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How Journalists Can Start Using Google+ Now

The jury's still out on whether Google+ will eventually become a Twitter or Facebook killer. Talk to Facebook users and they'll tell you Google+ is irrelevant - that the audience is too small, that their friends aren't there1, or that only early adopters and geeks are posting. Business Insider says Facebook will wipe the floor with Google+. But the numbers tell another story, and if it's not time for journalists to start using the platform today, it'll soon be too big to ignore.

Analyst Paul Allen has been counting the Google+ beans for a while, and his numbers (as well as official numbers released during Google earnings statements) show absolutely explosive growth. Today's latest: Google+ Reaches 50 Million User Mark in About 88 Days:

Google50mil
Image via Leon Håland

No social network in history has seen growth like that, and there's just no way to get to numbers like those by appealing just to early adopters and geeks. In fact, many on Google+ report already having more followers there than they do on Facebook or Twitter. In my personal experience, the proportion of general news and non-geek content has been spiraling upwards in recent weeks. Some analysts expect the network to hit 100 million users before the end of the year. We'll see.

Why Put Time Into Google Plus?

Many users are finding that information is surfaced more easily - and is re-shared more often - on Google+ than on Facebook due to more widespread use of the "sharing" feature, and greater willingness of users to post content to "Public."

For example, this person says she posted the same cartoon on both Facebook and Google+. On FB it got one "Like" and zero re-shares from her 1925 friends. On Google+ it's got 11 "Pluses," 20 comments, and has been re-shared 32 times. This squares with my own experience. Back in July I did a similar experiment, posting the same joke to Facebook and Google+. The copy on Facebook got eight likes and one re-share. The copy on Google+ got 34 likes (pluses) and 407 (!) re-shares, even though I've been on Facebook for years and have many more friends there. That kind reach and virality should be appealing to any journalist.

Following ratios on Google+ also seem to be going through the roof. Many users are claiming already to have double or triple the number of followers on G+ as they do on Facebook or Twitter.

Feedback is much better than on Twitter (conversation has never been Twitter's strong point). Since good comments get voted up through +1s, these can be used to surface interesting points made in the comments that might otherwise by missed on Twitter.

Even at a basic level, Google+ offers some appealing advantages. For example, Facebook lacks some of the most basic features of content management - if you make an error in a post on Facebook, you have no choice but to delete it and re-post, losing all comments in the process. Not only that, but you can't even make words bold or italic! As amazing as Facebook's growth has been, it's even more amazing that they've achieved it without the simple post editing or rich text capabilities present in virtually every other web publishing system.

If you're not yet on Google+, or are looking for a good introduction here's an excellent introductory slideset by Zenslide (watch full-screen):

So how can journalists use Google+ effectively? First, be aware there is no equivalent of the Facebook "page" just yet, though they'll be here soon: Google Plus Business Profiles Are Coming Q3, Analytics and All. Still, some news orgs have created dedicated profiles anyway - e.g. CNN Breaking News, Mashable, The Next Web MSNBC. Don't be tempted to jump the gun just yet though - Google has been taking a lot of these gate-crashers down. Be patient.

Effective Circles

While Google+ includes many features not found on Facebook, Circles are the core of the experience. Just as you do with your Twitter audience, be sure to create circles of people who pay attention to or write about the same topics you do - these are active and influential users who will be likely to re-share your content.

You're not going to get much traction - or see much activity - until you've got a healthy ring of followers. And the best way to get followers is of course to follow people. Google+, like Twitter, is all about the interest graph, not the friends graph, so you need to put a bit of effort into finding like-minded readers. Start by searching for your topics of coverage, then follow the active people you find in those results. If you're tracking a good conversation, click the profiles of interesting commenters and circle them too.

Don't ignore the "suggested users" feature. Google does a great job of surfacing organic users who share your interests, or who are connected to people you've circled. Try clicking the Circles icon, then "Find people." Google will display a set of suggested users, ready to be dragged into your circles at the bottom of the screen.

Suggested
Don't ignore Google's "suggested users" feature - its suggestions are organic and tend to be highly relevant.

Interested in finding other journalists on Google+? The network has just made it possible to share circles, meaning you can batch-add collections of people that other users have created. Here's a Circle I've been curating consisting of people who work at the intersection of journalism and technology - feel free to add all of these people to your own circles.

Circle
A shared circle consisting of digital media experts.

Sparks

When you sign up for Google+, you're given a few default "Sparks" to get started. Sparks are like saved queries pointing to top articles on topics of your choice. They seem to be the red-headed stepchild of Google+ and don't get much love, but don't ignore them! Use G+ search to zero in on other topics, then click "Save this search" so you'll have one-click access from your left sidebar. Note that when you click one of those saved queries, the results page has a tabbed interface, letting you toggle between various "slices" of the results - Sparks is on the right, but you'll also find lots of great data-mining material on the other tabs.

Hangouts

WebEx and GoToMeeting must be quivering in their boots. Hangouts let you initiate a real-time video plus text chat with up to nine other people, for free. If you start a "Hangout with extras," you also get document sharing, screen sharing, and a nifty notepad you can draw on or import images to.

Hangouts can be used by journalists to conduct private interviews with sources, conduct remote planning meetings with your team, or even to meet and greet with your audience. Note that Hangouts can be broadcast to thousands of people, even though only 10 can participate. All free, and very cool.

Enhanced Image Sharing

Right off the bat, you'll notice that the quality of uploaded images is higher on Google+ than on Facebook. Try uploading the same image to both services, then load them in browser windows side by side - Facebook noticeably degrades your images with excessive compression.

Google+ also supports inline animated GIFs, which may sound trivial at first, but really opens up all kinds of artistic and journalistic possibilities. Here's a simple example demonstrating the concept of Pi. You can also imagine some very cool (and easy to make) animated GIFs showing time lapses of local building construction, disaster damage, or other news events.

Pi

Too Busy?

Yes, it does take a bit more time to tend to yet another social network. But it's not that bad. If you keep Google+ and Facebook up in separate browser tabs, you can copy the same content into both networks with very little additional effort. Google+ provides an Alerts badge at the top right similar to Facebook's, so you can see at a glance what's happening in your conversations. The real additional time-suck is in actually reading another service, and interacting with users. But for the additional traffic and buzz you'll be able to generate once you've built up substantial Circles, I think it will be more than worth your while. Time will tell.

1 This, by the way, is the biggest hurdle Google+ has to clear. Traditionally, everything we did online has been public. When we comment on blog posts, news articles, forums, Twitter, LiveJournal, etc. we assumed that our content was fully public. Facebook changed all of that. People now assume that they interact just with friends on social networks. They don't realize that Facebook is an exception in this regard. They also don't realize how much great content they're missing out on by limiting their streams to friends-only (i.e. why you're likely to turn up far more interesting content on a public network like Twitter than you are on Facebook). Facebook users are being encouraged to go more public by Zuckerberg and crew for just this reason. Facebook users landing on Google+ need to be prepared to follow interesting people, not just their friends. Unfortunately, so many of them take a peek at Google+, can't find their friends, and move on, unimpressed. Tough nut to crack.

See also:

I'm Scot Hacker on Google+