Tue, Apr 24, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Technology reviews: Google+'s makeover and Pinterest

By David Chen  /  Staff Reporter

Google+ gets a facelift. But where are the users?

Screen shots by David Chen, Taipei Times

Having not visited my Google+ page for three months, I put up a quick post last week to say hello and see if any friends and acquaintances were still hanging out there.

One person replied, “Welcome back (to silent town).”

That pretty much says it all about my experience of Google’s social networking Web site, which launched nine months ago to much fanfare. The excitement and buzz wore off quickly — as much as I liked Google’s fresh approach to organizing my online friends and acquaintances, it wasn’t enough to lure me and my social circles away from Facebook.

My friends and I aren’t alone. Facebook users clearly outnumber Google plusers, with 845 million “monthly active” users (as of December 2011), compared to the 170 million people that Google says have “upgraded” to use Google+.

And a recent report by Web research company comScore says Google+ users spend just a small amount time on the site compared to their Facebook counterparts. According to the report, in January, users spent an average of three minutes on Google+ compared to over seven hours on Facebook. (In Taiwan, Facebook is ahead of Google as the second most visited Web site, after Yahoo.com, according to Alexa.com).

But to be fair, Google+ is still young and it would be premature to say that the service is forever doomed to be a virtual ghost town. Google claims a steadily growing number of users and the company continues to tweak its new social service.

Several weeks ago, Google+ received a major facelift and now sports an improved visual design for its Web site. Everything is more clearly marked and easier to find, with all navigational elements now placed in a vertical column on the left. This “ribbon,” as Google calls it, has clearly labeled icons for your home page, profile or photos, which are now called apps. “Hangouts,” the video conferencing feature in which you can chat with up to 9 people, is now featured prominently with its own app, as are photos and online games.

And like Facebook, your online contacts are listed in a long vertical column on the right, dotted with the green, yellow and red dots familiar to users of gmail chat.

Google+’s main feature, the stream (posts from friends or people that you follow), has been edged closer to the left. This is strange at first as everything is off-center, with a large empty column of white space on the right half of the page. Despite this design flaw, photos and videos in posts appear much larger, which makes for a better viewing experience.

Although these cosmetic changes make a notable difference on Google+ — I wish Facebook were this clutter-free — it’s going to take more from Google to pry folks away from the world’s number one social network.

Yet, there is still activity to be found on Google+. If you’re going to give it another go, try the Explore app, which shows a stream of popular posts (this used to be called What’s Hot) and is a good place to catch the latest and greatest viral photos and videos. Google has also added a small Trending column, a la Twitter, that lets you know what everyone is buzzing about. Unfortunately, that feature isn’t yet available in Mandarin.

Explore reminded me what I liked about Google+: the serendipity factor. A few random searches quickly led to some people with interesting posts, which in turn led to a few novelties. I ran into a set of fascinating photos of Taiwan in 1972 taken by the journalist Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired Magazine, as well as beautiful shots of the East Coast by Tom Anderson, one of the co-founders of MySpace (remember your first MySpace friend?), who happened to be visiting Taiwan.

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