Google+ now has 170 million users. Well, 170 million who have “upgraded” to Google+, whatever that means. It’s the latest in crazy numbers from Google. The people who actually do use Google+ as a social network deserve better than this PR spin. It’s time for Google to properly report their numbers, lest outsiders begin believing the “ghost town” moniker.
Do I sound tired? I am. We get numbers that aren’t numbers, and this from the company that once spent a month in crisis mode back in 2005 when competitor Yahoo claimed to have more web pages indexed than it did. Oh dear. We had to have much navel gazing about how exactly one should count what a web page was. In the end, Google effectively declared that counting pages no longer matter. The famous web page count in the Google home page was dropped.
Google seems somewhat desperate to show that its social network — sorry, its social layer — is a success, and so we get these slippery numbers that mean so little.
The Official Numbers So Far
Let’s recap the figures that Google has diligently reported since Google+ began:
- July 2011: 10 million
- October 2011: 40 million (30 million gain, 10 million per month)
- January 2012: 90 million (50 million gain, 16.7 million per month)
- April 2012: 170 million (80 million gain, 26.7 million per month)
I could make a little chart to show what skyrocketing growth is going on there, but why bother. The numbers don’t really mean anything, and it’s becoming absurd that Google keeps quoting them as if they do.
What’s A User?
When the 10 million figure came out last July from Google, there was some poking at it but not a lot of heavy examination of what exactly a “user” meant.
When the 40 million figure came out, more starting wondering about how exactly someone was counted as a Google+ user. As it turned out, anyone who had created a Google+ account got counted, whether they were actively using that account or not. As I wrote then:
How about the 40 million figure that Google released today. Those are simply the number of people who have signed up for Google Plus, the company tells me. It’s not an active user figure.
More accurately, it would be called the sign-up figure. Some of those will be active. Indeed, millions will have signed up within the past month, when Google+ opened to anyone. The mere act of signing up would make the active, at least for a bit longer. But not all of them.
What is the active user figure for Google Plus? That’s not something Google’s giving out, right now.
What’s An Active User?
Oh, you want active users? OK, Google seemed to say. When the next figure came out in Jaunary, about Google+ having 90 million users, we were treated to learning there was a 60 percent “engagement” rate among these people.
But wait, as it turned out, it’s not that those people are engaging on Google+ itself. Rather, they are people who have Google+ accounts who also do something within Google. From Page’s written comments in an investor call at the time:
I have some amazing data to share there for the first time: +users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly.
Over six months into its product, and Google was still dodging a fairly simple question. How many people actually use the Google+ social network itself. You know, like people use Facebook, logging in to read posts, see photos, comment on things or share? How hard could this be to answer, if Google really wanted to?
The Virtual Ghost Town
Google didn’t want to, not until a Wall Street Journal called Google+ a “virtual ghost town” compared to Facebook:
The Wall Street Journal calls you a ghost town? That demands action. Soon after, Google spilled some new figures to the New York Times in hopes of damage control:
About 50 million people who have created a Google Plus account actively use the company’s Google Plus-enhanced products daily, Mr. Gundotra said. Over a 30-day period, he said, that number is 100 million active users.
Excellent. 100 million active users of Google+. That’s crystal clear. If it’s frosted crystal, that is, because the NYT article went on:
Although these numbers sound impressive, the catch is that Google Plus-enhanced properties include YouTube, the Android Marketplace and Google.com, the company’s flagship search engine. Yet Google contends that these numbers illustrate that more than 100 million people have signed up for a Google Plus account and are now actively engaging with Google Plus-related products across the company.
What Isn’t A Google+ Enhanced Product?
Yes, everyone knows that YouTube is a “Google Plus-related” product. Technically, I should write that as a “Google+-related product,” a mess of punctuation caused by the lame name Google gave to its social network. Someone please get Justin Timberlake, er, Sean Parker to do a meeting with Page and say “drop the +.”
Sorry, I digress. YouTube — which existed for years before Google+ — is now just some product related to Google+, I guess. I suppose that Google Search is some Google+-related product. Heck, basically I guess Google itself is now just Google+. Do anything there, and maybe that counts?
Bring in Guy Kawasaki!
At the SXSW conference last month, Kawasaki (above in the hat) diligently tried to get Vic Gundotra (on the right), the Google senior vice president who oversees social, to answer the question. Were these people actually using Google+? From my live blogging:
Guy’s not happy, wants to know how many people do stuff just at Google+. Vic says that’s the wrong way to measure, that measuring like that means things that happen at unnamed competitors [cough Facebook] might not even get counted properly for them, if you think that way.
Yeah, no answer.
Count The Google+ Social Layer?
What does that really mean? Are 170 million people using the social network the way they use Facebook? I talked to Gundotra, as well as VP of Product for Google+ Bradley Horowitz, on a special Reporters’ Roundtable interview this morning.
When I asked Gundotra how many people are using Google+, he deftly told me I was looking at it wrong. “You have to understand what Google+ is,” he said. “It’s really the unification of all of Google’s services, with a common social layer.”
No, we’re not looking at it wrong. Google is just refusing to answer the question for its own reasons — which is probably because Google+ has far less activity as a standalone social network than either Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps even less than Pinterest, for that matter.
No, Let’s Count The Actual Network
When Facebook says it has over 800 million active users, it really seems to mean people who came into Facebook and used the service in some way in a given month. They seem to be logged in and somehow actively using their accounts.
When Google talks about Google+ usage, saying someone was logged in and then visited one of the myriad of Google properties where some Google+ icon has spread like an outbreak of measles isn’t cutting it for me. That’s not using Google+. It’s not. Sorry, it’s not.
Using Google+ in my definition — and I think for many people who care — means they logged in with the specific purpose of reading content at plus.google.com — the actual Google+ social network, which really is a network independent of the “layer” that it powers elsewhere. It can also include people who made use of a Google+ option outside of plus.google.com to share content or to +1 it (oh, how I hate writing +1 and +1′ing things, more punctuation nightmares).
Perhaps it might include anyone who sees things like Google +1 badges or buttons that are personalized for them when they surf the web, if they’re logged in to Google, such as the ones we have here.
This gets tricky. Does Facebook count the same? With Facebook, if those things are personalized, it’s because someone deliberately logged into Facebook to use the social network at some point recently. With Google+, those buttons might light up because they logged in simply to check Gmail — and if they have also have Google+ account — that triggers up the social buttons even though they never went into Google+ itself.
Postscript – Facebook let me know this after my story went live:
As you indicate, the 845 million number is a monthly active user number. An active user is someone who has visited Facebook.com and logged-in (or been logged in) or who has taken an action with a Facebook feature (e.g. clicked “like”, etc…). If the user doesn’t do any of those things for 30 days, they aren’t considered an active user. If they only see social plugins across the web–even if those social plugins include social context such as friends’ photos, friends’ likes, friends’ recommendations–but doesn’t click anything, they are not an active user.
Tricky, but still, we all know Google has solid activity numbers that could be shared. When they aren’t shared, that just makes it sound like Google is trying to hide that there’s really no social activity. In turn, that supports the entire “ghost town” thing Google’s trying to dispel.
Google+ Is The Apple Store For Google Fans
Here’s the thing. I don’t believe that Google+ is a ghost town. I think — I know — there’s activity there. I think Google+ is also a huge success for Google. I even agree with the idea that Google+ is a “social layer.” I’ve just had my fill, my complete fill, of the PR dodge and spin when it comes to Google+ numbers. I think Google would come off better if it was just frank about stuff.
I’ve been meaning to write my “Google+ Is Like The Apple Store For Google” piece for some time. Maybe I’ll never get to it now. But you know when you go into an Apple Store, and it’s filled with sometimes scary Apple fanatics who seem to have arrived at a holy place? That’s Google+ for Google.
If Google+ isn’t anything else, it’s a place that Google fans can call home. It’s a place that Google’s never really had before, a spot for its millions (and let’s face it, there are millions) of fanboys and fangirls to rejoice in all things Google.
I’ve experienced this firsthand in my time at Google. I’ve learned that if I share anything negative about Google, I can expect to get comments, sometimes many, asking why I hate Google or am biased against Google.
This was a pretty new experience for me. Usually, I’ve had to explain why I’m not biased in favor of Google. But the true believers of Google now have a gathering place where fair criticism can turn into an anti-Google tirade.
Nearly 400 comments, on and on, all to mock him for a previous article suggesting that Google+ was a ghost town. Yeah, point received. Gotta say, it also doesn’t make Google+ look good. But then again, check out the comments on any active Facebook post, and that’s a pretty sad reflection on humanity sometimes, especially the political posts.
An Excellent Way To Interact With Googlers
Still, the fans have place to gather. And more positively, it’s a place where people who want Google products to improve can make posts and know they’ll be seen by Googlers who actually work on those products. That’s wonderful. No sarcasm — that’s a wonderful thing to have.
But it’s really not just about Google fans being there. There are all types of people there, who have found a home. No, Facebook isn’t seriously threatened by Google+, any more than Google is seriously threatened by the Bing search engine. But some people do want an alternative to Facebook, and Google has launched a successful alternative. No question, I’d say.
The Successful Facebook Alternative
After all, what is the serious Facebook competitor? Where’s the place you can go and do all the things that Facebook offers in one place — connecting, sharing photos, videos, making groups, reading what’s shared?
Twitter? As John Battelle so eloquently put it in 2009, Twitter is a pencil. Yes, it’s a pencil that has grown with more colors. But it’s still largely about sharing things quickly, in the moment. It’s not a multifaceted social network like Facebook (which, I’ll add, I’m glad for. I like Twitter as a pencil).
Until Google+, Facebook had no real competitor. Even if Google+ is a far distant second, that’s far ahead of say where Microsoft is — which is not even in the race (unless you count Xbox, which sometimes should get counted — but it’s a social network of a different sort).
Coming from nowhere to being second, especially when so many pundits thought Google “didn’t get social” is a remarkable achievement. The people at Google+ should feel very proud of what they’ve carved out, of a new community hub they’ve created that people are actively using and calling home. Beyond that, if Facebook really is worth $100 billion, it seems like Google has created great value in being an alternative, if it’s still far behind in usage.
There Is Activity
As for nothing happening on Google+, I always enjoyed hitting the “What’s Hot” area, which was renamed yesterday to be “Explore.” There are interesting, fun, fascinating or important things in there that are shared hundreds of times, often with hundreds of comments.
A calculator like an Xbox controller! Shared nearly 1,000 times, with over 2,000 +1′s and nearly 500 comments:
Facebook’s Focus On Discovery, Not Search
Facebook could easily eclipse these types of figures, of course. In fact, Facebook doesn’t need “Explore” because there’s so much going on at Facebook that it understands the far bigger challenge is helping people explore what they’re already getting in their news feed from people in their networks.
Among other reasons, I think Facebook won’t because it understands that doing social right, when you’re at the scale Facebook handles, is ensuring that people discover what’s interesting to them rather than having to search for it.
Social = discovery, a kissing cousin of search, but not the same. And social is what Facebook is focused on. That’s plenty to chew on. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said as much repeatedly, such as to Charlie Rose last year, about wanting to do “one thing incredibly well.” That means continuing to perfect social.
Remember When Google Did Search?
Ironically, doing one thing well used to be Google’s philosophy. Technically, it still is:
It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
We do search. With one of the world’s largest research groups focused exclusively on solving search problems, we know what we do well, and how we could do it better. Through continued iteration on difficult problems, we’ve been able to solve complex issues and provide continuous improvements to a service that already makes finding information a fast and seamless experience for millions of people. Our dedication to improving search helps us apply what we’ve learned to new products, like Gmail and Google Maps. Our hope is to bring the power of search to previously unexplored areas, and to help people access and use even more of the ever-expanding information in their lives.
Yeah, Google does one thing really well. Search. Then it did AdSense. And Blogger. And Gmail. And selling books, music and videos through Google Play, which is so related to search. And Google+. Just all those one things really well. Someone at Google should either kill that philosophy page or update it, because it’s just embarrassing now.
But that brings me back (you all still with me?), to that Twitter is a pencil thing I mentioned. See, John was paraphrasing that from something that Louis Monier, one of the cofounders of AltaVista, said about search:
I will never forget that quote, from AltaVista founder Louis Monier, as he bemoaned the devolution of his creation into Yet Another Portal. He was devoted to the idea that AltaVista would do one thing – search – and do it well. But AltaVista was instead turned into a bawdy image of Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, Excite, and all the other portals of the late 90s.
And along came Google, which by 2000 had gained a reputation as the Best Search on the Web.
Will Google Break The “Pencil” That Is Search?
The amazing thing now is watching the Google+ification of Google Search and hearing people I know wish for the Google they used to have. I even joked myself today on Twitter:
Sometimes, I kind of miss when Google was a search engine.
That generated more than 50 retweets, so many that Twitter won’t report higher than 50+ (Twitter, what’s up with that?). It struck a chord. Can I haz my old Google back?
How on earth can Google, in its quest to chase Facebook, be potentially screwing up its search engine in the way that Yahoo, AltaVista and others screwed their search engines up chasing after portal gold. Google’s very success comes from being the pencil, the sharp, focused search engine from when others forgot search. Could it really be making the same mistake that its competitors did?
Perhaps. But I do think that most people outside the chattering technosphere classes are probably still happy with Google’s search, maybe noticing some changes here or there but perhaps not as strongly as those who are hyper-attuned to all the Google+ification that’s been going on.
Google+ Does Help Search, But Balance, Please
I also think there are very good reasons why Google does need Google+ to improve search. It’s easy to forget that Google+ was originally just Google +1 and positioned as a search product. That product can allow Google to directly gather important signals it needs to help improve search quality, because it simply can’t keep relying on links as it has. The articles below, if you really care, explain more about this:
- When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building
- Is Google’s “Over Optimization Penalty” Its “Jump The Shark” Moment In Web Search?
Yes, Google+ is part of search, part of that pencil. But it should be a balanced part, not a part that makes me feel like the pencil is uncomfortable to hold. I think Google has some way to go to getting that balance right.
Google+ Is A Layer
And yes, Google+ is indeed a layer that goes throughout Google properties. That was handy PR spin for Google when it launched Google+, to act like it wasn’t launching a “me too” Facebook competitor. It continues to be spin that you hear, and I continue to be irritated when I hear it.
But it isn’t all spin. Google+ does help unite Google properties in exactly the way that Facebook’s Zuckerberg said last year any company should be thinking about, a way to make their products social. Sure, Zuckerberg would like to see that be social through Facebook. But he believes in social as something any company should do. Google’s a company. Google’s socializing its products, just with a Google layer rather than a Facebook one.
But Don’t Deny Google+ As A Social Network
Where Google goes wrong, to bring this all back to where I started, is the self-denial of the standalone Google+ social network itself, which exists outside the layer. It’s a unique, independent place that million of people happily call home. They turn to it each day, deliberately, not just because they’re checking their Gmail or watching a YouTube video or doing a Google search. They’re using the Google+ the social network itself.
Those people deserve to be counted, to know their population, not to be “layerized” simply because Google seems ashamed the numbers aren’t as big as Facebook’s. Google should be proud of those people and what it has accomplished, and giving real figures would show that pride.
In the end, the number game really doesn’t matter much, anyway. Zuckerberg already knew that eventually Google would find a way to count hundreds of millions to seemingly challenge Facebook. That’s why soon after Google+ launched, he talked about citing “active user” figures as nearing an end of usefulness, with the real focus being on the amount of sharing happening.
Facebook still cites active users, 845 million as of December 2011, on its stats page. Maybe eventually, active users will go the way of how search engines used to cite web pages indexed, a figure that’s outgrown its usefulness as a helpful metric. But if we’re still using active users now, I’d sure like to see Google provide a better figure along with other metrics.
- Google, Twitter Flaunt Social Stats … It’s Like 2003 All Over Again
- Larry Page: Google+ Now Has 40 Million Users
- Why You Can’t Compare Google+ User Figures To Facebook & Twitter
- Google+ Hits 90 Million Users, 60 Percent Engage Daily
- No, Google+ Doesn’t Have A 60 Percent Engagement Rate
- Vic Gundotra: Google+ Doesn’t Intrude On Social With Ads, Piss Off Developers By Changing APIs
- Is Google’s “Over Optimization Penalty” Its “Jump The Shark” Moment In Web Search?
- When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building
- Google+ Gets A New Look With Interactive Navigation & “Timeline-esque” Profiles