First Impressions: Google Plus – What You Need to Know And What I've Learned So Far

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By Nathan Bonillia-Warford, OD, FAAO

TAMPA, Fla.— Facebook is ubiquitous these days. With almost 700 million users, it is the undisputed king of the social networks. Many eye care providers include Facebook in their marketing strategy and it is so dominate that Facebook makes news almost every day with change, modifications and rollouts.

However, for the past week, a major source of discussion on the internet has been about its competitor Google + or Google Plus the new social-networking platform from Google.

The Google Plus release is noteworthy for several reasons. The past social applications from the search giant, Wave and Buzz, were considered major missteps. The recent roll-out of the "Plus One" button was seen as Google's copy of Facebook's "Like Button" that would have little impact on the social web. This time, however, Google Plus is receiving major attention as a potential force to alter internet ecosystem for both individuals and businesses.

At first glance Google Plus looks and feels very much like Facebook. This is clearly no accident. This is the first serious attempt by any company to challenge Facebook in the social networking space and Google has learned much from Facebook.

In some ways Google Plus is almost exactly like Facebook:

  • Users have profiles that can be filled out with relevant information they want to share such as where they work and went to school, their interests and hobbies, and links to other profiles online.
  • Each person has a "stream" that they can update with comments, web links, pictures, videos, or location. Each item can be voted up and commented on by friends.
  • At the top of the page, there is a discrete notifications area that alerts the user when one someone comments or posts something.

However, there are some key distinctions:

  • Circles – Facebook receives frequent criticism for the way it handles privacy. Circles puts privacy front and center for Google Plus. Instead of simply being friends with someone or following them, with Google plus you add them to your circles. The distinction is not purely one of nomenclature. With circles from the very beginning you determine how to classify people based on much information you would like to share with them. This is essential for people like doctors who want to maintain a separation between public and private interaction online.
  • Hangouts – With video becoming more utilized online, Hangouts make it very easy to set up group video chatrooms. Using Circles to control who is allowed to participate, these chats could be one on one, a small group planning session, or with anyone who is interested.
  • Sparks – Much of the new web is about "assisted serendipity" or ways to help people do things they want to do, but just didn't know exactly what that was. Sparks tries to help in this area by listing webpages, videos, and more based on interested listed by the user.

But there is one very large distinction that makes distinctly different from Facebook. While Facebook is loosely integrated with millions of website via the Like Button, Google Plus is very tightly integrated with Google applications like Gmail, Google Reader, and Picasa. Since people are heavily invested in these applications, there will be a natural incentive to extend to Google Plus. Additionally, also Google Plus has notification at the top of other applications Google Documents and Google Maps so people will have constant social reminders. All over this will lead to not only more use, but more frequent and richer use of Google Plus. Finally, Google has smart phone operating system Android and use it to extend the Google Plus reach further than the Facebook mobile can go. None of these things is a guarantee that Google Plus will beat or even equal Facebook, but taken together it does give Google a fighting chance.

Want to learn more? Watch this short video series about Google+: A Quick Look on YouTube.

The last few years have been challenging, yet filled with unprecedented opportunities for eye care providers. While I have found that traditional marketing strategies to be increasingly useless in promoting my practice, Bright Eyes Family Vision Care, it has steadily grown through online marketing. We use email, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and Google daily to reach both current and potential patients. It has been interesting to learn about these tools as they have grown.

After receiving an early invitation to check out Google Plus, I've spent a few hours each day learning how it works and discovering how I can use it to promote Bright Eyes. I've been exploring the service and getting it set up. I filled out my profile, with the same basic information from my Facebook profile. I've learned how to post and comment on items in the news stream. These actions will be completely familiar to anyone who uses social networking applications.

However, it has taken a little longer to get used to the Circles. Their strength is that a user can choose how to set them up based on their needs for privacy and different social segments, but because they are not pre-defined, each person must think about how they want to use them. I have created circles and realized that they were too broad and had to break them into smaller circles. Slightly more confusing is trying to figure out how I fit into other people's circles and what that means for overall flow of conversation. There remains some mystery about this among the people that I have talked, but figuring it out is part of the fun.

Overall, I do like Google Plus more than Facebook for sharing information with friends. However, I continue to use Facebook on a daily basis because it remains the dominant social media platform and it offer features that Google Plus doesn't, such as pages for business. However, that hasn't stopped me from switching my Facebook profile picture to an image that I saw popping up around the web that says, "I've moved...G+." While it is definitely a bit of an overstatement, a recent survey shows that a 2/3 of Google Plus users share my enthusiasm for the new service.

Demand to try out Google Plus is very high. Right now there are more people seeking invitations, than actually on the site. Hopefully, Google will release more invitations soon. In the meantime, feel free to ask me or anyone else you know on Google Plus for an invite, you'll get one soon enough and can try it out for yourself!

Nathan Bonilla-Warford, OD, FAAO, Bright Eyes Family Vision Care, Tampa, Fla., is an optometrist specializing in the vision of infants and children. A social media evangelist, he helped create "Peripheral Vision" which educates eyecare professionals about social media. Dr. Warford was a speaker at the first CLICK Conference last year. He is the chair of the social media committee of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development and is chair of the Florida Optometric Association's Children's Vision Committee. He is a graduate of the Illinois College of Optometry and is an active volunteer in many charitable organizations. He founded Foursquare Day in March 2010.