In mid-May 2013 we woke up one morning to find the biggest Google Plus redesign since the social network was introduced in June of 2011.
Let’s review the major changes to the interface, and then we’ll talk about their ramifications for business and marketing users of Google+.
1. New Google+ Homepage Layout
The first and most striking change is to the layout of the default home page, the place where most Google+ users view the content shared by others. The former single column for content with a narrow info-sidebar has been replaced with two columns of content “cards” and a Hangout (read “all forms of chatting and messaging”) sidebar.
The look reminded me immediately of the most recent version of Google+ for iPad, with the multiple columns, posts on their own “cards,” and some photo posts stretching full-width.
Each individual post is on its own floating “card,” which makes them stand out more distinctively. Hashtags used in a post take new prominence as they are automatically featured at the right side of the post header. The default font is larger, and the +1 and reshare buttons have also been enlarged. Overall, the new content presentation is easier to browse, easier to read, and easier to engage with.
In response to one of the most oft-voiced change requests from users, the home stream no longer updates automatically, meaning posts no longer jump down the page while you are trying to read or interact with them. Instead, a blue “new” box with a counter appears and updates with a number at upper left whenever new content is available. Clicking that box updates the stream. (Short cut lovers can just type “L” to refresh the content.)
The share box, to post new content, is larger and more obvious,with buttons for all the available content types (text, photos, link, video, and hangout) in one row underneath. Clicking in the share box makes it jump up to top center of your screen.
When first loading your home page, the right hand column is populated with various information cards, such as upcoming events, birthdays, your most recent uploaded photos, and suggested users to follow. With your first refresh of the page, these cards begin to move down and are replaced by new content in the second column. This means that more fresh content is visible to users at a glance than ever before.
To further increase the space for content presentation, the column of tabs for other sections of Google+ (photos, communities, profile, etc.) which used to run down the left edge has now been hidden. Just hover your mouse over the Home button at upper left to reveal it.
2. Google Chat/Talk Is Now Hangouts
In one of the more blatant but inevitable of the many Google feature rebrandings that have come as a result of the Google+ revolution, Google has finally gathered all of its instant messaging features under the name “Hangouts.” Lest there be any doubt about that, take a look at your Gmail interface. Notice the chat box now says “New Hangout.”
This will take some getting used to, as until this change a Hangout was exclusively a group video chat conducted via Google+. Now there are two kinds of Hangouts–text chat and “video call”–that are consistent across anywhere on Google where you can initiate an instant message. In true Hangout fashion, both text chats and video calls can be initiated with groups of people.
Within the new Google+ home page, Hangouts appear in a hideaway sidebar to the right. To hide it, just click on the Hangouts title in the top bar. To reveal it, click the green quote bubble icon.
(By the way, Facebook could take a lesson from the hideaway panels in Google+’s new interface. When the section tab and Hangouts panels are hidden, the contrast with Facebook’s over-cluttered News Feed page is striking. More than ever before, Google+ is putting the content out front. And of course, still no ads!)
Hangouts On Air now gets its own section in the Home button pop-out menu. It makes for interesting browsing, as currently live public HOA sessions are attractively displayed. See one that interests you? Just click it to watch right on the HOA page.
3. Enhanced Photos
Google+ has always been famous for its excellent display of photographs. That’s the most likely reason that large numbers of top photographers were some of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of the platform. The update adds several new features to Google+’s already awesome photo functions. Most of these seem aimed at helping amateur shutterbugs to automatically put their best imaging foot forward.
Highlights. The new Highlights tab automatically discerns and displays the highest quality images you upload to Google+, the one’s you’ll probably be most proud to share. It ignores fuzzy, poorly-exposed, and duplicate images. This will be a useful place to browse when you’re looking for something worthwhile to share, especially if you have Instant Upload enabled on your smart phone version of Google+. It may make your aware that you’ve created some photos that were better than you thought they were!
Auto Enhance. Now by default any new photos you upload to Google+ are scanned and automatically adjusted for optimum brightness, saturation, and more. You can remove Auto Enhancement from any photo by clicking it into view mode and unchecking Auto Enhance in the photo’s menu. You can even Auto Enhance older Google+ photos by selecting the feature in each photo’s More menu.
Auto Awesome. This may be one of the most exciting (oh, let’s say it: awesome!) web photo features ever. Actually, it’s a suite of features. Upload a sequence of five or more images with the subject moving between each one, and Auto Awesome will assemble them into one animated image. Or upload several photos of the same group and Auto Awesome will take the best image of each person and assemble them into one image. No Photoshop needed! Auto Awesome can also create HDR images, stitch together panoramas of landscapes, and create photo grids of portraits with similar backgrounds. All with no user intervention.
4. Other Feature Updates
People. This is where you now find your Circles, but also where you can discover new people to follow. The People section has three tabs. “Find People” shows people who added you to their circles and allows you to easily add them (if you’re so inclined). It also categorizes people you haven’t yet circled by all of your listed work places and schools. “Added You” shows everyone who has circled you, whether or not you have them in your circles. And finally, “Your circles” is just what it says. This is where you can manage your Circles and the people who are in them. (The makeup of this section actually changed before the major update, but it now sports the update’s bigger, brighter, and more colorful look.)
Communities. No big changes on the Communities page (other than conformity to the new look and feel). But some nice enhancements. Communities you have joined are now listed in alphabetical order, making them easier to find, and you can search for communities right from the Communities page. The biggest changes are in the Communities themselves. A Community’s title and tag line are now above its avatar image (rather than superimposed over it), making them easier to read. Also, the “about this community” information has been moved out of the left sidebar to its own card in the right-hand content column. And just as with the home page, the twin content columns with each post on its own floating card make content easier to browse and more content available per screen view.
Search. The biggest change here is that after entering a query in the Google+ search bar, the results page clearly displays your filter options in tabs across the top (rather than hidden in a drop-down box as they were before).
Implications and Tips for Business Users
What do these changes mean for business and marketing users of Google+? Are there any adjustments you need to make? Any new tactics that the new interface opens up for increasing following, engagement, and traffic to your site? Here are my observations and thoughts:
No Page changes needed. The layout and utility of your Google+ business page have not changed in any noticeable way as a result of May’s update. You don’t need to do anything new here.
Top load your posts. The new home page format displays only the first four lines (in most cases; there are exceptions) of long posts, followed by a “read more” link. This makes your first four lines similar to the meta description of web content, which search engines often use as the brief blurb they show with a search result. You should think like a news copywriter: create a great lead that grabs a viewer’s attention with just the headline and first sentence of your post. And this means creating a bold font title for your posts more important than ever. (You make a set of words bold on Google+ by placing asterisks immediately before and after the words you want to appear bold.) By the way, line spaces count as lines when calculating those first four visible lines.
Get creative with Auto Awesome. It’s well established that social media posts with images get more clicks and engagement. So it only stands to reason that using awesomized images will only increase that effect. In particular, think of creative ways to make use of the Motion (automatic creation of animated images) and Auto-HDR features to create post images that pop and grab eyeballs to your content.
Hangout more. The browsable Hangouts On Air page will feature your live Hangouts when they are on the air, and make it easier and more enticing for your followers to find them and watch them. As much as possible you want to be on that page when people browse it, so try to create more Hangout On Air events.
Promote more proudly. The new update makes Google+ even more attractive and user-friendly. There has never been a better time to encourage people to come see what you’re doing on Google+. Use your site, your blog posts, your posts on other social networks, your printed literature, and your email newsletters to invite people to your page, your Hangouts, and your communities. There’s a greater chance than ever that many who might have ignored Google+ in the past will now be impressed and want to stay. And as the one who introduced them to all this beauty, you’ll be first in their hearts on minds as they use Google+!
What do you think of the update? Are there other enhancements I didn’t cover that you think provide new opportunities for businesses? Is there anything you don’t like or wish would be improved further? Let me know in the comments!