Google+ may not be as universally used as Facebook, but the rapidly evolving social network is getting harder and harder to ignore.
Google+ has grown immensely since it launched in June 2011 -- some analyses suggest it could actually overtake Facebook in social sharing in a few years. Activity aside, the service itself has changed quite a bit since its debut. Little by little, Google has refined G+'s interface and expanded its functionality; as a result, the Google+ of today is very different from the one that appeared two years ago.
So how do you go about getting started on today's Google+? We've made it easy. Whether you're new to the service or just trying to wrap your head around how it works, this guide will get you going in no time.
This is the first of three "how-to" guides for Google+. In upcoming articles, we'll help you use the service to get noticed, and offer tips and tricks for becoming a master of the Google+ arts.
For now, all you have to do is sign into Google, activate your G+ account and read on; we'll take it from there.
Wading into the stream
The main home screen of Google+ is known as the stream -- a concept that'll be familiar to anyone who's ever used a social network. In the stream, updates from people you're following show up in card-like boxes.
By default, Google+ updates appear in a multicolumn view (which expands or collapses depending on the size of your browser window). If you prefer a single column, you can switch by clicking the "More" button at the top of the screen; you'll get a drop-down menu with a "Stream layout" heading which will let you change the setting.
You'll notice that many posts have hashtags in their upper-right corner; clicking those hashtags will pull up more public posts related to the same topic.
See something in your stream you don't like? No problem: Hover your mouse over the post and click the small arrow icon that appears in its upper-right corner. You can then choose to "Mute the post" -- which will make it disappear from your life forever. You can also unfollow the poster altogether or report him for spam or abusive content.
One thing that sets Google+ apart from other social networks is its use of circles. The concept is actually a lot simpler than it sounds.
Anytime you follow someone new, you assign that person to a circle (in other words, you "add" them, in the G+ vernacular). Think of circles as fancy groups for organizing and managing your social experience. By default, the system provides you with circles for friends, family, and acquaintances as well as for people you're following but don't know personally. You can add additional circles and customize all sorts of stuff about the way they work (more on that in a bit).
Basically, circles allow you to focus on content from specific groups of people; just click the circle you want from the list at the top of the screen and your stream will show updates only from the people who are in that circle. You can also view content from everyone in your circles collectively by selecting "All" from that same list.