Google Plus comes of age – why you should be using it

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At the end of October, Google held a press event where they unveiled eighteen new features for Google+, the search giant’s social networking platform, and announced that the service has reached 540 million active monthly users. That’s just the beginning.

Before we talk about what was added, let’s talk about how well Google+ is doing as a network.

=== Google+ is more active than Twitter and maybe even Facebook

As Facebook nears the one billion user mark and Twitter rivals G+ for total active user counts, Google has one big advantage over the others: two-thirds of its “active users” are actually using the site/app, not just “interacting” with it.

There’s a huge difference between “active user” counts and users who actually use a website or app. In social media, you can equate the “active user” count with the number of unique hits in your website’s raw logs. It’s a measure of the activity on your website, in terms of people coming to visit, but otherwise doesn’t tell you much. In the end, it’s a number you use to get advertisers to pay you money, but is otherwise a useless metric for your overall analysis of how healthy your website really is.

“In-stream” users on a social network are the real pot of gold. Like your website’s “repeat visitor” metric, this is a closer-to-reality metric of how well things are going for the site. In Google’s case, they have 300 million active in-stream users. Unlike the “monthly active users” metric that Facebook and Twitter offer, Google’s in-stream visitors are people who are actively engaging the plus.google.com website, app, etc. – people who are entering the Google+ “stream” where they will see things like posts from their Circles, Hangout requests, and, importantly, advertising. The “active users” numbers that FB and Twitter give include just about any interaction with the site, which may or may not be “in the stream.”

The 540 million number that Google released as its active user count is closer to that FB/Twitter metric. It includes anyone who comments through a G+-enabled comment feed on a blog, hits the “+1″ button on a site, or uses a third-party tool to post to Google+ without actually visiting G+ directly.

The numbers are staggering and prove that you should be using Google+ for your business and personal branding.

=== Why this matters

With about two-thirds of the users on Google+ actively engaging the site, that’s a big green flag for people to begin seeing it as a more personal, engaging social network. Not only is that 300 million potential sets of eyeballs for your business or brand, it’s a number that shows that there is a lot of possibility for engagement beyond just the “Like” and “+1″ crowd.

Users of G+ know that it engages in a way that is different than other social networks. The use of Circles, for example, allows separation of personal and professional posts. The ability to jump into or create Hangouts and shared experiences is huge, and the integration with the now-ubiquitous Google tools like Gmail, YouTube and Docs is an excellent resource.

People upload 1.5 billion photos per week to G+ and the number of videos uploaded to the site has increased twenty fold in the past year.

As for the new tools integrated.. they run the gamut from making video sharing and integration with YouTube easier (including making videos themselves) to boosting website integration with G+. You’ll definitely want to check out the new Communications Manager for G+ Pages.

Watch out Google Glass, here comes Telepathy

Although there have been several announcements of would-be Google Glass competitors, none are developed enough to promote themselves as much more than ideas on paper. Except for one.

Telepathy is a Silicon Valley startup who has been working on their Telepathy One headset for over a year and already had a working prototype when they raised their first round of funding, which it did to the tune of $5 million a couple of weeks ago.

Unlike Google Glass, the Telepathy One is a smaller, lighter headset that can be used whether the person wearing them has glasses or not. The name of the device denotes the hopeful vision of its founder, Takahito Iguchi. They plan to bring the One model to market next year.

How the Telepathy One works

The headset prototype was unveiled earlier this year as a hands-free communications device. It wraps around the user’s head in a sort of reverse C-shape, with the opening of the C being at the front. The elongated crescent ends just to the side of either eye.

It has earplugs that hold it in place and provide sound, a small projection screen that projects into the user’s right eye, and the final model will be adjustable to fit the wearer and go around or under his or her glasses, if need be, depending on sight requirements. An application developers kit will be released sometime in the next month or so.

In simple terms, the Telepathy One is a way to view your online reality while on the go. Much like Google Glass, it is mostly meant to interface with our everyday Web apps like Facebook and Twitter, but unlike Google Glass, Iguchi’s vision is to make it a friend-centric device which allows users to more closely tune their viewing through Telepathy (via its app) to seeing what their friends are doing and towards sharing their own doings in real-time.

Video, which will be the device’s primary use, will be through a proprietary app for the Telepathy, which is being created with the involvement of Peter Hoddie of Marvell Semiconductor’s Kinoma platform, whose expertise in video compression will obviously lend a big boost to the company’s capabilities in that department.

Why Google should pay attention

Simply put, the Telepathy One is (planned to be) just as capable as Google Glass, but in a much sleeker, prettier package that is slightly more versatile since it projects directly to the person’s eye. Unlike the comparably bulky Glass, Telepathy One has a far more Apple-like appeal in its simplistic design and techno-carved appearance.

Of course, working prototypes have not been shown to the world yet, only semi-functional ones. That means that Telepathy One, for all its beauty, is not proven to be a reality. Given the advisory board and funding, however, it’s apparent that while they may be delays, Telepathy is very likely to happen.

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The New Google Plus Features

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If you’re a Google+ user, you’ve no doubt learned that Google’s social networking service has seen some serious updates in the past couple of weeks. In fact, they added eighteen new features before Christmas.

Now that we’ve had some time to see them in action, let’s talk about what those additions are and how they might affect you.

New Photo Sharing Features

The Instant Upload Tool has seen some improvement and works much better, especially on mobile devices. Photo spheres are also available to mobile users now, making them much more accessible all the way around.

Probably the best thing, however, is Google’s addition of unlimited standard-sized photo backups when uploaded through the IUT. Full-sized photo backups are still limited to 5GB unless you pay for higher data storage access in Google Drive.

Animated GIFs should now work in all Android types and Google has integrated Google Now with G+ so that birthdays and such can send notifications.

New Additions for Mobile

If you’re an Android user accessing G+, then you’ve definitely seen things improve in a big way. Mobile users can now edit their profile on the fly, have a much easier time posting, and can be more choosy about what they are notified about. All of these are excellent upgrades for the on-the-go G+er.

For most of us accessing via mobile, the greatest change has been Google’s improved posting abilities. Although the setup uses Android’s built-in, intuitive touch and gesturing, overall the posting options and setup work very much like they do for those accessing G+ with a notebook or computer. Sharing, reposting, and so forth are much easier now and more reliable.

Although it can take some time to set up the perfect options, having the ability to strictly (or loosely) control content notifications is a great time saver once it’s in place. I would suggest doing the initial setup on a notebook or tablet for easier navigation, though.

New Hangout Options

Probably the best improvement here is for low bandwidth connections, which will see smoother video and much better audio. Gone are the choppy screencasts for slower connections or for those connecting during high-usage times. This is a boon for emerging markets where Internet access is often slower.

One-on-one Hangouts are much better now as Google has changed the way they operate. If you’re the only one watching, the “filmstrip” of other watchers isn’t there, freeing up more screen real estate so the video feed can be larger. If you use Hangouts for collaboration or individual tutoring/training, this is great.

The New Revolution In Electronic Payments In the Cloud

While some people might have issues with the service, PayPal should be credited with one major innovation: it enabled the e-commerce revolution almost single-handedly. Those of us who were around before it existed remember how difficult it was to get a merchant account and begin accepting payments online. Now, anyone with a few minutes’ time and a valid bank account can set up a PayPal account and begin accepting online payments almost immediately. With a few more, simple (and free) checks, they can start accepting credit cards too. A person can literally go from no online presence to having a fully functioning website with a shopping cart that accepts payments in just a few hours. Compare that to the weeks we would spend doing the same thing just a decade or so ago.

Although PayPal is still the number one way that most small Web businesses receive credit card and e-check payments online, that’s beginning to change. Other services meant to rival PayPal and promote eBay’s rivals (eBay owns PayPal as of the mid-1990s) began to appear, but haven’t really caught on with nearly the market proliferation PayPal enjoys.

That’s changing now thanks to a combined (though separate) effort by sometime-rivals Google and Apple.

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One Reason Google Dominates … Its Hybrid Approach to R&D

Google is known for two things: as a search and Web-enabled technology provider and as a powerhouse of research and development with a huge swatch of diverse interests. Google is a weird hybrid combination of huge corporate conglomerate and research university.

This approach, largely thanks to the influence of its founders, has made Google into one of the biggest companies in the world – a company that is respected both in business and in scientific circles. Where else can you have a company who’s the world leader in search engine marketing that is also a research leader in self-driving automobiles?

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Google Wins on Two Fronts, but Can’t Oust PayPal

Some interesting statistics were released this week from New Relic and Statcounter. Both are companies well-respected in online data collecting and reporting in their respective fields. While the studies were separate from one another, when considered together, they make for interesting reading.

=== Wait, Who’s New Relic and What’s a Statcounter?

New Relic is a web application performance management company that monitors 38 billion transactions daily for some of the biggest clientele on the Web. If you recognized names like Nike, Groupon and Zynga, then you’ll be interested to know that all of them have New Relic in common. For this study, NR focused on 21,000 Web applications for their findings. Continue reading

Google releases two new ranking algorithm updates

IStock 000017765581XSmallIt seems Google releases a new ranking algorithm update every week. Last week, Google’s Matt Cutts announced there is another algorithm update targeting web spam. What does this mean for your rankings and how must you react?

Google doesn’t like web spam

“In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines.

We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.

While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.”

Things that Google considers spam

Google’s announcement shows two examples. The first example is a page that is stuffed with hundreds of keywords in a comma separated list.

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Google Changing Search – Again

004 33As a company, Google does a lot of things. They’re in the news almost weekly with something new or interesting their Labs or other departments are working on. Their core business, search, however, is only changing slowly, steadily, with few ‘big news’ changes hitting it. When relatively big changes do come, they become topics of discussion in the press and online for months as those who make a living courting Google’s search algorithms struggle to figure out what the changes mean to their business.

Now, the search giant has once again announced that major changes to its way of finding and displaying data about websites are coming. Those changes are going to make a big different to a certain segment of search marketers – those who aim for question answering, specifically.

Answering Questions

You may recall a new search engine poised to change the world that debuted in 2009. WolframAlpha.com was touted heavily by various members of the media as a ‘Google killer’ despite its founder’s statements to the contrary. What made Alpha so great? It answers questions. Literally.

If you’ve been on the Web for a few years, you probably remember Ask Jeeves. This was also a search engine that, in a rudimentary way, attempted to answer plain English questions directly. It was marginally successful in its time, though technology was not quite ready for that kind of human:machine interaction yet. Wolfram has been able to do it for the most part, though it may take a little more time for semantic parsing to become everyday.

The tech behind taking human language terms and using them to find information in context is called ‘semantic search.’ Asking ‘Do you have ice cream’ versus ‘How is ice cream made’ contains roughly the same keywords (‘ice cream’ being prevalent), but has vastly different response expectations from the person asking. A semantic search parser might pull the keys ‘you,’ ‘have,’ and ‘ice cream’ to find a list of responses that match the intent of the user by searching through its ‘ice cream’ database and pulling only those items that match a ‘find’ or ‘buy’ or ‘get’ type search.

As the Internet proliferates and more and more untrained people use it, the ability to interact with those who do not make their living in computer-related fields and who instead are only casual users of the Web, is extremely important. While Google has gotten really good at finding the answers (or at least links to them) that people want, the chief complaint amongst its users is that it too often comes up with irrelevant items.

That, of course, is annoying to Google, who wants to be always on top and whose very survival requires that it be. So some changes are coming to Google’s search presentation and internal semantic tech.

The Changes

These changes are, of course, only being vaguely mentioned by the company. Rarely does the search giant give away anything until the day of its launch. But it’s obvious from statements and releases that what they’re planning is to add another search results area to user’s screens whenever Google thinks they’re asking a direct question. This area will contain direct answers to the assumed question.

To do this, Google has been quietly amassing a huge database of entities – people, places, and things – for the past two years. The idea seems to be that they’ll tie these things together so that queries into, say, ‘Who made Google?’ will produce answers like ‘Larry Page and Sergey Brin.’

Amit Singhai, a top executive at Google, seems to be the man behind this plan. Talking to the Wall Street Journal recently, he gave a rough idea of the plan, which is being implemented in a way that will not likely affect 99% of Web users or websites out there.

But it will affect some.

Who Will Probably Lose

The changes are very obviously going to affect a small niche search market in which webmasters and SEO marketers target specific questions with answers. Right now, there is a subculture of SEO marketers who take relatively common questions like ‘Who invented the Wankel Rotary Engine?’ and create websites targeted entirely on that term with titles that are the answer.

It’s an interesting little niche and it can potentially drive huge amounts of traffic. Those sites may see themselves pushed down in the results. Honestly, however, this niche has already been seeing a lot of downplay anyway, thanks to popular question answering sites like Wikipedia getting ranked at the top of Google for most common questions.

The good news? Most of us will gain because it will make finding information much easier and it won’t change our results otherwise – it just decides to put direct answers at the very top.