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What the New Google+ Should Do

Written by on May 22, 2013

As you already know, Google+ has been updated with a new layout, new fancy navigation, new automatic (and quite amazing auto-hashtag tool), way better use of images, and quite a number of other things.

Several of my readers asked for my analysis of it, but if you haven't yet seen what it's all about, take a look at the videos below:

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So, let's talk about this from a trend perspective.

First of all, what we are seeing on Google+, and on several other sites (think Facebook and Twitter) is an increasing focus on being the place where users gather and organize all the content and people they follow.

All the social networks talk about (or in Google's case, secretly hints at) how they want to be the future newspapers. Not in being the creators or even editors of the content, but being the platform for content.

This is exactly the same trend that we see, for instance, with Flipboard, Instagram or Feedly.

The new Google+ design is all about that. Instead of being a stream, it's your constantly updated newspaper. Especially if you are on a big screen where you can see all the columns.

A lot of people are complaining about these columns, but I like them because of this trend. I also think the design is quite nice (except for a few things), but more about that below.

It made sense to have separate content sites back when information was based on people only subscribing to two newspapers and three magazines. But today, we follow several hundred sources directly, and through them we are exposed to several thousand different sites every day.

It makes a lot more sense to use a service like Google+ to follow the people and sites that you care about, categorized in circles, which allows you to stay on top of everything.

So that's what the new design is all about. It's that service. That platform for following everything you love.

It's the same thinking that goes behind the new automated hashtag feature. It's all about content discovery, i.e. being that unified content service across sources.

Another element of this is what Mike Elgan wrote about. Google+ is now all about 'cards'. The idea being that these cards are not limited to one place in time. We can take them and reuse them anywhere. It's the same concept that Twitter is working on.

It's all about not becoming a destination. They want the platform for content sharing, and to do that you need a unified element that can be used across destinations.

All of that is very interesting. It very closely aligns with the future trends of content consumption, and it will be interesting to see how well Google can implement this going forward.

Of course, it's not just about posts and content. It's really about people and how we communicate. And this is why we see so many new features too, for instance, Hangout, photos and so forth.

If you think of it as just content, you are likely to miss the larger trend.

However...

As I was looking at the new Google+, there was also a number of things that really concerned me. One thing we don't want is for Google to start closing us into the platform, like what we see with Twitter and Facebook.

The reason I'm so excited about Google+ is because it seems to be designed for the purpose of not being a destination. But the new design... well... it kind of takes us in the wrong direction.

First of all, the new card design reveals a lot less information upfront than before. It's designed to be more about snacking than real content consumption. This is a 'disease' that is prevalent on all the social networks.

To get more social interaction, you dumb down the content into shallow snack sized bits, and then you visually create an environment where snacking is the only usable form of communication.

Let me give you a few examples:

The new compose post form can only contain ten lines of text without scrolling.

You might not think this is a big deal, but what it does is discourage people from writing more than one paragraph of text. I used to love writing longer post on Google+, but with this new layout, the compose box is so small that it just kills your motivation to go in-depth.

In fact, this is a common tactic that every blogger knows about. If you want shorter comments on your blog, make the comment form smaller, and vice versa.

This form is designed to encourage short social snacking instead of more comprehensive writing.

Added to this, the new card design contains a lot less content upfront than before, once again encouraging people to keep things short. Here is an example from a recent post from +Avinash Kaushik.

Yes there is a 'read more' link underneath it, but it's very light grey so that you don't easily see it. You can't tell when people are just posting a quick snack, or when they have something insightful to say.

A simple way to solve this would be to create a subtle fade out effect that would illustrate that there is more content further down the post. Like this:

It's such a tiny change, but it makes a huge difference.

And if that wasn't enough, the new design also discourages you from using links as part of your content. In the past, I very often added several links to my post. But with the new design, links are deemphasized to the point where people would rarely click on them.

Here is a post from +Mike Elgan.

In this post, he added two links as you can see below. The problem here is that they are visually deemphasized to the point of looking like the rest of the text. As you read his post, your eyes see the link, but because they don't look like something you can *act upon*, you skip them and read the next line of text instead.

This is a terrible design decision, because it means that it's less effective to use inline-links as a call-to-action.

Look at my post as an example. This is how I used to post many of my articles. I would write a semi-long intro with a link to my article, and then use an image from the article to make it more it valuable in your stream.

But now, I can only hope that people notice the 'read more' text, and when they do they get a link that doesn't look clickable.

This used to be the best and most valuable way to engage with people. But now it's a lot less interesting from the point of conversions.

Google didn't do this specifically to discourage linking. As Fred Gilbert, lead designer for the new Google+, told Om Malik:

This new philosophy is reflected in this new version of Google+, which is marked by simplicity and fewer distractions. For instance, unless you are ready to engage with a piece of content, the links appear as regular text, without the distraction of the blue link

In other words, without the distraction of a call-to-action to something a brand or a publisher wants people to see.

I like the overall design of the new Google+ and the new design direction that we see across all of Google's services. Just look at the new Maps, which is absolutely stunning! Or the new Google Play Store.

Google's new sense of design is amazing.

But Google is also suffering from the same social shallowness that we see on all the other social networks. The overall design is great, but the details take us in the wrong direction.

When Google first announced Google+, I was really excited about it. Unlike all the traditional social services, like Facebook and Twitter, Google+ seemed to be thinking of social media as more than just the social snacks.

I envisioned a future where Google+ could be the social layer that connected people and content together. A tool that we could use to connect with content as much as we would connect with people.

And this trend is important for brands because it's all about communicating your message in the most efficient and engaging way possible, as close to where people are, while eliminating as many unnecessary steps in between.

But with these changes, Google+ is doing the same thing we've seen on Facebook. Instead of bridging the gap between people and content, they make it worse.

The new design distinctly discourages us from thinking of Google+ as more than just a social snack where you post a short message with a single link/video/photo.

I want to give you an example of what happens when you do this. Take a look at the +New York Times Google+ page:

Notice how most of the posts are all shallow social snacks about food, celebrities, or other lightweight topics.

It just makes me sad to see such a great newspaper, like the The New York Times, reduced to something as shallow as this.

We can do better than this. A lot better. And Google seemed to be right place to do it.

Social should be about more than just what people share when they have a moment, and it should be about more than just links and images. Social should be about the communication itself, and a big part of that is to support and enhance valuable and in-depth content.

I used to use Google+ to post articles like this one, which is 1,187 words long. It's full article. And my followers loved it when I did this.

I want to keep doing that.

But when I'm limited to only ten lines of text in the compose window, and when people don't see that there is more to read, I kind of believe it would be better to just post it on this site, and then post a short summary with a link on Google+.

I don't want to do that. I love Google+, I love the concept of it. But it needs to be designed for more than just snacking.

This is post a post from +Jeff Jarvis. How many people do you think realize that it's actually two pages long?

Google, You need to help us bring all that value to the forefront of people's minds. How can you help people see when someone takes the time to write really wonderful content on Google+?

Links from the outside world

So far we have only talked about links from Google+ to another site. What if the link was the other way? To Google+ from Twitter for instance?

I do this all the time, and like all the other social networks, what you end up seeing is an empty page like this:

What's this about?

No blog would ever do this. We know that the individual posts are more important than the front page. So we create engaging experiences at an individual post level.

But somehow the social networks haven't gotten that message. It's not just Google+, it's the same problem on Twitter and Facebook. Here is how they look when you link to them from another site (again using Mike Elgan as an example):

This illustrates more than anything else how disconnected the social networks really are. This is probably one of the most important pages for getting new followers (via individual posts). This is what you would link to from your site or another social network.

You don't post on Twitter. "Follow me on Google+", you give people value by posting a link to an article that you have written on G+, hoping that people will in turn decide to follow you there.

But how are they going do that with an empty page like the one above? Look at Mike's info box. It's not even big enough to display his full description, despite all the empty space below.

So Google, here is my concept for a page of individual posts. Feel free to be inspired by it (full size):

Let's turn Google+ into more than just a social network. Don't make it about people and their snacks. Make it about people and content.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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