Google continues to tweak its Google+ social media platform as the company seeks to gain traction among businesses.
Google launched a preview of Google+ for business in August last year and is letting organisations use the business features for free until the end of 2013.
"Both within Australia and globally, we are seeing solid adoption" by businesses of Google+, according to Jeanne DeWitt, Head of Google Apps SMB Sales, Japan and APAC.
The service is used by both large and small companies, but DeWitt told Computerworld Australia that Hangouts, the videoconferencing feature of Google+, has proven especially popular among what DeWitt terms "the micro multinational."
"You may have four people in four different regions of the world these days," she said. "As a [small or medium-sized business], flying back and forth constantly isn't always an option."
DeWitt declined to provide specific usage numbers for the business flavour of Google's social media service. However, the Google official identified two Australian small businesses using Google+ and Hangouts: Above the Parapet, a marketing firm in Tweed Heads, New South Wales, and Shoes of Prey, an online retailer based in Sydney.
A recent GlobalWebIndex report by UK market research firm Trendstream found that in Q4 2012, Google+ became the second biggest social network worldwide among 16-65 year olds.
The number of active users on Google+ grew 27 per cent to 343 million users in the quarter, the report said. Facebook had the most users, with an estimated 903 million accounts.
In designing a business flavour of what began as a consumer platform, Google is "following on the general trend of consumerization of IT," DeWitt said. "A lot of what you're seeing on the consumer side also exists on the enterprise side. But on top of that, we realise that businesses do need additional administrative controls."
Google recently added the ability for businesses to restrict posting outside of the organisation in order to prevent people from publicly posting internal company information. More administrative controls are planned in future releases, "in response to things people have been asking for," DeWitt said.
"Google acknowledges the need for enterprise controls, but it believes the decision to allow data outside the organization should reside with the user, rather than administrators," Gartner analyst Matt Cain wrote in a Gartner report dated 28 November.
"Lack of a domain lockdown will make Google less competitive with Microsoft--with its newly acquired Yammer cloud social service--and therefore put it at a competitive disadvantage," Cain wrote.
"We know of cases where Google Apps customers have chosen alternatives to Google+, such as Salesforce.com's Chatter, precisely because of this issue."
However, Google's DeWitt said the company has responded to customer demand for more administrative controls. She also argued that business customers must become more comfortable with social media.
"We're in the middle of a paradigm shift with consumerization of IT and the move to cloud computing, and so there's a certain level of [comfort] that people just need to get accustomed to," DeWitt said.
"There's a heightened concern about data security that's a little bit misplaced because people aren't used to it yet."
The changes Google has made so far reflect the company's approach of launching first, collecting customer feedback and then prioritising changes based on the feedback, DeWitt said.
For example, Google recently added Hangouts integration to its calendar application in response to customer demand, she said. It also upped the maximum number of Hangouts to 15, up from the 10 allowed in the consumer version, acknowledging the larger size of business meetings, she said.
A business-focused mobile version of Google+ is in the pipeline, DeWitt said.
"The impact of Google+ on businesses and institutions is likely to be very subtle, just as it was with Gmail," said Ovum analyst, Richard Edwards. That's because Google doesn't have a specific Google+ business product, but rather has been "continuously enabling business features on Google+ which Google Apps for Business users can benefit from.""
"As Marshall McLuhan once said, 'We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,'" Edwards said.
"Businesses today are still very email centric, but this will change as we push through the decade and make use of a broader set of tools."
Shoes of Prey and Above the Parapet are two Australian small businesses that use Google+. Shoes of Prey is an online retailer that lets customers design custom shoes, while Above the Parapet is a marketing and events consultancy firm.
While both companies raved about Hangouts, Shoes of Prey said it has found greater customer engagement on Facebook.
Shoes of Prey uses Hangouts for business meetings among staff based in Sydney, Japan, China and the UK, the website's cofounder, Mike Knapp, told Computerworld Australia. Due to the different time zones, they tend to be one-to-one manager meetings, but Knapp said he hopes to hold larger Hangouts in the future.
Video call quality has generally been good, said Knapp, who was a software engineer for Google before starting Shoes of Prey. However, communicating with staff in China requires a VPN to bypass the country's firewall, and as a result there are occasional dropouts, he said. "It adds an extra layer of unreliability."
Use of Hangouts is free for Shoes of Prey, Knapp said. The price for the full Google Apps for business suite is increasing to about $50 per person per year for new signups, but Knapp said paying that amount would still be "much more reasonable than having to set up our own server system and employ someone to look after it."
Above the Parapet has been using Hangouts for weekly meetings with a team member based in the Philippines, said the marketing firm's owner, Melissa Andrews. Every member of the company's small staff works from home, and using Hangouts means saving time and money on travel, she said.
"Usually it's three of us on screen at the same time," two in Australia and one in the Philippines, "and then we just run through where we are with the project," Andrews said. "It's good because we can also do screen sharing and open up the same document to be poking through at the same time."
Andrews said the call quality over Hangouts is generally good, however it can depend on users' broadband connections. She said the service has worked well over the ADSL2 connection in her home office.
Both Andrews and Knapp said they previously tried Skype for videoconferencing. Andrews said she was frustrated by frequent service dropouts on the free version of Skype. Knapp reported no call quality problems, but said he likes how Hangouts is integrated with Gmail. "It is pretty convenient to be able to do video chat from inside of email."
Knapp added the he likes sharing screens on Hangouts, but wishes it was possible to simultaneously show a presentation and video of the other person on the call.
Searching for customers on Google+
Above the Parapet and Shoes of Prey each have a presence on multiple social media platforms. The companies have had different levels of success engaging customers on Google+.
Andrews' company has 46 followers on Google+, 49 on Twitter and 25 on Facebook, she said. Andrews said she's seen the fastest growth on Google+, but the best social media engagement is on LinkedIn.
Google's recently launched Communities, a feature allowing users to form shared interest groups, has helped Andrews build contacts for a renewable energies conference she is working on, she said.
However, Knapp said Shoes of Prey hasn't had much success with its Google+ page, which is far less active than its Facebook page.
The Shoes of Prey website doesn't list the Google+ page under a "Follow Us" navigation on its main website, and while Shoes of Prey updated the Facebook page nearly 10 times in January, as of this writing it hadn't updated the Google+ page for nearly four months.
The reason for the disparity comes down to the number of followers, Knapp said. The Facebook page has 111,000 followers; the Google+ page has only 525. "At the moment it just doesn't make a lot of sense to spend a huge amount of time on it."
However, Knapp admitted it's a "chicken and egg" scenario. "If you don't devote enough time to it, you don't produce meaningful results ... It's more just an oversight that we haven't done it. I think it's something we should do."
Andrews said each social media platform has its own unique audience, and it's important to treat them differently. "The Google+ audience seems to be a more business and a slightly more techy kind of audience," whereas Facebook is "very much just a general public kind of thing," she said.
"If you only talk to an audience on a particular social media channel, you may only get part of the audience," she said. "And I think you've got to be fairly targeted in what you write to each channel to make sure you're broadcasting to your intended audience."
Above the Parapet also uses Google+ for internal communications, Andrews said. Targeting groups of recipients for posts using circles is "a really flexible way to work."
Andrews said she's not concerned about accidentally leaking internal information to the public through Google+. "It's really just a matter of learning how to use it."
Besides Hangouts, Shoes of Prey does not currently use Google+ for internal company conversations, Knapp said.
"We should be using it more," he said. "One of the problems we have now is internal conversation because people want to socialise and what not, but Facebook isn't appropriate for that." An internal Google+ community "might actually be very good."