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Originally published July 8, 2011 at 6:46 PM | Page modified July 8, 2011 at 11:37 PM

Google+ encircles your friends

Godzilla vs. King Kong? Is the introduction of Google+ going to bring on a titanic online battle with that other behemoth of social networking, Facebook?

Special to The Seattle Times

Google+ rundown

PATRICK MARSHALL views Google's upcoming social network.

Pros: Group-centric focus, procedural reminders about privacy risks, Sparks data feeds, lack of advertising

Cons: While it's easy to share photos, videos and links, you can't post files; no way to send email directly to a contact.

Availability: Google+ is still in test and is not available on the market. Asked when it will be released, Google would only say "soon."

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Godzilla vs. King Kong? Is the introduction of Google+ going to bring on a titanic online battle with that other behemoth of social networking, Facebook?

Probably not. While Google's soon-to-be-released social network introduces some powerful new capabilities, the two online giants are likely to appeal to different sets of users.

At first glance, Google+ looks very similar to Facebook, with navigation tools in a bar on the left, streaming information in the main panel in the middle and links to connect with friends on the right.

One of the first things I noticed when I logged in was a welcome lack of clutter from sponsored advertisements and links. How long that holds remains to be seen. According to a Google spokesperson, the company is not currently accepting advertising for Google+ pages, though it "will continue to look for new ways for businesses to engage users in the project."

Google will also encourage third-party application developers, a decision I understand but regret. Third-party applications are popular and generate revenue. For my part, however, I'd rather keep Google+ as a messaging platform. Although third-party applications can be entertaining, they also tend to bleed privacy because we can't possibly keep on top of everything we agree to in accepting the applications.

When I clicked on the "Circles" feature, I began to appreciate the cultural differences between Google+ and Facebook. The Circles tool is employed to cluster your contacts into groups — family, friends, associates. You can also create circles based on activities or interests, such as politics or sailboarding. Yes, Facebook offers the same functionality with its "Groups," but creating circles with Google+ couldn't be more intuitive. You simply drag and drop users into the circle or circles of your choice.

What's more, Google+ circles work in bidirectional fashion. When you post to your stream — you can post text, videos, links and photos, though, unfortunately, not files — you're selecting which groups of individuals will see that information, rather than broadcasting the message to the entire online world. And the same is true when it comes to viewing posts by others. You click on a circle to view posts by the individuals in that group.

That's dramatically different — and, for me at least, reassuringly different — than the Facebook paradigm of anything you post being by default routed to friends of friends of friends. Yes, you can control access to your Facebook data, but Google+ makes such control easier and a part of the way you work with the site.

I do wish, however, that it was as intuitive to work with individuals as it is with groups. In what must be an oversight rather than a design decision, there is no one-step way to send an email to an individual. The closest you can come to emailing an individual is to share a post or, when it comes time to select the circle you want to share with, you manually enter an email address instead.

Another potentially powerful feature of Google+ is "Hangouts," a multiuser videoconferencing tool. Assuming you've got your videocam and microphone working — and that you've downloaded and installed the GoogleTalk plug-in — you can get Hangout going by clicking on the "Start a Hangout" button, then selecting which circle or circles of contacts you want to invite. Those contacts will receive a notice that you are "live" and they need only click on "Join this Hangout" to be face to face with you and any other joiners in a teleconference.

Facebook this week introduced a similar capability that employs Skype for video conferences. But Google+ may have the edge, since the Google solution has implemented a client-server architecture that promises smoother performance than the peer-to-peer architecture employed by Skype.

Google+ also offers a flexible Chat feature that allows you to employ video and voice, as well as texting. And you can communicate with entire circles or individuals simultaneously, an excellent option if you're, say, traveling with a group and need to arrange to meet up for drinks. (Yes, Google+ works when you're on the go because you can access it via the Web on Android, iPhone and BlackBerry devices, and there's already a native application for Android.)

Another major feature — and one that is less likely to be emulated by the competition — is Sparks, data feeds that Google selects based on your indicated areas of interest. Have a passion for fashion? Or an abiding interest in artificial intelligence? Just call up Sparks, enter the search term and then click on the "Add interest" button. Each interest you create will show up in the Sparks section of your home page, and when you click on it, Google will deliver the most current items.

"Google crawls information from all over the Internet," said a Google spokesperson. "Sparks is weighted toward interesting, shareable content, which means we tend to favor documents from news publishers, blogs and video sites."

The emphasis here is on "shareable." You won't run across many if any items from The New York Times or The Washington Post, but you will find material from the likes of Reuters, Fox News, the Huffington Post and "The Daily Show."

Like Facebook, Google+ tries to help you expand your network by offering suggestions of those with whom you might want to connect. The list is based on mutual connections or interactions you've had with individuals using other Google products.

But the emphasis in Google+ is clearly more on interacting efficiently with people you already know.

Thanks to its streamlined interface, its focus on data channels and its emphasis on selecting groups with whom to share data, chat or videoconference, Google+ is more likely to appeal to those more interested in networking in areas of interest than to individuals looking for new friends or who want to share details of daily life with friends and family.

Google+ is definitely the social network of choice for those concerned about privacy. No, that doesn't mean you have nothing to worry about. In fact, Google+ doesn't actually offer more protection than Facebook.

Both networks, for example, broadcast posts to entire network by default. But Google+ offers more warnings about privacy risks and makes it easier to control privacy settings.

Google+'s privacy settings are easy to find and easy to understand. But even more important, at each stage of sharing data, Google+'s procedures encourage users to think about who will have access to the data.

Patrick Marshall writes the weekly Q&A column in Personal Technology and coordinates Plugging In: A Tech Users Forum at

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