I Wish I Weren’t Writing This Article- a SimCity Review from a Marketing Viewpoint

I didn’t sit down at my PC today planning to write this article, I actually had some pure leisure time in mind. However, I haven’t been able to do what I planned to do quite a bit this week as much as I’d hoped- play the latest version of SimCity, released Tuesday, March 5th. I’ve been able to play the game some, but as I’m going to get into, there’ve been some technical hiccups to say the least. In between bouts of trying to play and weeping softly at all the wasted time I’ve had a chance to monitor a lot of different channels of sentiment and also watch EA’s response with an involved but sort of dispassionate perspective. See, I buy games like these expecting to get screwed. It’s a lot like going to the casino- if you plan to lose you’ll probably have a pretty good time.

Roulette is FUN, who cares?

Before I get into what I’ve seen other people saying, and then into what EA’s response has been (pretty good, actually, considering) I want to explain what my personal experience has been. In a nutshell, the SimCity servers are lying whores:

 

lies

 

…but I still love them so, so much.

I preordered after applying to and playing in the second of two one-hour betas; I literally went to the page and ordered the deluxe digital download directly after playing it. D. Then, I played in the 4-hour “stress test” beta and realized the potential the whole game had- and that’s when I started getting really excited. I got the game early, Monday night because I live on the West Coast. I started stabbing the button at 9 PM and started downloading the unlocked game at 10:01. It took about 40 minutes to download and unpack, and I managed to get a good 2 hours in with the game before forcing myself to go to bed as I had work in the morning. It was only enough time to set up a region, claim a city, and noodle a little.

I went to work on Tuesday, then watched RAW from Monday night, then sat down at about 9 PM to play SimCity. A ha ha ha. I sat there for the next three hours Alt-tabbing between servers that were melting and several forums that were exploding. I didn’t get to play. I did manage to play Wednesday for about 3 hours, and Thursday for the same. I was completely locked out last night and as I write this on Saturday afternoon, I am also currently locked out.

Here’s what I know about SimCity in easy to digest bullet points:

1. This is not the SimCity you are used to. It’s much more dynamic, there are things to do beyond just “grow your city and make Simoleans until everything is   arcologies”, as fun as that was:

The disasters can’t be turned off (unless you want to disqualify yourself from leaderboards)- but there is a sandbox mode that I haven’t tried as it just seems very unsatisfying to consider.

 2. YES THE GOD DAMN CITIES ARE GOD DAMN SMALLER,WE KNOW, STOP POSTING IT. It’s a very deliberate decision EA made so that your dad’s laptop can also run SimCity, and not just your mechagodzilla of a gaming rig.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Cities are all part of a larger region now- and if you want to, you can set up a 16-city region and run ‘em all yourself, go nuts. I think          however, that would be missing the point because…

3. SimCity ’13 or whatever we end up calling it is essentially a multiplayer game at heart. Amidst the cries of “I can’t wait until they hack in offline single player” (impossible, the games are saved server-side) or “I’ll play it when someone cracks the DRM” (not going to happen, Diablo III for example is  almost a year old and hasn’t been cracked and won’t be cracked until the server code is leaked, same as SimCity) what’s being lost is that people are pissed that it’s not the                 same game. Wanting the game to be single player only, wanting to be able to save games, wreck your city, and go back again and start from before the disaster are things this game simply is not about.   It’s a reboot, and it’s going to leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. The good news is, there are  still plenty of alternatives, including the last SimCity game which no one played until modders got their hands on it and made it not suck so bad. I, for one, can’t wait to unleash hordes of pollution and villainy on my neighbors in the region, then bulldoze, start again,  launch a rocket,build an arcology- and so on, and so forth.

4. They almost assuredly have teams that started working on DLC and/or expansion packs- I really hope it’s the latter- in parallel to the team working on the main game release. It’s going to be expensive to buy everything that comes with this game, as proven by the first DLC, which already represents an extra $30 to spend to “have everything”, if you didn’t get it for the discounted $20 by spending $80 on the deluxe version. This is not the whole game.

          5. This is a beautiful game. There’s no way around that one, I love to watch this game. These pictures don’t even do it justice, it is so pretty in motion.

 

 

6. The long term “endgame” of SimCity is the leaderboards.  The “Simulation” aspect of things isn’t something I am interested in particularly, min-maxing traffic through gaming the system by building huge cities with only one road, for example, doesn’t interest me. I’m more interested in building up huge regions with other friends and working together to take on the leaderboards.

7. This is a very fun game that’s not ready for prime time yet. Hold off a week on buying it. I’m really enjoying it;  I’m just tired of having to wait and roll the dice for 45 minutes to see if I get to play it or not. This is in spite of them supposedly doubling server capacity already- I haven’t noticed an appreciable difference in my ability to connect and now that it’s the weekend things are getting even worse.

So what are people so Angry about?

1. Always on DRM- you have to connect to EA’s servers to play the game. You can’t boot it up on a laptop on a Navy submarine, and you can’t use it to relax on a plane without paying for wifi. Does this suck? I’m not really bothered by it, I have a fast and consistent connection to play on, but that’s ignoring a lot of other people that don’t have one. It seems greedy and stupid but a retailer wouldn’t let thieves walk out the door without paying for merchandise, EA is not going to willingly let people pirate their games if they can help it by any means. I know it’s a  controversial opinion but DRM is something gamers brought upon themselves.

2. The servers are melting- the game is pretty much unplayable for a large portion of the people  that bought it. This is clearly the biggest issue, people paid anywhere from $45 to $80 for the game and can’t play it. The most common conclusion being drawn is that if the game simply had a one player offline mode- which is what a lot of people identify SimCity with, none of this nonsense would have happened. I’ve been around for some pretty big launches and it is getting irritating that companies are all “We didn’t know so many people wanted our product” when they know damn well how many people are going to play based on preorders. It’s hard not to think they aren’t just being greedy or stupid by not scaling up at first to meet demand.

Whaddya mean, people want to buy this thing we marketed and hyped the shit out of?

3. EA has flatly stated, “no refunds for Origin downloads”. This really pisses people off too because no one, anywhere, anytime said WE NEED ANOTHER DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SERVICE  and the service has frankly sucked like a Hoover since it was launched. It’s seen as another money grab by EA, an inefficient, buggy system when they easily could have adopted Steam, a system that has had time to mature and already does work.

4. There’s no single player, offline mode- this is less a reasonable consumer complaint, and more a “waah, my game changed” complaint. I’m not saying it’s not legit. I’m saying I have no sympathy for you if you bought a game unresearched and didn’t know what it was going to be in advance. There are 105 million results in Google’s index for “simcity review”- there’s something in there about the game, probably, somewere. Just a hunch.

The SimCity launch has been the perfect poop blizzard of poorly estimating consumer demand, a beloved franchise that changed a lot, and a seemingly soulless corporation greedily and clumsily implementing DRM ostensibly to help gamers, but ultimately perceived as “to fatten those margins”.

The other side of this coin is that as a marketer, it’s interesting for me to study a trainwreck like this from a PR/marketing/crisis management perspective. EA has done a lot of things right but I don’t know if A) there’s going to be any lasting damage or B) what the scale of said damage might be. At the time of this writing EA’s stock has not moved since the game’s release on Tuesday. I think what we’re seeing is digital Funzo trampling

If you get this reference you are as big a dork as I am.

I don’t think it bothers EA at all that there is so much demand for their game that it’s breaking their infrastructure- to your average stockholder, who doesn’t play games or give a crap about a server queue, that looks like you have a product that the consumer really really really wants to buy. And they’re right to think so, in spite of this fiasco the game remains the top selling PC game on Amazon. However, they have to respond. Here’s a brief summary of their response so far.

The company and its reps have been active on Twitter, as has Ocean Quigley, the Creative and Art Director for the title. Senior Producer Kip Katsarelis also posted on the official blog:

” You, the fans, are important to us. It’s why we got into games and it’s because of you that we  here at Maxis were able to complete our dream of making another SimCity. This has been an exciting week for us, but as you know there have been some bumps along the way. We want to shed light on one of the most significant issues that we are facing right now, as well as the steps we’re taking to resolve them so that we can provide you with an enjoyable experience.

 Server capacity is our biggest obstacle. We launched in North America on Tuesday and our servers filled up within a matter of hours. What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join. We added more servers to accommodate the launch in Australia and Japan, and then more yesterday to accommodate the launch in Europe. As of right now, we are adding even more servers which will be going live over the next three days. And, our plan is to continue to bring more servers online until we have enough to meet the demand, increase player capacity and let more people through the gates and into the game.

Earlier today, we released a patch that temporarily cut off some features including leaderboards, achievements and Cheetah Speed to reduce data stress on the servers and effectively free up space so that we can let more people into the game. These are great features that we’re proud of and we’ll turn them back on soon, but our number one priority is to bring stability to our servers. This update also resolved some of the bugs and issues that have been frustrating players. You can read all about it at http://forum.ea.com/eaforum/posts/list/9341807.page

We will be posting regularly to keep you up to speed on developments, so please check back for updates. We are committed to doing everything we can to deliver a stable and enjoyable experience and we thank you for your continued patience and support.”

EA has also added 8 additional servers and patched the game- but they aslo removed the fastest gameplay speed, cheetah, which messes with the way a lot of people play, and they removed features such as sorting on the Join Game screen as well.

In addition to getting on a sort of filtered Reddit-style AMA on Twitter today, Maxis SVP Lucy Bradshaw has also posted the following on the SimCity blog:

“Here’s a quick update on the problems we were experiencing with SimCity – and a little something extra for people who bought the game. The server issues which began at launch have improved significantly as we added more capacity. But some people are still experiencing response and stability problems that we’re working fast to address.

So what went wrong? The short answer is: a lot more people logged on than we expected. More people played and played in ways we never saw in the beta. OK, we agree, that was dumb, but we are committed to fixing it. In the last 48 hours we increased server capacity by 120 percent. It’s working – the number of people who have gotten in and built cities has improved dramatically. The number of disrupted experiences has dropped by roughly 80 percent. So we’re close to fixed, but not quite there. I’m hoping to post another update this weekend to let everyone know that the launch issues are behind us.

Something Special for Your Trouble

The good news is that SimCity is a solid hit in all major markets. The consensus among critics and players is that this is fundamentally a great game. But this SimCity is made to be played online, and if you can’t get a stable connection, you’re NOT having a good experience. So we’re not going to rest until we’ve fixed the remaining server issues.  And to get us back in your good graces, we’re going to offer you a free PC download game from the EA portfolio. On March 18, SimCity players who have activated their game will receive an email telling them how to redeem their free game.

I know that’s a little contrived – kind of like buying a present for a friend after you did something crummy. But we feel bad about what happened. We’re hoping you won’t stay mad and that we’ll be friends again when SimCity is running at 100 percent. SimCity is a GREAT game and the people who made it are incredibly proud. Hang in there – we’ll be providing more updates throughout the weekend.”

So in summary, they have apologized, made changes to the product that will instantly help with sentiment towards the game and brand, are being responsive on social media, letting customers vent on their Facebook page, and ultimately will be offering a free product in the future.

EA is doing many things right, but they should have avoided this disaster in the first place. Companies have to start anticipating this demand, and leasing servers for overflow, or they will have complex PR issues such as these to deal with when similar titles are launched. EA was already voted the worst company in America, and SimCity is a game that everyone, not just gamers, knows and loves. This was a bad miscalculation but ultimately, I don’t think it will hurt EA at all. Until people stop buying these games en masse- and the marketing is just so good that it’s not going to happen- we’re all at their mercy.

I’m gonna go try to play again…*crosses fingers*…damn.

I hate you EA

Now what am I supposed to do- go outside?

Tout and the WWE Universe- a Match Made in Heaven

The WWE began promoting Tout like crazy last night on the broadcast of Monday Night Raw (make sure to watch RAW # 1000 next week, at the very least we’re getting a title match between John Cena and CM Punk) with various interstitial commercials and numerous references from the commentators encouraging the WWE Universe to use the new service, which is, in a nutshell, “Twitter for video”. Tout, which was born at the Stanford Research Institute, is a new social media channel using both web based and mobile applications to allow users to make real-time status updates designed for instant sharing through other social media platforms. Users record short 15 second videos using their PC, tablet or smartphone, and then “Tout” them to other users a la Twitter. Right now, Tout has about 25 million users, and the CEO claims that 6 million of those joined after the WWE began promoting the service. The WWE is all in on this one, with a dedicated page showing users all about the new service.

Tout recently closed a round of funding for over $13 million, and the WWE contributed a big piece of that pie, which explains their heavy promotion of the site/service. Zack Ryder (the WWE Superstar best known for “getting over” using Twitter and social media (check out 1:15, since I can’t seem to get the embedding to work, grrr):

…is featured heavily on Tout’s home page:

…and when I signed up (I’ll likely never use it, but what the hell, better to have and not need than need and not have) all of my recommended followers were WWE personalities, likely because of the search history on this machine while writing this article:

The WWE is purportedly going to let the WWE Universe determine some of the creative direction of the show and help steer programming- by Touting to the WWE, of course! Touts will be added to both live and pre-recorded broadcasts.

Personally, I think this is a smart move by the WWE. Consumption of online video is only growing; a study in 2011 showed that people watching Netflix were accounting for as much as 30% of all Internet traffic during primetime:

 

 

Not only is Netflix 30% of primetime traffic, but look at what else is up there, with YouTube at 11% and Flash video at 5%. That means that nearly 50% of all traffic during prime time for March 2011 was essentially “people watching videos”.

More and more phones are being released with front-facing cameras, more and more tablet devices include similar cameras, and the price of webcams has dropped to the point where an HD webcam can be had for as little as $35. The speed at which video can be uploaded and downloaded on mobile devices is increasing all the time as faster, cheaper better phones come out and the major carriers upgrade their networks. The Kindle Fire 2 and Google Nexus 7, the summer’s splashiest entrants into the small-form tablet fray, both have front-facing cameras- the only practical application of which is really video chat, as taking pictures with a front facing camera is sort of a ridiculous proposition.

People love to consume video because it’s easier than reading, and you can be a lot more creative with video than you can with text. We are moving towards a web primarily composed of video, and getting in on the ground floor allows the WWE to remain in its position of relative dominance of social media, when compared to other entertainment brands. The WWE is especially good at using social media to maintain intimacy with the fans even when they aren’t watching the show or interacting with the various digital properties, and since pro wrestling is such a visual medium, Tout seems like a perfect fit for their strategy of continuing storylines and fan outreach and promotion through social media. A service like Tout is also right in the WWE’s wheelhouse demographically. Let’s look at some data about video sharing:

 The age of users engaged in social networking:

 

and finally, the WWE’s audience demographic, straight from the WWE Ad Sales page (the data is from 2009, so take it with a grain of salt):

Demographics

61% are male

15% are ages 12-17

67% are ages 18-49

41% are males 18-34

33% are non-white

29% have a HHI of 75K or higher

15% have a HHI of 100K or higher

Internet Activity

63% played games online

52% listened to music

51% watched streaming video

Mobile

87% of our visitors own a cell phone

32% downloaded something to their cell phone within the past 30 days

15% downloaded a ringtone to their cell phone within the past 30 days

 

The service, the brand and the demographic all intersect nicely, making this practically a no-brainer. I’d be willing to bet that they see a better return on their Tout investment than they do for the WWE films division in 2013- especially if the site takes off.

As an avid WWE fan, the constant references to social media during broadcasts have become tiresome- maybe because I work in marketing also- and adding Tout is only going to irritate media-savvy viewers even more; though it’s not likely many will even realize the WWE’s financial interest in Tout. For the company and stockholders though, this is a very smart move.

Tout and the WWE Universe are a perfect fit!

 

 

Pinterest- a Guide for Johnny Come Lately

What Pinterest Is

Pinterest is essentially an online, visual scrapbook. Users Pin images and videos from all over the Web to Boards, which are organized collections of categorized Pins. Users can browse categories, follow other Users or their Boards, and socially share Pins and Boards via Facebook, Twitter and RSS.

Use Case: A bride-to-be is making all of the decisions that need to be made leading up to the wedding. So that she can collect everything in one place, she sets up a Board called “Wedding Dresses”. As she surfs the Web, she can Pin images or videos of wedding dresses that she likes to her Board, giving her an easy place to go back and reference later, and also a centralized place for sharing. If she wants the bridesmaids’ opinion on their dresses, she can pin several to a Board and then direct her bridesmaids to check out the board and leave comments. She can also Follow other Pinterest users or Boards that have a similar focus, for suggestions.
Ultimately, Pinterest is a site about curation and discovery, both important activities as we move into the next iteration of the Internet- the social Internet.

 

Why it matters

Pinterest is appealing for 3 primary reasons- there’s no urgency or information overload, it’s less personal and more fun than other services, and it’s extremely easy to use.
Pinterest Users skew heavily female, and most are in the 18-44 demographic, with household incomes between $25,000 and $75,000, generally. About 60% of Pinterest Users have “some college” under their belt. If you have a visually appealing brand, especially one that appeals to Females, you must optimize your site for Pins, or you will be missing out on what is a rapidly expanding source of referral traffic. Nearly 1.5 million unique Visitors a day hit the site and spend almost 14 minutes there. Recent studies have shown that Pinterest is a better source of referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit or YouTube. This is in spite of registration for the site being by invitation only. The number of unique Visitors to the site increased by 329%- to 7.21 million- between September and December of 2011.

 

Get Started Now!

Start using Pinterest now, while the User base is still rapidly growing and buzz around the service is at a fever pitch. The same rules for other social media services apply to Pinterest- say something meaningful, interesting and honest with your Followers, and try to represent your brand’s personality.

 

Specific Use Cases for Pinterest Integration into your Marketing Strategy

Brand Engagement- show the customer who you are, rather than telling them. Use images and video to convey your brands’ personality and drive engagement.
SEO-  looking at referral data can be a great way to identify brand influencers.
Market Research- Pinterest provides an opportunity for companies to engage their customers with Boards about fashion trends, for example, allowing Users to post to their Boards as well- merchandisers can than look at what is posted there to make decisions about buying, sales and special offers.
Trend Watching- Pinterest makes it easy for companies to search and understand what type of content Pinterest Users post- not just about their brand, but about competitors, seasonality, current events as well- trend watching on Pinterest makes all marketing decisions easier.

 

How to use Pinterest

A “Pin” is an image or video that links to the original content that is assigned to one of the User’s Boards. The User is able to write a short description of the item, and the pin can be from another User’s profile on Pinterest, from any website, or uploaded directly by the user.
A Board is simply a collection of pins that the User has grouped under one category- think “recipes”, “favorite books”, “shoes I’d like to buy”, “bathroom remodel ideas”, etc.
Users have the ability to Like, Repin, or Comment on Pins.
“Liking” the Pin adds it to your “Like” section, rather than to a Board.
Repinning a Pin lets you add someone else’s pin to one of your Boards- the original source link is kept intact and this action is marked as a Repin for the original Pinner.
Users can comment on their own or other’s pins.
Mentions allow you to shout out to specific Pinners- if you put @Mom on a Pin, Mom will get a notification that you Pinned something she may want to look at
Much like many established social networks, you can follow other Users, or even individual
“Pin this” button- allows Users to pin a product photo or video to a board for future reference.
The Pinterest Bookmarklet allows users to Pin to Boards directly from their browser.
Things to Remember
Pinterest lets Users follow topics and concepts in addition to as individuals. Compared to Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin, there’s no pressure to stay on top of a constant barrage of comments and status updates if the User doesn’t want to.
Pinterest lets Users participate without having to create, removing a barrier to interaction
Pinterest allows Users to explore their options earlier in the purchase cycle.
Pinterest’s non-linear view of the web makes it feel “easier” than other sharing platforms.
Pinterest is a visually appealing, simple alternative to storing browser bookmarks.

 

How your Brand can Leverage Pinterest

1. Promote a lifestyle that your brand or products contributes to. Give people ideas and provide inspiration to promote sharing!
2. Use Pinterest to run a contest where people pin your images or take pictures of themselves using your products.
3. Share content from others that you wouldn’t want on your site, then direct your site’s Users to your Pinterest page to share.
4. Think of Pins as a “Visual Tweet”- instead of Tweeting an image out, Pin it, and then Tweet the Pin.
5. If you add a $ or £ sign to your description when you pin something, Pinterest will auto- generate a price tag on the pin.
6. Make sure content is pinnable! When you use the bookmarklet Pinterest will try to ascertain which is the largest image on the page- if you have a bunch of products on the same page it will be harder for the program to figure out which image you meant to pin. All products and product variations should have their own pages.
7. Add the “Pin It” button to your other Social Media sharing icons.
8. Add a “follow me on Pinterest” button to your site with your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and G+ buttons.
9. DO NOT JUST PIN YOUR OWN CONTENT. Provide value to customers by allowing them to discover new things.

 

How I got a 51 Klout Score Without Really Trying

I have a 51 Klout Score and I’m not really trying. Klout says that most scores are in the 20’s, that if you’re at 30 you are probably decent at social media, and that a score at 50 puts you in the 90th percentile of all scores.

I only have 197 Twitter followers, 80 Facebook friends, and only 119 people have me in their Google+ Circles. There are many days on weekends where I don’t check in anywhere on Foursquare, I don’t have an Instagram account or regularly record wacky YouTube videos. I blog about once a week (I started out at 2x a week, burned through my ideas and have lately been slacking, only putting out a new post once every two weeks for the last little while here). So how is it that my Klout score is as high or higher than quite a few people who spend time every day “working on their Klout score”? I’ll tell you how I’ve had success with Klout:

  1. Cultivate REAL relationships in social media channels. For example though my Facebook account is linked to my Klout account, my Facebook is 100% private. You can’t even see that I exist in their ecosphere unless you’re already a friend of a friend, and I regularly go through my friends list and cull it of people I don’t interact with in real life on a regular basis. I know that Facebook started as sort of an exclusive thing and people collect friends- in fact, a good friend of mine and I just had a conversation about how he’s afraid to unfriend anyone on Facebook- but FB is my one private social network where I can share whatever I want and not censor myself. That being said, I do watch what I say and follow some old, sage advice about the Internet: If you wouldn’t say something out loud in a crowded room, don’t say it online. Or, as Leo Laporte so succinctly put it on his radio show last weekend, when you are online, you’re in public, so you’d better get used to it.
  2. Don’t share just to share; make it something noteworthy. I have to say this is a pet peeve of mine- people that vomit out a stream of Tweets all day to…what purpose, exactly? Do I really need to see your inspirational quotes every 15 minutes? Do you really think I believe that you are sitting there at your PC, waiting to inspire your Twitter followers with inspirational things that someone else said? If I Follow you on Twitter and your first post is an inspirational quote you scraped off some website, you’re getting unfollowed fast. Speaking of which, here’s my list of reasons why I will unfollow you on Twitter:
    1. If you auto- DM me after I sign up
    2. If you follow many more people than follow you
    3. If your Twitter bio reads like an MLM marketing pitch
    4. If you are completely irrelevant to my online persona
    5. If your account is dead (no tweets recently)
    6. If you curse or are offensive
    7. If your Tweets are never personalized and just a stream of links

There are more reasons, but I probably only follow back 5% of the people who follow me; if it’s not relevant to my online persona, who is a guy that is into social media, SEO and marketing, I’m not going to follow you back. This means I get unfollowed a lot, but I don’t think that Klout thinks that Tweep ‘xXX_SexxxyGurrrrl_XXx’ is relevant to me anyway so I don’t sweat it much.

  1. Don’t sweat missing a day or even a week, it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s literally as simple as that. Klout doesn’t work based on how much you Tweet/Like/Circle/Share, it works based on the quality of interactions. If I have 5,000 Twitter followers and only 20 of them Tweeted last week then those are not relevant followers and won’t contribute to an increase in score.
  2. Don’t “work on” your Klout score. Your Klout score is not an end to any means. If you are wasting time trying to game Klout’s algorithm you are wasting time that could go to any one of at least 100 more productive activities. Be natural, be spontaneous, pepper in some personal stuff with your “business persona” and the relevance- and score- will come naturally.
  3. Do interact with Klout a few times a week. Using the site to suggest topics for friends, grant Klout to influencers and of course, Perks- will encourage others to do the same for you. Klout has also recently implemented User surveys where you can directly affect how their algorithm calculates authority- instead of complaining when your Klout score temporarily dips, help ‘em out!

Last of all, don’t take Klout too seriously. Anyone that makes a hiring or firing or business decision based on a Klout score probably isn’t someone you’d enjoy working for, anyway. At the end of the day, it’s one of the first of what will likely be many imperfect systems for gauging and commoditizing digital influence, but it’s what we’ve got and if you actually run a Perk as a publisher, the upside can be substantial.

Yes, You Will Need a Google Plus Page For Your Business. No, You Don’t Need To Panic.

The cottage industry that has already sprung up in my RSS feeds about people who claim to have the awesomesauce secret for Google Plus profiles for business, or who claim to be Google Plus for business gurus, or are offering a free e-book on how to optimize your company’s Google Plus page is absolutely blowing my mind. THE SERVICE HAS ONLY BEEN LIVE FOR 48 HOURS AT THIS POINT, HOW THE HELL CAN ANYONE BE A “GURU” IN IT? I’ve also seen a number of headlines explaining why Google Plus is going to murder Facebook, and just as many about how Google Plus is D.O.A.

Google Plus is going to be an essential part of any business’ strategy moving forward. I realize that a lot of you are rolling your eyes at this point thinking about another social media service that you’ll have to research, plan and execute a strategy for. Isn’t this just another Facebook? Everyone just uses Facebook, no one uses Google Plus, right? That might be true- for now- but the Google product everyone uses that you SHOULD be concerned about is Google search. Plus is going to tie in intimately with search and as such, if you are ignoring it now, you’re going to be leaving money on the table somewhere down the line.

As I’ve written on this blog before, Bing has already basically stated that Facebook Likes are more important ranking/authority signals to their algorithm than links are. With Google first opening Plus up to everyone last month, and now to Businesses and Brands this month, I can’t help but think they are going in a similar direction- showing the pictures of those that have +1’ed certain pages in the search results leads to a measurable improvement in both click-through rate on the listing and conversion rate of the site they are clicking through to. This is another attempt by the big G to marry search and social and I think this one will succeed where Facebook search has- so far- failed miserably.

Links were originally factored so heavily into Google’s algorithm because they were supposed to be human-agnostic- that is, a wholly democratic and “uninfluenceable by people” algorithm factor. Until Google, pages were essentially assigned authority purely through evaluation of on site factors- but that’s easy to game. So Google, with their ultimate goal being to serve the User, settled on links as a “vote of confidence” in another site. Their logic is that if I link to you, I must think you’re an authority on the topic, and if more people link to you than your competition, that’s a pretty strong signal to the site that you are more authoritative. The problem with this system is that it’s relatively easy to game links.

Enter the link builder. This insidious SEO worker’s only job is to try to game Google’s algorithm by securing links back to a website at any cost. It doesn’t matter if you do bulk directory submissions or straight up buy sidebar links from a company like TLA or TLB- the goal of the link builder is to get back links, and serving the User valuable content to do so isn’t a link builder’s focus. So what has this led to? It’s led to India-hosted directory sites and networks of sites where you can get 10,000 back links overnight for very little money. They don’t usually adevertise the crappiness of these links, which frequently sit several clicks deep off of a marginally popular home page. See how easy it is to game links? Ask some of those “pro link builders” how many sites they’ve worked on that have been kicked out of the index. My squeaky-clean white hat SEO has worked for over 100 campaigns and I’ve never had anyone booted out of the index…food for thought.

Now, enter social media. Yes, it can be gamed as well. I can go to Mechanical Turk right now and buy 1,000 +1’s for my clients’ pages for very little money, the problem is, there’s no value to that because it’s a lot harder to game a social media site than it is to set up a link directory and start charging. Google forces people to use real names on the + profile pages and not pseudonyms because they want a +1 to mean something- a +1 means I, personally, like the resource, not that someone contacted me for $50 a month to host a sidebar link back to their site.

For now, it’s enough to claim your Google plus page, and watch this space for more recommendations on what to do with it. When you do create your profile, bear in mind that Business pages on Google Plus can only have one administrator for now, so don’t leave it up to the social media intern to create your businesses’ page. That task should fall to the Social Media Manager, failing that, whoever runs the company Facebook or Twitter page.

Social is the future of SEO; people. I would not be surprised at all if within a year, +1’s are as important or more important to Google’s algo than links are, and in 5 years social signals may have supplanted link signals entirely.

What do you think?

 

Twitter, Buffer and Patterns of Attention

I’ve been a bad digital marketer, I must confess. Though I have been working on SEO initiatives for clients for nearly 4 years, I only recently started using Twitter to try to do some proactive reputation management, and ensure that the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) show the picture I want to show when someone Google searches my name. I’ve been using Twitter to run social media campaigns for clients for years- even before we had any analytics at all and had to guess at the ROI of social media- but just never took the plunge personally, until recently. I’ve been using Twitter with a nice little free app/Chrome extension called Buffer (http://www.bufferapp.com) which allows you to trickle out your tweets in well, a buffer, so that you don’t bomb your followers with 15 links back to back in their Tweet streams, as you read your RSS feeds over coffee.  The nice thing about Buffer is that you also get statistics about how many times your links were clicked and re-tweeted- this got me to thinking about analyzing some Twitter data to see what effect Tweeting on different days of the week, at different times of day, using different categories and hash tags and personalizing my Tweets would have. The data is interesting and a little surprising, too.

First, here’s a little background about how I conducted this (admittedly non-scientific) test. Here’s my Twitter biography:

SEO Account Manager @WebMetro, where I work to build value for clients through Internet Marketing. I’m also a Daddy, Disneyphile, WWE fan and avid PC gamer. http://franirwin.com

So, this is definitely a public, promotional Twitter account and I watch what I say on here. Very seldom will I curse, I’m quick to thank people for re-tweets, and I keep things industry/work related and squeaky clean. The main reason I have this account is to drive traffic to my blog and also maintain an active social media presence for services like Klout, which gives me cool perks for sharing my opinion, and of course, just to keep up with the news for myself! I frequently am asked “how do you SEO’s keep up with everything that’s going on, especially with Google changing the algorithm so frequently”? The answer is, with Twitter and with a good RSS reader (Google Reader, in fact).

The period of time we’ll analyze runs from September 1, 2011 through September 30, 2011. Now, sometimes, I will actually use the Twitter interface to manually tweet about things and send messages- those types of interactions aren’t covered here. This piece refers solely to tweets scheduled with bufferapp to go out during business hours on weekdays. I do this purposefully- Tweeting is not something I want to do full time or even in my free time; so I have a pattern set up with Buffer to start tweeting at 5 AM PST- this is for my West Coast followers, so they have Tweets to read as they come in to work- and ending at a little after 5 PM PST, at the end of my workday. I tweet approximately once an hour, with a higher concentration around the beginning, middle, and end of the day. Sometimes, I will be at home reading something that seems worth Tweeting but, if it seems like it will “keep” to the next scheduled Buffer trickle time, I will just add it to my buffer, which has a max capacity of 10 scheduled Tweets. I’m too cheap to pop for the full version J (Actually, the free version works just fine for me; though you may want to pay the very inexpensive fee to get unlimited space in your buffer.

I mainly tweet about SEO related stuff, lots of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Klout posts, with some personal stuff about my hobbies- namely going to Disneyland and playing PC video games- sprinkled in. It’s about 90% “professional” Tweets though- I am mainly cultivating others’ content. I try very hard not to put things out there that I’ve already seen- for that reason, I’m always looking for the next obscure RSS feed loaded with great information to source. I don’t have a lot of followers, but I did gain about a 30% increase for the time period I’m discussing here.

Let’s summarize my Tweet habits, shall we? First, I sorted my posts as granularly as I could without being ridiculous, into the following categories (followed by the number of Tweets and total % of Tweets for the topic, in September):

Google

44

18.26%

Blog

3

1.24%

SEO

33

13.69%

Foursquare

3

1.24%

Industry News

27

11.20%

Hulu

3

1.24%

FaceBook

21

8.71%

Netflix

3

1.24%

Gaming

12

4.98%

Amazon

2

0.83%

Social Media

11

4.56%

Yahoo

2

0.83%

Twitter

11

4.56%

Advertising

1

0.41%

Electronic marketing

10

4.15%

Bing

1

0.41%

Self-Promotional

10

4.15%

Business

1

0.41%

Personal Interest

8

3.32%

Microsoft

1

0.41%

YouTube

7

2.90%

Nestle

1

0.41%

Technology

6

2.49%

Panda

1

0.41%

Video

5

2.07%

Politics

1

0.41%

Deal

4

1.66%

Sports

1

0.41%

Groupon

4

1.66%

We’re looking at a pool of 241 Tweets that got a total of 907 clicks and 3 re-tweets, an average of 3.73 clicks per Tweet and about a 1% re-tweet percentage. The raw numbers themselves don’t look great, but we’re going to dive a little bit deeper and look at what posts scored “applause”, meaning they somehow got attention from my followers beyond my adding them to my Twitter. I’m glad to see that most of my posts are on topic, with “Google”, “SEO”, and “Industry News” speaking for 42% of my total Tweets. Looks like I’m doing a good job, staying on topic.

For the rest of this post, Clicks will be the main metric by which I measure engagement. I’m making the assumption that if someone clicks a link, they are interested in what lives behind it. Here are the times when the most clicked Tweets were…tweeted:

2:20 PM

92

5:11 AM

91

11:42 AM

90

4:17 PM

89

5:09 PM

58

7:05 AM

49

12:47 PM

44

1:05 PM

33

5:11 AM

33

9:12 AM

16

Remember when looking at these numbers that I am on the West Coast of the USA and a lot of my followers who actually KNOW me personally are on the East Coast. There doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to correlating the time of the post with its popularity, but we can see that I’m getting my heaviest concentration of clicks in the times around the beginning and end of work, and lunch breaks. This makes sense on its face because that’s when most people have some time to spare for social media, running down their Twitter stream in the elevator on the way to lunch or while standing in line for a latte. I have timed my Tweets specifically to try and hit these lulls in activity, and that’s also why I don’t Tweet on weekends. High rates of adoption aside, I just don’t know a lot of people that turn to Twitter to kill 5 minutes; they are using Facebook or playing a game during most of those times.

Next up, let’s look at personalization. In other words, does it make a difference if I add a personalization to the Tweet, or is the page Title and bit.ly link (which is what buffer tweets when you use the Chrome extension if you don’t modify it) enough? Basically, are my followers following my content or my comments? Let’s take a look at the most clicked tweets again:

Personalized?

# of clicks?

NO

92

NO

91

NO

90

NO

89

NO

58

NO

49

NO

44

NO

33

NO

33

NO

16

At least in my stream, it doesn’t matter if I add a witty bon mot or comment, or answer the question in the headline- my Followers want to read the content, not my take on it. In fact, here are the numbers for all of my personalized Tweets:

Personalized?

# of clicks?

YES

5

YES

5

YES

3

YES

2

YES

2

YES

1

Yes

1

YES

1

YES

Yes

Yes

Yes

YES

Yes

YES

Yes

YES

Yes

That’s…discouraging. My followers seem to prefer robotic re-tweets of the content that interests me. I don’t blame them, I get up from my desk for 5 minutes to get coffee and when I get back there are sometimes as many as 30 new Tweets in my stream. I’m not going to read all of those and it seems unreasonable to expect my followers to.

Now, let’s move on to days of the week. Here’s the breakdown by Day of the week, number of Tweets, and number of Clicks:

Tweets

Clicks

Ratio

Saturday

2

2

1.00

Friday

57

90

0.63

Sunday

2

5

0.40

Thursday

54

215

0.25

Tuesday

41

177

0.23

Monday

37

186

0.20

Wednesday

44

232

0.19

We have to take this data with a grain of salt as I really don’t tweet on weekends, but if we toss Saturday and Sunday out as having too small a sample size, it seems that Friday is the best time for me to Tweet something and get it clicked- this probably correlates with most offices’ relaxed Friday atmosphere, and the fact that people usually have more time to devote to secondary activities like social media as the week winds down. I also seem to Tweet more on Fridays, probably for the same reasons. Wednesday looks to be the worst day for me to Tweet if I want my message to resonate- maybe due to stress from the mid-week crush people just don’t have time for Twitter?

Next, I wanted to see if my followers are picking up the messaging I am putting out there. To check that, I will compare the number of clicks with the number of “on-topic” Tweets- that is, Tweets where I speak specifically about my professional area of expertise and where a stranger might be compelled to follow me, were they to see those Tweets.

Posts Clicks Ratio
Industry News

27

70

0.39

SEO

33

86

0.38

Facebook

21

86

0.24

Google

44

200

0.22

Total

125

442

0.31

 

So for Tweets that I am actively trying to get clicks for, namely, the self-declared topic of my Twitter, I have about a 30% click rate which I feel is very good. However, this is right on pace with the overall click rates on my general pool of Tweets, so I can’t (as much as I’d like to) attribute this to being an outgrowth of my fabulous Twitter content curation skills.

Next up, hash tags. I want to ask two questions here about hash tags: does using a hash tag make a difference in your click through rate, and which hash tags get the best click through rates? (I have an inkling on the answer to the second question but we’ll let the number play out and then I’ll make an observation later. Of the 241 Tweets I made in September, 176 of them or 73% contained at least one hash tag. Those tweets resulted in 556 clicks, whereas the posts without hash tags resulted in 351 clicks. That’s a rate of 2.3 clicks per Tweet, compared to 5.4 clicks without a hash tag. It seems that not using a hash tag will actually result in a higher click through rate!

Facebook- 20 Tweets resulting in 86 clicks

Google- 42 Tweets resulting in 94 clicks

SEO- 31 Tweets resulting in 73 clicks

Twitter- 8 Tweets resulting in 183 clicks

The takeaway here is that if you’re posting information about Twitter, on Twitter- you’ve got a highly engaged audience! Social Media topics do well on Twitter because of the service’s high rates of adoption among those that live and breathe the topic. Speaking of Social Media topics on Twitter…


Hey, that’s not cool! At least 30 of my followers liked my Tweet well enough to click on it twice, but not one single re-tweet?!?! I’d be willing to bet that at least a few of them simply copy/pasted into their own Tweet stream- but savvy social media Users, like the ones that would click on a link about Klout, appear to be pretty stingy with the re-tweet love! This spotlights one of the problems with Twitter- people aren’t as altruistic as they tell you you should be. I will re-tweet things that I think are particularly funny or amusing, or that I haven’t already seen before- but I’m generally not LOOKING for things to re-tweet, either. It’s sort of like no-following a link on a page- sure, the link out doesn’t hurt anyone, but why give away my expertise/time/attention currency for free? Next time I get a similar topic, I’ll try an experiment- I’ll put the same tweet out twice, once with “PLEASE RT” added to see if that makes a difference in people’s generosity.

According to my (admittedly limited in scope) research, my best chance for getting a Tweet clicked is to post non-personalized Tweets that are specifically about Internet Marketing industry news, with no hash tags after lunch on Fridays.  What do your Twitter statistics look like, and what do they tell you?

Using YouTube for SEO and Branding- The Absolute Essentials

YouTube is a daunting proposition for a lot of businesses. Everyone has an idea that Google loves video; but how do you use YouTube effectively? While this article doesn’t address how to create content that will go viral, for example, which is the golden goose these days, it does talk about how to use the mechanical back end to ensure that your content is set up for success as it relates to digital marketing.  First, a word on YouTube vs. traditional TV advertising from Jack:


Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?

Why is it important to be on YouTube?

  • Every minute of every day more than 24 hours of video are uploaded there.
  • More than 2 billion videos a day are viewed on YouTube
  • YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world by volume of queries.
  • The U.S. accounts for 70% of all YouTube viewers.
  • Over half of YouTube’s viewers are under 20 years old.
  • More than half of smartphone users shoot video at least once per week.

Basic vs. Branded vs. Custom YouTube channels

A Basic channel  is what every User starts with, Branded is what you get at a certain level of ad spend and comes with benefits like creating a custom banner for your videos that sits on top of the player even if people aren’t on your channel, the ability to add longer videos and get better analytics, mobile branding and additional Channel modules that will let you for example, upload graphics. There is also the YouTube Custom channel, which only comes with a $200,000 ad spend in each of three consecutive months and is beyond the reach of most people reading this blog. I’d love the opportunity to work on a Custom channel, such as the custom channel put together for Kung Fu Panda 2. That is seriously creative and amazing- and expensive, too.

The SEO benefits of Youtube:

  • User engagement- Users stay on the site longer when they view embedded video content. Watching video on the web accounted for 37% of all web traffic in November 2010. Peak usage stats show that 30% or more of peak-hour traffic is Netflix  usage, about 10% is YouTube- Users want to consume video content.
  • Real Estate- the opportunity to own 2 positions on the SERP- the page hosting/serving the video AND the YouTube listing.
  • Visibility- get your site and content into the world’s 2nd largest search engine! Google loves video and gives it preference on the SERP over other types of content.
  •  Videos are up to 50 times as likely to rank on the front page of Google than static html pages are.
  • Channel perfect- it’s hard to read text on a smart phone but video is a lot easier to use.

Marketing benefits of YouTube (using some statistics taken from this study on why to use video for marketing):

Valuable and meaningful interactions are impactful on YouTube because engagement drives:

  • Intent: purchase intent was 76% higher among people watching video content compared to those that hadn’t.
  • Inclusion of video led to a 62& increase in daily sales volume.
  • Awareness increased by 205%

According to a recent Nielsen study on recall:

  • Online video spots have a 65% recall, compared to only 46% recall for general ads- likely due to the interactive nature of the Internet, Users were more likely than not to have been searching the content out and therefore more likely to remember it.
  • Brand Recall: Online video outperformed TV by 50% as compared to 28% for TV.
  • Messaging: the 14,000 survey respondents had higher messaging recall from online video as compared to TV.

Optimizing your Branded channel

Tags- channel tags should include all of your top branded and non branded keywords

Profile setup: Provide the User as much information as you can. Include a business overview and include lots of keywords. Update frequently and make sure you use the “About Me” field to build a robust description of the channel and business.

Mobile Branded Banner- this is a way to provide a banner that brands the page as yours when the User visits your channel from a mobile device.

Video Page Banner- a banner that sits on top of your videos as they play on other channels for additional branding and clicks back to your channel page.

Side Brand Banner- the opportunity to upload an image file underneath your “About Me” module- this could be a current special, information about other social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter- whatever you want! Unfortunately, this piece is not interactive. Gotta spend the big bucks to get that one.

Custom Background- your background should speak for your channel, with shots of a storefront or product or person. In addition, why not put up themed backgrounds for holidays? It shows you’re paying attention!

Titles: Titles should be descriptive, keyword rich, and include a call to action. The main keyword for which you want the video to be found should be located as close to the front of the tag as possible, and the title should also compel the User to act by using words such as “click now” or “watch now”. Make sure you align your titles with existing keyword research!

Descriptions: Descriptions should include links to specific products at the top of the field so they are above the fold for easy viewing and potential click throughs. Descriptions should also include optimized keywords and product details.

Tags and Closed Captioning: Tags should be descriptive of the video but should also include optimized keywords. Avoid overstuffing the tag and make sure you separate entries with commas. Closed Captioning also gives the bots a text file to index along with the video content- an investment in software like Dragon might help create transcripts in case your videos aren’t scripted or you don’t have anything written down to upload.

YouTube Community Management

Comment Moderation: Don’t whitewash negative comments (though profanity-laden rants are probably not helping anyone, go ahead and get rid of those); instead, use negative comments as a chance to address complaints. It shows authenticity and a willingness to engage with the community and provide customer service. Do however, delete posts that are spammy or contain outbound links to competing sites.

Interaction with Users: Thank those that make positive comments and work with those that make negative comments. When responding to a comment , ask a  question or provide some useful information that will compel Users to interact with you more.

Be a Resource: Respond to User questions in a timely manner and encourage discussion. Your channel should be the best source of information available about your product or service, and this goes to the authority that Google loves for you to have.

Use Analytics (Branded level channel and above) to drive decisions about what content is working and what isn’t. Analytics drive the channels’ continuous development.

 

 

 

Google +1 For Publishers- Nine Tips For An Easy Win!

Google +1 logo

Google +1, in conjunction with Google Plus, presents an interesting opportunity for publishers.  Direct social integration isn’t something the Big G has tried before (outside of the recently-expired deal with Twitter to show real-time results on the SERPS), but they are giving us plenty of information on how to integrate +1 for some easy wins.  Here are the nine biggest takeaways:

1.  The value is in the annotation. The true value of +1 becomes evident after using it for a while with all of your connected accounts. It’s an easy, shorthand way to see what those you already trust- based on the fact that you’ve connected with them on other social services- think will help you. I make it a habit personally to +1 any helpful search results because hey, I must know what’s the most relevant result, right? Right!

2.  This is a high value, low effort strategy for SEO that incorporates social media too. Google has provided a wealth of information on +1, including all of the code you need to include to start tracking +1’s on your pages. +1 code is right here, it takes very little time to implement and quickly leverages the power of social media to promote your properties to those you’re connected to, and encourages them to share with their extended networks as well.

3. Make sure +1 is on the page too, because most users won’t click back to the SERP to +1 your page. It’s easy enough to +1  a link on the search engine results page, however, most Users will want to see if the site is useful first. To make sure they don’t have to backtrack to the SERP to +1 your page, ensure that all pages include their own +1 button.  This ensures your pages get all the credit they deserve!

4.  All +1’s, regardless of location- PPC ad, page, SERP- all count towards the same attribution. This will allow you to track User behavior- are they +1ing your PPC ads? Your pages? Posts? Directories? SERP listings? By attributing +1’s in different places to an associated URL, you get an aggregate over all of your channels.

5.  Use rel=canonical to make sure that the right page gets the credit. Perhaps you have a product that’s available in many colors and sizes.  This usually leads to a duplicate content problem, with the paginated pages containing the same content as the “base” page.  Make sure to use the rel=canonical attribute to tell search engines which page should get the juice if, for example, a User hits the +1 button on the 17th page of results served after a search.

6.  +1 has to be on public, crawlable URLs. Don’t bang your head on the wall if you implement +1 on a staging server and can’t see the results in tracking.  +1 only works on publicly available and crawlable pages.

7.  Set individual +1s on each article, and place buttons near the actual content you want shared. If you have multiple posts on a page, multiple products or reviews, or several areas of content on the page a User might want to share, make sure that you are placing the +1 button near the content you want shared- this ensures that the User knows what they are +1ing and that other Users aren’t mislead by their +1ing the “wrong” page.

8. Write copy on why to +1 as this helps people use it. Tell your Users why they should +1 your content! A compelling call to action will increase your POR (Plus One Rate- I just made that up! :) )

9.Don’t buy +1’s! But you can use them to “doorway” content. You are not allowed to buy or offer product in exchange for +1’s.  However, you can get creative- place half the article on the page, for example, and tie the User’s use of +1 to reveal the second half of the content, or have navigation that’s partially obscured until the User +1’s the page.  Be creative, here- there are lots of ways to encourage +1’s without breaking the TOS.

Enjoy! I have a long list of +1’s already and I look forward to adding it in the future.  I find the feature especially helpful when searching Google for an unfamiliar topic- it’s nice to see what my friends think will help, right on the SERP!

Oh, hey, great, ANOTHER “Here’s what I think of Google Plus” post!

Google Plus logo

Google Plus

I’ve had my hands on Google Plus for about 3 days now, thanks to the generosity of a co worker who I harangued online outside of work hours to hook me up with an invite.  (CHRIS HART YOU DA MAN!)  I didn’t get to invite anyone in spite of trying several reported “workarounds” on Thursday and Friday- but I’ve been using it pretty heavily since Wednesday night, along with a few other similarly dorky early adopters.  My initial impressions are very positive! The mobile app in particular has Facebook handily beat- more on that later.

Registering is super easy, I simply clicked on the email from my buddy Chris Hart- which he sent by entering my email address when he shared his first piece of content- and I was in the system.  Others joining later will have a similarly easy time, all you have to do is enter their email address to share a piece of content from your feed with them, and they’re automatically invited.  Since I’m an SEO dork, I’ve been using Google +1 for a while now and have had a pretty robust Google profile filled out, so there wasn’t much to do besides set up my Circles and Sparks when I logged in- more on that later. Oh, and of course, make sure you go through each and every privacy option.  Be warned, the privacy settings are a little difficult to understand, and for some reason, all the options are given in overlays on top of your personal profile page. Zuh?  The security options are daunting, just like Facebook’s, and I have to admit that that part of the interface is a little kludgy.  However, since you have to explicitly define who you’re sharing every single piece of content with every single time you post it, there’s much less chance that you’ll screw up some obscure option and your boss will see you at the 4 AM Wednesday beer pong party.

Speaking of logging in, you have to have a Picasa account to tie to your Google Plus account; registration is included as part of the signup process.  What this means is that when using the Google Plus mobile app, every time you take a picture or record a video using your cell phone, it’s automatically and simultaneously synced to a private folder in your Picasa account. You can then choose who to share photos with, and this feature comes with lots of nice options to save your battery- no uploads, uploads only on wifi, uploads only when the phone is plugged in, etc, etc.  There’s even a built-in photo editor that lets you add modest artistic touches like cross-process, black and white, or auto contrast.

I think that Circles are what’s going to kill Facebook if anything does.  Circles are how you get away from Facebook’s “all or nothing” policy, whereby you really can’t choose if what you post shows up in specific people’s stream, and someone is either a total stranger or your best friend.  With Plus, every time you share content, you have to opt in and tell the system who to share it with.  When you’ve already shared something, the system defaults to the last setting- but they’ve really gone out of their way to make sure things aren’t shared with people you don’t want them shared with, and that’s accomplished through Circles.  On the Circles screen, all of your contacts appear in the top half of the frame, and all of your circles appear in the bottom half of the frame. The system starts you off with basic circles- family, friends, acquaintances, following- and then you simply drag all of your contacts into the appropriate Circles.  So, now you can finally choose to share things just with family, with family and friends, with family  and co workers but not with friends, just with friends, just with one person, with all of your circles, with the public…it goes on and on.  The Circles option is probably the single best thing about Plus so far.

Hangout video chat is also cool, though I’m not a big video chat fan, I could see Google Plus migrating to Internet- connected TVs so people can…hang out, virtually, while watching the same show.  A cool video feature is that if you are in a Hangout and choose to share that, the Hangout will also appear in your friends’s feeds, enticing them to join the conversation.  They scooped Facebook for sure with the video chat- I just don’t know anyone that uses it regularly.

The Sparks item could use some work, basically, think of a Friend that’s just a keyword. So, if I set up a Spark based on “WWE”, I can click on that Spark and see news items, videos, blog posts all related to that keyword, served in a feed just like your Facebook  or Google Plus  feed is.  The functionality here is a bit limited- there’s no way to hide items that might be spoilers, or offensive, or just not what you want to see, for example.  This means that along with high quality articles from the WWE website, I also get badly filmed 15 second YouTubes with rubes going on about how CM Punk is the devil incarnate.  I would absolutely love to have the RSS reader functionality built in here, so I can say “I like this” and “I don’t like this” and that directly affects what types of items they show in that feed in the future.  Stay tuned, because Sparks have the potential to improve quite a bit- I just don’t see a whole lot of usefulness to them right now.

Google Chat is also integrated right on the home page. Um, yay? (is anyone left out there that’s not using a multiclient IM handler by now?) We didn’t need chat built in, though I could see it’s use on a public terminal that isn’t running Pidgin or Trillian.  Could we get an option to hide it?

There has been one privacy snafu so far in that when you share items privately with Circles and then people in those Circles can re-share those items publicly, so it’s possible that something might get out there that you don’t want anyone to see.  However, every piece of content you share also comes with a “disable resharing” button. Nice!

What I think is truly the best part about Plus is the mobile app (on Android).  I’ve heard that the iPhone app is a little…less…awesome? Maybe by design? But if I could convince everyone I know on FB to switch to Plus, the mobile app alone would be worth it.   A ton of information is included, such as feeds from people geographically close by.  The check-in button is right on the front page. Circles are right there. Friends are right there. Hangouts are replaced with Huddles (think a mobile chat room for ten without needing a clunky IRC app). And the interface is clean, slick and fast. 5 icons drive everything- Stream, Huddles, Profiles, Photos and Circles.  And all the same privacy options are baked right in.

There’s no shortage of posts already either decrying Google Plus as a Facebook rip-off, unnecessary, or already an abject failure.  Until the product hits a wider ecosystem and more people have a chance to interact with it- and until Facebook gives people an easy way to export everything for upload to Google Plus- not bloody likely- the jury’s still out.  Personally, I don’t think people will want to leave behind 800 Facebook friends for the novelty of something new, and Google isn’t really seen as a warm fuzzy company these days either.  I, however, give the product- especially the mobile app on Android- two big thumbs up.  Best feature so far? Nobody begging me for virtual fertilizer in Farmville every 5 minutes!

Ready? 1…2…3…SWITCH!