SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is making a fresh attempt at social networking with a service that competes with Facebook.
The service, called Google Plus, has a similar appearance as Facebook, with streaming updates of photos, messages, comments and other content from selected groups of friends, said Bradley Horowitz, vice president, product management. It will integrate Google's maps and images.
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As Internet users spend more time on social-networking sites, Google, the world's biggest Internet-search company, is releasing new social features to lure web surfers to its own services and expand advertising sales. Facebook, the world's most popular social network, captured 13 percent of total hours people spent online in May, while Google attracted 10 percent, according to ComScore Inc.
"It's something that is changing the quality of Google itself," Horowitz said of the push into social networks. "It's the Google you know and love, but now with people."
Chief Executive Officer Larry Page is starting Google (plus) after missteps last year with the introduction of a social component to Gmail called Buzz. In March, Google reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to resolve concerns it violated its own privacy policies.
Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, CEO for a decade before Page assumed the role, said earlier this month that he "screwed up" in the area of social networking. "I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it," he said.
The new service will initially be available to only a limited set of users in a test. The company has been testing internally and it's now ready to gradually open up what it calls a "project" to the general public. The service is available only by invite for now.
"This is a project that will span many years," Horowitz said. "This is not something where we're done. On the contrary -- we're just getting started, laying some of the foundation and then many features will evolve."
With Google (plus), users easily share information based on the circle of friends they think would most like to see a photo or read a message. Once users sign up, they have a profile page with security settings that let them share or hide personal information, such as education or job descriptions.
Other Google (plus) features include Sparks, which gathers videos and articles on topics of interests or hobbies, and Hangouts, which lets friends join video chat with multiple people at once. There is also a mobile version of Google (plus) for handsets running the Android software, and the company is developing a version for Apple's iPhone. The mobile version enables text-message chats with multiple users and, with an opt-in, photos and videos are automatically stored in an online album for later access.
"We already have users," Horowitz said. "This isn't a startup that's trying to acquire users. The users are here already. It's just that the experience we've offered them is incoherent and disconnected."