Well, managed to wangle an invite into Google+ in the first few hours of the invites being issued, so here’s a quick look around. [Update: less than 1 hour after typing that sentence, the invites have been switched off for now!]

Firstly, in case you were unaware, Google+ is Google’s potential rival to social networks such as Facebook. However before everyone tries to suggest that Google will fail in this space, even from the outset Google has obviously learned from some of the ‘mistakes’ that have been made elsewhere, as well as with Wave and Buzz.

Once you have joined, you should first complete your profile. Most people with a Google account may have already added some information to their public profile, but now is the chance to add much more, including multiple profile pics, which you can rotate through simply by clicking. You can connect accounts eg Twitter, Linkedin, Quora, Facebook etc, as well as add photos, bio information, and adjust privacy settings.

Google does appear to have taken into account the many complaints that there have been about privacy issues on social networks, with a full range of privacy options available. The amount and kind of notifications are also easily changed to prevent inundation of your inbox. Interestingly, you can also receive notifications by SMS but as yet this appears to only be available for India and the US.

The black toolbar that has been the subject of much debate these last few days now has easy access to Google+ at the left hand side, and notifications on the right. However, it only appears on Google.com at present, although the toolbar does appear in all Google properties eg Gmail, Reader, documents, calendar etc.

Once your profile is complete, you can add people to Circles, and seemingly these can be unlimited in number, allowing you to slice and dice friends, family, colleagues in numerous different ways. People can be added to various different circles and privacy settings can be customised for each circle. A circle can be added as a tab in Chrome, allowing you to easily click on a Circle and follow what everyone is doing.

Google + Circles

You can see people who are in other Google + users’ circles and add them to your own. However, these people do not have to add you to their circles – just as people do not have to follow you back on Twitter. The names of your circles are not revealed, allowing you some privacy over your choice of circle names.

Sparks is a really interesting feature which allows you to search on interests and find sites and news of interest. For any companies putting out regular press releases and featuring in Google News, your keyword optimisation is going to be important if you want to be found here. Sparks may take over from Readers in some ways, pushing the content to you for your interests.

Hangouts have huge potential, particularly for businesses who want to do online collaboration, run webinars easily, and for tech support. There still seem to be a few bugs – avatars not showing if no webcam, difficulty of adding a single person rather than an entire circle, call drop outs etc – but there are some very cool features such as public notifies of mute, sharing YouTube videos, and the sound and video quality for voice does seem to be at least as good as Skype when it is working.

Huddle allows you to have up to 6 people in a threaded text chat, making decision making simple.

There is a mobile app at m.google.com/plus and an Android app already in the store, with an iPhone app coming shortly once it is approved.

The mobile app makes following your stream simple, as well as bringing together all your Google properties in one place eg gmail, calendar etc, which is a long-awaited service.

Adding people to your circles brings plenty of content into your streams and for businesses is likely to prove preferable to Facebook, allowing targeting of users who are not FB fans. Google recently issued a statement that this time last year over 20% of searches were conducted by people who were logged into a Google account, so it is likely that this will rise quickly once the buzz about Google+ gets out and people want to try it.

By limiting the number of invitations, Google is playing a canny game and making this currently a fairly exclusive club that many more will want to join. Once the invites are opened up again, the Find and Invite feature offers a chance to add people who Google has identified are in social networks or linked to you in some way by email etc.

More shortly….going back to play!

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology