Five Things Small Businesses Should Know About Google+

Google+ (also known as Google Plus) has generated lots of buzz, but most small businesses are still largely unfamiliar with Google+ and what it offers. In this post, we’ll explain what Google+ is, the key features every small business should understand, and how small businesses can use those features to increase sales.

For those of you who prefer a video introduction, here’s a short video from Google with an overview of Google+

1. Google+

What is Google+? Google+ is a social network, but it’s more than just another social network or a competitor to Facebook. With Google+, Google is integrating many of its products, including search, under one umbrella. Assuming Google+ continues to grow in popularity, small businesses will absolutely want to have a presence on Google+.

How can a small business use Google+ today? Unfortunately, businesses are not yet able to establish business accounts on Google+. At this time, Google is permitting only individual accounts and is allowing only a small group of businesses (such as Ford) to set-up business accounts. Google promises to permit businesses to set-up pages before the end of the year.

What can you do now while waiting for Google to set up business accounts on Google+? You can experiment with a personal account. In fact, some businesses have set up an account for a real person at the company who is at the moment, a public face of their business on Google+ (until business accounts are available). For example, Mashable does this through Pete Cashmore’s account and crowdSPRING shares through my Google+ account. Keep in mind, however, that it’s likely that Google may not permit migration of data from a personal account to a business account.

Is Google+ difficult to use? If you’ve been using Facebook, you’ll quickly get up to speed on Google+.  You can edit your posts, upload photos and videos, chat with friends, and much more. To help you get started, here’s a handy cheat sheet for Google+ (available in English and many other languages). And for more great tips, read 40 Google Plus Tips for Newbies.

Should a small business invest the time now to learn about Google+? Yes, because Google+ integrates so many of Google’s products, it’s important for small businesses to understand how they’ll be able to leverage Google+. But as with everything, experiment without committing too much of your time. It’s not yet clear whether Google+ will continue to expand to levels that would interest small businesses in the long term. Recent data suggests that Google+ growth has softened considerably. In fact, a recent report from Chitika suggests that Google+ traffic has fallen 60% from it’s high set in the second half of September 2011.

2. Circles.

What are Circles? You can group people you follow or want to share with into “Circles.” The idea here is that you can organize people into different groups: friends, customers, associates, employees, vendors, etc. You can share specific things with one or more circles (or share with specific people), and whenever you have someone in your circle, anything that person shares with the public appears in your news feed.

How can a small business use Circles? Think of circles as your customer groups. Most businesses will have a variety of different customer groups and sometimes, you want to communicate separately with each group. Circles allow you to put your customers into these groups and then easily communicate with each group separately, or multiple groups at the same time. For example, if you have a group of loyal customers, you might customize offers and deals specifically for those customers without sending the same offers generally to the rest of the world or to your other customers. You also share information selectively, with specific circles.

You can also use circles to follow your competitors and other people who interest you. For example, you can create a circle of your main competitors and then easily check to see what they’re up to. Or you can create a circle of thought leaders in your industry and monitor what they’re talking about.

If you prefer a video explanation, here’s a short video from Google explaining Circles:

3. Hangouts.

What are Hangouts? A hangout is a free group video chat for up to 10 people.

How can a small business use Hangouts? You can use hangouts to have an internal team meeting with your sales team, or to talk to people working in your other locations. You also can use hangouts in many other creative ways, including chats with customers. Ford, for example, has used hangouts to connect with small groups of customers to discuss cars (one recent issue was  the integration of Spotify on some models).

4. Sparks.

What are Sparks? With Sparks, you can subscribe to specific topics and see information on those topics.

How can a small business use Sparks? You can use Sparks to keep track of competitors, issues in your industry, or potential opportunities. For example, you can set up a Spark to monitor “gift basket” if you have a gift basket business. You’ll see how your competitors are using Google+ and often, photos of their products. You’ll also learn of new customer opportunities when people ask where they can order gift baskets.

You also can use sparks to monitor mentions of your company’s name or products so that you can see what customers or potential customers are talking about (and engage when appropriate).

Think of each spark as a separate search. You can quickly click through your saved Sparks and look only at the information that’s important to you.

5. The +1 Button

What is the +1 Button? The +1 button is similar to Facebook’s “Like” button. It’s intended to show that a user likes a post, video, photo, etc. and suggests that other people might also like it.

Why should you consider adding the +1 Button to your site? Google will use the +1 button in search results. Content recommended by people is more relevant than content from strangers, and Google has already signaled that it will integrate the +1 button across its many products. Here are answers to the most commonly asked questions about the+1 button.

Do you have to have a Google+ account to use the +1 button? No

How can a small business use the +1 Button? You can easily add the +1 button to any page on your site (including your blog). Here’s one plugin that allows you to add the +1 button to your WordPress blog.

Do you have questions about Google+ or other suggestions or things small businesses should know about Google+? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.