Google+'s Numbers Aren't as Impressive as Everyone Thinks

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While millions wanted to check it out at first, traffic to the social network has already peaked and is smaller than that of competitors

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From the United States and India and Canada, from Germany and Brazil and Taiwan, users have been eager to join Google+, the social network recently launched by the search giant. The site has received 19.93 million unique visitors since debuting just three weeks ago, according to a report by comScore, a company that measures Web traffic in much the same way that Nielsen measures television ratings. While comScore's methods can be a little shady, the numbers have been backed up by research done by Paul Allen, Ancestry.com founder and unofficial Google+ statistician.

He doesn't have access to any facts or figures that the rest of us don't, but Allen has come up with a unique system that seems to be working: He uses a random collection of 100 surnames to estimate the size of Google+'s membership base. (He increased the number to 1,000 at one point to check the veracity of his sample size and found the difference in results to be statistically insignificant.) "With a surname sample size this large, the connection to what is really happening with Google+ user growth seems very tight," Allen said in a post on -- where else? -- his Google+ profile. "Within the surname set are popular surnames from many highly populated countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But we currently have no ability to count users in certain non-Romance languages."

Allen is watching closely for any official announcements from Google to get a sense of how accurate his model is. So far, the search giant's press team has been unwilling to give out any information beyond that which has come from the guy at the top: On Thursday, July 14, CEO Larry Page confirmed that the social network had more than 10 million members. Allen's figures suggested Google+ had reached that milestone a couple of days earlier, but Page may have wanted to avoid getting too specific. Allen is also hoping other amateur statisticians will make themselves and their data known so that they can compare methods and results.

google plus growth chart thru 7-18.JPG

No matter how you measure it, 20 million or so visitors is a lot of visitors. But is it as big a deal as people are making it out to be? Yes, Google+ might end up being the fastest growing website of all time, but Facebook and Twitter primed the pump. Google+ and Facebook seemed to be locked in a war of sorts, with Google+ making it nearly impossible to import Facebook friends into its system and Facebook spiking ads for its competition. But without Facebook, which taught people, more than anything else before it, what a social network could look like online and how it could function, would so many people have jumped into Google's experiment?

And just because they jumped in to test the waters doesn't mean that they're going to stick around. In fact, Experian Hitwise released additional data that took a closer look at not the number of members Google+ has, but the kind of traffic it is receiving. The takeaway: Traffic peaked the week from July 5-12 and has since declined. For the three-day stretch from July 12 to July 14, Google Plus had just 300,000 visits per day. For comparison, Google receives hundreds of millions of search queries daily. Right now, Facebook and Twitter are receiving far more traffic than Google+ ... but so, too, are CafeMom, myYearbook and, yes, even MySpace. Which is why the comparisons are a little ridiculous.

One chart graphs Google+'s growth against that of Facebook and Twitter in their early days just to drive the point home; Google+ hit 10 million members about 50 times faster than the competitors. But, unless you're counting Friendster and MySpace and all of those other networks that have since failed, Facebook is the pioneer in social networking; its slower growth is understandable. The fact that it grew as fast as it did, actually, is kind of unbelievable.

There's another graph that's being passed around. This one was created by Allen and charts his numbers against the date. (You'll find it above and to the right; click to enlarge.) You'll see that it clearly shows Google+'s growth is slowing down, which is something you wouldn't expect if you've only read the fawning headlines. "The viral growth of Google+ has slowed somewhat over the past few days, but my new-and-improved 1,000 surname model shows that more than 750,000 people joined the site on Monday, bringing the total user base to just under 18 million," Allen wrote in a Google+ post this week. "Yesterday's growth of 4.47% was the slowest viral growth since Google opened up invites back on July 6th."

Allen, who is clearly a Google+ fanboy, goes on to mention that the company has not yet started to market its product. When it does, he says, you can expect to see millions of new people joining. His reason? "More than a billion people worldwide use Google products, including its top rated search engine, YouTube, and Blogger." They do, yes, but just because someone is using Blogger doesn't mean that they're going to take the time to set up a Google+ profile. What's more, Facebook has been able to get pretty close to that one billion number (it's user base is somewhere north of 750 million now) without having pre-established products from which to funnel traffic. Now that's impressive.

Image: Creative Commons.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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