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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Google+ - Top 10 things I'd like you to fix

[Short link to this article if you need it: - or retweet me]

It's been just over a year since I wrote my initial article with my first thoughts on Google+. So how have things changed in that year, how does it stack up to the competition, and where do I see the social network positioned? I realised it was about time to write this post after a couple of discussion threads such as this one that I was recently posting to. This blog is split into my top 10, and then some more comments. I'll start with a summary of my major original gripes and their status:
  • Sadly, post to "Circle A excluding Circle B" still hasn't been implemented as an option. For this reason, the privacy model is still not as it should be. Given Google+'s approach of "Circles by default" this is a silly omission, and something that Facebook manages to do properly, so despite a focus on Circles in the UI, the control not as advanced as the competition.
  • The lack of "Public Citcles" (i.e. allowing people to subscribe to particular topics you post on) is frankly utterly ridiculous. I want people to choose which of my posts they see - basically to allow my "followers" to filter my stream to include/exclude topics they want by adding themselves into my circles. Twitter similarly inexplicably have never implemented service-side hashtag filtering. Google+ could've made it a feature that would've been great for marketing. I've seen some people hack up an alternative by asking people to tag themselves in images to get added, but that seems, well, just a hack.
  • Where did the "feedback" system go? It was quite neat, but maybe that was only while the sytsem was invite-only :-\ Then again, my two main pieces of feedback were the first two bullet points and there's no sign there was any attempt to implement them.
So now to some new topics:
  1. The mobile web interface is poor (try it if you haven't already to see what I mean). I've seen criticisms of the ones that facebook/twitter provide, particularly in terms of causing high CPU use, but to be honest I find them usable, especially Facebook's, and I don't feel like a second class citizen when using them instead of the official applications. And both are vastly superior to the mobile web experience of Google+. I can't even "+1" a comment on their mobile web interface, and that's a fairly basic function.
  2. We need a posting API. At the time of writing there is a read-only one (Current APi is here), but not having a full API make the lack of a decent mobile web interface more of a serious problem. An accessible API is how most social sites gain adoption, and although we have the "+1" button that can be embedded on sites, there's still no way to directly "Share on Google+" button that people can add, making it harder than on other sites. Similarly, you can't easily cross-post things to multiple social networks as I can elsewhere. Sort it out google! Or are you trying to go straight to having a locked down API like twitter started trying to retro-fit in March 2011?
  3. SMS interactions still aren't available everywhere (such as in the UK). This might otherwise be an helpful way around the lack of an API and a decent mobile web interface. The way facebook has implemented SMS notifications is superb (if a bit of a hack using multiple numbers)- you can "like" comments, subscribe to people, post comments or new entries all over SMS (and my current phone network, GiffGaff, don't count those as chargeable). Being in the UK I haven't seen the details of the Google+ SMS system, but I hope it's that good. And if it is, it would probably be better than using the mobile web page. I have SMS interactions on twitter too, not having them on G+ lessens the engagement.
  4. For no clear reason that I've seen, iGoogle is being retired in November 2013 (the mobile version has already gone) iGoogle has been my home page for quite some time now, and when I compared it to the alternatives a few months back, it was still the best. More importantly, it had the standard google toolbar at the top, including the Google+ notification bar. With iGoogle always open in my browser, I would always get alerts in a way that was very effective. I suspect I'll be stuck with the aforementioned useless mobile web interface in a portlet on another portal system, an that is only likely to reduce my engagement on G+.
  5. There's this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that many of the above problems - related to being open and social - might be because they want more control over the platform, which is of course always good for advertising revenue if you fully control the clients. Not only that, but it means they can provide an enhanced experience on their chosen platforms if they control the apps. That sounds good, but it reduces the social value of the network and ancourages platform lock-in, and while I'm generally a fan of Android, that's not a smart way to go overall, and it would be harder to support a social media site that turned out to have such issues. It's not good for the openness and platform-neutrality of the web, something I've always been a very strong supporter of.
  6. The "Incoming" stream that used to be on the left sidebar was fantastic. It showed you the posts from people who have circled you. In twitter terms it showed you the posts from all your followers regardless of whether you're following them. I don't "vet" my followers/circlees. I might chose to follow back someone I know, but otherwise prefer to choose based on whether people are posting interesting stuff, and the incoming stream was a good way to see if you'd "missed" anyone interesting. It improved the social experience, and removing another differentiating feature reduces the value of the Google+ platform. Why can't we have it back?
  7. It concerns me that most of the changes over the last year appear to have been based on trying to make it a bit "more like facebook/twitter" by copying things like cover photos, and trending topic lists. While some people may bemoan the lack of those things after being used to having them elsewhere, feature parity is not something that Google should be striving for, it should be feature differentiation. Ideally starting with some of the stuff I've described. Yes some of those I've mentioned are related to parity (for example in security/privacy options, which of the big selling points when Google+ lauched) but the items to gain parity need to be the less "fluffy" ones. Frankly, as key differentiators, all they have at the moment is hangouts (a great idea) and that's limited in what clients you can use for it, which lessens its value.
So there you go - a top 10 that Google+ would have fixed if I was in charge. I'm somewhat disappointed it hasn't happened yet ... I hope Google isn't losing interest.

So where do I see Google+ going? I have to admit that I am posting a bit more to Google+ now. I haven't changed my original opinion - I still don't believe for a second it's a facebook killer. Not just because it doesn't have the user base, but because it doesn't have the control I want. I want to keep my "public" posts and my personal ones separate, and that's best done on a separate network. I generally don't accept "friend" requests from work colleagues on Facebook, but I don't care who circles me (or who follows me on twitter). I prefer to keep that network and the communication on it to be more personal - more frivolous I suppose - as opposed to my public streams. It's like having a work/life balance, but more of a public/private life balance, and surely that's a good thing? Yes I could restrict in mostly the same way on Google+, but I don't want such a stream polluted with the more serious stuff I currently post on G+, and that could only be got around by making my current posts non-public - which I don't want to do. I suppose having a second "facebook replacement" account on Google+ for doing that might work, but it just wouldn't get the use for now with so few people using it actively, and it would still have all the other issues I've described. Ignoring a less-than-successful IPO, Facebook are still getting the trade so I think they can still be around for a long time to come.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm not planning to give up on Google+. The interactions tend to be of a decent quality on there. The frequency and length of posts I'm likely to continue to make on G+ is likely to be comparable to facebook for now - about 1/day and I think that's about right. More and it gets 'spammy', much less and you stop remembering to check it. And that number's about right for the length of posts likely to be made on there.

It also certainly won't replace twitter for me, unless they mess things up completely. Buzz had the potential to be an alternative but that was shut down. In fairness it wasn't being used by many, but with things like the twitter API lockdown concerns it would have been good to have a high-profile alternative. Integrating it with G+, in the same way as facebook's ticker, seemed like a good idea.  Maybe Google were premature in giving up on that space. (Side rant: Why won't facebook display me the ticker? Always thought it'd be great for seeing, for example, music listens. My usage ought to be high enough - why are facebook always so secretive about the algorithms? Grrr)

I've seen reports that Google+ is gaining users, but regardless of whether that's true, to be honest I'm not seeing too much evidence that they're heavily interacting with it once they become users, and reports like this one from May 2012 suggest I'm not the only one seeing that. Certainly I can't say I've seen a significant increase in the number of times I'm circled or how many people are interacting. So it concerns me that, while people may have an account, are they actually sticking with it? It may be the original standard "twitter effect" where people start, don't see the point, stop, then come back. But I'm not sure Google+ has the draw for people to want to come back - will they actually feel they're missing out? Every so often I go back and flirt with Diaspora, if only to use it as a mechanism for cross-posting, and because the values of the project seemed good, but I don't know where that's going to go. I think they've implemented a lot of the basics I want more effectively than Google+ now though, but because of the model the data mining/search possibilities aren't going to be as good as the other systems.

So for now, with all of the above faults, I still don't believe Google+ is ready to take over the world in mainstream use yet. The changes and enhancements to the platform need to be ones that will aid driving adoption. And there is the other fact that many people have privacy concerns with Google overall that will turn them away without even looking at it. I admit the thought of having all my online eggs in google's basket isn't the most appealing.

But if you're one of the people already on it, you can find me at