The fight for social networks has taken an interesting turn this week as Google has thrown its hat into the ring with the Google Plus Project. Now in its beta stage, the network is open to a small number of members, but the public will soon have the chance to join what is expected to be a real threat to Facebook‘s dominance.

An illustration of how Google Plus works

(Image from Google website)

This is not the first time Google has tried its hand at social networks.  Users may remember its failed attempts with Google Wave and Google Buzz, both of which gained early media interest only to quickly lose momentum.  But with new features and an integration into search, Google Plus is primed to be just the answer Google has been looking for.

While many start-up social networks face the hurdle of getting members to register with the site, Google doesn’t have to worry so much.  At the moment, Google Plus is invite only, and demand has been high, really high, not to mention the media buzz around it. Within the first six hours of opening its service, Google had to close registration due to “insane demand.”  The invite-only system has worked well for Google in the past, with its initial venture into email, gmail, and it is anticipated to work well again.  Once the social network goes public, anyone who already has a Google account will be able to seamlessly enter Google Plus.

Although Google sites bring in more visits than Facebook every month, Internet users spend a lot more time on Facebook.  It’s no surprise, then, that in an effort to gain some more of visitors’ time Google Plus functions a lot like Facebook, incorporating social networks, chat functions, and photo uploading.  The project will also include a few other features that it hopes will separate it from the rest.

1. Circles: Much like our real interactions, Circles give users the opportunity to define their social groups and release information to specified circles rather than everyone they know.
2. Hangout: In an attempt to up the ante of real time socialising, Hangouts allow users to have group video chats so they can “hangout” online.
3. Sparks: Similar to Pandora or StumbleUpon, Google’s search function analyses users’ interests and recommends websites they may enjoy.
4. Huddle: Rather than carry on multiple conversations via text, Huddle includes all members into one conversation.

Another major factor that may give Facebook a run for its money is the fact that Google is already visited by 90% of UK Internet users.  By incorporating Google Plus into search results, users can stay on Google and simultaneously access their social network information.  One feature that helps encourage this is the new +1 button found within search results.

The +1 button is Google’s answer to the Facebook “Like” button.  It is located next to every search result and will most likely be found in every website in the near future.  If a visitor likes a website, they can “+1” it so people in their social network who do a similar search will see that they’ve recommended a site.  Although the +1 button does not currently influence search result ranking, it is expected to eventually do so.

Whether or not Google Plus succeeds has yet to be determined, but the hype surrounding it and its potential impact on search makes it something to keep an eye on.