By now, you've had a chance to try out Google Plus or read countless posts about it from the lucky thousands or millions or however many have access. If you're like me, you've jumped from one column saying how it's Google's best homegrown social service ever (compared to Orkut, Buzz, Wave, Knol, and Lively) to the next saying it follows in the footsteps of Google's other homegrown social services (see Orkut, Buzz, Wave, Knol, and Lively).
You don't have time for any more of that. Let's cut to the chase with an FAQ, penned by someone who has no insider knowledge but has at least joined a Google Plus video chat with ubergeek Robert Scoble. While some questions are invented, many came directly to me via Google+, Facebook, and my colleagues.
Q: What does Google+ do?
It's a social network, like Facebook and Twitter. It's a video chat application, like Skype. It's a feed to show what you're interested in, like Tumblr in a sense, but more like an RSS feed of news alerts. It allows for things to be shared with a small, select group of people, like Path. You can check in, like Foursquare. And, umm, there's other stuff.
Q: Okay, so what does it really do, and why should I use it?
It does all of these things, and it will do even more. In some ways, I want Google to really nail this, partly because I respect the company and partly because I'm rooting for some friends there. On the flipside, I'm juggling too many social services as is, and I'm in no rush to use another, especially one that doesn't easily integrate with all the rest of them. It's quite possible you will instantly love one of its features, but most will need to wait for it to develop more.
Q: What's a Circle?
A Circle, in Google+ parlance, is a custom group of friends. You put people you know or are interested in into one or more Circles -- friends, family, coworkers, groupies, clients, church members, soccer moms, or whatever you want. You can share things publicly, to specific Circles, all Circles, or even extended Circles --- which are the people in your connections' Circles.
Q: Are Circles really the most amazing thing ever?
No. They work well, but Twitter has had lists for years, and Facebook has them too, but people haven't yet shown an interest in actively managing their networks this way.
Q: What would get people to change behavior?
Automation would help. It's fairly easy to map one's social connections into specific graphs, as your group of college friends, for instance, is likely very distinct from the group of contacts from your previous employer. Just look at LinkedIn InMaps. If Google automates the process, Circles could be compelling for a wide range of Google+ users.
Q: Didn't Google try this once before under another name? I know I have a Google profile.
It's different from anything Google has done before. You need to explicitly join this; being part of the Googleverse doesn't instantly allow you access. However, if you've already created a Google Profile, you don't need to do that again from scratch.
Q: Do you friend people like on Facebook or follow them like on Twitter?
Q: Really, though, which is it?
You can have people you're friends with. Or you can stalk all kinds of people. It's up to the individual how publicly to share their content, whether it's more with their friends (a la Facebook), with everyone (Twitter), or with select groups.
Q: What's a Hangout?
It's group video chat. You can hang out with up to ten people at once. You can also only invite select people, like those in your Circle of colleagues or family members.
Q: Is a Hangout better than Skype?
A Hangout is much easier for running group video chat, and the quality is pretty impressive from what I've seen so far, though it's buggy as of now.
Q: Do I have to worry about uncensored content a la Chat Roulette appearing in my Hangout?
Only if your Circles include a lot of naked people.
Q: What's a Huddle?
It's group chat from your mobile device, like GroupMe, and it's designed to work with your Circles.
Q: What's a Spark?
A spark is a topic you follow. It's not that useful yet, so this should be one of the last features you try out.
Q: What's Picasa?
It's Google's photo sharing service. You need to link Picasa with Google+, but for most people it will just be an added feature, like Facebook's photos. You can keep all your photos private. It's very easy to share photos from your phone to Google+, and if you're using an Android device, you can choose to automatically share photos from your handset to Google+.
Q: Does Google+ replace Yammer, the platform for private business communities?
No, not at all. For instance, I created a Circle for my agency, 360i, and asked if only 360i people could see a post. A client responded there, and I realized I had added her to the wrong circle. My 360i Circle will be different from my colleagues' Circles. Yammer, on the other hand, is only for current employees of an organization.
Q: If I +1 something, why doesn't it come into the Stream?
The Stream is like the Facebook News Feed, and to +1 something is to "like" it. There's no easy way to see what your friends have +1'ed. You also can't search content in your stream. A lot of these issues will probably be fixed quickly.
Q: Can I get an invite to Google+?
Maybe. I was able to invite dozens of people and then Google+ closed invites for everyone. Follow me and other Google+ users on Twitter and you'll see when invites open up.
Q: Where do marketers fit in?
Brands and publishers that buy into what Google's doing will be even more motivated to add +1 buttons to their content. That's not even directly connected to Google+ yet, but it inevitably will be. There are many implications for community management and influencer marketing, but for now this is about people, not brands.
Q: What bugs you about Google Plus?
There's a lot. If you have at least a few friends using it, there's instant notification overload. I have a hard time finding things I've written, until I see the email notifications of responses to them; my own posts don't readily appear on my profile. The blurred line between friending and following makes it much harder to use for either.
Q: What do you love about it?
It instantly works well with mobile devices. It's feature-rich, but perhaps too rich already to give it enough focus. Zynga hasn't launched PlusVille yet. Video chat works great, as does photo sharing.
Q: How many people who used Google Plus this week will use it next week?
About seven. But the rest who try it out should keep checking back. Google has an ambitious roadmap for it, and enough pieces work now that it could become something meaningful in time.