Google makes small changes to Google+ but shows social skills elsewhere

The company rolled out incremental improvements to its social network platform while adding social elements to its other offerings

Reports of the demise of Google+ have been widely exaggerated, Vic Gundotra seemed to suggest on Thursday morning at Google I/O when he said that the social network was hosting 13,000 pictures of the company's party the night before, displayed automatically in chronological order and identified by poster.

The technical feat came thanks to a "party mode" that the company launched as part of its updated Android app for the social network. It was one of several improvements to Google+ that the company publicized at the conference that show Google is still working to lure users away from Facebook.

Google+ now hosts 250 million accounts and 150 million monthly active users, the company said Wednesday. Facebook boasts more than 900 million monthly active users.

Gundotra said users now spend an average of 12 minutes a day in the Google+ "stream," up from just nine minutes several months ago. But third-party studies have indicated Google has a long way to go. One widely cited study released in February said users spent six to seven hours per month on Facebook, versus three minutes per month on Google+.

At Google I/O, Google launched a tablet-specific version of Google+ that will ship with its in-house tablet offering, the Nexus 7. The app is visually rich, with the photos that accompany popular posts displayed larger to make them easier to find. It is also the introductory platform for Events, a set of features that includes the party mode. In party mode, Google+ automatically clusters users' photos from the same event and orders them chronologically.

Events, which will reach iOS and Android smartphone users through an update, also includes an event invitation capability with visually elaborate templates for animated invitations. A Google+ member who creates the invitation can invite friends who aren't users.

"By providing for non-members, it poses a much lower barrier than Facebook events, and should therefore attract more users," Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said in an email interview.

The company is also trying to leverage its video chat feature, Hangouts, to gain a competitive edge over Facebook.

"They're clearly focusing on Hangouts. They're saying, 'we have Facebook over a barrel here; they can't do this,'" said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner.

Capitalizing on the success of apps in Hangouts, which Google said has more than doubled the amount of time users spend in a chat, the company unveiled eight more Hangouts apps on Wednesday.

Among them was a real-time enterprise collaboration app that echoes the synchronous collaborative editing the company introduced in Google Docs on Thursday morning.

Google also shone a big spotlight on Hangouts by using them along with Google Glass to communicate with the skydivers that co-founder Sergey Brin followed from the air to the convention center during both keynotes.

The features show that Google is still committed to Google+, and they bring more clarity to the company's intention to make with Google+ a "social spine" for all of its services, said Gartner's Blau.

"The social features are getting pushed out and get integrated into all these different apps," Blau said.

Blau noted that Google Now, an app that runs in the newly minted Jelly Bean version of the Android OS, seems set to deliver the integrated, personalized services that the company has pointed to as the ultimate payload of Google+.

Google Now finds a calendar item, for example, then calls up Google Maps to display in a tile the best route to reach the appointment and how long it will take. It might also learn from a user's search history that he or she is a fan of the San Francisco Giants, and could then display real-time scores for any ongoing games.

However, Google Now doesn't currently integrate with Google+.

So while the changes to Google+ haven't wowed Google watchers, Blau said the company was showing that it had begun to think socially in everything it does.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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