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170m people 'upgrade' to Google+, but how many stick around?

Major UI revamp leaves us with more questions than answers

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Google is still struggling to answer, publically at least, that thorny question of just how many people are actually engaged with its social network, which arrived around 10 months ago. But no matter!

Mountain View claimed today that 170 million users had "upgraded" to Google+, which the Chocolate Factory has just applied a fairly major UI upgrade to.

Some might ask why apply such an update so soon after making the network available to anyone with a Google account in September 2011?

According to Vic Gundotra – the man charged with making Google+ a social network where people actually do want to "hang out" – the revamp has taken place to create "a more functional and flexible version" of the site.

He added: "We think you’ll find it easier to use and nicer to look at, but most importantly, it accelerates our efforts to create a simpler, more beautiful Google."

These comments can, and probably will be, interpreted in two ways. The first is that Google is seriously starting to panic about Google+, which is failing to capture the kind of stalkerbase tirelessly built up by soon-to-IPO Facebook over the past eight years. The second is that the Chocolate Factory is deadly serious about injecting social goo into its search engine.

But, casting aside the interface design overhaul that Google+ has frankly been crying out for since it first blinked clumsily at the internet, what exactly does Google mean when it says 170 million people have "upgraded" to the network?

The wording is strange, given that all new Google account signups are now automatically plonked into Google+. Many of those new users won't necessarily know that they can opt out of that "upgrade".

Add to that those people who were using Gmail and other Chocolate Factory services long before Google+ arrived, who may have had existing public profiles that they then used to take a quick look at Google's latest attempt to do social networking – but who never went back.

And very quickly, the "upgrade" metric used by Google becomes a useless number that once again reveals zilch about real time engagement with that service.

So, what's new? Navigation has been shifted to a left-hand side "ribbon" where apps can be easily curated. Google did its best to tease users about this change by saying:

Taken together, these powers make it easier to access your favorites, and to adjust your preferences over time. We've also built the ribbon with the future in mind, giving us an obvious (and clutter-free) space for The Next Big Feature, and The Feature After That. So stay tuned.

Beyond that, the company has given its Hangouts feature a much more prominent presence within Google+ by giving the video chat tool its own page. The site is also getting bigger photos, just like Facebook's Timeline makeover.

“It’s still early days, and there’s plenty left to do, but we’re more excited than ever to build a seamless social experience, all across Google,” Gundotra said.

The UI overhaul will be implemented worldwide over the next few days, Google added. ®

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