You would be forgiven if you took a look at Google's new social field test, Google+, and decided, "Meh"—especially given the amount of snickering on the Internet about what many presumed would be the search giant's Facebook killer.
But you would also be wrong.
Google+ isn’t a new Google Buzz or Google Wave—giant new products tossed out into the wild with much fanfare, only to quickly fizzle out or, worse, wither under backlash.
Instead, Google+ is one element in a much larger strategy the company launched last year to gradually shift all of Google—Search, YouTube, Places, etc—-from standalone tools to a set of services that operate much more socially.
"People are already on Google. We have billions of users," Bradley Horowitz, the product lead for Google+, tells Fast Company. "We haven't provided them with a consistent and coherent experience of how they represent themselves and their relationships. We're fixing that."
In fact, Google executives say they aren’t necessarily trying to replicate Facebook, per se. Instead, they say they are simply trying to make the experience of Google itself better—by making it easy for people to share the things they already use and discover on Google products.
"This isn't really about trying something new," Horowitz says. "It's about an improvement to the experience people have on the Google they know and love already."
Today's iteration of Google+ is the first stab at this, and the company plans on building on it, adding new features and integrations with other Google products throughout the year.
Among the features released today, some are reminiscent of Facebook (and Twitter), and some are new altogether. As on Facebook, you can connect to people you know and share information with them. And as on Twitter (and Quora), you can also follow people you don’t know.
New features include Hangouts that lets you create group video chats. And Huddle, a mobile feature designed for use while you’re on the go, allows you to create on-the-fly group conversations for those times when sending individual texts to multiple members of your crew gets downright annoying.
Vic Gundotra, the engineering lead for Google+, tells Fast Company the company is intentionally keeping the introduction of Google+ small so they can watch what people do with it and fine-tune it before opening it to a wider audience. It’s not even in beta, only a "field trial," and only people who have received invitations from the company can give it a spin.
The company declined to say how many people had been issued invitations. But if all goes well, Gundotra says, the company will let current Google+ users start inviting their own friends in "a few weeks."
All of which is to say, if you take a look at Google+ today, and write it off for all the ways it falls short of what you’d want from a new social network, you’d be missing the point. This is just v 1. Or, more likely, v 0.5.
Google has clearly taken his drubbings from the Buzz and Wave fiascos to heart and is taking a much more thoughtful approach to building out social this time around. It’s starting small and humble, and it’s planning to use the tried-and-true model of learning from real-world use to iterate and improve.
"We've learned from those experiences," Horowitz says. "They've helped inform the corrections in the product we're launching today."
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Google+ project is going to be a hit. It could still fall flat. But the company’s process this time, and its focus—on improving what they already do well, rather than copying what someone else is doing—means that, this time around, Google’s social network will be worth watching.
[Image: Flickr user petahopkins]