Less than 48 hours of field testing Google+ and I’ve got more questions than answers. But here are my first thoughts.

DESIGN: The interface resembles a clean version of Facebook. And, while there’s more breathing room now, you can assume the extra space has been reserved for paid advertising. The home page makes sure you can easily access your profile, circles (contact groups) and photos by displaying these options prominently.

INTEGRATION: One thing Google Buzz did well was integrate with your existing Gmail account. They’ve built on that with Google+ and Gmail power users will enjoy how well they work together. In fact you can access your Google account from Google+ to see what services you’re using and your overall preferences.

PRIVACY: While Google Buzz had its moments, its initial privacy issues stopped it from gaining much traction beyond Google’s user base. Google clearly learned from this and it not only makes privacy settings obvious, you can dial them up and down based on your personal preferences.

It’s also made a big deal about its “data liberation”  capabilities. This section allows users to back up the data they have on the site by downloading Picasa Photo Albums, Profile Data, Stream Data, Buzz and Contact Data as well. You can also easily determine which accounts are connected to your Google+ account.

CIRCLES, SPARKS & HANGOUTS: Circles are simply easy to create groups of users. This allows you to compartmentalize content you share across your network. So if you only want your family to see pictures of the newest addition to your family, you can use Google+ to do this. Similarly, if you only want your colleagues to know you won an award for filing the most TPS Reports, you can do that too. This addresses Facebook user concerns about the difficulty in compartmentalizing your professional and personal lives on the site. But when it comes to the Internet and Privacy remember there are no guarantees.

Sparks is a curation feature that taps into its search capabilities to deliver you content of your choosing. Google+ notes it’s “a feed of just the stuff you’re really into. So when you’re free there’s always something to watch, read or share. The only thing I’m curious about is where it is pulling the content from. It’s unclear if it comes from search, other users’ content streams, Google News or a variation of the three.

Hangouts takes Google’s video chat options and pulls them directly into Google+. This makes it seemingly simple to conduct video chats. Unfortunately, as a field tester, I’ve been unable to align my schedule with my contacts that also have Google+ access. But it appears to be a point of differentiation for Google+. I can imagine it opens an impressive amount of ad opportunities for Google via YouTube alone.

MOBILE: The mobile app is also being touted. Unfortunately for me, it’s only available on Android right now. It’s a refreshing change of pace for iPhone users that are used to having first access. I’m sure Google is enjoying the ability to roll out in this fashion. And while some would argue this is a bad move, turnabout is fair play, in my opinion. And they score big points with loyal Android users.

So with all of the above positives, there were some issues or questions that came up based on my experience. Google assumed this would be the case. Upon accepting my invitation, I was greeted with a welcome message that included this: “It’s very early, so there may be some bumps along the way, but you’ll be one of the first to test drive Circles, Hangouts, Sparks, mobile, and more!”

Google+ and -
So with the above in mind, I’m here to offer feedback and not to pick Google+ apart (as the blogosphere is inclined to do with a healthy dose of keyboard courage). As a field tester, the rollout seemed a bit mysterious. And learning the network is a bit self-serve with 11 different videos available to explain the how to and the why behind some of its features. How many men are known for reading directions? Hopefully video will get more views than a set of instructions.

I’m told that making the experience more discovery for the field testers was done on purpose. More features will be rolled out and some might even be rolled back based on our feedback.

As I noted earlier, I like the integration with your Google account. But there could be too much integration. It initially served up all of my Google account’s contacts. I assumed the contacts were all other Google+ users as well. I was wrong. You can still share with these individuals through Google+ and add them to circles. It simply sends your non-field testing friends an email instead. And I can tell you it’s interpreted as less helpful and more “nyah, nyah!” as these contacts cannot comment or engage with you based on what you’re sharing.

It’s obviously similar to Facebook. You can argue whether or not this is a plus or a minus. But keep in mind, all social networks will share common traits. Is it similar to Orkut too? Some may wonder if it’s also similar to Google’s social network launched ahead of its time. Orkut is still wildly popular in Brazil and India and is still actively used today in these countries. But Google+ is more nuanced and less about a walled community and more about sharing across the web – through your Google account of course.

If Google’s Finally Nailed Social, Will It Matter?
Never say never. But the deck is stacked against Google. Any new social networking entrant immediately becomes “yet another social networking service” YASNS. It’s tough to break web users habits and get them to start using a new social network exclusively – even if it is integrated into their Google account.

In fact, Google integration could create a branding issue. Taylor Wiegert, an Empower MediaMarketing Word of Mouth strategist, is quick to point out that Google is known for its utility. It’s more of a tool you use when you need email or search or another of its services. But it’s not known as an engagement platform that you spend an extended period of time using to find and share content with friends.

Time will tell if it breaks its streak of having successful product launches – for everything but its social media products. But Google+ clearly has the best chance of competing with sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. If you extend the paid media opportunities it could bring, it’s worth waiting to see what happens.

The Candy Everybody Wants?
While Google is offering limited access during the launch to finalize the product and improve it, they are also hoping it will create more curiosity and desire to access Google+. Don’t take the bait. While the platform is a clear improvement over Orkut and Buzz, Google+ is essentially a new flavor of Facebook. It’s a worthy opponent because of the sites foundation – an enormous user base using a well-established portfolio of services/products and the potential for paid media. And as of launch, these assets are invisible to the user experience.

If you don’t have access to Google+ you’re not missing anything. Not yet.

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By Kevin Dugan, Director of Marketing

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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