Google launched Google+ last summer to save us all from Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is too much like shouting in a coffee shop, Google argued, and Facebook’s garden, large and beautiful as it may be, has walls that are too high and opaque—particularly to Google’s search bots.
Google pitches its social network as an alternative that both simplifies and empowers the way we share things with each other. People are giving the new social network a try—the site’s traffic grew 27 percent this March to 61 million visits. But as with much technology, it’s still easy to get lost or overwhelmed.
Here are some ways to get a handle on your Google+ activity to make using the site a more useful and appealing experience.
Stop running in circles
One of Google+’s main advantages—the ability to organize interesting friends, coworkers, personalities, and companies to one or more circles—really does bring a lot of simplicity and power to doing the social media thing.
Where Facebook makes its version of this feature complicated and even obfuscated, and Twitter seems to be almost ashamed that it ever let users create lists of users to follow in the first place, Google+ wears this ability on its shoulders, and the feature can really help you from getting overwhelmed by following or doing too much on the service.
Instead, draw some circles
Circling someone is easy. You can use the ever-present search box at the top of Google+, click on the Circles tab in the left sidebar, or click the Explore tab, previously known as What’s Hot.
If you use the Circles tab, it displays suggested users you’ll probably dig and any contacts you have in Gmail. Select one or more users and drag them to one of Google’s pre-made circles down below, or to the empty circle to create your own, and give it a name. You can add a person, page, or company to as many circles as you want, so go wild. Including Google’s pre-made circles, I have twelve for things like “design,” “close friends,” “gaming,” “writers,” and others related to my work and interests. If you like keyboard shortcuts, you can use the minus key (-) to make your circles smaller and fit more on screen at once (this is especially useful on my 11-inch MacBook Air), and the plus key (+) to make them larger.
You can also quickly circle people while browsing Google+. Just mouse over anyone’s name to display a quick view of their profile. Mouse down to the Circles button and a list of your circles expands. Click one or more to circle that person on the fly.
While posts from everyone you circle will start appearing in your main Google+ stream, the whole point of all this is that you’re creating handy bubbles of activity you can communicate with and easily hop between at will. A list of your circles appears along the top of Google+, just below the main search box, and clicking any of them will filter your stream down to just the posts from people in that circle.
Share with others
When it comes to sharing a post or something you’ve found, you can easily address it to one or more circles (or even individuals), much like drafting an email to one or more groups of contacts. If you want to share news of a great new game with just your gaming friends, but not your coworkers or non-gaming family members, this is a great way to do it. Start typing your post at the top of the stream, tab to the circles field just below, and type the name of your gaming circle or a couple of friends who will be interested. That way, this post will show up in their streams, and their streams only.
Zip through posts
Just as in Gmail, Google Reader, and other Google services, you can use a few shortcuts to down and up through posts. Press J to move down one post at a time through your stream, and K to move back up one post at a time.
If you’re using Google+ at work or as part of any kind of group (your softball team, your D&D group, or your amateur photography adventures), note that you can share circles too. That means when you add all your co-workers to a circle, you can then share that circle with them to save them some work.
Click any of your circles at the top of Google+, then check the space to the right of the post stream for a Share This Circle link.
Mute overly chatty posts
Part of the point of social media is to get, well, social. But if you start commenting on a lot of posts, or some posts keep popping back to the top of your stream or a circle because they’re so active and popular, you can mute them to get them out of the way. Click the action arrow in the top right of any post, then choose Mute Post. (This option also appears in the Google+ alert menu even if you’re using another Google product).
Turn the volume up or down on different circles
Another useful way Google+ gives you power over what you see on the service, and something largely unmatched by Facebook and Twitter, is the ability to throttle how much content you see from each circle. Click any circle and move the slider at the top of its stream to the left or right to lower or raise (respectively) the number of posts you see from its members in your main stream. At each step of the slider, Google+ will display a tooltip explaining how that particular level will affect posts from the Circle’s members.
This opens up some great opportunity for managing your Google+ stream, not to mention staying socially sane. For example, if you want to follow some abnormally chatty people but only view their posts in your main stream when those posts are getting a lot of feedback, you can toss them all into a “Chatty” circle and dial down its activity. You could also create a “NSFW” Circle for people you want to follow, but whose posts might be a little not-safe-for-work. Then, dial that Circle’s slider all the way to the left to completely hide their posts from your main stream but still keep them a simple click away.
Google recently launched a huge redesign of Google+, and one of the biggest perks is that you can now customize the features you want at your fingertips. In the new sidebar on the left, drag any section to where you want, or even hide every one away (besides Home) in the More section. This is great if you only want to use a couple of Google+’s features and keep your sidebar free of clutter.
Unplug with Google’s apps
You don’t have to be tethered to a computer to enjoy Google+. Download mobile apps for iPhone or Android. (Sadly, there’s nothing for iPad—yet.) These apps let you take many of Google+’s features on-the-go, including virtually all of the circle features and management abilities. Post photos and enable an “Instant Upload” feature that automatically uploads every photo you’ve taken with your device to a private album for sharing or deleting later.
If you’re an Android user, the time spent organizing your circles can go a long way for keeping your contacts tidy across the rest of your device and saving you time later. Android can incorporate your circles elsewhere in your services, including contacts used in your phone (you do remember phone calls, right?) and Gmail.
Use Google+ for business
If you run a business, website, or organization, creating a Google+ page to promote it and interact with your audience isn’t a bad idea. Like Facebook Pages, Google+ Pages let you post under your other affiliation while keeping your personal stream personal.
Pages function pretty much like a personal account. Comment on posts as your page, create circles to follow while using Google+ as your page, post photos, and create albums.
After you create your first page, it's easy to switch between it and your personal page using the Pages section in the sidebar.
Fill your Google+ toolbox
Of course, what social media service would be complete without an extra tool or add-on? Though Google is sitting on its hands when it comes to releasing an official API for developers to build on, there are plenty of browser extensions that help you get more out of Google+ and tweak it to your needs.
It should be no surprise that the best add-ons for Google+ have been made for the Google Chrome web browser. Here’s just a sampling:
- Replies and More for Google+: This extension adds a number of essential features to Google+. It adds links like Reply To Author under posts to make it easy to start drafts with a mention of the person’s name. It also adds update notifications to the Google+ favicon in your Chrome tab, adds buttons for sharing posts via Twitter, Facebook, and email, and even lets you mute posts with a simple strike of the “M” key.
- Google +1 button: If you catch Google+ fever but come across a site that is not yet afflicted, this button has you covered. Choosing +1 is the Google+ equivalent of clicking on Facebook’s Like button. This adds a +1 when there is none.
- Extended Share for Google Plus: Set the Google+ posts you like free from their confines and share them on over a dozen other services, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and more.
- Favorite Posts for Google+: There’s no easy way to view just the Google+ posts you’ve +1’d (say that three times fast, I dare you). This clever extension adds a “Favorites” section to the left sidebar for reviewing your friends’ greatest hits.
Go forth, and plus
With these tips and an add-on or two, you’re ready to run circles around Google+.