Google (news, site) has sneaked out its latest social venture in beta for some lucky users to try, offering a service that looks, well, rather familiar.

Google Aims for A+

Google has been seen poking its nose into social media-style ventures in the past, with limited success. In recent months we've seen the arrival of the "+1" button, and earlier this week the "What do you love" page. But despite the low-key launch, this is the real deal for Google with all the importance of any AAA product.

Google+ currently looks remarkably like Facebook, with slightly different names for all the areas, so you have Circles of friends, instead of just friends, and video chat Hangouts as a more visual method of immediate interaction. For the camera-shy, Huddle will offer chat or a group messaging service. But, Circles is Google+'s big innovation and correctly identifies that we all have different circles of friends and don't want to share all our info between them.

Circles of Life

The most obvious example is your work friends, with whom you would not want to share what you get up to on wild weekends, or your family who probably have little interest in what you and the rest of your rare-rabbit breeding friends (for example) like to discuss.

Sparks is another area where the service is branching out from its rivals, acting as a kind of social bookmark library of things you might be interested in looking at when you have a minute. With the video feature, which may or may not catch on -- the success of social media is largely down to people not wanting to see each other all the time -- there's enough to see that Google+ is clearly different, but still comfortable and familiar. 

Learning Opportunities

A Good Time to Strike?

Google soft-launches the service at a time when Facebook is starting to lose users and could be at the peak of its success. With some users looking elsewhere, Google could benefit massively from any surge in the new social media direction.

The trick will be getting users to bring their friends over, too, and while Google's Chrome browser could help act as a rallying point, with it baked-in, other browser users will have to accept another Google page into their lives. (Remembering that Facebook has partnered with RockMelt to offer a better social browser).

But while Google's pages (including Gmail, Docs and so on) now have a black bar at the top to encourage use, when the service goes live, how will it get Google+ across to the masses of users who do all their social interactions via mobile? Facebook has a kick-ass iPad app ready to go; Google will need something spectacular to compete.

An Android app has just launched, and an iPhone one is promised, but these need to be slicker than greased weasels when they get a full public launch.