Google+: The Missing Manual

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Google+ The Missing Manual

Prior to Google+, the company's previous attempts at social networking — Orkut, Dodgeball, Jaiku, Wave, and Buzz — were largely failures, and tended to frustrate users who had devoted time and effort to contributing content and establishing connections with other users, only to see the services wither on the vine. In contrast, Google+ appears to be receiving far more nurturing by the Internet behemoth, and as a result has arguably better chances of not just surviving, but expanding to the point of eventually challenging Twitter and Facebook. Like its rivals, Google+ offers online help information to explain to newcomers the basics of how to use the service. But there is little to no advice on how to make the most of its capabilities, and even the basic functionality is not always clearly explained. That is the purpose of a new book, Google+: The Missing Manual.

Authored by Kevin Purdy, the book was published by O'Reilly Media, on 30 December 2011, under the ISBN 978-1449311872. The publisher's page has a brief description of the book, its table of contents, some comments on the book from customers and reviewers, a couple errata (as of this writing), and links for purchasing the print version (such as the one kindly provided to me by the publisher) and/or the e-book versions (in EPUB, MOBI, and PDF formats). The "missing CD" page has links to most if not all of the online resources mentioned in the text.

Like the other entries in the Missing Manual series, this one starts with the basics, and builds upon that foundation. It does not assume any knowledge of Google+, or even possession of a Google account.

The book's material is organized into nine chapters, for a total of 232 pages. The first chapter, "Getting Started", explains exactly how to join Google+, invite friends to your new network, and configure your profile, including your privacy settings and a photo (even tweaking it online). The second chapter, "Managing Contacts with Circles" covers how to create new circles, edit and organize existing ones, share them with other Google+ users, and find people to add to your circles. But, oddly, the information is not presented in that logical order. The author explicates the advantages of using more than the default four circles provided by Google. Some points are repeated, but briefly enough that it is inconsequential.

While the first two chapters lay the foundation for joining Google+ and setting up your account and circles, the next three chapters explore the details of using this service — starting with "Streams, Sharing, and Privacy", which explains the various types of streams (main, circle, Notification, and the now-defunct Incoming stream), as well as the user interface elements for those streams and the individual posts they comprise. The author also demonstrates how to write your own posts, specify who gets to see them, edit your posts, and interact with the posts submitted by other users. The next chapter explores the important topic of notifications, which are sent as email messages, smartphone messages, etc. Helpfully, the author discusses the differences between the user interfaces of the Android and iPhone notification apps. The subsequent chapter fully explains how to share photos and videos with other Google+ users, as well as how to upload and perform basic editing of images. However, it may have been more logical to present the latter information before the former.

For people who want the capabilities previously only provided by commercial web conferencing services, hangouts might be the most welcome feature of Google+. Chapter 6 explains how to set up and participate in these videos/audio meetings online, as well as how to incorporate Google Chat, YouTube videos, and Android devices. The subsequent chapter, "Searching and Sparks", has plenty of advice on how to search for other Google+ users and the content they contribute. The penultimate chapter dives into the differences you may encounter when using Google+ on small screen devices — specifically, Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. The last chapter, which is the briefest of the bunch, is also likely to prove the least useful to most readers, as it covers how to get started playing the games built into Google+.

The book does not cover Google+ Pages, which was likely introduced after the final draft of the book was submitted to the publisher. Readers are directed to an untitled 14-page PDF file that covers the essentials of Google+ Pages. Oddly, the publisher's page links to that file with the text "Download Example Code"; but there is no example code for this book. The supplement contains a few flaws: "box pop-up box" (page 4), "using a promoting your Page" (9), and "his her name" (11).

Speaking of which, given the relatively modest number of pages in this book, and the limited amount of text on each one, this book contains far too many errata: "works different" (page xiii; echoes of Apple's infernal "Think Different" marketing campaign?), "If typing web addresses by hand that isn't" (page 3), "a different a social networking site" (4), "she's added you [to] her" (54), "added to [the] +Add box" (58), "even if [you] just" (79), "and the[n] click the" (79), "settings that lets you can choose" (83), "modicum [of] more fuss" (105), "share its photos [with] specific circles" (117), "where [the] photo" (124), "just like [the] lightbox view" (126), "and or" (147; should read "and/or"), "an job" (148), "how to [use?] Google+ running" (169), "search find" (170), "bring up to the same list" (180), "The form exact" (185; should read "The exact form"), "you can't get start" (191), "in in" (193), and "a box let you know" (194).

Some of the statements in the narrative are odd — for instance, "Halloween right around October 31" (page 7; when else would Halloween occur?). Other phrases are poorly worded — for instance, "whenever you feel irked or like something must be broken" (44), "maybe an extra like a link" (60), and "select an item from the menu that appears to see only circle-related notifications" (80). Lastly, at least one pair of verbs have inconsistent form ("start" and "mentioning" on page 62). All of these blemishes should have been caught by the copyediting crew. But for the most part, the narrative is straightforward. It is occasionally livened up with a bit of humor, which is good, because portions of the text begin to sound the same, as a result not so much of the author's writing, but more the Google+ interface itself.

Only a few technical errors are immediately evident — for instance, on page 61, the author refers to a for-loop in computer code incorrectly: "+1 is a common way of making a program run over and over again". But it is not a program that is being repeated, but rather a code block.

Scattered throughout the text are numerous text boxes — most of which are labeled "Note" or "Tip". Unfortunately, they are set in a font that is a bit too small for comfortable reading. Also, there does not appear to be any difference among these types of information sections, yet there are at least half a dozen different names for them.

All of the key topics are nicely illustrated with sample screenshots, in grayscale, oftentimes with relevant controls circled or otherwise indicated. The only weakness is that the author typically does not mention which figure is being referenced in the text — not that that would help much anyway, since none of them have figure numbers. It's usually clear from the context, but not always.

Yet the very existence of this book may give readers some pause: If a book of this size is required to explain how to use a social networking service aimed at the general public, perhaps the Google+ user interface needs to be overhauled and made more intuitive? Yet that process is probably underway, because Google+ is under constant revision. Thus there will be portions of the text and screenshots that differs somewhat from the current incarnation of the user interface and its features. But for most of these instances, it is easy enough to determine how what you read in the book correlates with what you might see on the screen.

The primary weakness of this book is that it does not attempt to explain how Google+ might be integrated into a business's online marketing strategy, nor how it compares against Facebook or Twitter in terms of its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, as noted above, the book addresses Google+ Pages only in a supplementary document. Such information would have made this entry in the Missing Manual series far more valuable.

However, one forte of this book is that the author has clearly put effort into learning and explaining the privacy implications of the various Google+ features — critical in this era of evaporating privacy and data breaches on an unprecedented scale.

On balance, he largely achieves his objective. Google+: The Missing Manual is an informative and approachable introduction to Google's social network.

Copyright © 2012 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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