MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Google’s Social Network Gets Smarter

With dozens of new features, Google’s social network is becoming more like a photo service and a news site.

Despite the 190 million people that Google says use its social network every month, Google Plus has always struggled to escape Facebook’s shadow and seem like a hopping social destination.

With the 41 new features the company announced would be rolling out this week, Google Plus is now morphing into something that makes greater use of what Google does best—anticipate the needs of its users, show them relevant news and information, and help them manage massive amounts of data. The new Google Plus will go so far as to auto-generate animated GIF files from photos that people upload from their devices or desktops.

“We just put the Google into Google Plus,” says Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president for engineering at Google, who presented the features at the company’s annual conference for developers.

The new additions could make the network more competitive with Facebook, especially now that Google is more aggressively encouraging outside websites to let people log in with their Google Plus username. It has also expanded its “hangouts” chat service with a new standalone app launched today.

Many people use social networks to hear about news or find information. But unless someone tags a post, it can be hard to drill down further into a topic, especially on Facebook. Google will run algorithms that automatically add hashtags to posts, links, and images in a redesigned social stream.

The new additions will make use of several of Google’s technology assets. For example, if someone posts a photo of the Eiffel Tower, Google Plus would use image recognition and the content from its Knowledge Graph (see “Google’s New Brain Could Have a Big Impact”) to recognize that it is the Eiffel Tower and add a tag. People could then click on a post, and a card would flip around to give more information or show them other related posts. Similarly, a person could click on a tag about a news story, and a similar card would suggest relevant links, ranked and personalized according to that person’s social network and the entirety of Google’s information store.

Photos are fast becoming an important part of all social networks, and Google hopes it can lure more users to Google Plus by providing better ways to manage all the images people are taking on their devices. “We can do some of those labor-intensive tasks automatically for you,” says Gundotra.

When you upload hundreds of new vacation photos, Google Plus will share the best ones with others, eliminating blurry or unfocused photos and even analyzing whether people look happy. Using Knowledge Graph, it might recognize where a person is located and prioritize photos taken at important landmarks. It will also prioritize photos of people recognized to be in a user’s close Google Plus circles, like family members. A photo rating system is being trained by hundreds of human raters, which will help the photo engine begin to account for “aesthetics and human tastes,” says Gundotra.

The redesigned Google Plus also resembles an automated version of Photoshop. Google has implemented sophisticated facial recognition so it can more finely auto-tune images to fix a person’s blemishes or skin tones. Other fun features can generate GIFs from a series of photos or even create a mashup image—for example, from a sequence of photos of a group of people, so that everyone’s eyes are open and everyone is smiling. “We’re creating a new image that did not exist before,” Gundotra says.