Google's big push to own social starts today

New Android hooks and compelling upgrades mean Google+ can finally help the company connect the dots between Web, mobile, and social.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
4 min read
vic gundotra
Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of engineering, takes Google I/O stage to discuss big changes to Google+. James Martin/CNET

Nearly two years after the launch of Google+, Google's social strategy looks like less of a joke and more of a calculated maneuver to make its social network the underlying fabric that weaves together relationships spread across desktop and mobile, Android and iOS.

Wednesday, at its annual Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco, the search company announced 41 new features for its Google+ social network, including a Pinterest-like look, auto-generated related hashtags, "Awesome" photo options, and a streamlined messaging experience.

More important than all the cosmetic changes to the stream or the flashy photo enhancements are the developer- and user-friendly Google+ Android and iOS hooks that the company also announced. New features such as Google+ Sign-In and APIs that tie Google+ Circles to Android gameplay, boring as they may sound, make Google+ the new official identity layer on hundreds of millions of handsets and tablets.

With cross-platform single signon, Google+ Sign-in eliminates the friction of needing to log in to mobile apps. If you sign in with Google+ on the Web and opt to automatically download the corresponding Android app to your tablet or phone, when you go to open that app, you'll already be logged in, and you can pick up exactly where you left off. Forget needing to create an account or having to remember your username and password, Google+ has you covered.

Already, early signs suggest that people, when given a choice, will choose to log in with Google. In the first quarter of 2013, Google's social log-in option was the second most popular log-in option and took 34 percent share of social log-ins, according to Janrain, a provider of user management services. Facebook, meanwhile, accounted for 46 percent of social log-ins in the quarter.

The easier Google makes it for people to sign in to their favorite apps on Web or mobile, the more likely people will opt for the Google+ option over the Facebook one.

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Game leaderboards, powered by Google+ Circles. Google

Now, throw in some of the benefits of the brand new Google Play game services, which let developers tap Google+ Circles to create leaderboards and support multiplayer gameplay, and the social network gives people an attractive way to enhance their app experiences. The tools are available to both Android and iOS app-makers, which means the leaderboard and multiplayer options can connect mobile gamers to their friends using the same app on a different OS.

For users, Google Play game services, in layman's terms, means that, "you'll be able to challenge your friends on Google+ to real-time multiplayer competitions, or race against them to the top of the leaderboards," the company explained in a blog post.

In making Google+ the identity platform of Android, Google will give every single one of the 900 million people who have activated Android devices a reason to create and continually use their Google+ accounts. And because the Google+ social layers work in iOS apps, Google is also going after Apple's domain too.

The trickiest piece will be enticing people to make Google+, not Facebook, their primary social identity -- and that's where all those juicy new social-networking features come into play.

Hangouts, in particular, which merges messaging across desktop, Gmail, Android, and iOS, is a genius way to get people more deeply hooked into the G+ experience. If you already use any of Google's messaging products -- Gmail chat, Google Talk, Google Chat, or the old Google+ Hangouts -- then you'll gravitate over to the new Google+ Hangouts app and more of your real relationships will be carried over to Google's social network.

Watch this: Google+ gets whole new look
When you use the cross-platform Hangouts messaging app, you'll probably start sharing photos in your conversations, and those photos are automatically saved to Google+ photo albums. Hangouts, then, will dump you into the new G+ photo experience, where your shots are backed up and auto-enhanced, and you can have a little fun with motion images stitched together by Google.

Now that you're using photos, maybe you'll give the Google+ stream another gander. After all, the stream does sport an enticing, albeit Pinterest-like, new look and should help you find interesting content with those auto-generated related hashtags.

In case you can't see what's happening here, step back and look at the full picture. Google is using Google+ to connect the dots between Web, mobile, and social. Google+ grabs the Web user, the mobile user, or the social networker, wherever he or she may be, and directs the person to new products and experiences, and promises a socially enriched experience along the way. Should you go along for the ride, you'll stay logged in to Google+ to message or video chat with friends, game with your Circles, and have fun with photos.

Google+, as the company has always stated, isn't a social network, but a social layer. Two years later, we can actually see that layer start to take shape.