After 12 weeks of socializing in select circles, Google has announced that anyone can sign up for its fledgling social network, Google Plus.
The wider adoption of the service now that it’s widely available will be crucial to the success of Google Plus, and to Google’s ability to compete with Facebook as a force in social networking and in selling more targeted ads. Google’s social network was launched in June to positive reviews and considerable interest, but activity has slowed in recent weeks.
Unique features, especially the ability to target updates to different social “circles,” were well received by the first rush of users. However, many of them appear to have stopped using the service, perhaps because so few of their friends also had access. Anyone can now sign up for a Google Plus account at this page.
Negative media coverage followed the recent drop in activity, but Bradley Horowitz, product manager for Google Plus, told Technology Review that the behavior was expected.
“There has been a class of user that has seen [that] the product is not ready for them, and we expected that,” Horowitz says. “The idea of the field trial was to get a critical mass of usage so that we could measure and instrument the system to understand what worked and what was broken, and we got sufficient traffic to do that.”
Horowitz says Google put little effort into driving interest during the field trial, doing little more than posting updates on the company blog. That policy doesn’t appear to have changed yet, but in the future the company could use its search, e-mail, or other services to promote the adoption of Google Plus.
Several new features were added to Google Plus today. One expands the “hangouts” group-video feature to smart phones and also allows users to make their hangout chats public—something expected to be popular with celebrities or businesses using Google Plus.
Google has also added a version of its search engine to its social network. The classic search box now appears at the top of every Google Plus page, giving users a way to search through updates and links that users share within their own network, as well as everything shared publicly by all users.
For example, Horowitz, explains, “When you type ‘kite surfing’ into Google Plus, you will see a live stream of content not only from people you know and care about but also experts in the field.”
Search—and the underlying technology that ranks information from friends and other sources—is a particularly significant new feature, according to Horowitz. “This moves the center of gravity of the project,” he says. “Instead of relying on your social network to deliver you content, this allows an interest graph to emerge.”
Google plans to release more enhancements and features to Google Plus in the weeks and months ahead. “There’s a lot more to come,” Horowitz says.