5 Things Google Plus Can Do to Outbox Facebook

It’s been a fascinating year in the social networking space, as heavyweight champion Facebook fends off some solid blows from muscley contender Google Plus. However over the past week, it’s been nearly all Facebook – with the release of the Subscriber button and vastly improved lists (akin to Google Plus “circles”). This week, or perhaps I should say round, is also shaping up to be a big one for Facebook. Its annual developer conference F8 is on this Thursday in San Francisco. According to uber-blogger Robert Scoble, “Facebook has one of its biggest releases ever coming this week.” ReadWriteWeb will be at F8 to cover whatever big punches Facebook delivers.

Meanwhile the Google Plus team has been fairly quiet lately, other than the announcement of a (limited) API last week. Here are five things we wish Google Plus would do, both to improve its still nascent product and to make Facebook stagger a little against the ropes!

1. Automate creation and maintenance of Circles.

This has been my number one problem with Google Plus so far: the large amount of effort it takes up front to create circles of people (a.k.a. friends lists) and then the ongoing hassle of maintaining them.

Facebook showed the way forward for Google Plus, by launching improved – and semi-automated – friends lists last week. Facebook now automatically creates lists based on your location, workplace and a couple more bits of information from your profile. It’s still relatively simple and not perfectly implemented. But it’s a damn sight better than starting from scratch, which Google Plus makes you do.

2. Add a special search box for Google Plus.

While any public content on Google Plus can be searched using ordinary Google search, any private post or data about Circles is hidden from Google.com. The Google Plus team knows this is something their users want, so it’s likely they’re working on an internal Google Plus search as we speak. It will be a great addition when it finally happens, because neither Facebook or Twitter does a good job archiving and surfacing old posts.

Twitter has a notoriously short memory, while Facebook has (up till now) been happy to make its users ‘live in the moment.’ A decent Google Plus search will make Facebook reassess that, because suddenly Google Plus would become kind of a memory bank for its users. The success of Evernote – a note-taking app which markets itself as an “online brain” – is an indicator that social networks need a longer memory.

3. Open up the API!

The Google+ API is limited to public data, so external developers won’t be able to tap into private data or information about Circles. It’s a no-brainer to eventually open it up and the Google Plus team has stated this will happen. Given that the entire Facebook platform is predicated on third party developers accessing private information about users, this can’t come soon enough for Google Plus if it wants to rapidly build its platform.

(If you aren’t sure what I mean by third party apps accessing your private Facebook data, just recall how many times you’ve clicked “yes” to a web app that requests to be able to write to your Facebook wall and seemingly do anything it else it pleases with your data.)

Update: Google engineer Will Norris questioned the above statement, in Google Plus of course: “remind me again why it’s in users’ best interest to rush out and enable that on Google+.” My response: it’s in users’ interest because they’ll get a ton of great third party apps that do wonderful things with their data. (and yes I admit it’s a double-edged sword)

4. Hurry up with pages for brands.

It’s common knowledge that Google Plus is working on implementing pages for brands, which will be similar to Facebook Pages. I’d like to see these pages be much more easily surfaced and organized in Google Plus than they are with Facebook. I often find myself ‘liking’ a brand page on Facebook, then never coming across it again because it’s hidden away. Why can’t I put my favorite brand pages in my main Facebook menu? Why can’t I add it immediately to a list when I ‘like’ it (instead of having to manually go to the list and put the new Page into it, which is time consuming).

Google Plus has the opportunity to create much more user friendly brand pages, which will only benefit both users and brands.

5. Find a way to entice my family and non-geeky friends onto Google Plus.

This may be the most important challenge that Google Plus faces if it’s truly going to challenge Facebook. While Google Plus has a fervent base of early adopter users, it hasn’t managed to attract mainstream people yet. I don’t have any statistical proof of that, but you only need to look at who you’re interacting with on Google Plus. For me it’s all industry people, which makes for a great social network if you want to discuss work matters. That’s why Robert Scoble loves Google Plus so much.

So far only one of my family members is using Google Plus – my iPad 2-toting brother. And he’s using it mainly to make humorous references about the lack of people he knows on Google Plus. In contrast, all of my immediate family and a good portion of my extended family uses Facebook. Sure, it took years for them all to arrive there. But the point is, Google Plus needs to eventually find a way to entice them onto its service. Or maybe the fact that Google Plus will be such an intricate part of the future Google product line (search, e-commerce and so on) is what’s going to eventually get my family and others using Plus.

Those are 5 things I’d love to see from Google Plus, as soon as possible. I haven’t even mentioned the big complaint from recent weeks: Google Plus doesn’t allow people to select user names that aren’t their real names. This has been a controversial issue and it too needs to be resolved.

What else do you think Google Plus should do in order to keep the pressure on Facebook? And by the way, this ‘battle’ is great news for us consumers – as it forces both companies to give us what we’re clamoring for. And we won’t mind if a bit of bigco blood gets spilled in the process.

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