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Google knocks Facebook down a peg with Google+ overhaul

Google on Wednesday showed off a redesigned Google+ and new Hangouts app to overtake Facebook as the world's top social network.

Google has struggled to win over Facebook users--and really, nearly everyone--with its social network, Google+. A completely redesigned Google+ launched on Wednesday at Google I/O with features that could make Google+ a more fierce Facebook competitor.

The Google+ overhaul includes a fancy, multi-column stream (not a news feed, a stream) with cards that you can click to flip over and find related content. In a potentially creepy move, Google will now auto-hashtag your Google+ posts with relevant tags, even if you post a photo with no description. An example demoed during Wednesday's I/O keynote involved a photo of the Eiffel Tower that Google knew to tag as #eiffeltower because of landmark recognition and metadata.

The good news: You can turn this feature off, or delete tags that Google gets wrong. But the company is pushing for more depth in its social network--less emphasis on a stream of information and more of a push toward discovering relevant content.

"It's very easy to see a long list of things that have been shared with you, like a never-ending newspaper," said Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of engineering.

But people don't want a never-ending newspaper like the Facebook is pushing with its recent News Feed overhaul--or at least, that's what Google is betting on.

The multi-column stream can be condensed into one column or stretched into three, depending on screen size. Photos and videos can span multiple columns. Boxes and posts are animated, popping up when you want to share something and flipping over to see more content.

A stand-alone Hangouts app

Google+ has since its launch two years ago been defined by circles, the ability to share content with specific groups (coworkers, family, friends who live in New York, and so on). Gundotra said more than half of all sharing on Google+ is done in private circles.

Hangouts, that Skype-like feature that lets you video chat with your Gmail contacts, on Wednesday launched as a stand-alone, cross-platform app to let you message and video chat with your circles on Google+.

The app looked pretty amazing in Gundotra's demo. You can share images, text, or tap the video icon and drop everyone from your group chat into a video chat (for free!). You can also save the history of a group chat for years, which may be useful for families sharing baby updates and photos.

Photos are a major focus of the changes to Google's social networking push. On Wednesday, Google showed off new photography features for editing and sharing images. Highlights include tools that automatically soften wrinkles on faces and reduce "noise" in grainy photographs. Google compared the features, performed on Google servers, to those in photo editing software or specialized modes on cameras.

Google is clearly no longer content with being the No. 2 social network, upping the ante with a redesigned Google+ and stand-alone Hangouts app.

The Google+ redesign and Hangouts app are expected to roll out Wednesday afternoon on desktops, iOS, and Android.

Martyn Williams of IDG News Service contributed to this report.


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