Facebook still rules, but Google+ is winning friends
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Plenty of people like Google+ -- the search engine giant's latest foray into the arena of social networking. If it succeeds, could a chunk of Facebook's 750 million active users end up un-friending the social networking top dog?
Google's new social network is growing rapidly. It passed the 20 million user mark three weeks after it launched, according to comScore, Inc. The site is still in test phase, and the only way to join is to be invited by another user.
Google+ is designed with an easy-to-use graphic interface. Features include:
• Circles -- Users categorize the people in their networks into different groups -- friends, business associates, family members and customized subgroups. People can choose which specific groups they want to share particular information with, as opposed to the feed that goes out to all Facebook "friends" or Twitter followers. There's also a "Following" circle, designed to fill the same function as Twitter, where people can follow celebrities or other high-profile people.
• Hangouts -- Groups of up to 10 friends can take part in spontaneous online get-togethers with real-time video chats. Facebook also launched a video chat feature recently.
• Sparks -- Users can specify topics -- cooking, cycling, music, whatever -- that they're interested in. Google+ creates a news feed, sending them links to articles, videos and blog posts they might like, which they can share with others.
Plenty of local people are trying Google+, and they're all in agreement on one thing: They say it's easier to use than Facebook, and all liked the Circles feature. By choosing whom they send specific posts to, they worry less about a photo or information being seen by the wrong people.
Jeff Contillo, a technical consultant who lives in Trafford, likes the control over who sees what on his Google+ account. "It allows you to be yourself more. That's one of my biggest complaints about Facebook."
Facebook does offer a way to create similar subgroups with its Friend Lists, but many Facebook users say it's not as easy to navigate as Google+'s drag-and-drop Circles. Many people interviewed have been trying to solve that problem by limiting their Facebook profiles to family and friends, and using LinkedIn for their professional networks.
Deanna Ferrari of Murrysville, a social business specialist with MARC USA, likes the fact that all contacts aren't labelled "friends" as they are on Facebook. "You choose what they're called and where they go in your circles. I can share information with my co-workers pertinent to our work. But if I want to share an interesting news piece, I make it public. Other times, I can choose all of my circles to see something I post, but it's not visible to the public not in my circles."
"Circles is a very fluid part of the Google+ experience and it's clear that they want to differentiate the platform from Facebook and Twitter by putting it front and center," said Nikolaus Stoltzfus of Garfield, a partner and Web developer at Plumb Media, a Web development and design firm. "Filtering your posts using the Circles feature is a much more intuitive process than any other platform I've explored. Google+ clearly seeks to blend Facebook-like private networks with Twitter-like public networks by allowing users to post content in a variety of ways to a broad or narrow focus of other users."
"It's more intuitive, upfront and easier to manage," said John Kostich of North Huntingdon, who works in Internet security. He finds the interface less cluttered than Facebook's, without the games and apps -- and so far, ads -- vying for the user's attention. "My interest in Facebook has dropped over the years."
John and Laura Skinger of Freedom are a husband-wife team of Google+ users. He's a systems administrator and she owns a Curves franchise. Both use social networking sites for a mix of family and business communication.
"Facebook is nice, but it is always trying to sell you something and it's only gotten worse now that Facebook is using your friend's 'likes' to try to push you into clicking on other stuff," Mr. Skinger said. "Google+ is more like what Facebook should be. No spam, no games."
Cindy Leonard of Greensburg, technology services manager at The Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, used Facebook for personal and professional networking until around three months ago. She started to transition some of her many professional contacts to LinkedIn. She had tried to use the Facebook Friend lists feature to tailor her posts to smaller groups, but that was "a nightmare," she said. "Had I known Google+ was coming, I might have spared myself the time."
A.C. Monroe, a freelance writer and tech blogger from Rochester, says the video chat "Hangouts" are his favorite feature. "I have met so many amazing people through it and it makes social networking so much more social. I sometimes find myself wanting to stay in and "Hangout" instead of going out for a drink. Nowhere else that I know of offers you free group video chatting that works cross-platform."
Mr. Contillo tried out the video chat with a friend and wasn't as impressed. "I'm not sure I would ever use it again. Even if I had a friend who lived on the other side of the world, I would use something like Skype, which is a far superior video chat program. The video quality in Google+ was as good as can be expected, but the audio quality was pretty bad."
Mt. Lebanon attorney Bill Labovitz likes Google+, but believes that "Facebook is still the place to go to reach the most people. Who knows whether Google+ will be a bust like Buzz or a real competitor to Facebook, kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi. I wonder whether Google+ will fall victim to 'Facebook Fatigue,' in which people become sick of social media and no longer feel the urge to tell the world about their day-to-day lives."
Jeff Tripodi, a high school teacher who lives in Stowe, likes Google+ for many of the same reasons as the others. But until more people in his social network migrate, he doesn't envision dumping Facebook for Google+. "There's nobody there. I think I have 12 friends on Google+. If it's a social network, where's the social part?"
Facebook ranked low in the American Customer Satisfaction Index's ForeSee Results Annual E-Business Report, which was released last week. It had the lowest score among several individual social media sites, including Wikipedia and YouTube, measured in the survey, despite a two-point increase over its 2010 score. Google+ wasn't included in the ACSI survey, since it launched after the data collection period. "Facebook is clearly king right now, but if anyone can knock it off its throne, it would be Google," the report said.
Google has not only learned from Facebook's mistakes, but also from its own. This isn't Google's first entry into social networking. There was Orkut, Buzz and Wave. Google pulled the plug on Wave after a little more than a year, and Orkut and Buzz have failed to take on Facebook or Twitter in any meaningful way.
Most said they didn't think Google+ was a real threat to Facebook -- and most said they probably won't defect from Facebook to Google+ anytime soon -- if at all.
But Mr. Stoltzfus said he could do without Facebook. "I've already been more active on Google+ than I have been on Facebook recently. I would at least partly attribute that to how easily it blends into the other Google services that I use."
"I wouldn't consider dropping Facebook," said Tim McLaughlin of Aspinwall. Mr. McLaughlin is owner of 321Blink, an advertising agency that emphasizes online and social media strategies. "It would have to become as irrelevant as MySpace. I think they're too far entrenched. I don't think it will take people from Facebook, but I see them being less engaged there."
"Nobody's leaving Facebook to jump to Google+," said Richard Franklin of O'Hara, an assistant professor of business administration who teaches courses in e-commerce at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. "They're not taking users away from Facebook or Twitter. What they are doing is taking eyeball time. In the Internet economy, that's almost as good."
While Google's search engine draws some of the heaviest Web traffic, they need to find ways to keep users on their site, which is where features like Gmail email accounts and Google Docs come in, Mr. Franklin said. "Google has been looking for ways to make you stay longer or keep you in their orbit.
"Facebook knows what TV shows and what movies you like, what religion you are, whether you're married. All of these things make them much more able to deliver targeted ads, which would put Google at a disadvantage. Google+ can close that competitive gap."
First Published July 27, 2011 12:00 am