Google’s new social networking service, Google+, creates new ways for people to discover news and other content on the Web.

The Google+ logo.

Google announced the product Tuesday and has opened it to a limited group of initial users. Additional people will be invited over time, as the company tries to build anticipation while working out any bugs.

Although most of us can’t play with Google+ just yet, company representatives have talked with tech blogs about its plans and released screenshots and videos that give a good idea of what’s coming. Each user creates groups of friends, called “circles,” to enable more control over who sees each shared item. And Google+ gives them new communication tools.

What it does

The most interesting aspects for news organizations are the “stream” and “sparks.”

The stream functions a lot like Facebook’s news feed -- a flow of information shared by your friends. If Google+ grows to critical mass, news providers could find it very important to get their content into the stream.

Google+ users select "sparks" that interest them.

The “sparks” section is a bigger innovation. Essentially, sparks are topics that users designate an interest in. Google uses Google+ sharing activity and +1’s, as well as its famous search algorithms, to recommend personalized content for each spark, according to Mashable.

Suddenly the +1 button makes more sense. Google announced +1 in March as a way for users to express approval of any Web page. Now it seems the +1 button will infuse not only search results, but also sparks, with social recommendations. TechCrunch interviewed Google officials about Google+ and reports: “You’ll see a +1 button on all Google+ content — the +1 Button clearly ties deeply into all of this. It is going to be their Facebook ‘Like’ button.”

How it could affect news consumption and discovery

Google expects the stream and sparks to be a major force in the future of news discovery. It moved the Google News group of employees into the division working on Google+, reports Wired's Stephen Levy, who was embedded behind the scenes at Google working on a book while Google+ was being developed.

Levy has more details on sparks in his post for Wired:

“ ‘It’s focused on getting stuff that’s fresh and social and fun. We’ve tried to tune parameters to get something that’s engaging,’ says Andrew Tomkins, a top search engineer who joined Google after stints at IBM and Yahoo. The signals that Google looks for in determining Sparks content is freshness, a visual component (videos will rank highly), and the degree to which the content is virally spreading on the net... In other words, Sparks tries to deliver the kinds of thing you want to share with others, and Google hopes that its users do just that.”

“ ‘Sparks is essentially the stuff that flows to you through the interest graph and the stream is the stuff that flows to you through the social graph,’ says Tomkins. Basically, Google thinks that its expertise in search quality will make the items in both of these feeds more relevant, interesting and diverse than the stuff people see in their Facebook feed.”

Whether Google’s newest social effort makes an impact won’t be clear for some time. Some smart people are skeptical. And we can’t overlook the fact that their previous social efforts, Wave and Buzz, fell flat.

But it’s also fair to say that Google+ appears to be different, more comprehensive and more well-planned than any previous effort. The design is great, the ideas sound good and the company is making a large commitment to success.

Google+ eventually will become a layer integrated into all of Google’s products, including blockbusters Search, Gmail and YouTube. With 1 billion unique visitors a month coming to Google Web properties, the company will certainly have an opportunity to scale Google+.

The project’s mastermind, Senior Vice President of Social Vic Gundotra, told Levy that this is a bet-the-company project. Google views the social Web, Levy writes, as a “massive wave” — “a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory.”

If Google does ride the social wave to glory, it will have created a new force reshaping the way people find and share news and other online content. News organizations will have to watch and adapt their social media strategies. Depending on how Google’s stream and spark evolve, we may even see social strategy and SEO blend into something new.

More screenshots below, all courtesy of Jon Mitchell, who was among the first users invited.

When viewing a spark, the users sees recommended content on that topic.
A status update in Google+.
A user profile in Google+. This will replace the existing Google Profile for users who have one.