Since Google Plus debuted, Sparks has been the least talked about but potentially-important feature. Considering that Google wants to make people share content on its upstart social network, what better way to do that than to encourage adoption of a well of articles and videos ready to broadcast to your circles?
Sadly, Google+ Sparks is not being adopted because it’s current form is lackluster and has room for improvement. Here are five critical steps I think Google should take in order to make Sparks a more compelling asset for Google Plus.
1. Make the news chronological or timely
The Women’s World Cup ended July 17, 2011; so why was a video of the Japanese celebration, posted the day after the final, still appearing towards the top of Sparks results on August 7th? Sparks should be about timeliness and fresh content. The main Stream of Google Plus moves at a constant refreshing rate, so don’t let the stale content bubble to the top so long after it debuts. It’s understandable to highlight content that multiple people have shared in a trending section, but allow fresh content to rise to the top.
2. Make it easier to filter
I created a spark to keep tabs on the island of Jamaica, yet i get plenty of results from Jamaica, Queens or Jamaican people in Boston. A trick to get around this is to subtract keywords from the search. So instead of creating a [Jamaica] spark, I look for search term [Jamaica -queens -"new york"] (search terms with two words should be put in quotes if you want it to be exact).
However, this solution is neither easy nor elegant. Google should build filtering options into Plus so users can have a more narrow focus on their interests. It would be better to have a spark on Jamaican sports or politics and not have music stories dominating the stream. And while we’re at it, please ditch the YouTube videos in my Android spark that have nothing to do with Android, other than the fact that the video was automatically tagged “Record on my Android phone” when uploaded.
3. Integrate Google Reader & News to find better sources.
A few of my Sparks pull-in information from college newspapers and gossip blogs, neither of which are sources I’m interested in reading. Google is master of algorithms, so it should be better capable of learning which outlets appeal to me and deliver higher-quality articles. I have dozens of feeds in Google Reader and search for the same kinds of things in Google News. That should give Google enough clues as to figure out which types of stories to present.
4. Let me go local.
I have seen only one suggested article from The Miami Herald, my hometown newspaper. The nearby South Florida Sentinel has never popped up when I browsed Sparks. Shouldn’t Google give me the option to focus on my community?
My politics spark would be more relevant if it had more stories about City Hall and less about what happens on Capitol Hill. My football spark would be more interesting if it alerted me on local teams and major events nearby, so Sparks could get a boost though an option to see articles within 20-50 miles of my location. I’d also be more likely to find articles of interest for the people in my South Florida circle with such a feature. Google makes location a priority in shopping and search results, so it should do the same for news.
5. Be more social.
The most simple rule is also the most important, yet Google hasn’t done a very good job of making it relevant. The whole point of “Sparks” is to spark a conversation, right? The idea is that I see something of interest, share it to a circle, and then we talk about it. Despite that goal, Google is missing a golden opportunity in revealing what sparked my friend’s posts.
I can’t see every item added to the Google Plus Stream, especially if I don’t use a computer until hours after the content is shared. It would make more sense for Google to introduce a feature that shows when my friends have shared something from Sparks. Then I could click the link to see the content and add a comment to my friend’s post. Google already tells me when my friends use the +1 button in search results and in the Android Market, so why not in the news source that is designed to increase social activity?
These are just a few of the ways in which Google could enhance the usability of Sparks. Google Plus is still in its infant stages and some of these changes may actually be in the pipeline; however, it’s important that they arrive soon. Sparks in its current form misses the mark in key areas of interest. Google must address them if it hopes to make Sparks and Google Plus must-visit destinations.