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Most people have heard about Google+ by now, which is Google’s latest attempt at launching a social network.  Whenever a major new social media product is launched, I publish a guide explaining the most important eight things you need to know about it.  I did this for Google Buzz, and I did it for Facebook’s Open Graph, and those were two of my most popular posts.  Now that I’ve had about a month to get to know G+, I wanted to share the Eight Things You Need to Know About Google Plus, and I hope it’s helpful to you.

  1. Why is Google Plus important?  It’s important for lots of reasons, but here’s the most significant: Google is directly tying its new social media platform to its search results, and Google search is the most important search engine in the world.  Google Plus influences search results in two important ways: (1) it lets Google deliver more personalized results to people who use G+, and (2) it influences aggregate search results delivered to users everywhere by helping Google understand which websites are spammy and which ones are popular and relevant.  If you have NOT created a Google Plus account, you can see an example of the first point right now.  When you are logged into Google (not Google Plus, but just regular Google), you’ll see a +1 next to all search results in the Google results page.  When you click the plus one, this is basically like casting a vote in favor of the page, and Google will use that vote as part of its famous algorithm for delivering search results and advertisements.  So right off the bat, forget the significance of Google+ as a social network.  Think of Google+ as a key component of the Google search product that drives $20 billion a year in advertising revenue.
  2. Is Google Plus REALLY that important, or is it just marketing hype?  As a trained marketer myself, I DO admire the excellent job that the Google team has done in selling this social network to the public. But don’t be cynical: it IS important.  Here is the proof: Google is like Warren Buffett, the third wealthiest person in the world, with $50 billion in personal wealth.   Warren Buffett’s biggest challenge at this point is identifying opportunities that are worth his time.  This is also Google’s biggest challenge.  A $100 million opportunity isn’t worth his sweat, and it’s not worth Google’s sweat either.  They can’t waste their time on small potatoes.  And Google Plus is driving A LOT of energy of Googlers.  It’s huge.  They are investing their brand, their engineering talent and time, and their marketing dollars in pushing this product.  That means that they see a big opportunity.  Now, they might be wrong, like they were with Google Buzz, which is probably NOT a multi-billion dollar asset, but for now, marketers and PR folks like you and me need to take this seriously, because Google is taking it seriously.  
  3. So how do you use Google Plus?  This is where Google Plus is winning a lot of praise.  Using Google Plus is pretty easy.  You create an account, and you add people to different circles that you want to receive information from, and you can easily switch between multiple streams to see information on different topics.  G+ provides very few restrictions on how you share content and information.  This post is NOT a tutorial on using Google Plus, so look elsewhere for that — the focus here is on WHY Google Plus is important.  Point number three is simply that Google Plus is important because it’s intuitive, easy and fairly enjoyable to use, and this is driving a lot of its usage right now.
  4. How Is Google Plus Different from Facebook?  I love this topic, but I know a lot of people disagree with me here.  In my last post I wrote that Google Plus is an information-centric social network, whereas Facebook is a relationship-centric social network.  Think about it: with Facebook, you get zero value until someone acknowledges and agrees to have a relationship with you.  You need reciprocal friendships on Facebook. But on Google Plus, you can get value without a relationship with someone.  I can add people to circles without their approval.  To me, this is the defining difference between Facebook and Google Plus, and I think it’s the reason that Google Plus doesn’t compete directly with Facebook.  I think that this difference is Facebook’s defining attribute, and key strength.  The growth of a reciprocal network like Facebook is going to be slowed by the very fact that connections are made in two steps: (step 1 = friend request and step 2 = friend acceptance).  Google Plus grows through a one-step process: friend request.   Asynchronous networks like Twitter and Google Plus are trying to compete on different terms: they want to be the best places to curate useful information, and to deliver useful information to tribes of followers (my apologies to Seth Godin, for borrowing his term). 
  5. So who does Google Plus compete with?  See point #4, but I think that Google Plus competes directly with any asynchronous social network, primarily Twitter.  Google Plus is in the information business, and I am surprised that so many people disagree with me on this, because Google itself has a global mission of organizing the world’s information.  So why wouldn’t they create an information-centric social network?  Google Plus sees a multi-billion dollar opportunity to do two things: (a) create a great social network that people spend lots of time on, and (b) protect the integrity and value of their search engine results.  Both of these goals are key to Google’s motivation here.  Killing Facebook is not on Google’s mind, and if it were to happen it would be a secondary benefit.
  6. Why do people want to USE Google Plus?  This is a complicated question.  Different people want to use it for different things. A professional “search engine optimizer” wants to use it to influence search results for clients.  Most PR pros want to use it the same way they use Twitter, to share information with their personal network, and to expand their personal network.  (On that note, you should add me to your circles on G+.) Casual users want to share photos, videos, and long-form writing.  The casual user is the greatest mystery in the world to me, because I am not one of them.  I use social media platforms for targeted purposes, like driving traffic to websites, creating sales leads, establishing new relationships, strengthening existing relationships, and for deepening my understanding of best practices when creating new web experiences on my own. 
  7. How is Google Plus different from LinkedIn?  Simple: LinkedIn (and Facebook) requires a reciprocal relationships before you get ANY value.  Stop right there.  This is the only difference that really matters, because it defines how you use LinkedIn, as well as Facebook, and thus it also defines how you use Google Plus.
  8. How is Google Plus different from Twitter?  Both Twitter and Google Plus are asynchronous social networks, which means you don’t need a reciprocal relationship to follow someone on Twitter or Google Plus.  To me, this is the defining similarity between Google Plus and Twitter.  Following this similarity, there is ONE KEY DIFFERENCE between Google Plus and Twitter, which is that with Twitter, everything you say is chronological, and all posts on Twitter are equal.  If I want to make a comment on someone else’s Tweet, I need to make a new Tweet myself.  That is to say, the concept of a sub-level comment or a second-tier comment does not exist in Twitter.  There is a democracy of posting in Twitter, because before I post anything I need to ask myself whether it is something that I want EVERYONE to see.  Google Plus, on the other hand, let’s you comment on someone else’s post without adding anything to your own G+ stream.  Huge difference there.  Following this key difference, you need to look at differences at the feature level, like this: Twitter has follow limits, which Google Plus currently does NOT.  Twitter has character limitations of 140 characters, which Google Plus does not. Twitter has much more severe limitations on how “rich media” like videos and images are displayed, and Google Plus tries to outdo Twitter here by presenting media in a more intuitive, richer way.  I’m not here to make predictions about whether G+ will last or not, but I will say that people CLAIM that they don’t like limitations on social media, but I think the built-in limitations of Twitter are a strength, and help explain why it has been such a powerful communications tool.

This is my early analysis of Google Plus, and I hope you found it useful as you try to get value from Google’s new social network.

By the way, as a bonus tidbit, if I were smarter about SEO, I would have formatted this post differently.  You see, the web “likes” short content for search engine optimization purposes.  The reason why academic websites and newspapers get killed in SEO by websites like About.com and Wikipedia, is that Google wants to deliver the EXACT answer to a searcher’s question, it doesn’t want to give someone a ten page article that may or may not contain the right information buried inside for the individual to sift through and discover. 

So, if I were trying to optimize my blog for search engine optimization, it would have been a better choice for me to publish eight different posts that each focused on eight different things you need to know about Google Plus, instead of firing off all eight in a single post.  My outlook on this, however, is that you can break the SEO rules as long as you KNOW the rules.  In this case, I’m breaking the rules because I think this topic holds together much more strongly as a single, cohesive post, rather than eight separate posts.  In this case, I choose to “write for humans” rather than writing for Google, which is important to do, even if you care about SEO.

Will Marlow is a PR specialist, blogger, and amateur photographer who lives in Northern Virginia. The photograph above is a hand-held shot at the WWII Memorial in DC, and it’s part of a series he’s doing on the monuments, memorials, buildings, and historic places in and around the District of Columbia. You should follow Will Marlow on Twitter.