What Google+ means for your business

Google+ looks set to become the social networking success that Google Wave never was.

The new product, which passed the 10 million user mark within days of its launch, is already shaping up to be a real contender to the likes of Facebook. Inevitably, businesses are scrabbling to understand its implications.

Google+ (or Google Plus, depending on your preference) could provide businesses with a whole suite of new tools with which they can communicate both internally and with customers. But, as Google has made clear, businesses aren’t welcome just yet.

What is Google+?

Google+ is the latest project from the search engine giant. It is a social network, similar to Facebook or Twitter, that consolidates and incorporates a range of some of Google’s previous social offerings - and adds a number of completely new features.

Like Twitter, Google+ allows users to ‘add’ and follow individuals who they know, or in whom they are interested. These people are then assigned to ‘circles’, depending on their relationship with the user. For example, you might add people you know in real life to the ‘friends’ circle, and you might add colleagues to a ‘work’ circle.

But Google+ encourages users to post much more than they would on Twitter. So, in addition to status updates you can share links, upload photos, and outline ‘featured interests’.

As well as this, the ‘Huddle’ feature allows smartphone users to instant message contacts over Google+, while ‘Hangouts’ provide areas in which contacts can video chat.

How can I use it for my business?

As soon as Google+ launched, businesses were clamouring to work out how they could best leverage it. Certainly, Google+ has some important implications for business – but you might have to wait a while to understand them.

Google is planning to launch a business solution for Google+ but, as yet, has not done so. In a blog post last week, Google+ product manager Christian Oestlian said: “We have been watching Google+ take shape over the last week and we’ve seen some really great companies get involved. But frankly we know this product as it stands is not optimally suited to their needs.”

This much is true. In its current form, Google+ is very much aimed at individuals. As Oestlien goes on to explain, a system that asks new users for their gender really isn’t designed for business use.

But later this year, Google+ will be launching pages for what it calls ‘non-user entities’ – basically businesses and organisations. These pages will give you a host of new functionality that is tailored specifically for business needs, and which is not currently available on regular users’ pages.

What business features can I expect?

Oestlien has already given a series of clues as to what businesses can expect to see on Google+. We already know, for example, that it will be possible to integrate your Google+ page with existing Google products, including Adwords and Google Maps.

But perhaps more excitingly, thanks to a bit of digging through the source code blogger Florian Rohrweck has found a range of exciting new features that could come as standard on business pages.

Rohrweck believes, for example, that businesses will be able to run their own video Hangouts, either with coworkers or with customers. The potential uses for this tool are enormous. It could enable you, for example, to collaborate with colleagues who are out of the office – or, potentially, run live events with your customers.

Rohrweck also expects to see built-in screencast and ‘whiteboard’ functionality, which would enable a high level of interactivity in live meetings and other collaborative environments. In essence, Google+ could well become a free contender to the likes of Basecamp.

What will be particularly interesting, though, is how individual users begin to interact with businesses. The firms that do best on Google+ will likely be those that develop interesting, engaging, but non-intrusive ways of building relationships with customers, either through the effective use of circles or through the content stream.

For now though, you’ll have to wait just a little bit longer to find out.