(In regards to last week)
This was an enormous week for Google, and everyone who watches them.
Just thinking about Google+, Google’s (re)entry into social media, is not thinking big enough. What we saw this week was the first big move of Google in the Larry Page era, bringing forth the first changes and efficiencies he seems to have been seeking when named chief executive last January. And the upshot is an effort to make even the Internet a subset of a Google product. Which may not be a bad thing.
Google+ was only the most visible part of a series of releases, but there were even more intriguing hints about what will be coming by autumn across a range of Google products. Search, maps, calendar and email were all redesigned, with a superficial emphasis on a cleaner look, but a deeper intention of creating products you stay on longer. Longer term, they are being tweaked for an online world of HTML5 and mobility, where design and personalization can build a lot of different experiences, fast.
In a post introducing the changes to Google Calendar, the company said “the new Google experience we’re working toward is founded on three key design principles,” including focus, elasticity (transitioning easily from one device to another, like starting to watch a video on a cell phone, but finishing it on a desktop, or a television) and effortlessness. Another way to put that is: Ease of use to promote continuous engagement.
Whether a personal Internet is a good thing or not is subjective – there is too much information out there all the time, and we all get and need filters, using them mindfully or otherwise. But make no mistake, that is what is going on. And it isn’t much different from Facebook’s aims of adding more communications and web functions, so you spend more time in the Facebook world.
Already, Google+ is presenting a filtered and personalized experience. Users are seeing some posts over others, not just the latest thing to come along. And that is a good thing; I initially put Larry Page and Sergey Brin into my circles, and caught a lot of Larry’s windsurfing in Alaska and a lot (a lot!) of Sergey’s pictures of tortoises in the Galapagos. You didn’t know there were this many tortoises, believe me. I’ve lost a little plutographic voyeurism, but I’m seeing more content.
Even filtered, there is too much stuff. As Google+ chief Vic Gundotra put it in a comment on a post today “Most conversations are not visible to everyone. They are only visible to certain circles. When people share, they are sharing to circles many times more often than publicly. The internal data is fascinating, even now. So remember most of the activity on the system is dark.”
You couldn’t handle the full volume, people. Nor would you want to. The coders, “influencers,” journalists and techno-evangelists who populate the service in these early days are largely talking about G+ itself. Even discounting for this being another way to talk about themselves, this wears off soon. Uber-influencer Robert Scoble, in an unusually naive post, thinks this will last forever, and that G+ is Usenet2, a geeks-only social network. Nope; as more people come on, this content will (hopefully) be inflated into perspective.
The part most in need of work, and perhaps surprisingly even more personalization, is the “Sparks” feature, supposedly a kind of news feed of information on one’s hobbies and interests. So far it is more like a bad keyword search; I created one for “History,” and recently got Web stories with these headlines: “Largest landslide in New York history…” “This day in Sports history…” and “To avoid repeating history, owners and players…” I hope they find a way to introduce you to people on a similar level of interest and depth in the same topics. Those strangers could almost certainly generate more interesting fare.
Back to the overall effort. In Gmail, the new look (presumably the default setting sometime in the future) is something called “Preview” and “Preview Dense.” There is a lot more space on the page, and many words become icons. Colors, such as a red enclosure for the word “inbox,” are also used to provide visual cues to speedier navigation. The ad running along the top of the initial email list moves to the bottom of the page.
In a blog post Google called the email changes “a sneak peak” of a long term effort to accommodate more screen sizes. Clearly this refers to tablets and phones, but probably also the kind of interactive televisions it will soon champion with an update of Google TV also due by the fall.
Google Calendar now has a default setting like Preview Dense, and more icons, fewer words. So does Google Maps, which also now includes the ability to store information on places you’ve visited, which increases the product’s personal utility. The search box is likewise cleaner, with the eye catching a white screen across most of the page, and the information about search on the bottom of the page, like the ads on the initial page of Gmail Preview.
The most notable uniform look is the black bar across the top of all products, offering access to products on the left side, and personal info on the right. Once you’re in Google+, this includes current activity inside the site, such as updates to posts, and who has added you to their social “circle” of friends, acquaintances, or whatever. This needs work – you still can’t see which post is being commented on – but it is still a continuous temptation to go back inside the service, like having a Facebook tab open all day.
Google hasn’t talked about it much, but there is also a setting inside G+ to let it watch you as you move around the Internet, personalizing content and ads on all sites and applications, possibly an even more pervasive version of the Facebook “like” button.
More of these services will connect. As I’ve said, the business-minded Google Apps will soon enough have the social and communications functions of Google+, a run at both LinkedIn and Microsoft. By the way, Microsoft, with its Skype holding, may be coming right back at this, with a Facebook tie-up next week.
Jeff Huber, who is in charge of small business and local efforts at Google, has said there will be pages for small business inside Google+, which will almost certainly tie to local services and mobile search.
Like it or not, we’re all in this together. We just won’t see a lot of it happening.