A couple of months ago I was signed into my gmail account and searching the Internet on Google when I noticed an innocuous “Plus-1” appended to the hits. I posted a query to my Facebook page asking my friends – many of them journalists and others active in the social web – what they thought of the new Google feature. Nobody had seen it.

Turns out Google soft-launched its “Plus-1” button March 31 and it was only showing up for 2% of English-language results in the US, according to the Guardian UK.  Plus-1 was officially launched June 1, and is visible only when you are signed into your gmail account and have a Google profile. Your Plus-1’s, or recommended  items, are visible only to your Google network –  the contacts in your Google address book and your Google Reader followers.

Here’s how it works:

When you are signed into your Gmail account and  do a Google search on a term, your hits will pop up with the “Plus-1” symbol next to them. As you scroll through the list, you can hit “Plus-1” to mark the hit as “Something really cool!” as Google puts it. When your Google contacts do a  search on a similar or related search, and your  recommended item comes up, the darkened “Plus-1” indicates that.

If you have a Website, you can embed the “Plus-1” button  and accumulate “this is really cool” hits as your clients, customers and friends recommend your site.

Google says “Plus-1” differs from Facebook’s “Like” in an important way. Recommendations are only shared within the context of relevant searches. If you are bothered when you are notified that Facebook friends “like” a  page for say artichoke pizza and you are allergic to artichokes, you’ll like the “Plus-1”button better because you won’t be bothered with “artichoke pizza” notifications. It will only show recommendations when you are searching on related terms.

Google, which just announced  1 billion visitors per month, is directly taking on Facebook with its Plus-1.

“We’re still very interested to see how Google evolves in the realm of social media, while Facebook evolves in the realm of search,” said WebProNews.

Well said.

I have been dragged kicking and screaming into Google land. I was resistant due to privacy concerns and did not want my contacts to reside on line. I also  wanted to use my  long-cherished personal email address. Tools like Facebook, Flickr, FourSquare are so convenient that they’ve whittled away at those concerns. And now,  the amazing suite of tools that Google makes available through its dashboard without cost – everything from Analytics to maps to Docs to Reader — has won me over. We’ll see if Plus-1 recommendations prove persuasive enough to deepen our collective commitment to Google.

It’s too early to tell how successful Plus-1 will be at creating Google’s social layer but it will be interesting to watch how Google’s Walled Social Garden develops.