Can an analytical tool be useful and fun? It can if it’s Google+ Ripples, the search giant’s under-publicized analytical tool for Google+. If you’re heavily into Google+ (or just want to see an analytical tool that works well), Ripples is well worth a try.

Ripples in the Stream

Ripples is free, and it's baked into Google+, so there’s nothing to install and configure. The software graphically shows the number of times that a public post has been reshared. (The words Posted Publicly will appear below the poster’s name if the post has been made public.)

It’s Almost Too Easy to Use

Considering how useful and easy to use Ripples is, it’s surprisingly hard to find on Google+. To access Ripples, login to your Google+ account and hover over a publicly shared post, click on the tiny "v" that appears in the upper right-hand corner and then click "View Ripples." A new browser window will appear with the Ripples data for that post.

The post originator’s name will appear at the center of the diagram, with many (sometimes hundreds) of arrows pointing to other named circles (the larger the circle, the more resharing is occurring). In a flashback to high school geometry, there are circles within circles that show what Google calls a "resharing sequence." Use your mouse or the +/- slider bar to zoom in or out on the diagram.

Perhaps the coolest feature is the ability to view an animation of how the post was shared over time. Click on the little play button and watch the many hued ripples and arrows "splash" into the pond. With posts that have many shares, the effect is sort of mesmerizing.

Other valuable stats at the bottom of the page include average chain length, which is how many times a reshare was shared and a good indication of how interesting people thought the post was, and shares per hour, which gives an idea of the velocity of the sharing that was going on.

Maybe it’s not as fun as a game of "Angry Birds," but Ripples is fun. In fact, it may be the first time-wasting analytical tool. (Get more tips on how to get more social media followers in Social Media: How to Do It Right.)

How to Get the Most Out of Ripples

Ripples is, at heart, an analytical tool, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing it’s good for. Far from it, as the tool is a superb way to find interesting people to follow. And if you follow them, maybe they’ll follow you.

First, Ripples is an easy way to find new people or companies to follow. Zoom in and hover over a ripple to get information on the person or company. Click on "Follow" if they look interesting or click their name to see their Google+ page.

Recently, Google removed the feature that allows users to check the Ripples on any Web page. GooglePlusDaily found an easy-to-use workaround though.

A Marketer’s Dream?

Ripples is a goldmine of free data for marketers because it allows them to graphically see who's shared their company’s content. A marketer can easily determine the big-time influencers and whether they shared or didn’t share content.

As cool as it is though, Ripples is missing some features that Google+’s social network rivals have in their analytical toolkits. Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics provide demographic and geographic data; Ripples doesn’t provide that information. A free, open-source site called fills some of Ripples' analytical holes by providing geographic information and more. Perhaps Google will include some of these valuable features in the next release of Ripples.

Even if it’s missing some features, Ripples is informative, fun and free. The only question is why Google would want to bury this little gem under a drop down menu.