How to Use Google+

When Google launched its Facebook-rivaling social network this summer, some balked about having to deal with yet another social network. But what many early adapters found is that Google+ is cleaner and more efficient -- and best of all, not everyone you connect with has to be a “friend.”

In Google’s attempt to fashion its social network after the real world, Google+ lets you make a contained circle for family, friends, work buddies, chess club friends and a secret society (if you belong to one). In the same amount of time you’d spend posting on Facebook, you can pick which circle sees your various posts -- which is kind of perfect if you don’t want work buddies to know about your family dramas, right?

While the newest social network is just a few months old -- and at least a few months away from mainstream adoption -- the potential for Google+ to deliver relevant information is too attractive to pass up. Here’s how to get started:

1. Create your searchable profile.
Apps, Docs and social networks aside, Google is first and foremost a search engine. As Google+ grows, so does the relevance of its profiles in search results.

Try Googling yourself. Unless your name is John Doe, your Google profile will be one of the first results to come up. This is prime real estate on the Web -- and happily, you are in control of how it’s shaped. Building out your Google profile authenticates your Web presence and allows you to better own your online image.

To log into Google+, sign in with your gmail address (yes, you'll need to get one if you don't already have one) and click on Google+ on the top tab of your account. In Google+, click the “Profile” button on the top navigation bar, and add job history, education, bragging rights, etc., in the “About” section. Make sure you link to your websites, videos and pictures to promote your projects, accomplishments and affiliations. Embed links in text to share other content-rich places where people can find you on the Web (like an Amazon author page, SoundCloud music page or high school teacher website).

2. Organize your personal circles.
Whether you consider it a blessing or a curse, Google makes you organize your contacts into circles before you can do much else. Google claims that Google+ users are three times more likely to share within certain circles than share publicly. That means hovering parents are more likely to share with other parents, and foodies with other foodies, theoretically cutting down the amount of useless posts you see in your stream. This targeted content is an outright blessing for those of us who have grown sick of the “my kid’s latest accomplishment” or “today’s lunch choice” posts that taint our Facebook walls.

To help you organize your circles, Google gathers all your email contacts and allows you to click and drag people into the circle of your choice. “Friends” and “Family” circles are no-brainers, but what about the members of your soccer team? Create a “Ball Kickers” circle just for them. If you follow public figures or people in your field online, place them in your “Following” circle.

3. Structure some circles for business.
Creating certain circles around your work is a great way to send targeted information to different types of people you work with. A real estate agent might create circles for past and current clients, as well as circles of people by neighborhood. The agent can then send clients who bought or are looking to buy in a particular neighborhood some information about a new juice bar set to open, neighborhood alliance meetings or featured properties all within the same 25 blocks, for example.

Want to gather information for your business? Get more information about people who circled you by posing a question to the group. A “Do you read my advice column?” query, for example, gives you an idea of how many followers are fans of your work. You can also directly message people who follow you as a way of crowdsourcing ideas for your next project.

4. Set up easy video-conferencing meetings.
With a few clicks on Google+, you can set up group video conferencing with any of your established circles. Aside from chatting with buddies across the globe, starting a Hangout is a great way to conduct quick-and-dirty virtual meetings with your mom group, co-workers or extended family when planning the next reunion.

To start a Hangout, click one of your established circles on the right of your stream, then click the green “Hangout” button on the left side of your stream. Pick up to 10 people to participate. No third party chat or virtual meeting software is needed. The camera’s focus will move with whoever has the floor, keeping the talker front-and-center in the biggest box on the screen. Once you’ve started a hangout group, you can also watch a YouTube video together and type notes for one another in the chat field.

5. Fine-tune your feeds.
After you type a post to your stream, you can choose which of the circles to send the content to. You can share your particular post with a few of your custom circles, to extended circles (which not only posts to your circles, but your friends’ circles as well) -- or to public, which is open viewing for the whole Web.

You can also create Sparks, which are like Google Alerts for your favorite things. When you set up Sparks of your biggest interests, you receive a curated feed of things happening around the Web based on those interests. From the home screen, click Sparks on the left-hand column. Type in any interest, from “gastropubs” to “gluten-free diet” to “Glee,” and then click “Add Interest.” A feed of the latest of your favorite things on the Web will be ready for you to view via smartphone or computer when waiting in line at the bank or for a flight at the airport.

Google+ also allows users to turn multiple conversations into one streamlined group chat (in Huddle) and automatically upload pictures and video from your Android Smartphone (Instant Upload) to your Google+ account to share with whichever circles you choose later on. Take the Google+ Tour for more on these features and check What’s New in Google+ for the latest tricks and practices.

What’s better, Google+ or Facebook? Tell us below or @EveryDayConnect 

How to Watch TV for Free -- or Close to It

Want to watch TV for free or close to it? Do yourself a favor and ditch that DVR, satellite or cable service … and the $100 monthly expenses that come with it. Now, the cloud (aka Web-based services) delivers your TV fix on the cheap. Here are five smart ways to do that:

1. Subscribe to a monthly DVD service.
Subscribe online to a site like Netflix  or Blockbuster , and you can get rental DVDs delivered to your mailbox for relatively cheap. These services typically offer just about any movie and TV show you can think of. Just be sure you have a DVD player (on your computer or separately).

Cost: $8 to $16 a month, depending on how much you watch.

2. Ditch the DVDs and stream content to your computer.
There are several ways to stream Web-based TV content:

  • Subscribe to a service like Netflix and pay a monthly fee for unlimited streaming.
  • Use Blockbuster, iTunes or Amazon to pay for streaming content on demand. (In other words, you pay for each program individually.) Some services let you rent programs for a limited time or even buy them outright.
  • Watch certain shows online for free via sites like Hulu .
  • Check out networks’ official websites to see whether they offer content for free, since not everything is available on Hulu. For example, try ComedyCentral.com  for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” NBC.com  for “30 Rock,” and CBS.com  for “David Letterman.” The downside: Most free online content includes commercials that you can’t skip like you could with your DVR.

Cost: For streaming only, Netflix is $8 per month. Streaming-on-demand costs vary. For example, iTunes lets you rent an episode of “Glee” for $1, but you can buy it for $3. HD versions of shows typically cost $1. Don’t want to pay a dime to stream content? Search for podcasts of independent episodic shows for free on iTunes.

3. Hook your computer (or tablet) to your TV.
Can’t stand watching TV on your computer? Stream to your computer, and then use a cable to connect your computer to your TV. You can do this only if your TV takes a VGA, HDMI, DVI, S-Video or composite cable. (It works for the iPad too, using an HDMI cable.) Only the HDMI routes both audio and video through your TV, so if you’re using one of the other cables, you’ll also need a simple 1/8-inch stereo jack cable (the same thing you use to connect an iPod to a stereo) for audio.

Cost: Cables can cost anywhere from a few bucks to more than $60, depending on quality of material and length. Unless you’re a major A/V geek, the cheaper ones will be just fine.

4. Stream content directly to your TV.
If you want to stream online content to your existing TV without using your computer as the middleman, invest in a Web-enabled device that will do it for you. Roku, Sony, Logitech and Apple all make these set-top devices. Some Blu-ray players and DVRs (e.g., TiVo) also offer this capability, as does Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Just be sure to do your research before you buy: Not all content is available on all devices. Apple TV, for example, lets you stream iTunes content, but not Amazon content. It also lacks browser capability, so you can’t stream from certain sites, like Comedy Central. The Logitech Revue, on the other hand, lets you access Google TV content, download special TV apps for sites like Twitter, and surf the Web while you watch.

Cost: Apple TV costs $99, TiVo about $100 (or $300 for a bigger hard drive), and the Logitech Revue is around $250, depending on the retailer.

5. Get a Web-enabled TV.
Streaming devices like the aforementioned Roku and Apple TV are handy because they can turn your existing TV into a viewer for online content. But if you’re in the market for a new TV anyway, look into Web-enabled TVs. These sets help you skip the middleman entirely, thanks to their built-in Wi-Fi.

Cost: Web-enabled TVs range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the manufacturer, features and screen size. For example, on the lower end, a 22-inch Vizio 1080p HD Wi-Fi TV could cost you about $300. On the high end, a 65-inch Sharp Aquos LCD 1080p HD Wi-Fi TV will set you back about $4,500.

The App Guide: Pet Apps You’ll Love

If your family includes a member with four legs, you’ll be glad to know your smartphone can help with that part of your life too. We’re not talking about frivolous apps that let you care for virtual pets or make a Facebook profile for your cat. We’re talking about truly useful apps that can help you keep your animal happy and healthy -- and save you precious time.

Pet App No. 1: Pet First Aid 

Helps you … Save your pet’s life
They can’t talk, so when your pets are behaving strangely, it’s up to you to diagnose their behavior and figure out whether there’s a problem. This app includes handy videos and step-by-step instructions for identifying and treating common ailments and responding to emergency situations such as poisoning, bleeding and fractures.

You can also record your pet’s vitals and medical history so it’s always handy when you need it. This app is for dogs and cats only.

Available on:
iOS and Android  devices.

Pet App No. 2: Game for Cats 

Helps you … Keep your cat entertained
This app requires a tablet, so if you have one (along with a feline in the house), spring for it. Game for Cats exploits cats’ natural urge to chase, by displaying a red dot -- or after an in-app purchase, an animated mouse -- that darts around the screen.

When your cat bats at the target and hits it, he racks up points. (Be sure to get a screen protector first so your tablet won’t get scratched.)

Available on:
iOS devices. For Android and iPad, try the Friskies apps .

Pet App No. 3: Pet Dossier 

Helps you … Track your pet’s life
Pet Dossier is exactly what it sounds like: a virtual dossier of pretty much all the information anyone would need to know about your pet. You can record vital stats, species info, birthday, feeding and medication schedules, vet info, emergency contacts and any kind of notes you want.

It’s a handy app to take to the vet or leave for a pet sitter who needs to know your pets’ quirks. The app works for any pet you love.

Available on:
iOS devices. For Android, try Pet Master Pro .

Pet App No. 4: Dog Park Finder Plus 

Helps you … Exercise your dog
If you’re away from home and looking for a dog park, fire up this app to find photos and information for nearby parks, directions to get there and reviews from other users.

The app pulls data from DogParkUSA.com, which features more than 5,300 dog parks and dog-friendly beaches and hiking trails.

Available on:
iOS devices.

Pet App No. 5: Petfinder 

Helps you … Fall in love with a new pet
If you’ve ever browsed the Petfinder website to pine for an animal, you’ll be pleased -- or, if your landlord isn’t flexible, distressed -- to hear that the Petfinder app is equally addictive.

You can browse photos of all the adoptable animals in your area, mark your favorites, search pets by criteria like breed and age, and read adoption stories. This app makes it easy to fall in love with your next pet.

Available on:
iOS devices. For Android, try TailChaser .

5 New Cloud Tools You’ll Love

The term “cloud computing” seems to be everywhere these days. That’s great news for you: Smart tools that make your life easier are rolling out almost weekly. Thanks to the cloud, you can access these services from anywhere via any Web-connected device -- your tablet, smartphone, laptop, game console or PC.

Check out these brilliant new applications and services delivered through the cloud:

Cloud Tool No. 1: Flipboard 

For … Social networkers with iPads

Flipboard gathers articles, blog posts, social networking feeds, images and videos and arranges them into your very own “digital newspaper.” You can flip through pages as you would with any other periodical, and it looks even sleeker on your iPad’s large display. This social news app gives content-hungry readers and social networkers an innovative way to get their media fix.

Cost: Free

Cloud Tool No. 2: Storyjumper 

For … Creative types

Not sure how to keep yourself or your kids occupied this summer? Try Storyjumper. It lets you add photos and text to create a storybook in just seven steps. You can then share your creation online with friends and family -- or keep it totally private. Try a story about your family or pets when you’re with your kids; for the non-PG crowd, you can make a funny storybook for a friend’s bachelor party or birthday.

Cost: Free (A hard copy ordering service is also in the works)

Cloud Tool No. 3: PlayOn 

For … TV and video addicts

Sure you can watch your favorite TV shows and movies on Hulu or Netflix. But what about all those other videos you want to stream to your TV -- like TED Talks, YouTube virals and even your friend’s video clips? Try software-as-service PlayOn: It aggregates your favorite videos from your PC to your TV on demand, including everything from BBC and C-Span to your queued or favorites from Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, YouTube and others. No more logging on to all those other websites!

Cost: $4.99 a month, $39.99 a year or $79.00 one-time upfront free

Cloud Tool No. 4: Hashable 

For … Social media devotees

Have tons of online friends to keep up with? Hashable, a combo of Twitter and LinkedIn, lets you keep track of and remember how you met all your connections while expanding your networks. The service gives you “hash cred” for making introductions, and additional cred if the introduction is rated a success by the participants. You can also keep tabs on new people and any connections between current contacts that might be helpful to you. The "Inner Circle" feature lets you share your activity with your closest friends and colleagues. And you can post connections even when you're offline. (Your connections will be saved and sent the next time you have Internet access.)

Cost: Free

Tool No. 5: OnLive 

For … Gamers

Gaming is relatively new in the cloud. But with Web-based OnLive, you can stream popular games (like Assassin's Creed II, Prince of Persia, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Unreal Tournament III) to your TV. There is something cool about being able to instantaneously fire up a game in a digital library, but the fact that you don't own the game may dissuade certain users. But if you want to get in on the cutting edge of cloud-based gaming, OnLive's MicroConsole is a fairly effective and inexpensive way to do it. It may not replace your Wii or Xbox 360, but you might like checking out games through rentals or keeping a digital collection of your favorite titles.

Cost: $99 for the hardware. The games have various price tags, including a 3-day, 5-day and full-play pass, with options on how fast you want to run through the games. You can also demo any game free for 30 minutes and then rent it for several days.

Find a Baby Sitter Online

When the cost of hiring a baby sitter can sometimes exceed a night on the town, what’s a budget-minded couple to do?

For Baltimore-based mom Erica Zidel, the solution was joining a local baby-sitting co-op in which families trade babysitting services gratis. “We were having dinner with some friends, and I was complaining about how expensive baby-sitting can be and what a pain finding a babysitter is,” remembers Zidel. “They explained the concept of a co-op to me, and my eyes lit up. I then found one in my neighborhood that had been around for about 20 years.”

Zidel’s involvement in the co-op inspired her to think about how creating a similar community online could benefit families on a bigger scale. “A lot of families don’t have extended networks close by, so we thought an online tool could really make co-ops accessible to modern families,” she shares. “Our goal was to provide a wonderful child care model in a way that complements the online lifestyle today.”

Enter SittingAround.com, a website that introduced its beta version in March and will officially launch this summer. Zidel’s brainchild allows parents to start or join co-ops in their area and use online tools to manage and streamline the process. Parents can post sitter requests or earn points for watching others’ children, which are tracked in a bank-like account. Currently the site has more than 50 active co-ops and is growing steadily; membership costs $15/yearly.

Zidel’s hope is that other families will benefit from the experience the same way hers has. “Being part of a co-op has saved us a lot of money so far,” she says. “Our 5-year-old son calls it the ‘Friends Come Over and Play Club,’ and he thinks it’s so much cooler than having a babysitter come over.”

Of course, plenty of online resources also exist for families that prefer to go the “traditional” baby sitter or nanny route and want to identify great candidates too:

Other Cloud-based Child Care Sites
Care.com
and Sittercity are two popular options that allow parents to browse for care providers, obtain references and read reviews or even perform background checks. Other resources, like the U.K.’s ChildCare.co.uk, also offer additional perks, like free magazine subscriptions and legal advice on child care and family issues. Cost can vary -- though most sites offer free accounts, premium membership for Care.com costs $30 monthly, while Sittercity is $140 annually, and the yearly fee for ChildCare.co.uk’s Gold Membership is 49.99 Euros.

Atlanta-based mom Deanna Barnicoat first came to use Sittercity in an unexpected way: She discovered that the agency she’d hired had found her nanny through Sittercity.

“Needless to say, I was a little peeved to pay an agency a lot of money to do something I could have done for a few dollars a month,” remembers Barnicoat. “On the flip side, I was a new mom -- I barely had time to bathe, let alone search online for a nanny. Our first nanny was amazing, and we are still great friends to this day. So when I recently needed to find another nanny, Sittercity was where I turned first.”

After receiving five replies in two days from nannies who met her criteria, Barnicoat set up a series of interviews and found the best fit for her family: a recent Atlanta transplant from Jamaica with grown children and glowing recommendations. “We are very excited to have her start,” reports Barnicoat.

No matter what type of child care you desire for your family, odds are an online resource can help you cast the broadest net for your search -- and just might deliver the best catch. And then vetting your new sitter comes down to the same thing it always has long before the Web came about: Trust your instincts and do your homework before you hire the person.