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It’s been just over a week since Google invited the first outsiders to start using a social network not unlike Facebook that it has spent months secretly building, and plans to put at the heart of its many services. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about Google+ and its prospects.

It’s going better than Buzz

Almost 18 months ago Google automatically enrolled every user of Gmail into a close replica of Twitter called Buzz without their consent. Users were annoyed, especially those who had the intimate details of their email address books accidentally revealed. The episode has become a textbook example of a failed product launch.

In a single week Google+ outstripped the popularity attained by Buzz over 17 months, says SearchEngineWatch, pointing to the growth in the number of followers for various brands and celebrities. That’s despite access to Google+ being limited and everyone with a Gmail account being automatically given access to Buzz.

Many people are keen to sign up

As soon as it became public knowledge, Google+ was made available to all Google employees, selected journalists and a few others. The service has been slowly rolling out to more users of Gmail, but there’s no sign yet of the doors being thrown wide open.

On a handful of occasions it has become possible for existing users to invite others in and every time those invites have become available has resulted in what the engineering director for Google+ called “incredible demand”. Brands are eager to use it too, with many defying a clause in the terms of use requiring users to be real people and creating their own pages. Google says dedicated profiles for companies are coming soon.

Facebook feels it has competition

Facebook hastily arranged a product launch this week that was likely inspired by the arrival of its first real competition for years. It announced the availability of video chat for all Facebook users, thanks to technology from Skype. It’s a neat feature, but one that falls short of “hangouts” video chat built into Plus that allows group conversations.

Zuckerberg declined to comment on Google’s social network but he seems to have decided to actively respond to its new challenger rather than rest upon his now 750 million strong active user base.

It still needs a lot more features

Google+ still lacks many things that are a core part of Facebook, omissions Google is sure to address soon. The ability to organize and invite people to events is one, a feature that drew many people into Facebook for the first time. Another is third party apps and games.

Games like Zynga’s Farmville on Facebook have become a core part of using the network and generate significant revenue, too. Nothing gets launched without some kind of app store any more. Google says it will open up to third party apps, for example allowing them to use Google+’s video chat, but hasn’t said when. The company may want to wait for its social network’s core community to settle first before ceding control of its workings to developers.

We don’t know how wide its appeal will be

The community using Google Plus today is skewed towards the white, male and techy. Facebook reached 750 million users by sucking in a much wider demographic, one that now includes multiple generations from all walks of life.

Whether such a wide range of people will also embrace Google Plus is unknown but many that have used Plus have concluded that it doesn’t offer enough benefits to justify switching for most Facebook users.

Shifting to a new service without all your friends is big jump to make and Google’s new features may not yet persuade many people. Google has made a big deal about the “circles” feature that categorizes friends and contacts for more controlled sharing. Yet Facebook’s lists behave in a similar way and have proved unpopular. “Guess what? Nobody wants to make lists,” said the company’s boss last year, after saying that a feature like Google’s circles would be a great idea. He reiterated that opinion at Facebook’s video chat launch event this week.

The history of social networking is a short one, and people have deserted social networks before–just look at MySpace or Friendster. Niether was as dominant as Facebook is today, though. Google’s biggest challenge will be finding ways to get history to repeat itself.

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