Friday, April 27, 2012

Google+? It’s very simple

Today I'm in London giving a workshop on Google+ for science communicators. If you're on Google+ from 2pm UK time this afternoon, say hello. Earlier in the week I wrote a guest post for the Nature Soapbox Science blog on Google, so it seems appropriate to reproduce it here:

Social network growth If you’re interested in science communication, or learning about science, Google+ is the hot place to be.
In January 2012, Google changed the game when it introduced “Search plus your world”, adding a social element to search results. Talk to any publisher and they will tell you that Google is still by far the biggest player in search, so if you want people to read about your science, you need to pay attention to the dark arts of search engine optimization (SEO). Although Google users can turn social search results off, the vast majority do not, so social is now an inescapable part of search. Apart from posting interesting information that people want to read, there are several elements involved in Google optimization. One is the rather technical markup resulting in “rich snippets” which appear with your avatar as a trusted brand in search results. A much simpler way to boost search visibility is to build a presence on Google+.

As part of our strategy to encourage more people to get interested in plant science (because there are now no plant science degrees in the UK), for the past few months we have been publishing on Google+ alongside our other online spaces on Twitter, Facebook and our blog, but it’s on Google+ where we’ve seen the fastest growth recently.

There are two main criticisms of Google+ that people often raise. The first is that they don’t need and don’t have time for another social network, and all their friends are on Facebook/Twitter. While this is understandable, it’s also changing with time. Show me the person who does not use Google and I’ll accept that they may not be using Google+ in one or two years time.

The second criticism is that Google+ is “too complicated”. When it launched, the unique selling point of Google+ was the Circles feature, a way of dividing people into groups. I also have experience of using Google+ with students, in rather a different way to the way I use my personal account. In questionnaires, students say that they like the security that posting to a defined Circle of their peers gives them. Less danger of looking stupid in public. But for most people, Circles are just too complicated to bother with. And the way Circles work is not straightforward:

Based on: Sarah Horrigan: How Google+ circles work
  1. Circles are a way to organise people you’re interested in and to restrict the audience for your posts or your incoming stream.
  2. Your Circles are private, only you can see them – unless you choose to share.
  3. Putting someone in a Circle allows you to follow their public posts.
  4. It does not mean that if you share something with the Circle you’ve put them in, it’ll appear in their stream (“not push”).
  5. They can see what it is you shared if they visit your profile.
  6. For it to appear in their stream, they’d have to have you in a Circle too.
  7. A circle is not a lasso that you throw around someone else to yank them into a circled conversation.
When I started using Google+ I hoped to have one account I could use for many purposes – discussing science, joking with friends, talking to students. That would only work effectively if I posted everything to separate Circles. But by keeping all my content and discussions private, I would defeat the original purpose of reaching out to talk about science. So I have two Google+ profiles, a somewhat private one for "teaching", and public one for "me". It's a hassle and I wish I didn't have to. The idea of going on to subdivide "me" into little boxes is untenable.
I find myself increasingly abandoning the use of Circles for push and simply using Google+ in a Twitter-like way with public posts. The secret to Google+ happiness turns out to be rather simple. My advice is: KISS (keep it simple, stupid):
  • Be public.
  • If you need to grab someone’s attention, message them by using +Username, e.g. +AJ Cann.
A lot of my posts are science or education-related, but not all. Some are just for fun, or out of technology-induced frustration. Just as my life is not divided into neat circles, neither is my Google+ account. I’m just me – sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes answering questions, sometimes asking them. This is how we live our lives. A little noise is the price we pay for information.


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