional group video chat, and it’s definitely received a positive reaction from the Google+ community.
Here’s how it works: You click on the “Start a hangout” button on the right-hand menu of the Stream. Clicking it opens up a chat window where you can check your mic and choose who will be able to join the hangout (either by inviting individuals or sharing it with your circles). Once the hangout is live, your friends will see the hangout prompt in their stream. They can then join the hangout until a maximum of ten people have joined.
If you’ve never used Google Talk before, you will have to install a small piece of software before Hangouts works properly.
Google SVP of Social Vic Gundotra compares Hangouts to friends sitting on the porch vs. knocking on a neighbor’s door. Few people are willing to knock on a neighbor’s door just to start a conversation, but if you see friends sitting on a porch and you walk by, it’s almost rude not to drop in and say hi. Gundotra thinks one-on-one video chats are much like knocking on a neighbor’s door, while a Google+ Hangout is like friends sitting on a porch.
Once you’re in a hangout, you will notice a couple of things. First, you will notice that the video switches from person to person. This is based on who is talking into the microphone. You can hover over a person’s video feed and either report them for abuse or “mute” them. Muting someone will mute them for everybody in the hangout, at least until he or she unmutes his or her mic. Users can also mute their video if they wish.
Google+ Hangouts also comes with a group text chat feature (similar to Google Talk). Another cool feature of Hangouts is that users can jointly watch a YouTube video. Settings lets you adjust the mic, camera and other video settings.
Google+ comes with a fully-built photo albums product, powered by the technology behind Picasa (also owned by Google).
Clicking on the Photos tab on the top of your Google+ page will display recent photos uploaded by your friends, as well as how many comments each photo has received. Clicking on any of these photos brings up a photo slideshow with the most recent comments on the right-hand side and photos from your other friends on the bottom.
The slideshow is simple to navigate — click on a picture to bring it up, or click and drag your mouse from side to side to scroll through other pictures. In this slideshow view, you can also tag yourself or a friend in a photo, or check out photo details such as what type of camera was used to capture the photo.
Another section of Photos lets you check out photos in which you’ve been tagged. This is also the area where you can approve or reject photo tags. No photo will be tagged with your name until you approve it.
The most important feature of Photos, though, is the ability to upload photos and create albums. By clicking the giant “Upload New Photos” button at the top right, you can create a photo album by simply dragging and dropping photos into your browser. Once created, you can share that album with your circles, with individual friends or with the public. Albums remain private until you share them.
Once uploaded, you have the ability to edit your photos right from Google+. The browser-based editor includes simple features such as cross processing, auto contrast and black-and-white effects. You can also rotate the image or delete it entirely.
One more thing: Any photos you upload via the Stream will be added to an album called “Photos from posts,” available in the “Your albums” section of the Photos app.
The last time Google treated privacy as a secondary feature, it got burned with a lawsuit. This time around, Google isn’t playing games with Google+ and privacy.
In the Google+ settings page (available if you click on the gear icon on the top right of the black bar), you can change all of your privacy settings. From the “Account overview” tab, you can change your password, activate multiple account sign-in (an advanced feature for users with lots of Google accounts) and delete your profile and/or Google account.
The “Profile and privacy” tab is where you can really dig deep into your privacy settings. From here, you can edit the visibility of every part of your profile, manage your circles, change your network visibility, adjust your photo settings, or visit the Google Privacy Center. Google+ also has a feature where you can view your profile as your mom or your friend would see it. This is a useful feature that lets you know for sure if the content you want private is indeed private.
The settings page also has options for editing your email and mobile phone notifications, as well as options for changing the default language and connecting other social accounts to your Google+ profile. The latter feature is designed to improve Google Search more than your Google+ profile.
Finally, Google is walking the walk when it comes to data liberation. As Google data liberation lead Brian Fitzpatrick explained to Mashable, the company believes that if it’s to be trusted with more of your social data, it needs to provide users an option for taking that data out hassle-free. That’s why you can download your Google+ data, including stream posts, profile data and photos. The export feature is powered by Google Takeout.
Google owns one of the world’s most popular mobile operating systems (Android), so it’s no surprise that Google+ prominently features its mobile apps. As of July 16, Google+ only has an Android app, although it has a mobile web version and the iOS app is awaiting Apple App Store approval. The iOS app is almost identical to the Android app.
The Google+ mobile apps are relatively straightforward. It comes with five different icons and a notifications bar. The mobile app allows you to access your stream, take and upload photos, view and update your profile and manage your circles.
Two features stand out about the Google+ mobile apps. The first is a feature called “Huddle,” which is essentially a group texting feature not unlike GroupMe or Beluga. It allows you to put a group of your friends together so you can send and receive group texts.
The second unique feature of Google+’s mobile apps is something called “Instant Upload.” The Instant Upload feature automatically takes the pictures you take and syncs them with your desktop. This makes it dead-simple for you to share photos you upload when you get home. These photos are uploaded into a private album you can manage and share at your convenience.
As mentioned before, Google+ also has a mobile interface that allows you to post updates, check what your circles are posting, comment and +1 your friends’ posts, and update your location. We expect Google to add more to Google+’s mobile apps as it improves the service.
Google+ For Businesses
Google+ already has a lot of users, so it makes sense that businesses would want to get in on some of the action. Several businesses are already on Google+, including Mashable, Ford, CBS News and others.
But hold on! Before you start making your company’s Google+ account, there are a few things you should know. The most important thing is this: Google doesn’t want businesses creating Google+ profiles yet. The search giant announced on July 6 that it would be creating a platform for businesses, but that it would take some time to build.
The result is that the future of businesses and brands on Google+ has yet to be determined. Google could choose to delete all business entities, or it may transfer the followers of existing businesses to brand new business accounts. The search giant is accelerating the development of Google+ for businesses and will begin beta testing in the next few weeks.
We will update this guide as we learn more about Google+ for businesses.
What’s Next for Google+?
Google refers to Google+ as a project because it believes it’s far from finished. The product is only a few weeks old and it has a lot of bugs that still need to be fixed.
We do expect two Google+ features to launch in the near future, though. The first one is a Questions feature that will let users poll their friends, much like Quora or Facebook Questions.
The second and more interesting product is Google+ Games, a product rumored to be in development ever since Google invested $100+ million in Zynga, the creators of FarmVille and other social games. Google+’s code has multiple references to Google+ Games, so we expect it’s only a matter of time until Empires & Alliesmakes its Google debut.
Most of all, expect Google’s social network to evolve as it tries to meet user requests and sets its sights on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media universe.