Google+ at three (weeks)

By now, you can’t have missed hearing about Google+, the latest not-quite-Facebook horse in Google’s increasingly social stable. Three weeks in it remains in a limited beta, but the mystique surrounding the new platform and an invitation-based Gmail-style rollout have kept its user base growing steadily.

What’s good

Google+ provides the basic tools of a social network (friends, groups, photos, news) with little chaff. Think of TheFacebook with a healthy dose of privacy control tossed in for good measure, and you start to get the idea. The experience is a little smoother, too—Plus integrates seamlessly with existing Google services like Search and Gmail while using Google’s well–established infrastructure to remove data restrictions for its users. Where Facebook limits users to 5000 friends, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg already has over 200,000 on Google+.

So far, Google has managed to avoid many of the privacy snafus that have defined its previous forays into social media. Problems will doubtless emerge as the site’s population continues to grow, but more than ten million users are now participating in the limited release with few complaints.

In order to continue this growth, however, Google+ needs to stay committed to a few key principles.

#1: Don’t change

Google’s commitment to minimalism keeps Plus focused on doing a few things really well. It (so far) remains unburdened by excessive third-party development. It limits the types of content its users can post, but provides excellent tools for submitting, editing, and distributing what is allowed. This less–is–more aesthetic is one of very few distinctions between Google+ and Facebook. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a design decision that will resound with the core group of users that the site will need to sustain itself.

#2: Don’t screw up

Google holds the keys to an enormous volume of data. Any privacy concerns the company’s practices have generated in the past can’t do anything but grow as masses of personal information flow on to its servers, and the blogosphere vultures are already circling in hopes of a slip. Google+ has been lauded for offering users exquisite control over who can access their information, but it must continue to do so. One mistake might be all it takes to scare the flock away for good.

#3: Focus growth outside

Every online start–up knows that growth and adaptation are the keys to survival. For Google+, however, the majority of this growth should come from outside the application itself. An interface crowded by third-party development that alienates many die-hard users should be avoided at all costs; therefore, any growth of the application must take place elsewhere.

Google already has a thriving development community surrounding its Android and browser–based apps. Some limited exposure of Google+ data to third–party development beyond the site may help it attain the ubiquity enjoyed by many of Google’s other offerings. It’s already been hinted at— now Google just needs to follow through.