Dear Lifehacker, I think Google+ is pretty great, but the budding social network hasn't caught fire with most of my friends. So what can I get out of Google+ if it's not really my Total Facebook Replacement?Sincerely, Hesitant Early Adopter
You're asking the right person at the right time. Your humble author is just a few days away from sending Google+: The Missing Manual off to the printers, after many, many hours exploring the innards of Google's deeply inter-connected social thing, many revisions for yet another new feature, and quite a few jabs from friends and compatriots.
So, with the disclosure that I'm professionally interested, but personally pragmatic, here are five neat things you should keep Google+ in mind for, even if it's not yet the primary place for your online networks. At least not yet, maybe.
Get Hold of People in Unique, Noticeable Fashion
When you want to get on a busy person's radar screen, an email message puts you in a long queue with not just other people, but with newsletters, notifications, and bank and bill statements. Twitter and Facebook can work, but might not give you enough room, or the right context, to get your message across.
If the person you're trying to reach is active on Google+, it's a good place to try and get in touch. Create a post on Google+, click on the section below your post to choose the circles and people you share with, and type out only the name of the person you're contacting to create a kind of private message. Add links, YouTube videos, and fit your message in the roomier confines of Google+. Below is an example of a one-to-one exchange I had with Marshall Kirckpatrick of ReadWriteWeb, just a few hours ago. (Click this image, or any images in this post, for a larger view)
Some people on Google+ have made this process easier by adding a "Send message" link to their profiles, which simply automates the one-person-post process described above. Other people have a "Send email" link on their profiles, which does just what it sounds like. And while you're sending an email, the header and subject will note that it came through their Google Profile, which might differentiate you from the pack.
Use Hangouts for Document Collaboration and Much Easier Video Chat
The group video chat feature of Google+, Hangouts, is the best we at Lifehacker have ever seen. It's remarkably agile at making a multi-person group chat work, and it's easier to rely on participants to have a Google account than hoping their Skype setup works. More than just casual video chats, though, a somewhat heralded feature of Hangouts, "Hangouts with extras", gives you the ability to edit a Google Doc, sketch and design together in SketchUp, and share a portion of your screen with up to 10 people at once.
Google+ markets Hangouts as a social experience, like a street cafe where anybody can wander toward your table and say hello. But you can simply invite only a few select people to a Hangout, perhaps letting them know ahead of time to look for the invite in their Google+ stream (or their red notification bar) when you'll be hanging out. You can also copy the URL of the Hangout with extras and send it to people to invite them in, letting you use Hangout in semi-private fashion as a much better Skype (assuming your invitees don't invite everyone in their circles to join in, too).
Back Up Your Photos For Free
If you've signed up for Google+, your Picasa Web Albums, the space where Google offers to store and share your photos, gets a really big upgrade. Any photo less then 2048 by 2048 pixels, and any video less than 15 minutes long, even shot in HD, doesn't count toward your storage total. That's pretty nifty, but how do you get your photos up in the Picasa web space to take advantage?
Grab the Picasa desktop software for your Windows or Mac system, install it, and use the Folder Manager in the Tools menu to make sure the photos you'd like uploaded are being "watched". Next, head into the Options (also in the Tools menu), and head to the Web Albums tab. If you're sure that your photos are under 2048 pixels in size, or at least that a large portion of them are under that limit, you can set the default upload size to "Original", but otherwise, pick the "Recommend" size of 1600 pixels (wide). Now click through your albums and turn on "Sync to web" on those you want to back up. There you go — all the photos you want, backed up from your system to Picasa's almost unlimited space.
Auto-Sync and Share Your Android Photos
This one is my go-to pitch for Google+ for anybody with an Android phone. Install the Google+ app on your Android, whether or not you plan to read or send posts with it. While installing the app, you'll be asked to enable Instant Upload — do so, but set it to Wi-Fi only. Now, whenever you snap photos on your phone, they'll be automatically uploaded to your Google+ account the next time you're around a trusted Wi-Fi network.
So what? So now, besides having a safeguard against losing easy-to-wipe smartphone photos, all those photos are now backed up on Picasa Web Albums, too. And from Picasa, you can share those photos with anyone, whether they're on Google+ or not, through simple links and emails. Look for the "Share by email only" link at the bottom of the window that pops up when you hit the "Share" button to send photos out beyond Google+.
Search Out Nerdy Information
Let's cut to the chase: a fair number of the people actively engaged with Google+ at this early stage are tech-inclined, social media savvy and just generally nerdy. That's not a put-down, that's just letting you know that Google+ can be a good place to search out things you're not finding responses for elsewhere. Search what you're looking for in Google+, and even though you're only seeing posts shared as "Public", you're likely to find some posts, links and discussions that expand your knowledge of a topic. You can also click the "Save this search" button in the upper-right corner to quickly run this search again (from a list just below your circles in the left-hand sidebar), or keep a tab open in your browser and let Google+ continue its real-time search, clicking the "X more recent posts" to see the latest updates.
There you have it — five things you can get out of Google+, even if it seems like a quiet place in your own circles. Google+ can be a really interesting place to browse, post and get a conversation going, but at the very least, keep these free, handy features in mind. See you in the stream.
P.S. If our dear readers have any further uses of Google+ that go beyond the basic post-and-read, we'd love to hear about them in the comments.