Google+ gets social networking right

On June 28 at 10:17 PM UTC, I got an invite to Google+ from Brian Rose (a Googler). I was in for a treat! ­čÖé

Here’s what the home screen looks like:

After multiple previous tries, I think Google’s finally got it with Google+. I’ve used both Wave and Buzz, and while they were interesting and innovative in their own ways, I just wasn’t drawn to them to the point where I wanted to use them multiple times a day, like I do with Facebook.

With Google+, I’m naturally drawn to the platform, because of its capabilities, and because of its design. I think Google finally bested Facebook.

Selective sharing and contact grouping

The feature I consider most important is Circles. The equivalent feature on Facebook is Lists, but there, it’s almost impossible to manage and use. On Google+, the platform was designed from the ground up around Circles, and this offers me the capabilities I’ve always wanted on a social networking platform:

  1. To share stuff selectively and privately, if I so desire, and do it effortlessly and safely. Facebook doesn’t do this. When you post an update, it goes out to everyone, and by that I mean all your contacts on that service.
  2. To easily group my contacts into categories. Again, Facebook doesn’t do this. There, you’re forced to Friend someone regardless of their relationship with you (online contact/person you barely know/acquaintance/actual friend/vip/business contact, etc.).

Here are a couple of screenshots from Google+ that demonstrate this.

I can’t emphasize enough how important selective sharing truly is on the web, and how refreshing it is to see it working so beautifully on Google+. The service even includes safeguards against accidental re-sharing of posts outside their intended group, with a feature that disables resharing. (I know you can still copy and paste or take a screenshot, but with this feature, you can indicate clearly to your contacts that you want that post to stay private. What they choose to do with it depends on their respect for you and your wishes.)

Gorgeous design

I’m floored by Google+’ gorgeous design. I love the whitespace, the clean color scheme, the layout and the button styles. I love that this same design now extends to my Google Profile, and to the photos posted to my PicasaWeb account. (Incidentally, isn’t it about time to change the name of PicasaWeb to Google Photos?)

All this design beauty makes me wonder where Google will stick the ads that will pay for Google+? I do hope they’ll use the same design philosophy for the ad boxes.

Instant video chat and topic-based web filtering

The other two important features of Google+ are Hangout and Sparks. Hangout is a super-easy group video chat, and Sparks gives you the chance to subscribe to topics of your choice, which then Google uses to filter the web and to present you with articles for your perusal.

Hangout is another fantastic (and sticky) feature for Google+. It builds on the power of Google Voice and Video Chat, which has been a feature of Gmail for years, and expands it to the point where you can chat with up to 10 people, live. This is going to be incredibly useful for families and (perhaps more importantly) for businesses. They’ll be able to hold web meetings instantly and easily now.

Sparks is a neat feature, but it still needs a bit of work. I’m not sure how the articles it presents are curated. And I get that you simply type in the topic you want, then click Add, but some (or most) people won’t get that. Perhaps a directory-like interface, where more choice and sub-choices are presented to people, will make it easier for them to use Sparks.

Areas of improvement

Right now, when I upload a video to Google+, it gets stored in a new album named after that day, in PicasaWeb. Same deal for new photos uploaded to the service.

This is the same approach used for Blogger. It’s a headache-free approach to handling media storage, but for those of us who have YouTube accounts, I’d rather have a choice of storing the video at YouTube instead of PicasaWeb. I want to manage all of my videos in one place instead of mixing them with my photos, particularly since I’m a YouTube Partner.

I’d also like to have the choice of storing uploaded photos in a gallery of my own choosing, or in a new gallery that I name myself. I think Google engineers will readily see the advantages of this without further explanation.

Where’s the integration with Google Docs? It’d be great if Google+ allowed easy sharing of documents from that service.

I like that you can’t auto-publish feeds to Google+, because it makes it harder for spammers to pollute the service. All of the input is manual, which means you have to physically be there and type it in. It does mean a bit of extra work after you’re written a blog post and want to share it. Perhaps some middle ground will be reached in the future, where blog posts, photos and videos will be automatically brought in.

That’s it for now. If I have further feedback, I’ll write another post.┬áIf you’d like to add me on Google+, here’s my profile.

Thank you Google, for the service and for the early invite! 

Apple Pages documents now supported in Google Docs Viewer

Google has announced 12 new file formats are supported by the Google Document Viewer. Among them we find Apple Pages (hooray):

12 new file formats in the Google Docs Viewer – Official Gmail Blog

  • Microsoft Excel (.XLS and .XLSX)
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 / 2010 (.PPTX)
  • Apple Pages (.PAGES)
  • Adobe Illustrator (.AI)
  • Adobe Photoshop (.PSD)
  • Autodesk AutoCad (.DXF)
  • Scalable Vector Graphics (.SVG)
  • PostScript (.EPS, .PS)
  • TrueType (.TTF)
  • XML Paper Specification (.XPS)

Now if only Keynote and Numbers documents were also supported, I could readily share my iLife documents online, without needing to export them to Office formats first.

Site optimization — the order of your scripts and styles

I watched this video yesterday, where a Googler talks about the importance of ordering your scripts and styles correctly in order to speed up the rendering of your website, made a quick change to my header file, then ran the Page Speed extension for Firefox to see how I was doing. While there still some things to address that could make my site load faster, some of which don’t depend on me but on external JavaScript files from ads and stats and such, I’m glad to see things are a little snappier today.

Google Webmaster Central — Optimizing the order of scripts and styles

There’s extra documentation on this very topic available from Google, in the help files for its Page Speed extension. It’s worth a read, because a quick re-ordering of the code in your site’s header could shave as much as 50% off your site loading times, depending on how much JavaScript you’re using.

Googling from different countries

I was watching this video on the Google Webmaster Central Channel, where Matt Cutts answers a question about the impact of server location on Google’s rankings, and he touched on an important point, which I hadn’t noticed until I spent a few months in Romania. In the video, he says that Google will return different search results based on which Google site you visit. For example, if you go to Google.com and type in “bank”, you’ll get different search results than if you go to Google.com.au and type in “bank”.

Back in January, when I arrived in Romania, I noticed the same thing. I Googled myself while in Romania, only to find out I was no longer the first search result that came up for my name at Google.ro or at Google.com. I thought that was odd at the time, because doing the same thing while in the US yielded the expected result. It never occurred to me that Google would yield different search results for each country, although that makes perfect sense now.

Here’s the interesting part though. As I spent more time in Romania, writing and publishing to this site, whose server is in the US, from Romania, the order of the search results for my name at Google.ro and Google.com changed. One day, I googled myself and noticed my name came up first, just like it did in the US. So, Google somehow learned — and I’m not sure how they did it — that I was writing from Romania, or that I was in Romania, and figured out that returning my site as the first search result for my name in Romania was the relevant thing to do. If nothing else, it reveals some of the complexity behind Google’s search algorithms and earns my respect.

google-search-raoul-pop

My Drobo review is first at Google

A couple of days ago, I noticed an increase in the traffic to my Firewire Drobo review, most of it from search engines, so I did a quick search on Google for the phrase “drobo review“, which is what people were using to find me. To my surprise, my review was the first search result that came up! I’d been in the #2 spot for a long time, just under CNET, for the same phrase, but now, without having made any changes to my review since I’d written it, I ranked first.

drobo-review-google-search

This makes me happy, because when I created my site, I wanted to sit down and write good articles while staying away from any unethical SEO tricks or even white-hat SEO tricks like keyword loading and other such unappealing, tedious stuff. I just wanted to create good content and get noticed because of that, not because I’d tricked the search engines into ranking me higher up the page. That would have been an empty success indeed.

It also makes me happy because I like my Drobos. So far, they’ve worked well for me, and I’m glad I’ve found a reliable and expandable way to store all my data. It’s also worthwhile to note that my Firewire Drobo review was published months after it came out officially. I did not get a review unit, I didn’t have to pull any strings to be among the first to get one, and I didn’t spend a feverish night working on my review after it first came out. You know how the press clamors to get review units of products when they first come out… I didn’t do that, and it’s very refreshing to see that after taking my time and really putting my Firewire Drobo through its paces, intensively, for a prolonged period of time, I was able to write a truthful review that is now ranked first at Google.

It’s been about three years of intensive writing, and my work has begun to pay off. (I began publishing multiple articles per week in 2006. I’d only been publishing sporadically until then.) In 2007, almost two years ago, I noticed I was getting more and more traffic from search engines, and made a list of the articles that were getting noticed. For a lot of them, I was either on the first page of search results, or among the first few search results, right at the top.

Still, it’s something to be the first search result for what is a fairly common tech phrase such as “drobo review”, and it really makes my day that I, a writer working alone, using WordPress and hosting my site on my own little Ubuntu web server at SliceHost, has outranked CNET and other big names such as Engadget and others, on Google, the world’s biggest search engine. It serves to illustrate very well a point Matt Cutts from Google has made time and time again: just focus on writing good content, and the rest will come. You’ll get indexed, and as your site builds a larger collection of articles, your online trust will cause you to rise up among the search results, until you make it to the top. You don’t need tricks, you don’t need to get headaches from trying to squeeze SEO juice out of every paragraph and page title and others — you just need to write informative articles.

I’d like to thank God for this. You see, I live by certain principles which are rooted in my religious beliefs, most notably in the Ten Commandments found in the Bible. When I began to write online and created my site, I didn’t want to steal, and I didn’t want to lie. Taking content from others (content-scraping) is theft, so I don’t condone it or do it. Using dirty SEO tricks to rank higher in search results is also theft, because those who do it are robbing others of those spots and robbing tech engineers at search companies of their time, which they will have to use to modify algorithms and clean up the search results. And using those same dirty SEO tricks is effectively a lie, because those who do it are misrepresenting their websites and their articles. That’s not me, I don’t want to do those things, and I’m really glad to see that God proved me right when I stuck by my principles. I’m also glad to see that a company such as Google exists, and that it rewards honest, forthright behavior.

Google Reader translates posts?

Yesterday morning, I added a new feed to my subscriptions in Google Reader, and noticed what I thought was a new feature: the ability to translate posts automatically, within GR. The feature was actually launched in November of last year, and it works through the normal drop-down menu. A new option was added there, and it looks like this:

Google Reader automatic post translation

Isn’t that cool? The translation technology used is the same one found in Google Translate. What’s also cool is how the languages are detected. I assume the translate option with GR uses the language setting saved in the GR settings or in the Google Account settings, and then it either uses the auto-detect capabilities built into Google Translate to figure out the language, or it looks at the language setting encoded within the feed itself.

Google Translate

It’s an incredibly useful feature, because it allows people to read blogs in other languages without worrying about copying and pasting the text into a separate translation tool. Just think, if I write a post in Romanian and publish it on my site, the auto-translation tool within GR will allow you to read it as if I’d written it in English! Granted, the translation is machine-generated so it won’t read fluently and might even miss a few meanings here and there, but it’s certainly better than nothing, which is what we had before.

I’d also like point out that if you’re reading articles on my site instead of the feed, I’ve recently added auto-translation capabilities to each post via the same Google Translate technology. You’ll have the option to translate any of my articles into several languages, by clicking on a particular language, right under any post title, as shown below. I hope this will prove useful to my readers from other countries.

Post header showing auto-translation capabilities

Gmail offers another pleasant surprise

The Gmail team has done it again, and they’ve given Gmail users a whole slew of cool new features.

New Gmail features

We’ve now got YouTube, Picasa and Flickr previews, built right into each email message. All we have to do is to put a link to a YouTube movie, or a Picasa or Flickr photo, and its thumbnail shows directly in the message. This feature can be enabled by service from the Labs settings in our Gmail accounts.

I love the “Undo send” feature and have already enabled it. My wife is already using the Offline version of email. It took a bit to sync all her messages, but it’s doing alright now.

Other Gmail features I love are as follows:

  • Superstars, which adds additional stars icons. I organize emails that I need to act on that way.
  • Signature tweaks, which places the signature above quoted text
  • Right-side labels
  • Navbar drag-and-drop, which allows me to re-organize the various items on the Gmail screen
  • Forgotten attachment detector
  • Vacation Time, which lets me specify beginning and ending dates for those times when I can’t get to my email
  • Create a Document, which allows me to create a Google Document right from my Gmail inbox (this is new)
  • Send & Archive, which allows me to reply and archive that message at the same time (this is new)
  • Title Tweaks, which changes the order of the text in the Gmail page title, allowing me to see right away how many unread messages there are (this is new)
  • Google Docs gadget, which displays my most recent Google Documents on my Gmail inbox screen

There’s more information about the new features on the Gmail Blog, here and here.