Many of you may have heard about Google+ ("Google Plus"), a relatively new social networking site. People often describe it by comparing it to other sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, but Google+ has a personality all its own. Like many social networking sites, Google+ doesn't come with an instruction manual, and it has a lot of features that may not be intuitive to figure out. Enter former Lifehacker editor Kevin Purdy, with Google+ The Missing Manual. As a fairly new user of Google+ I was very interested to see if this book would help me understand it better.
Disclosure: I was an intern for Lifehacker for three months while Kevin was one of the editors there.
NOTE: Google+ recently changed the look of its interface, so the illustrations in the book may not match what's on the screen. I'm not concerned with that, but whether the book helps explain how the service works.
Beginning at the beginning is always good
The book starts out with a nice clear explanation of what Google+ is and is not. Getting an understanding of what you're dealing with is often the key to success, and this book gets the reader onto solid ground quickly. I was surprised to see that Google+ reacts differently with different browsers. While I expected Google Chrome to be favored, the fact that Internet Explorer sometimes doesn't display the same set of features came as a surprise. This is something that would not be obvious, and it's another reason why the Missing Manual series is so successful. There are plenty of clear and colorful illustrations for everything, which I always think is a plus.
The reader does not have to have a Google account to begin with; the instructions include setting one up. Each step of the process is explained, with discussions of what features Google+ offers that you may and may not want to include on your account. This is another place where having a manual to explain things is well worth the time it takes to read it. (Anyone who's read my book reviews knows how genuinely fond I am of reading manuals.)
Making Google+ shine (and do things your way)
One of Google+'s most useful features is what they call Circles. Circles are kind of like a contact manager on steroids. You're fully in control of which people get which information from you, and you can do this much faster and more efficiently than on many other social media sites. Google+ The Missing Manual walks you through the reasoning behind Circles, and the ways in which you might want to group the people on your contact list, and the ways in which you can set up each Circle so that the people assigned to it see only what you want them to see. Many of us write things that we don't necessarily want everyone to see, and it's one-click simple to assign contacts to their own Circle so that they don't fall off their chairs when they read what you've been up to. There's also a good clear explanation of how you can import contact lists from other sites and from other devices (like your phone or tablet) with minimal fuss and bother. Having once struggled to figure out how to get my contact list from my iPod Touch synced with my Google Contacts, I wished I'd had these instructions two years ago when I was trying to understand not very helpful help files. Even though I've been using Google+ for several months, I was not aware that what you see when you first go there is called your Stream. The illustrations in the book show a sample page that does indeed have Stream at the top of it, but the new interface doesn't look like that. (That's my excuse for not knowing and I'm sticking to it.) Now I not only know the right term for it, I know many more ways to customize the Stream so I see what interests me most. I had already noticed that a Stream isn't always arranged in chronological order, but hadn't figured out quite what was going on. Google+ The Missing Manual explains why this is. There are plenty of instructions (with examples and illustrations) to explain how to post things to your Stream and how to choose which people in your Circles will see your posts.
Hello, it's me
I don't think any two people are alike when it comes to notifications. Some people want to know when every single message arrives, some people don't want to be bothered, period, and most people fall somewhere between the two extremes. Google+ lets you set up your notifications exactly the way you want, which is something just about everyone can appreciate. Once again Google+ The Missing Manual comes through with instructions that should make the process easier for just about everyone. (Guess what, I didn't know there was a Notifications Stream, either!) The reader can quickly learn how to set up chats and send and receive SMS text messages right from Google+. There is also an excellent section that explains how you can share and tag photos and videos and even edit them after they are posted.
Another nice feature of Google+ is what they call Hangouts. Old-timers like me think of Hangout as just another name for "chat room," but a Hangout is a lot better than the chat rooms of days gone by. Here again, having comprehensive instructions for setting everything up, including whom you want to include, and making sure your equipment is working properly. The brief explanation of mobile apps earlier in the book gets an entire chapter explaining it in much more detail toward the end. It covers iOS and Android phones and tablets and also gives instructions for using Google+ on devices that use neither of those systems (by using the device's built-in browser). This will be very useful for people who might think they're shut out of Google+ mobile because they don't yet have an iOS or Android device (like me).
Google+ The Missing Manual concludes with a chapter about playing games. There's quite an assortment of games available, and there will surely be more in the future. Some games want more information from you than you may care to share, and it was good to see a warning about that. Some games are designed to be played with other people (with whom you can share invitations) and some are solo. Since the game landscape is likely to change rapidly, this chapter just gives an overview and invites the reader to try some of the games out if so inclined.
Wrapping it up
I wish I'd had this book when I first started exploring Google+. Not everything about it is intuitive, and not everything is explained well in the Help. The book is designed to help the reader feel at ease with each feature, and the explanations are clear and comprehensive. The colorful illustrations are a plus and I'm sure there are Google+ features in the book that nearly everyone hasn't discovered yet. It's a winner.
This is for everyone who's interested in Google+, from novice to experienced user. It covers nearly everything anyone would want to know in an easy, conversational style. It's designed to get you up and running quickly and then to explain the more advanced features that many people will want to explore. I've learned about several things I hadn't seen before, and I'm keeping this close by for future reference.