Engagement Party: The Story Behind the Google+ Stats

I was sitting at home the other night, catching up on the latest episode of “Parks and Recreation” with my girlfriend when the above Galaxy Nexus commercial ran in the pre-run slot. In case you aren’t the video-watching type, the ad starts with the words “It’s your social network, all mixed together. With Galaxy Nexus by Samsung, now you can organize your contacts by circles, like you do in real life.” Despite the fact that I’m an avid nerd and have written about Google+ on several occasions, I’m still not clear on whether the phone allows you to organize your existing social network or if the commercial is just trying to hype Google+. In fact, Google+ is only mentioned as a sidenote to Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Why the ambiguity? Because Google+ isn’t a selling point.

A few days after I saw that commercial — which has been airing since December — Google announced that it now has 90 million unique users worldwide. That number far surpasses most of the third-party estimates for the service (comScore had Google+ just over 66 million users in November) so a lot of people are throwing around words like “impressive,” “amazing,” and “astounding growth.” To me, it is none of these things. Let’s face it, Google+ had a ton of hype leading up to launch. It is, after all, a Google product. Unlike Buzz and Wave, Google’s failed social projects, Google+ had a clear and consistent purpose. Let’s also not forget that one of the most discussed topics in the tech industry today is who will take down Facebook. Everyone is waiting for Goliath to fall and Google+ was the first serious contender. With all of those things in mind, I think 90 million is a pretty reasonable turnout.

But frankly, even 90 million doesn’t matter, because 90 million is just the number of unique users signed up for Google+. Those 90 million people are not on Google+ every day. I would guess a fair number of them have only been on Google+ once, and they haven’t gone back. The numbers I really want to see are about the world’s engagement with Google+, that is, how many people are using the service on a regular basis? Larry Page might be “super excited” about 90 million, but he’s less than thrilled to share real engagement numbers. The best he could say was, “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.”

As with the Verizon ad I mentioned, it’s the wording here that counts. There is really no reason for Page to tag “our products” on the end of his engagement statement unless that was exactly what he meant. Google+ users are using other Google products at the 60 percent daily, 80 percent weekly margins. Of course, he won’t confirm that, and neither will anyone else at Google. But why word things the way he did? If +users were actually engaged with the service at the levels Page is talking about, he’d be a good bit more than “super excited” to share the news. Those would be some impressive numbers, and I would happily agree that Google+ is showing “astounding growth.” Those numbers would, by percentage, be higher than engagement at Facebook.

Shortly after Page’s “super excited” announcement, Google altered its sign-up process to include forced entry into Google+. Want a Gmail account? You now have a Google+ account, too. I hardly need to say that this is indicative of disingenuous assessment of user engagement. With the new integration of social into Google’s search, it’s no wonder engagement — with other Google products — looks so good. Google has also made opting-out of the social project more complicated than it has been in the past. It looks like I can delete my Google+ profile and all of the associated features or I can keep it. No middle ground, and it’s worth noting that I can’t do this opting out until I’ve already opted-in.

The strangest part of all of this to me is that this seems very unlike Google. I have always loved Google for its open policy on the kinds of things I’m sharing and not sharing, participating and not participating in. As with any web service, usage implies a certain level of acquiescence with data sharing, but at least I felt like I had some options for limiting the extent to which that data was being shared. These recent developments around Google+ leave me with a super foul taste in my mouth, Larry, and it’s not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.


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