Google+ hands on: Five major flaws

Google+ is the search leader’s answer to Facebook and Twitter. When Google first announced it, Andrew Couts and I laid out some of the reasons why it might fail or succeed. After squirming our way into the “limited field trial” the other night, we’ve been furiously testing out the social network’s many features. Overall, we both like Google+, but it is a good thing Google is rolling this out slowly. There are still a ton of little problems with it, and a few big ones. So, without further ado, here are the biggest problems we have with Google plus, and a bunch of small ones.

For a look at what Google got right, check out Andrew Couts’ look at five awesome Google+ features.

That email address is not your friend

When you “friend” somebody on Facebook, the site uses a two-way authentication process. You have to ask to be their friend, and they have to approve your friendship. If either one of you drop the other as a friend, you both lose access to one another. This is one of the defining principles of Facebook, and has made it the social network of choice for real-world friends. LinkedIn is like this as well. Twitter is the exact opposite. Anyone can “follow” you and you can “follow” anyone else you please with no authentication required. There is a benefit if you’re both following one another, because you can then “private message” each other, but that is it.

Google is trying to straddle the line between the public Twitter idea and the private Facebook ecosystem with its Circles concept. Like Twitter, you can add anyone to one of your Circles, which is like “following” them. This gives you access to any public messages they broadcast out, and it gives you access to their Incoming stream, a place where people that aren’t in your Circles can send you messages. However, if you add someone to one of your Circles and they add you back, then you both see each others’ broadcasts and end up communicating a lot more like Facebook, each commenting on each others posts and pictures and links, etc. But what happens when you add someone (or some email) to your Circle that isn’t on Google+? Well, it gets really confusing.

Thanks to Google’s immensely successful Gmail and Gchat services, Google currently lets you add any email address to a Google Circle, even if that email is a Hotmail account or anything else. Yes, you can follow people who aren’t actually a part of Google+. This may sound like a neat feature, but it actually makes things much more confusing. Since these people aren’t on Google+, they can only be updated via email if you post something, and they can never respond unless they register for the social network. Google also pulls your Gmail contacts and treats them like people in Google+, cluttering the service up with non-members. Earlier today, I went to try and start a Hangout (video chat) with Andrew, but when I typed his name in the hangout invitation tool, it brought up three separate Andrew Couts, one for his Yahoo account, one for his Digital Trends email, and another for his Google+ account. This is confusing.

In the world of email, we often converse with people over multiple email addresses and think nothing of it, but bringing stray email contacts into Google+ is something that could annoy or confuse users. What happens if I accidentally add Andrew’s Yahoo email as my friend instead of his actual Google+ profile? The only differentiation between the two is a small circle in the lower right hand side of the contact cards (see above). And what happens when a stray Gmail address is added to Google+ and then that person signs up for G+? Will Google upgrade our friendship, or will I have to hunt that friend down again and add his Google+ profile as well?

Google Huddles, a texting feature of the Google+ Android app, suffers from this problem as well. I tried to start a “Huddle” with Andrew (and again, what separates Huddles from Gchat?) and had to choose between three items: his phone number, his Google+ account, and his Gmail. What’s the difference? Which choice provides the best way to Huddle him? I must have made the wrong choice, because I still haven’t gotten a response.

Profiles need to be connected and have a Wall

I get it. Google doesn’t want to make Google+ exactly like Facebook. That’s smart. However, it has failed to add one of the social network’s best and most famous features: the Wall. Currently, Google+ has profiles for each user, but aside from looking at a few of that person’s latest posts, these profiles are useless. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is absolutely no way to contact someone from their profile page. There is no wall to write on, no link to Google Chat with them, no link to privately message them, and no link to start a Hangout. There is a “Send an email” link on some profiles, but about half (or more) of my current contacts have this feature disabled. At this point, I’d be happy if I could poke somebody, but I can’t. Profiles are not interactive. Google, fix this.

Facebook has been distancing itself from its Wall concept with its News Feed and comments, but people keep using it because it’s the fastest and best way to get in contact with a friend. It’s fast, public, and convenient. Google needs to do something similar. Unfortunately, profiles are also suffering from two more problems: +1 and Google Buzz.

Google Chat, +1, and Buzz are present but disconnected

Google doesn’t want to anger any of its users, but it has a serious problem. There are too many disconnected services attached to Google+. Services like Gchat, +1, and Buzz need to be fully integrated.

Gchat is a good example. The search giant has smartly incorporated Gchat into Google+ so that it works and looks much like Facebook Chat. That’s great, except for the catch: Gchat is still running off of its previous authentication system, meaning I (and any active user of Gmail) have a lot of Google Chat friends sitting in my Gchat window that are not Google+ friends.

Like Facebook, to add a Chat buddy, you must both approve one another. However, in the long run, Google services like Chat need to run off of your Circle friends, much like Facebook chat runs off of your Facebook friends. Once you add somebody to Google+ (and apparently they have to then add you), you should be allowed to chat with one another. As much as it hurts, Google is going to have to separate Chat from Gmail and connect it to Google+. It is too confusing to have different disconnected friend lists within a service.

Buzz and +1 are in similar boats. Both of these services have tabs inside your profile, but none of their content seems to show up in the actual Stream, meaning the only way anyone can see that you clicked +1 on something is if they go to your uninteractive profile, hit the +1 tab, and scroll through them. That’s no good. With Buzz, you have to do the same thing, but there’s also a button so you can actually “Follow” a user on Buzz through Google+…what? This makes even less sense. Worse, you can actually see a user’s Buzz followers. Buzz needs to go. There is honestly no need for it anymore. All of its features have been duplicated by the Google+ Stream. Google should get rid of it and give users the option to add Buzz friends to their Google+ Circles. As for +1, it needs to be more useful, like Facebook Likes. Everytime you +1 something, it should publicly (or privately) add it to your stream. Honestly, +1 is a much more useful way to do Sparks, which I’ll get into in a bit.

Problems with the Stream

Google’s Stream is a lot like Facebook’s News Feed, but also Twitter. While Facebook has a “Most Recent” option that shows only the newest posts, it defaults to something called “Top News,” which intelligently plucks updates and links from the friends you interact with most and places them more prominently on your page. It also doesn’t auto update; instead, you press refresh to update it. Twitter, on the other hand, only shows a constant stream of new tweets. Google is, again, straddling the middle. By default, it streams the most recent headlines from your friends, but it also auto refreshes itself, randomly pushing new stories in the mix as they’re posted. This is helpful and annoying at the same time. It’s never fun to be reading something and have the page push it off the screen. At the same time, you never miss an update.

The one big problem with the Stream, aside from little glitches like this double Hangout posting (see above), is the fact that every time someone comments on a post, no matter how old it is, it shoots right back up to the top of the Stream for everyone who follows that person. This won’t be a problem until you follow somebody who tends to get hundreds of comments like Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte, or Jeff Jarvis. When you consider that the Stream currently shows so many comments that a single post can take up your whole screen and you’ve got a problem. Google needs to find a way to eliminate this noise. You can filter the noise out somewhat by selectively viewing the Streams of each of your Circles, but then you might miss a good post. Perhaps Google should add a Notification number next to each stream that shows how many new updates you’ve missed or something. Either way, if I have to see shirtless Chris Pirillo climb to the top of my Stream one more time, I’m going to lose it.

(Does anyone need to see 3-4 Chris Pirillo updates in a row? Come on, Google. Organize this information!)

Sparks don’t spark anything

The other new part of the Google+ Stream is Sparks. We thought Sparks would integrate with +1 and filter Streams based solely on common interests like a love for movies or video games, or something like that. This is not what it does. Instead, Sparks is like a dumbed-down version of Google News inside Google+. It works pretty simple: You enter a word or phrase and Google will bring you a stream of news stories about that topic. While most of the stories are decent, they aren’t anything you wouldn’t already find in Google News. On top of that, there is a bit too much white space between stories and no way to view a complete Stream of all your “Sparks” at once.

Currently, Sparks doesn’t add much of anything to Google+. I can appreciate Google’s desire to bring search into its social network, but it needs to integrate this feature (as it does Buzz and many others) into the standard Stream and build more interaction around it. Honestly, the stories that I +1 from around the Web should teach Google what my interests are. Based on that, it should try and connect me to others who have similar interests. To me, that is the potential of a feature like Sparks.

Get crackin’ Google

Google+ is a great beta product. It’s 90 percent of the way there, but Google was wise to withhold it from mass consumption. There are a hundred small tweaks and bugs that need fixing and these five issues may require a bit of a rethinking of the service all together. Facebook has succeeded because its easy and everything is integrated. We don’t want Google to create a completely shut-in experience like that, but it needs to pull together all of its separate services under this new network. Every Google service needs to be thoroughly interconnected. The integration will sting a little at first, but in time it may prove to be one of the smartest decisions the company made. If it can correct these issues and continue to refine the service before it goes live to the masses, there is little doubt that Google+ is here to stay.

[Update 7/2/2011: It appears that some people do have email links on their profile. I've corrected the Profile section to identify this.]