Let’s put it aside from the get-go: Google+ is not a ghost town.
Without a doubt there are millions of people who use and value the social network, which turns three tomorrow. There’s a vibrant community of photographers; there are Hangout on Air true believers; there are marketers who swear it’s the best social network for engaging with customers.
But the fact is that by one important measure — referral traffic — Google+ is unusually quiet. Some might say eerily so.
As one Google+ commenter put it, “We seem to know that G+ is no ghost town. It is more of a social referral graveyard.”
It’s a bit of a puzzle, really. Why don’t more people click through from Google+ to publishers’ content? It’s an important question, one for which we don’t have a definitive answer.
Perhaps Google+ users are content with the content on the network and don’t see the need to exit. Perhaps it’s more of a platform for conversation than consumption of news and entertainment links. Perhaps there aren’t enough loyal Google+ users spending enough time on the network to move the needle.
Whatever the reasons, publishers are apt to start pulling away from Google+ at some point if there isn’t improvement. There are other motives, of course, for publishers to use the network: engagement with fans, perceived search benefits and the ease of live video production with Hangouts on Air. But referral traffic is still publishers’ top metric for measuring success. Without it in significant numbers, it’s harder to make the case that social efforts are paying off.
Facebook Is The Referral King
Any discussion on social referral traffic has to start with Facebook. Publishing strategies — and click-bait empires — rise and fall depending on the vagaries of the Facebook News Feed algorithm. The dominant social network generates more referral views than all the rest combined.
It’s easy to find the evidence. Social sharing platform provider Shareaholic, in its most recent comparison of social media referral traffic, reported that Facebook’s share to the 300,000 websites in its network was 21.25% in the first quarter. By comparison, Google+ checked in with a meager 0.08%. Pinterest was at 7.1% and Twitter 1.14%. According to Shareaholic, Google+ referral traffic is growing, but very slowly.
Shareaholic’s data is supported wherever you turn. Marketing Land asked online marketing and audience development firm Define Media Group to pull year-to-date numbers from a sample of its clients, major U.S. news and entertainment publishers, and found similar results.
Only two of 22 sites generated more than 1% of their social referrals from Google+, a beauty site (1.68%, compared to 45.77% from Facebook and 12.98% from Twitter), and a tech news site (1.16%, compared to 60.2% from Facebook and 16.3% from Twitter). The overwhelming majority of the rest showed Google+ referral traffic of less than half a percent.
Mobile results are even worse. Mobile platform provider Onswipe reported this month that Google+’s referral traffic on its network was 0.046%, 10 times less than social bookmarking site Fark. Facebook’s share was 71.3%; Twitter’s 16.1%.
Bottom Line: Google+ Referrals Suck
When you look at individual stories, it’s the same story. Ars Technica reviews editor Ron Amadeo explained on a Google+ post in April:
“Everyone who writes stuff on the internet has access to some kind of extremely-detailed traffic analytics system. It’s very easy for them to see post traffic from G+, Facebook, and Twitter, and the bottom line is, referrals from Google+ suck.”
Amadeo, who wrote the post to explain why tech journalists have been using the ghost-town metaphor, shared social referral figures from two Ars Technica posts:
- On the Heartbleed bug: Twitter 49%, Facebook 41%, Google+ 5%
- On video game sales data: Facebook 63%, Twitter 28%, StumbleUpon 7%, Google+ 1%.
“StumbleUpon drove x7 times more traffic than Google+,” he wrote. “GHOST TOWN.”
There are exceptions. Publishers with audiences that dovetail with Google+’s audience — Android Authority, for instance — do draw significant traffic from the network. Most articles on Android Authority show a Google+ advantage on share buttons similar to this:
But for every example like that there are probably hundreds like this from Billboard.com:
Publishers Are Not Dumping Google+
Given the anemic results, you might expect publishers to start backing away from Google+, perhaps by dumping the +1 buttons that sit next to Facebook Like and Twitter buttons on article pages like the examples above. But there’s no evidence of that.
“The overall trend is still to add the Google+ button,” said Adam Sherk, vice president of SEO and social media at Define Media Group. “It’s become much more of a standard in the last couple of years, and we haven’t seen many publishers take it away yet. There is still a lot of questioning as to whether or not it is worthwhile. But in the end most do it, primarily in the hopes of gaining some search-related benefits.”
Those search benefits are difficult to quantify, because Google has reversed itself and doesn’t use social signals from Google+ (or other social networks) to boost search rankings. And some of the perceived advantages of being active on the network also evaporated this week, when Google announced it was dropping display of Google+ profile pictures and Circle counts in search results.
So the signals are definitely mixed as Google+ enters its third year. On one hand you have CEO Larry Page’s insisting that Google is still bullish about Google+ — “We’re super excited about it.” On the other, Page said that the same day Google+ got only a passing mention during the Google I/O keynote address, making it clear that Google is less excited about promoting it as a full-service social network.
It could be a temporary lull to give Google+’s new management time to reset strategy. Publishers no doubt will be interested in what those next steps will be.