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Summary:

Despite recent reports about a dramatic decline, Google+ still appears to be growing relatively strongly. But the network still has a substantial mountain to climb in terms of gaining a broad user base, and it’s not clear what Google has to offer that’s radically different.

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There has been a frenzy of recent reports about the user base of Google’s new social network, Google+, and how it has allegedly declined by a massive amount since it opened to the public several weeks ago. As it turns out, much of that is likely a normal cooling-off period after the initial explosion of interest in the former invite-only beta, and Google+ numbers are still substantially higher than they were before the beta wall came down. That said, however, the new social network has a substantial mountain to climb in terms of gaining a broad user base; it’s the third entrant in the race with Facebook and Twitter, and it’s still not clear what Google has to offer that is radically different from its competitors.

The initial report about the gigantic decline in Google+ user numbers came from Chitika, an ad-tracking service, which reported that the traffic to Google+ had dropped by more than 60 percent from the levels seen immediately after Google opened the network up to the public. This report was picked up by a number of blogs, which speculated about the reasons why Google’s offering might not be gaining widespread acceptance, but others noted that while Chitika’s figures (the methodology of which hasn’t been made clear) showed a dramatic falloff in usage, Google+ has still shown strong growth since it first launched in June. When measured from that initial launch point, the service’s user base appears to be up by almost 500 percent.

In fact, as we’ve reported before, Google+ hit the 25-million-user mark faster than almost any other social network in history, including Facebook and Twitter. While those numbers may pale next to Facebook’s 800 million users or even Twitter’s 200 million, there’s no question that Google is already a strong third in the category, thanks in part to the fact that Google+ is embedded in most of the company’s other services — along with the toolbar that constantly prompts users to check their accounts. And recent comments by director of product Brad Horowitz made it clear that Google’s new social network is going to become part of everything the company touches.

What is going to compel users to spend time on Google+?

We know why Google wants Google+ to succeed: because it needs to capture those social signals in order to enhance its search. But is there anything compelling enough to convince large numbers of people that they have to use it? I’m not so sure. In looking at my own usage of the network, and that of some close friends and members of my “social graph,” I can see a lot of dabbling in Google’s service — and the occasional flare-up around a specific post, usually a strong opinion or a photo — but not much sustained usage, apart from people like Robert Scoble (and even Scoble says he’s still using Twitter a lot). In a recent post, he listed a number of reasons why he prefers Google+, including:

  1. The length of Google+ posts means “I can have a complete thought,” while Twitter is much shorter (obviously), and Facebook doesn’t really cater to longer posts.
  2. The way that Google’s service allows comments means “I can have a REAL conversation THAT STAYS BUNDLED TOGETHER here,” unlike Twitter, which is fragmented.
  3. The fact that Google+ is part of the world’s largest search engine means that “the search here is very good,” unlike both Twitter and Facebook.
  4. According to Scoble, photos and videos are “MUCH BETTER displayed” on Google+ than they are on Twitter, which has tried to upgrade its hosting of images.

But even Scoble’s list of benefits only highlights the challenges that Google+ has ahead of it, particularly since Facebook has launched some competitive features that duplicate some of the service’s features — including the use of “Circles” for specific user groups (Facebook added smart lists) and support for an “asymmetric” following model similar to that offered by Google+ and Twitter. So what are the things about Google+ that make it unique, or are going to make it so compelling that people will take time out of their day to engage there, instead of just using the networks they already belong to?

Is it longer posts and conversation, or photos, or search?

Is it about longer posts? Because Facebook now also offers support for longer posts, and since most people already have a well-established social graph on the giant network, those posts are likely to get far more interaction from people who really matter than on Google+ — where much of the response I get is from people I don’t even know. While valuable in many ways, that’s a different experience. So is Google+ about filtering via Circles then? Because Facebook’s smart lists actually do a pretty good job of that, at least in the short amount of time that I have used them (although I wish they were supported by Facebook’s new iPhone and iPad apps, which so far they are not).

So is Google’s big advantage photos and videos, as Scoble suggests? I’ve seen lots of activity around images and video on Google+, which makes it very easy to share and comment. But I’ve also seen plenty of activity around that kind of content — in some cases much more — on Facebook, which is also pretty good at displaying photos and video. And when it comes to pure information delivery, about news events or items of interest, I agree with Scoble that Twitter is almost unparalleled, which is why I don’t think Facebook’s launch of a “subscribe” feature is likely to harm the service much. In my usage at least, Google+ hasn’t proven to be much of a competitor in that department either.

So what is Google+ offering that users can’t get on Facebook or Twitter? I can’t put my finger on anything, with the exception of search. Although it didn’t launch with search initially, Google added it to Google+ before it opened to the public, and it is a great way to find content — something notably lacking at both Facebook and Twitter. The latter still has a pretty terrible search experience, and users can’t find older tweets or context without using third-party services such as Topsy, or find trends and other activity easily. This is something Google is (not surprisingly) pretty good at.

That said, however, is good search enough to build a compelling service that hundreds of millions of users will feel they need to engage with on a daily basis? I’m not convinced.

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  1. Mathew, have you used G+ much besides using it as another pseudo-broadcasting platform? I think you’re missing what’s different about G+. That doesn’t mean it’ll succeed, of course, however it does offer a step beyond the old 20th century, mass media model. Progress, I hope…

    1. I have tried to use it, Jack — but I confess that like a lot of people, I am stretched pretty thin between Twitter and Facebook already.

    2. “I think you’re missing what’s different about G+.”

      Here’s the thing – if G+ solves a problem, it needs to make that apparent. If what’s different about G+ isn’t easily understandable then many of us are going to take it for a spin, not see a unique use for it over Twitter and Facebook or Linkedin and not use it. It’s not our job to spend a lot of time figuring out why G+ is valuable to us… it’s Google’s job to make that apparent.

  2. Simple Rule. If Scoble thinks it is a good thing, no one outside of Tech Geeks and ‘Social Media Gurus’ will agree. You can’t be more out of touch with with normal users than Scoble.

    1. The Scoble Anti-Effect!

  3. it is by Google. I already love Gmail, Android, Maps, Search, Picasa, Blogger… good to have a place for it all!

  4. Google+ is definitely better than Facebook. The biggest hurdle is getting people to switch. Most people don’t want to switch because all their friends are on Facebook. Until Facebook becomes so toxic that people leave in droves, it is good enough to just stay with. Basically, the same issue as World of Warcraft…it isn’t the best anymore, but unless Blizzard does something incredibly stupid, it’ll be many years before their user based declines enough to be a concern.

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself!

      1. Agree. While facebook has the user base now is has gradually become more irritating to use. If their not careful it will be like my_space – slow trickle of inactive users then the precipitous fall. I like and prefer G+, facebook has become too messy.

  5. Ah, finally an article that makes sense. Exactly what I’ve been commenting about in a bunch of other articles (not from gigaom) for weeks. I’m really happy that someone acknowledges the fact that a spike in traffic for a few days (when public registration was open) followed by a dip does not mean G+ is “losing” traffic. It just means a bunch of people were excited to sign up! There was a graph from some company (I forget the name, it’s not important) posted by Mashable that only covered a few days. Anyone in this business who thinks a few days shows you anything relevant obviously should not be in the internet business =0

    Yes G+ has a ways to go before “winning” but it’s not about “winning” … It’s just another site that will work for some (many) people and won’t work for many others.

    Great article!

    1. Thanks, Tom. Appreciate the comment, and the compliments.

  6. I agree, there are several noteworthy issues.

    First, if the current mainstays in social demonstrate anything, they show how various populations do “social” differently at different times with different groups. Google needs to learn from this, do a huge blitz at young people (leveraged their enterprise arrangements with educational institutions), and offer folks ways to meaningfully differentiate different types of communication (e.g., small-Twitter, medium-FB/Google+, and large-blogs). Have the system automatically categorize, with an option to override.

    Second, the depth of integration between Google+ and the other big Google products is, unforgivably, still lousy. Make a decision about Buzz, pull Google+ into Gmail, and stop treating Google+ like an Android topping and bake it in. What happened to all that momentum?

  7. I think what G+ has to offer, that FB does not, is a much smoother integration with web search, email, and mobile devices. If you have a Gmail account, the G+ notification bar stays visible at the top of the screen while you are checking email, as it does during Google searches. If you have G+ on your phone, you can choose to let G+ upload every photo and video you take with your phone to your G+ account automatically — to be shared with others later as you wish. The result is a tightly integrated social “experience” that weaves itself into many more of my everyday activities than FB does.

  8. Kristopher Derentz Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    What about Privacy? why is this never mentioned. With FB in the news about cookies logging users activities after they leave the site, new apps that auto post updates, privacy is a real issue.

    Also yes FB allows you to share with a specific group but its a pain in the ass. You have to select custom from the drop down box and then make an edit of who you want to share with and then post. On G+ you simply type the name of the person(s) or the circle and hit post.

    1. For what it’s worth, the new “SmartLists” in Facebook have made it a lot easier to share posts. Instead of having to click on custom, it is now a dropdown where you can choose which list/s to share with. Very similar to Circles.

      Where I see the difference between the two services is what I share. Facebook is my close friends and family. G+ is my peers and people who have the same interests as I do. Most of the tech articles I discuss on G+ would be over the heads of most of my familiy and friends on Facebook.
      I did convice a few friends to try out G+ right after Facebook made their recent changes. They made a post or two, found it morecomplicated than Facebook, and haven’t been back. :-( They still post multiple time a day on Facebook.

  9. “it’s still not clear what Google has to offer that is radically different”

    Hangouts. Google knows this, and it’s clear they want to double down on the hangout functionality.

    Once they open all the new Hangout functions to everyone, and reannounce it, we will see another surge.

    Expect users to start hanging out for hours at a time as they do other things online.

    Expect developers to add video chattings to their apps through a Hangout api.

    And expect broadcasted Hangouts to be the new “thing” for celebrities, big and small.

    1. Spot on. The chances of Desmond TuTu and The Dalai Lama Hanging Out on Facebook were always slim

  10. If Google+ succeeds in gaining market share, it will be at Facebook’s expense. Twitter isn’t going anywhere.. its far too powerful a means of broad social communication. Facebook is more of a user experience.. which Google has proven in the past to exploit nicely in its pursuit of information.

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