To be precise, there are actually three new features – People and Pages, Personal Results and Profiles in Search.
The functions will become available over the next few days to users signed-in and searching in English on Google.com.
A blog post announcing the developments said that simply finding content is no longer enough. Google Fellow Amit Singhal explains:
You should also be able to find your own stuff on the web, the people you know and things they’ve shared with you, as well as the people you don’t know but might want to... all from one search box.”
So here’s what the new features do.
Google says that generic search results are less meaningful than content that is personally relevant to you, by which it means content and recommendations from your friends on Google+.
Unlike normal Google searches, the content displayed will be unique to each user as it is filtered on who you are connected to through your circles.
The example Google gives is when researching a holiday – content such as Google+ posts from friends talking about their recent trip, holiday photos, and links they have posted about a particular destination will show up on the results page.
Profiles in Search
This tool allows users to search for friends directly from the Google homepage and adds your friends to the suggested answers on autocomplete.
The blog post states that the results page will include ‘information from their Google+ profile and relevant web results’, which presumably includes links to Facebook and Twitter pages.
In addition to your friends' profiles, the autocomplete predictions will also include links to prominent Google+ members and, once a name is selected, an icon that allows you to add that user to your Google+ circles.
People and Pages
Based on the assumption that ‘behind most queries are communities’, this feature adds people who frequently discuss your search query on Google+ in the search results.
So, for example, if you search for 'music' the Google+ pages for Britney Spears and Alicia Keys will appear in a column on the right-hand side of the results page.
As Google is now potentially including private posts in search results, it has also beefed-up security.
From now on all signed-in users will be protected by SSL encryption, the same level of security offered on Gmail accounts. A new toggle also allows users to remove social content from search results, a function that can be made permanent in the ‘Search Settings’.
So what does it mean?
Essentially this is an attempt by Google to make its social network more prominent and grow the user base, which is still flagging behind Twitter and Facebook.
Google+ currently has around 62m registered users, while Twitter has 100m active users and 500m of Facebook's 800m registered users log in everyday.
At first glance it appears to be a fairly aggressive way to promote Google+. Think about how many Google searches you do each day - do you really want to know what your friends think about each and every one?
But in time users will get used to seeing social search results, and the new functions are likely to enhance sign-ups for Google+ this year.