With more than 800 million users, including 150 million in the U.S., Facebook is a must-have for connecting online simply due to its reach. But Facebook isn’t the best for everything. Google’s young alternative Google+ has a mere 90 million users, but it’s grown quickly in its first seven months. Google+ does several things better than Facebook, and some things Facebook doesn’t do at all.
Though they have a lot in common, the networks are not identical. Google+ is built around group sharing and socializing, using friend lists called Circles to control who sees what. It also offers group chat and video calling. In many ways, though, Facebook stands alone with several unique features such as event invites and special pages for people with common interests.
So which social network reigns supreme? Read on.
Its trim feature set is a bonus for Google+, with less to clutter the screen. The key is a simple and consistent navigation theme that even carries over to the mobile app (more on that later). Everything branches off a five-button menu bar at the top of each page, linking to the five main sections: Home, Photos, Profile, Circles (friend groups) and Games.
In the Profile section, a similar menu bar below the first provides further breakdown to subsections, including Posts and +1s (essentially “likes”). Similar to Facebook, Google+ has a Home page dominated by a stream of detailed status updates from friends. All the tools for those friends—such as filtering updates by Circle or starting up a chat—live in a narrow left-hand column.
Facebook’s design is pretty busy by comparison. The left column, for example, is packed not only with friend lists and chat tools, but also links to other sections, such as messages, events, groups and apps. (To be fair, Google simply doesn’t have so many features to clutter the space.)
The far right column features the new Ticker, an abbreviated list of friend updates that contain just a few lines each. Clicking on an entry brings up the whole story, including full text, comments and photos. It’s very efficient, but also raises the question: Could this simply replace the big, central column of the page, which has the long-form version of status updates? Having both seems redundant.
The snazziest part of Facebook is a new profile page called Timeline. Clicking a button on the top of the ho-hum Home screen switches over to a seemingly endless page presenting the chronology of the user’s life via status updates, photos, events and affiliations with schools or jobs. It’s a handsome way to look back and reflect—both on one’s life and on how much Facebook knows about it.
Like an old house with various additions, Facebook has a lot of interesting places to go, but often has haphazard ways of reaching them. Google’s consistent interface limits confusion.
The status update is the raison d’être of social networks, and both Google+ and Facebook provide easy but powerful ways to share the right info with the right people. Each also offers its own special features.
The basic method is the same. Type something and/or click to select media, such as a photo. Then decide who sees it: Both networks make that easy with drop-down lists of friend groups that users have created. But Facebook allows posting to only one of those groups per update. Google+ allows showing posts to multiple friend Circles at the same time.
Google+ also provides more ways to customize a post. While both networks let users delete an update, Google+ also allows people to re-edit a post after it’s gone up. It also automatically shortens web links in posts to eliminate clutter. One click adds a link to videos from Google’s YouTube.
Facebook’s cool special features include allowing people, using the Timeline view, to tag an update as a specific life event, with icons such as “Family & Relationships” or “Travel & Experiences.” Facebook also allows users to say what friends are with them or somehow connected to the post—cool or creepy, depending on how friends feel about others posting about them.
The basic posting process is about the same for both networks. And each network’s special features balance out the other’s.
With a madly growing trove of photos and videos (at the moment about 140 billion photos along), Facebook is a must-post location. But Google+ takes higher-quality uploads. This is a case where tech specs actually matter.
Facebook now allows sharing of pictures up to 960 x 720 pixels, about seven-tenths of a megapixel. That’s fine for viewing online, but not for archiving high-quality copies.
Google+ takes photos up to 2,048 pixels on each side—about four megapixels, assuming an unlikely square photo. But Google+ can also link to pictures on Google’s photo-sharing site, Picasa, where image size is unlimited. Picasa holds up to a gigabyte of large pictures for free, and renting extra storage is pretty cheap. So one upload takes care of archiving and social-network sharing.
Google+ also takes videos at up to the maximum HD resolution, known as 1080p. Each video can be up to 15 minutes long. Facebook limits video to 1280 x 720-pixel resolution and a 20 minute duration.
Quality and easy archiving trump quantity.
Who sees all these posts? With both Facebook and Google+, filtering the audience is pretty easy using lists. Building and maintaining friend lists used to be a chore with Facebook, as even Mark Zuckerberg once agreed. But recent changes make it a lot easier. That cluttered left navigation column is handy for its prominent placement of friend lists. Simply clicking on one brings up the news feeds for everyone in the group. A “Manage Lists” button on the top right of the page allows filtering what shows up (status, photos, game updates…) as well as quickly editing the list to add or remove people.
Facebook also provides a jumpstart by automatically creating a few “Smart Lists” based on a user’s profile—with groupings for Facebook friends who went to the same school, worked at the same job or even live in the same city.
Friend lists are central to Google+. As soon as people start, they create lists by looking up people and dragging their icons into various circles, such as Family, Friends and Acquaintances. Users can create as many circles as they like (and put the same person in any number of them), but Google+ won’t suggest any groupings, as Facebook’s Smart Lists do. (Google has hinted that such a feature may come later, though.)
Building Circles can be tedious, but it can also raise intriguing questions. Who really is a friend? Who counts as an acquaintance? Are all family members also friends?
People can share a Circle—say one for members of a club—with others, who then have the option to add or delete members. Like with Twitter, users can also make a Circle available to the public, say a hotlist of celebrities or experts in a topic whom a lot of people may want to follow.
Automatic Smart Lists provide a good start. And other lists are easy to customize by quickly changing members or selecting what kinds of updates appear.
Approaching 1 billion members, Facebook has a lot of interesting people, but not all of them can be friends. As with Twitter, Facebook allows users to follow posts from users who are not actual “friends” by subscribing to feeds of their public status updates. All those followed-but-not-friended people appear in a single list called “Subscriptions.”
Google+ has a whole different perspective—much more like Twitter’s. A user can follow anyone and file them in any number of Circles, whether or not that person reciprocates by following back. So someone who is not a friend of Lady Gaga can still add her to multiple circles, such as Celebs and Musicians. She could even be put in a list called Family, for fans who feel a special bond.
Google+ has a smarter approach. Ashton Kutcher and Guy Kawasaki may both be worth following, but their posts may not go together very well. Filing them in different circles allows for smarter following.
Messaging, Chat and Video
Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of email for many people, and Skype often replaces the phone. In messaging and chat, Facebook and Google+ are nearly identical. For messages, just pick a name and type. Facebook also offers something like a spam filter—a separate section for messages that appear to be mass mailings, scams or just unwanted notes from random people. It works quite well, but too stealthily, accessed by clicking on the tiny word Other under the messages icon. This approach makes it very easy to miss plenty of messages that are actually important.
In chat, users of either service can easily make themselves appear visible or invisible and available or unavailable to others (or available to only certain people). And both offer video calling.
But Google+ has a different philosophy with video. It can be an add-on for a one-to-one chat, as with Facebook. But it’s also for groups. Any friend in a Circle, or on any ad-hoc list, can accept an invite to a Hangout—where everyone sees everyone else at the same time. For now, it’s too novel to be more than a cool trick. But as people get used to them, Hangouts can be great for anything from virtual family reunions to team meetings of colleagues spread around multiple offices.
It matches Facebook’s messaging capabilities and adds the promising group-video Hangouts.
Aside from gossip, neither network offers its own entertainment options, but both connect to game, music and video services.
Entertainment is central to Facebook. The service has fostered multi-billion-dollar game companies by offering users addictive titles such as "Gardens of Time," "The Sims Social" and "Cityville" (the top three for 2011). Major music and video services also plug into Facebook. Signing up for free online Jukebox Spotify, for example, actually requires a Facebook account. Spotify and other services such as Rdio pump right into the status updates the name of songs that users listen to (if they enable it), so they can automatically show off their musical tastes.
Google+ is just starting with entertainment. It currently offers about 30 games, though the company says many more are coming as it’s working with publishers including EA, Kabam, Playfish, Rovia and Zynga. The only entertainment updates that Google+ can share so far are what someone watches on YouTube or listens to on the not-so-popular Google Music service.
It dominates a category that Google+ is just beginning to enter.
Nearly half of Facebook users access the site from a phone. And for many smartphone addicts, the handheld is more social than the laptop. Both networks offer similar mobile apps. As on the web, Google+ is easier to navigate—despite squeezing in several extra features that the Facebook app lacks. (The very similar iPhone and Android phone versions were tested.)
Google+ has a clean design. Low-fi icons on a Google-esque white home page link to most of the same key sections on the website, such as Circles, Photos and Profile. And those sections have a top nav bar, as on the website, for digging deeper. In short, it would be hard to get lost.
Extras include group messaging and the ability to create friend-list Circles right in the app. The Android version can also automatically upload all pictures from the phone’s camera to a private online album. Google+ doesn’t yet have apps for iPads or Android tablets.
Facebook is characteristically busier, but the limits of a tiny screen help keep it in check. It opens to the basic news feed, with buttons for posting status updates and checking messages. The gory details are revealed only by clicking a button that opens a massive menu with items including Timeline view, events, friend lists, groups, chat and many others. It’s dense, but at least it’s hidden. The Facebook iPad app is virtually identical.
Clean design is even more important on a tiny screen, and Google+ efficiently packs in its many features.
Facebook vs. Google +: Overall Winner
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Good design goes a long way. Together with a fresh perspective on how people socialize in groups, Google+ dominated this contest. But that’s only for the features that the two networks have in common. There are plenty, such as events, that Google doesn’t even offer. Facebook is also a better choice for entertainment, such as games and sharing music.
The biggest hurdle for Google is that it simply doesn’t have the scale of Facebook. Google+ will undoubtedly continue to grow, though, in both features and users. The service is promising enough to use and keep as an alternative alongside Facebook.