Google+ At 3 Years Old: Not A Ghost Town, But A Social Referral Graveyard


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.

And despite Walking Dead speculation driven by the unexpected resignation of longtime Google+ boss Vic Gundotra in April, two Google executives insisted this week that it won’t go out with a whimper.

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:

“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


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.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Features & Analysis | Google | Google: Google+ | Social Media Marketing | Top News


About The Author: is Third Door Media's Social Media Correspondent, reporting on the latest news for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. He spent 24 years with the Los Angeles Times, serving as social media and reader engagement editor from 2010-2014. A graduate of UC Irvine and the University of Missouri journalism school, Beck started started his career at the Times as a sportswriter and copy editor. Follow Martin on Twitter (@MartinBeck), Facebook and/or Google+.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+

Marketing Day:

Get the top marketing stories daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Mark Traphagen

    It’s very frustrating to see that many publishers who say Google+ referral traffic sucks not surprisingly suck at using it.

    I can tell you that for the many sites I work with who now use Google+ effectively (i.e., doing more than just dumping links there) get big traffic from it. For many it is their #1 or #2 social referral source.

  • Matt McGee

    So the fact that a Billboard article gets 21,000 Facebook likes and only 1 G+ upvote is more a reflection of Billboard magazine sucking at Google+ than a reflection of the audiences on the two services?

  • Vope Digital Agency

    Looks like this article is just a buzz. Check for example what Similarweb gets and learn from them:

  • LM Stewart

    Did the comment (with a link in it) showing metrics that disagreed really just get deleted?

  • Cyberats

    FB is just as Government monitored as G-oogle, what is the difference ?
    Google is for adults, no game content in the chat boards, whereas FB is a mix and match of everything.
    A digital playground to drop your kids in (not recommended but people do anyways) or leave the kid minded adults to entertain themselves, fleeing reality and the physical world for a phony, hacked & traced website with simplified games for the simple minded.

  • YuCMi

    This is just a long-shot, but could it be possible that the G+ audience does not care about the Billboard magazine and other related content?

  • Danny Sullivan

    Looks like it got named by the automated spam filter, or perhaps several user reports. No editor pulled it, if that’s what you were wondering. And I’ve restored it.

  • LM Stewart

    I was wondering. It seemed strange to pull it.

  • Mike Allton

    Equally as frustrating is to see that data provided to the author was summarily ignored because it didn’t “fit the conclusion” being floated by the article.

    I was asked to provide referral traffic information for my site,, and reported how Google+ has been and continues to be my #1 Referral Source, with significant volume. But that wasn’t included.

    The problem here is that the author wanted to concentrate on “large publishers” which, by definition, have been around for years. These are websites who have already established large followings on Facebook and Twitter, and even though they probably have a large audience on Google+, they clearly have invested zero effort in really connecting with that audience.

    Just take a look at ArsTechnica’s Google+ Page, often cited within the article as an example of a publisher not seeing any referral traffic from Google+. Post after post is a “link dump” – nothing but a link shared. No thoughts or commentary offered at all. They actually have a smaller following on Facebook, yet EVERY POST is introduced with at least a sentence or two. This is what Mark Traphagen refers to when he talks about publishers who suck at using Google+.

    At a MINIMUM, put more than two seconds of thought into what you’re doing. I don’t really care of these publishers use Google+ or not, but if they’re going to judge the platform, let’s be smart about it.

    I get very little referral traffic from Facebook, personally, but whose fault is that? Is it Facebook? OF COURSE NOT! It’s me. It’s the way I use the platform, and it’s the tie I choose *not* to invest there, due to the success I’m seeing on other platforms.

    This is just another disappointing piece from a writer who doesn’t understand the topic.

  • Jared Wilmer

    Yup. Pretty much.

  • Danny Brown

    In fairness, it’s not just down to the publisher but also the audience. While I’m not a heavy user of G+, I do try and use it effectively – mixed content, descriptive lead-ins, etc. From my own point of view, G+ still only accounts for 8% of social traffic – waaay beyond Facebook and Twitter, which equates to 34% and 32% respectively. And, I don’t share much of my content on my Facebook profile (I no longer have a Page), so clearly it’s other Facebook users, not me, that are sharing.

    I ran a poll around social network use for my subscribers and found very few cared about G+. So, the audience dictates a lot of the success too.

  • Dustin W. Stout

    Yes. Is that surprising? The referral traffic I get from Google+ dwarfs the traffic I get from Pinterest and I don’t blame Pinterest– I haven’t spent much time focusing on the platform. Go look at Billboard Magazine’s Google+ page. They’re getting a bit of activity but not engaging their audience. They’re using it like a glorified Twitter account. My following is significantly less than theirs and I get way more traction in reshares which is where the real referral traffic is.

  • Martin Beck

    Hi Mike. Thanks for your comment. I totally respect where you are coming from. It’s true that I focused the article on larger publishers, which is why I decided not to include data that you graciously provided. It wasn’t because I thought it didn’t fit the narrative.

    I hoped that the counter example of Android Authority would provide sufficient balance and show that some high-volume publishers are getting good results. Perhaps it wasn’t enough.

    As to your argument that established publishers already have strong Facebook and Twitter followings and haven’t worked hard or smart enough on Google+ … well, the fact is those strong FB and Twitter followings came easily for big publishers. And the huge majority of the referral traffic comes from organic sharing of content, not because of anything that publishers post on their social accounts. The scale of the overall audience dwarfs the number of people who follow even the New York Times (7.5M FB likes, 12.2M Twitter followers, 2.3M G+ followers) so I don’t think you can blame publishers for prioritizing the networks that push them more readers.

    That’s likely why Ars Technica has chosen to treat its G+ page as a link dump (which explains why there’s not much engagement on that page). It doesn’t explain why the organic web audience isn’t sharing very many Ars stories on G+ (or they are but few are clicking through) compared to Facebook and Twitter. Ars could do better — and perhaps should try, considering its techy audience would seem to be similar to what we assume Google+ audience is like — but the publishers are going to fish in the obvious fishing holes first.

  • Mark Traphagen

    Matt, what Dustin said. Won’t go further as you and I have already debated this on G+.

  • Mark Traphagen

    It’s what I said to you on G+ Martin. Google+ requires a different strategy, and not just in the style of how you post. You have to build a strategy that brings your own audience into Google+ and incentivizes them to be active with your there.

    Yes, that’s a lot of work. But the payoff? You gain extraordinary influence into their personalized search results.

  • Martin Beck

    Very interesting Mark. So you think that strategy works for publishers (at the brand page level) as well as authors?

  • Gregory Smith

    Interesting question Martin.

  • Gregory Smith

    I really enjoy Google+ and G+ is by far my favorite Social platform. It also provides the most (by far) referral traffic.

  • Rob Gordon

    Ok, once again I read this an learn that people “people suck at using it” if they don’t get referral traffic – never mind the facts stated in this very article. This is so typical – if there is something that doesn’t work for you in Google+ than there must be something wrong with you – perhaps a personality defect. The actual answer is much more basic than that – it is simply not designed for that like say Twitter is. The stream is designed to read on its own – clicking a link takes you away from the “now” to a different place, and most people don’t want to do that. I have a large business network there – we spend a huge amount of time fighting link dumping – especially from the social media experts and Google+ evangelists who have come to dominate the network. It is unfortunate that anyone who thinks a little differently now gets mocked there.

  • Wastrel Way

    They’ve changed the interface several times, meaning you have to relearn it, and they keep linking it to other things, like Youtube. Click on something and you get a lot of additional content that is unrelated and you don’t care about. They try to predict what you want and fail pretty badly. Of course, I’m not using it to promote myself or my business — I’m interested in science and several other issues, but G+ continually steers me away from the things that interest me to the things I should be spending money on, in their opinion.

  • Mark Traphagen

    Absolutely it does. If someone plusses or shares my brand page’s public content, it can get elevated in personalized searches by that person’s G+ following.

  • Matt McGee

    Since you have a product that’s aimed at marketers, and you’re an ex-Googler, this shouldn’t be a surprise, Vanessa. :-)

  • Matt McGee

    Yes, I think that’s exactly it, because the G+ audience is not at all a mainstream group of people.

  • Vanessa Fox

    I *was* surprised! Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever posted there before. I didn’t think anyone spent time there for consumption, even marketers. (Current Googlers maybe.)

  • Mark Traphagen

    Vanessa, did you do anything to track down who shared about your product on G+. Sounds like an influential user or two recommended it.

  • Phil Smith

    Might be controversial but who really cares what traffic (or not) others may receive. It’s relatively easy for anyone to measure the result of their own G+ activity. If it works for you – use it, If not – find another channel.

  • Phillip Marquez

    Amusingly this article, y’know the one talking about the shortcomings of G+ and it’s lack of shares, currently has FB likes at 80 and Tweets at 293 but 419 +1s.

  • Outtanames999

    Uh not really. On G+ I see more stupid cat pics and idiotic “creative” landscapes that somebody spent hours photoshopping that no one else wants to see than I do on FB. FB and Yahoo are the new AOL which marketers loved because of highly engaged users that skew female (read buy things you find in stores). G+ is the new Compuserve – male dominated and too geeky for words. They buy autos and tech and that’s about it.

  • Ammon Johns

    Actually, Matt, yes.

    I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see so many big brands treating G+ as an afterthought, posting their twitter content to G+ as an afterthought option via software without ever engaging on G+ outside of mis-placed tweets.

    Tweets, especially, *suck* big time on G+

    The posts that do best on G+ are often virtual blog posts.

    I’ll tell you what G+ reminds me most of, in terms of all social media – it reminds me most of quality forums. Short posts that just tell you someone has launched a blog post elsewhere get no love, and no clicks.

    Engaging, thoughtful posts that actually communicate meaning and depth on G+, and *then* reference a link for more, succeed incredibly well.

    But I see hundreds of posts per day that are obviously just re-spun default posts done via software, and the exact same post that they wrote first for a ‘more important’ platform – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Take it from me, who uses all platforms for a huge variety of clients, that no other platform comes close to the engagement of G+ when you take the time to treat G+ as the most important, and make *that* your self-fulfilling prophecy.

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Marketing Land on Twitter @marketingland Like Marketing Land on Facebook Follow Marketing Land on Google+ Subscribe to Our Feed! Join our LinkedIn Group Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Marketing News!

Marketing Day is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!