Apparently Google is feeling more confident about expanding the population of its social network, because the "invite people to Google+" button has been visible for well over a day.
The button had been appearing fleetingly since the Google+ launch on June 28, so Google's decision to leave it up carries the message that the company is less concerned now about a big growth spurt. Of course, the company can still throttle the rate at which it delivers those invitations or the rate it signs up the new members when they open their invitations, but the relative ease I've had inviting folks to the service since Friday indicates to me that Google is loosening up.
Last week, during one moment when it showed the invitation button, Google said it was allowing the Google+ population to double from the first-round beta test.
Google+ invitations initially were extended only to Googlers, the press, and some in the nerdy in-crowd, but demand has been high. Those who wanted to invite their friends had to resort to a circuitous and somewhat unreliable e-mail notification technique.
Opening the invitation process is a big step short of letting just anybody sign up on their own, of course. The process keeps growth at a slower pace, makes it less likely that bots and spammers will start polluting the system, and helps avoid the problem that people will show up on the service with nobody in their social circles.
Google hasn't revealed how many Google+ members it has so far, though Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said last week that there are millions. Facebook, by contrast, has hundreds of millions of members.
A statistical estimate one week ago put the total at 1.7 million, a number that Ancestry.com founder and FamilyLink Chief Executive Paul Allen based on census data and surname frequency. Allen plans to update that figure today, expecting about 4.7 million. He noted yesterday that he's "very surprised at how fast the userbase is growing."
Google has run into one visible scale-up problem, so far. Over the weekend, when a storage system ran out of room, some Google+ users were inundated with a storm of duplicate notification e-mails.
Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of engineering in charge of Google+, apologized for the notifications problem.
And today, he promised more changes for Google+. "Lots of criticism for Google+. We are listening and working to address. Stay tuned for changes this week," Gundotra said in a Google+ post late last night. Google has a sizeable list of known Google+ problems.
Another change coming, though perhaps not this week, is Gmail integration.
"As you can imagine, we are working on several Gmail / Google+ integrations," posted Mark Striebeck, engineering manager for Gmail's front-end software--what Gmail users see in the browser. Striebeck said yesterday he'll grant anyone who wants to help access to a Google Doc file about the subject. More in keeping with the Google+ ethos, he also plans a hangout--the name for the Google+ video chat service--tomorrow at 3 p.m. PT.
Google+ is already integrated with some other properties using the new black menu bar that's arrived on Google properties. Google+ users signing into their Google accounts see their names with a plus sign in the upper left of the browser screen when visiting Google's prime real estate, its search page. Also shown at the upper right is the number of notifications on Google+. Google Docs gets the same treatment, too.
Meanwhile, Gmail is getting a new user interface soon, and the same Google+-infused black bar shows for those who enable the Gmail Labs theme that gives a preview of the UI.
Google Buzz, an ill-fated social networking predecessor to Google+, had very direct Gmail integration. Indeed, that integration was tight enough to tarnish Buzz with a reputation for disrespecting privacy.
The integration could be useful, though. One example: you could reply to a Buzz notification message directly from Gmail, something that was particularly useful when checking e-mail on a mobile phone. By contrast, when notifications from Google+ arrive telling you somebody has commented on your post, there's only a link that you then must to click to enter the network. And for now, only Android phone users have a Google+ app.
Given the privacy problems of Buzz, it's no surprise that Google started Google+ more detached from Gmail. Where Buzz prepopulated your list of social contacts, Google+ makes you start from scratch. Your Gmail address book, though, serves as the starting point for Google+ suggestions for people to put in your circles.