By now you've certainly heard of Google+, the social network Google has built to out-Facebook Facebook. But if you haven't received an invite or been added to one of your friends' Circles, you might not have seen inside Google+ or gotten a feel for exactly what it's like. For starters, Google+ offers multiple ways of connecting with your friends and family as well as keeping people easily separated, which allows you to better manage who sees what you post.
We'll take you through just what happens when you sign up for Google+ and how the different parts of the service work.
When you first receive an invite to Google+, you may be prompted to enable a few privacy settings that you may have previously disabled. For example, if you previously blocked yourself from Google Buzz or didn't have your full name associated with your Gmail and/or Google profile, you'll be asked to re-enable these in order to access Google+. This also means that Google Buzz is back again, so be sure to check and update your Google Buzz settings in Gmail if necessary.
After adjusting your privacy settings, Google+ will prompt you to fill out the "About" section. The questions are a cross between filling out a dating profile and being interrogated by a nosy neighbor. It starts innocuously enough by asking you to tell the Google+ world a little bit about yourself so that people will know they found the right you. But then it goes on to "Bragging Rights," occupation, employment, previous employment, education (feels like a resume, right?), and where you've lived in the world. If you really feel like sharing, you can also add home and work contact information, such as phone number, email, fax, chat names, or pager.
Not tired of answering questions about yourself? That's good, because next Grandma Google would like to know if you're seeing anyone. Options include "I don't want to say," "In an open relationship," "In a civil union," and "It's complicated," which is just like that other social network. Next up are questions about who you're looking for, other names, such as maiden or alternate spellings, your nickname, and if you're visible in search or not. Basically, you've created your own personal search result for your name.
What's nice about Google+ is that for each question you answer you can choose exactly who will see the information you entered-- either the entire Internet, people in your extended circles, only people in your circles (more on that later), or just you. Though the questions feel intrusive, compare it to your Facebook profile and you'll find it's pretty much the same information. Remember, you're not obligated to answer all of these questions for either service.
Circles is at the core of the Google+ experience. As you add people and people add you, you're encouraged to immediately add them to a circle. The initial circles are Family, Friends, Acquaintances, and Following, though you can easily create new circles at any time. Basically, Google+ Circles are just like filters on Facebook and friend lists in LiveJournal, but they’re much easier to use than filters and have a better interface design than LiveJournal. Going off of your Google contact list, Google+ suggests people you might know to add to different circles. Just drag and drop to do so.
You can follow the posts of anyone you add to your circles without them adding you back, similar to Twitter and LiveJournal. You don’t have to add everyone who adds you in order for them to see your public posts. Instead of a Friend Request you get a Circle Alert. However, by putting a contact into a circle, you have the choice to limit your postings to those with whom you wish to share. Contacts can exist in multiple circles.
Here are a few ways to work with Circles:
Sorting Circles.u The circles you create sort alphabetically on the circle list, but they all sort after the default circles Google+ pre-creates when you sign up (such as Friends, Following, etc.). If you want all circles to sort alphabetically, change the names of the default circles. You can also use numbers or symbols to sort even more efficiently. If you want Work Friends to show up before School Friends, name them 01-Work Friends and 02-School Friends, etc, as suggested here.
Editing Circles. There’s no way to drag and drop a circle into another circle, thereby adding all people from one circle into another. However, there is an easy way to copy people from one circle into another as discovered by a fellow Google+ user. Click on the name of a circle to expand it, then click the View Circle in Tab link. This will put all the cards for the people in your circle on top. You can then Select All or just a few and drag them to another circle.
Sparks is the area of Google+ where you can search on topics you’re interested in, then pin those interests to your sidebar. Sparks pulls from Google searches with a heavy emphasis on blog and news content. From the Sparks stream you can easily share an item with the people in your circles.
To get started with Sparks, Google+ has featured interests such as Cycling, Android, Recipes, Gardening, and Comics. Clicking on one of these shows current web results for that topic. If you want to add a specific interest, type it into the search bar under Sparks.
The Spark search results are very different from what a regular Google search will return for the same phrase. For example, we added "Jeep Wrangler" as a Spark search. Instead of returning the Jeep homepage, the Wikipedia page and the Edmunds.com page for the vehicle as the general Google search did, the Spark search returned a question posed to a blog about tire sizes, an Atlanta-Journal Constitution link about an accident involving a Jeep, and a classified listing for a Jeep Wrangler.
Your interests are kept private until you share it with one person or with one or more of your circles.
Share a Spark. To share an article that "sparked" your interest, click on the Share link beneath the article. Add an optional comment at the top of the article, then choose to share it with all of your circles, one of them, or one person. To share with just one person, start typing their name and the pop-under will start suggesting people.
Hangouts is Google’s multi-user video chat area. Users can choose to let others know that they are hanging out (and even start an empty hangout space) or invite specific people or circles to come hang out by clicking the button on the right column of the home screen that says "Start a hangout." From here, you can invite individuals, people in specific circles, people in extended circles or the general public (if you're in a ChatRoulette kind of mood) to video chat. When the hangout session is over, Google+ will inform your circles or the Internet at large who you were hanging out with.
One interesting aspect of Hanging out with more than two people is that you can see all participants in the hangout along the bottom of the screen, but the person in the big video window switches depending on who is talking. When more than one person tries to speak at a time, the switching can get intense. You can stop the switching by clicking on a video thumbnail to set one person up top, including yourself.
Listen to Hangouts in a different language. Charles Warren figured out a way to use Google Translate’s Listen feature to converse with video chatters in another language: “I used the Google Translate Listen button to quickly render in Chinese the funnier bits of conversation for [my friend]. My laptop speakers transmitted the conversation to the Hangout loud-and-clear.”
Of course, one of the main ingredients of any social network is posting your thoughts, current status or one sentence witticisms. Google+ helps you control who sees your messages through Circles. It also doesn't let you hit Enter/Return to post a message. Instead, you have to click on the Share button, which is a subtle, yet helpful way to double check what you're saying and who you're saying it to.
Who can see your posts? To see who has access to your posts, the text next to the date/time in an individual post will display its sharing status. It might say Circles or Limited or Public. Clicking that text will show a list of exactly who in your circles can see it. This also works if you’re not the person who made the original post. If the circle is large, you’ll only see a portion of the shared people.
Private Messaging. Google+ doesn’t have an explicit private messaging system, but you can send a message to just one person. Create a new post, but in the sharing box underneath it, delete the other sharing options and share it only with the person you wish to communicate with. To keep that person from making the post public, disable resharing as well.
Tag a specific person. In posts and comments, you can tag a specific person to alert them to a post, similar to tagging in Facebook and @replies in Twitter. To share a post with an individual, either type @ or +, then their name in the text of the post, or add their name to the Sharing field underneath. In comments, use + or @. Currently, + isn’t working as well as @. If the system is working, when you type @ then add a letter, a popunder will start listing the people in your circles and those you’ve interacted with underneath.
Deeper control of posts. Each post has a menu with different options depending on whether the post is yours or not. If it is yours, this is where you can edit or delete and disable comments or resharing. On other people’s posts, you can find the permalink, report abuse, mute the post so it doesn’t show up in your stream again, or block the poster.
Keep posts private. For those who want to keep a post and comments limited to the specific circle you’ve shared it with, there’s one extra step you have to take. After posting, click on the menu at the top right of the post and choose Disable Reshare. Otherwise, if someone in your circle decides to reshare your post, you have no control over it. Even if you edit the original post, shared copies will not reflect this and you cannot delete other people’s shares. This is similar to Reblogs on Tumblr. Google’s engineers have said that sometime this week limited posts will automatically have resharing disabled.
Formatting options. There are a few simple formatting options for posts and comments, which will be familiar to anyone who uses the GTalk interface. Asterisks make text *bold*, underscores make text _italic_, and dashes make text -strikethrough-.
Users can add photos and videos to posts using the icons on the bottom right of the posting window or by dragging and dropping media into the posting window.
Notifications appear on the Google bar at the top right. When you have new notifications, the box will turn red with a white number inside. Otherwise, the box is gray. This bar is persistent across all Google services, including GMail, Docs, Search, YouTube and more. No matter where you are on Google, you’ll always know if activity is happening on Google+.
Turn off email notifications. By default, Google+ sends all of your notifications to email. To turn this off, go to Settings (the Gear icon on the top right of the screen) > Google+. Here you can uncheck some or all notifications. If you add a phone number to your profile or download the Google+ app to your smartphone, you can push notifications there, too.
Everything on Google+ is encrypted with https, which means that outsiders can’t intercept and read what you put on the service unless you explicitly share it with the public. This has vast implications for people using Google+ under dangerous circumstances, but also for average users who need protection from identity theft, for instance.
Who Can See What. By default, anyone on the Internet can see who you’ve added to your circles, though they cannot see which circles or the names of the circles. However, they can see the names of the people in your circles by default. You can change this setting by editing your profile. Go to Profile, then click Edit, then click on the section in the left sidebar that shows who is in your circles. Here you can choose which circles are public, and whether to restrict them to just the people in your circles or the entire web. To hide this information completely, uncheck all of your circles. This is where you can also choose not to show up in other people’s circle lists, even if theirs are public.
See how your profile looks to others. This popular way to check your privacy settings in Facebook is also in Google+. If you want to see how your profile looks to others, there's a box on the right side of your profile near the top that says “View Profile As”. You can type in the name of a contact or see how it looks to everyone on the web. This is a great way to check whether the information you don’t want public is available.
Integration with other Google products
As previously mentioned, joining Google+ reactivates some of Buzz's features and adds a Buzz tab to your Google profile. Be sure to check that Buzz isn’t connected to any accounts or pulling in/sharing any information you don’t want. The Buzz settings are actually found in the GMail settings, the last tab on the right.
Picasa and Google+ are deeply integrated. Any photos users had in their Picasa accounts now become part of Google+. Likewise, any photos uploaded to Google+ are now on the Picasa web service. Albums act just like Google+ posts: they can be shared by anyone who can see them, and those who can see them can see who else you’re sharing with as well. Users can tag others in their photos, just as on Facebook, with an accompanying notification.
To hide old albums, you have to go to the Picassa site itself. Click into the album you want to change, then click on the “public on the web” link next to the album’s thumbnail on the right sidebar. Here you can change the permissions or lock it to private viewing only. If you delete a photo from Google+, the photo will also disappear from your Picasa album and vice versa.
Within the next few months Picasa will lose its separate branding and become Google Photos, but the features and functionality are expected to remain the same.
The +1 button is all over Google+, but they’re not exactly the same thing. The expectation is that you’ll use it the same way people use Like on Facebook. The original poster plus anyone the post is visible to can see that you’ve +1d a post or a comment. However, +1ing a post or comment doesn’t mark or save them in any way. Though there is a +1 tab on your profile, it only shows webpages you’ve +1d elsewhere on the web.
Additional contributions by Meghan McDonough