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Google+: Why User Counts & Low Engagement Don't Matter

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google-vs-facebookA new WSJ.com report tallies up the “mounting minuses” at Google+, citing lackluster engagement and a difficulty in differentiating the service from Facebook as challenges for the newer social network.
 
While acknowledging that “the company's main financial goal of Google+ is to obtain personal data about users to better target ads to them across all of Google,” the WSJ and so many others seem to be missing a critical point: engagement isn’t going to matter.

In comScore’s recent U.S. Digital Future in Focus report, they reported that 1 of every 6 minutes spent online now is spent on social networks. In December 2011, visitors spent an average of 423 minutes on Facebook, and just 6 minutes on Google+. Some point to this as a serious problem for Google+. It’s certainly indicative of a lack of engagement. So what?

How many minutes did those same users spend on YouTube, Blogger, in Google Analytics, using Google’s core offering to search the web, or on one of the other 60 or so services to be combined under their new privacy policy?

Google doesn’t actually need users to participate in their social network to gather the data all they need to remain the leader in user intelligence.

Conflicting Reports on Google+ Participation and Engagement Abound

Recently, we’ve seen Compete.com shouting from the rooftops, “Google Social is Exploding Online!” They point to 20 million unique visitors to the social site in the month of December as evidence of its resounding success.

Other studies show that brands are struggling to find an audience on Google+. A recent article from ClickZ shows that most of the brand page growth on Google+ is among the top few companies. Although the number of people Circling a brand in the Interbrand Top 100 ballooned by 1,400 percent in the two months between mid-December and mid-February, the lion’s share went to the top 10 brands.

There’s a lot of conflicting data floating around about how many people are actively using Google+. A spokesperson from Google told the WSJ comScore’s data is “dramatically lower” than their in-house data shows. Google’s VP of Product Marketing, Bradley Horowitz, told the newspaper, “We’re growing by every metric we care about.”

Now, rewind for a moment to September 2011, when Horowitz said, “Until now, every single Google property acted like a separate company. [...] That was dizzying. But Google+ is Google itself," he said. "We’re extending [Google+] across all that we do—search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube—so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are."

Google+ Is Google Itself

Why are we only looking at what’s going on in the front-end, specifically comparing Google+ to Facebook in terms of user numbers and engagement, or even traffic, when the real meat is in what is going on behind the scenes? Horowitz is right, Google itself is growing. Google+ is a part of that growth, but not necessarily where we should be looking to see the bigger picture.

google-accts-create-your-profile

In mid-January, Google+ account registration became mandatory for new users to Gmail, Blogger, and other services. At that time, Larry Page had just announced that Google+ had reached 90 million users, with 60 percent engaging daily and 80 percent weekly. Ars Technica pointed out, however, that the engagement figures reflected activity on any Google service – even searching the web while signed in – and that the account numbers applied to all accounts created, not necessarily active accounts.

Shortly after that, we heard the new privacy policy announcement; all user data from all Google services will be combined in order to show more relevant search results and ads.

So does Google really need to care at this point if Google+ users aren’t posting their pictures, ranting about their personal lives, and playing games on their platform? Not really. They have time to wait it out.

While Facebook is out finding Open Graph partners and trying to incorporate apps and services users have to opt in to in order to build out their data collection net, Google will exponentially increase their own reach by combining data from all services on March 1.

Who Holds the Keys to Google and Facebook’s User Data Kingdom

Google’s recent PR nightmare, where they were caught with their hands in Safari’s cookie jar, exposed another potential reason engagement on Google+ just won’t matter. Google has massive reach through their DoubleClick ad network and their +1 social button. That presents a huge opportunity for increased data collection.

Combine that with the way cookies work. The W3C Tracking Protection Working Group is trying to establish standard definitions and policies around cookies and user tracking. The reason the Google/Safari issue became the mess it did was because Google’s setting that one tracking cookie resulted in ongoing user tracking. Put simply, once the first cookie is set, Safari allowed additional cookies from that party; this meant users were tracked around the web.

That’s actually not unusual. Once you engage with an element - say, a +1 button - you’re indicating a relationship with that company (Google) and they don’t count as a third-party anymore. If they’re not a third-party, neither are their cookies.

google-real-life-sharing

Does Google need you on their social network, playing games, posting status updates, and commenting on friend activities? Not really. If they don’t eventually get users actually using the Google+ platform, it can only be considered a failure as a place for “real-life sharing.” In that respect, it will eventually fail as a social network if it doesn’t draw users over from Facebook.

However, Google has all the time in the world to work on building tools, games, and apps to get users on board. They’re not a start-up pressed for funding. Their social platform is just one cog in the larger machine that drives their massive advertising business, which accounted for 96 percent of Google’s $37.9 billionin 2011 revenue. Amalgamating the data available from all services with their new privacy policy, plus the data collection and tracking power offered by their social plugin, makes Google+ a success for Google whether you and I are there or not, unless we plan on dumping all of their other services.

The Differences Between Google+ and Facebook That Actually Matter

Facebook is using the “frictionless sharing” model with their partners, who will post your activity, once authorized, back to Facebook. Google is taking advantage of their sheer size and numbers to collect that data on the back end. They don’t need you to authorize an app to tell them what you’re watching, reading, searching, or doing. You’re already telling them in a thousand little ways you’re probably not even aware of.

new-facebook-apps

Facebook has had to build up their platform over several years, with each new addition designed to keep users within their ecosystem sharing data. Their brand pages had to be superior, they had to build an advertising platform, to generate the income needed to get to where they are now. And where they are now is that they are trying to build their ecosystem out into the web, to make the volume and precision of their user data more valuable to you, the advertiser.

Google is shooting for a model that makes the entire web, or as much of it as they can lay claim to, their ecosystem. They need to make the volume and precision of their user data more valuable to you, the advertiser, in order to keep their 44 percent stake in the global advertising market, which is projected to reach $486 billion by the end of 2012.

The caveat with the cookie legislation is that if social plugins don’t count as first-party interactions for the purpose of user tracking for one, they don’t count for the other, either. Both Google and Facebook will be limited in using +1s and Likes to set cookies. If this definition passes, it will give them an edge not necessarily over each other, but over the other players, like Microsoft and Yahoo.

As a result of the differences between data collected Facebook’s way – through Open Graph partners requiring user opt-in – Facebook data shows higher intent to engage with its services, which is high value in advertisers eyes. However, Google+ is still able to use all of the data they’ve collected to better target users on low intent actions (such as checking email on an Android phone), even if users never see an actual G+ ad product.

Their goals, when we look past the fluffy time-on-site and sharing metrics, are the same. They started out in very different places and so their strategies have to address their respective challenges. Facebook has to build out to permeate more areas of your life and collect more data if they want a bigger piece of that multi-billion dollar pie. Google has to pull together all of the places they already touch your life to keep their share.

They’re really not that different, after all.


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