Master Google+

Google launched Google+ last summer to save us all from Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is too much like shouting in a coffee shop, Google argued, and Facebook’s garden, large and beautiful as it may be, has walls that are too high and opaque—particularly to Google’s search bots.

Google pitches its social network as an alternative that both simplifies and empowers the way we share things with each other. People are giving the new social network a try—the site’s traffic grew 27 percent this March to 61 million visits. But as with much technology, it’s still easy to get lost or overwhelmed.

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Here are some ways to get a handle on your Google+ activity to make using the site a more useful and appealing experience.

Stop running in circles

One of Google+’s main advantages—the ability to organize interesting friends, coworkers, personalities, and companies to one or more circles—really does bring a lot of simplicity and power to doing the social media thing.

Where Facebook makes its version of this feature complicated and even obfuscated, and Twitter seems to be almost ashamed that it ever let users create lists of users to follow in the first place, Google+ wears this ability on its shoulders, and the feature can really help you from getting overwhelmed by following or doing too much on the service.

Instead, draw some circles

Circling someone is easy. You can use the ever-present search box at the top of Google+, click on the Circles tab in the left sidebar, or click the Explore tab, previously known as What’s Hot.

If you use the Circles tab, it displays suggested users you’ll probably dig and any contacts you have in Gmail. Select one or more users and drag them to one of Google’s pre-made circles down below, or to the empty circle to create your own, and give it a name. You can add a person, page, or company to as many circles as you want, so go wild. Including Google’s pre-made circles, I have twelve for things like “design,” “close friends,” “gaming,” “writers,” and others related to my work and interests. If you like keyboard shortcuts, you can use the minus key (-) to make your circles smaller and fit more on screen at once (this is especially useful on my 11-inch MacBook Air), and the plus key (+) to make them larger.

You can also quickly circle people while browsing Google+. Just mouse over anyone’s name to display a quick view of their profile. Mouse down to the Circles button and a list of your circles expands. Click one or more to circle that person on the fly.

While posts from everyone you circle will start appearing in your main Google+ stream, the whole point of all this is that you’re creating handy bubbles of activity you can communicate with and easily hop between at will. A list of your circles appears along the top of Google+, just below the main search box, and clicking any of them will filter your stream down to just the posts from people in that circle.

Share with others

When it comes to sharing a post or something you’ve found, you can easily address it to one or more circles (or even individuals), much like drafting an email to one or more groups of contacts. If you want to share news of a great new game with just your gaming friends, but not your coworkers or non-gaming family members, this is a great way to do it. Start typing your post at the top of the stream, tab to the circles field just below, and type the name of your gaming circle or a couple of friends who will be interested. That way, this post will show up in their streams, and their streams only.

Zip through posts

Just as in Gmail, Google Reader, and other Google services, you can use a few shortcuts to down and up through posts. Press J to move down one post at a time through your stream, and K to move back up one post at a time.

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