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Google+ still finding its feet

Google+ is Google's most compelling stab at the social media space yet, but analysts say the jury is still out on how the newcomer will fair in the saturated social space.

In October, Google's co-founder Sergry Brin and senior VP of social Vic Gundotra promised major updates that would crystallise the search giant's social strategy.

Google's social platform was launched in June in a limited, invitation-only, field trial. As of 20 September though, Google+ became open to the public and the service now has well over 40 million registered users.

Questions have been raised over the failure of Google+ to convert user numbers into activity, as Web analytics have shown that activity on the platform peaked after the public release, and then dropped again. Web analytics firm Chitika Insights published a report saying Google+'s growth spurt was short-lived, saying that while publicity drew in new users, few saw reason to stay.

However, according to Brin and Gundotra, the response to Google+ exceeded their expectations. Gundotra said: “The reality was that we had to prioritise doing some work and we didn't anticipate such fast growth.”

Gundotra has also argued that reports on user numbers misunderstand the search giant's broader strategy of wanting to activate the users of existing Google services, bringing a social layer to its ecosystem rather than creating a separate social network.

This is a strategy that Google is powering ahead with, and since October, Google+ has rolled out numerous updates, including brand pages, integration of search and the +1 button, facial recognition for photo tagging, trending topics, on-air broadcasts, “Ripples” (which illustrates how public posts are shared throughout the network), and native photo editing – among others.

Hanging out

The most recent update to the Hangouts feature now allows users to initiate multi-person video chats on any post or update from connections on the site.

Another update announced this week is the ability to dial-in anyone from around the world into a hangout.

Gundotra says: “Not everyone has a Webcam or a front-facing mobile camera, but that shouldn't stop them from spending time with the people they're close to.”

Calls to the US and Canada are free, and international calling rates are, according to Google, “super, super low”. Furthermore, Google+ is adding features to help users join live hangouts, as well as receive mobile notifications when invited to a hangout while on the go.

A new “broadcast and record” option has now also been added to the hangouts feature. This allows users to record any hangouts and automatically save the video privately on their YouTube accounts.

Coming together

The latest redesign of YouTube has also seen the foregrounding of Google's social strategy, with the integration of Google+, as well as Facebook.

The roll-out of Google+ brand pages was arguably the most notable update to date. The Google+ Pages appear very similar to Facebook Pages.

Google says a differentiating factor for Google+ Pages is the “hangout” feature, which allows for group video chats between brands and their fans.

“This means we can now hang out live with the local bike shop, or discuss our wardrobe with a favourite clothing line, or follow a band on tour,” says Gundotra.

The incorporation of Google+ Pages into Google search results is also key, as they are more likely to appear higher in search results than pages from competing social networks. Users can also use “direct connect” to be taken directly to a Google+ page by simply putting a “+” in front of their search.

Social saturation?

Analysts, such as chief executive of analyst firm Forrester Research, George Colony, have, however, warned of the saturation of the social networking space.

CNet reports that Colony said at the LeWeb conference last week: “Social is running out of hours. Social is running out of people.”

According to Forrestor Research, 86% of people have adopted social networking services, and it consumes more time than communicating by phone or exercising.

Colony predicts the bubble for social start-ups will soon burst, and only a few services will survive – and they will be those that are more efficient and time-saving.

MD of World Wide Worx Arthur Goldstuck says the one big difference between Google+ and every previous failed social media initiative from Google is that it is “not a one-shot effort to get in on the social media bandwagon”.

“The concept of a layered approach has been part of the strategy since they began rolling it out, and gives them a chance to test the waters as they go along. It is likely we will see in the coming months how well it comes together.”

Game-joiner

According to Goldstuck, none of the incremental changes thus far have been game-changers or significant enough to spark a massive influx of users.

“Google+ is a game-joiner rather than a game-changer. The fact that Facebook accounts for more than half of all sharing activity on the Internet, and is the single biggest photo repository, sends alarm signals into the heart of Google's business, which is finding stuff.

“If half of that stuff is hosted by one entity, and that entity discovers how to make it effectively searchable, it could have a major impact on search and search-generated advertising. Google+ is an essential element of Google's strategy to avoid that particular game-changer,” says Goldstuck.

'Buzz' rankings

Mashable reports the latest annual social network “buzz” rankings by Zeta Interactive see Twitter coming out on top, while Google+ is yet to break into the top 10, finding itself only in 12th position.

The rankings measure volume (by number of mentions across over more than 200 million blogs, social networks and online posts) and tone (positive or negative) of the buzz surrounding social networks since January 2011.

Facebook ranks fourth, but also measured the most negative buzz of those services in the top 10.

According to the report, Google+ didn't crack the top 10 mostly due to its late launch, but the 89% positive buzz is expected to stand the newcomer in good stead for the coming year.

Goldstuck expects it to take some time before it becomes obvious what works best on Google+ rather than other social networks.

“As more functionality is added, it is likely to gain more traction among its existing users. The jury is still out on this one, but there is still much more evidence to be presented to it in the coming months.”

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