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As Facebook hits half a billion users, industry watchers wonder if 1 billion is next

July 21, 2010 |  9:08 am

Facebook is celebrating 500 million active users by rolling out a promotion that highlights stories from its users. Its reclusive chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, also is set to make an appearance on ABC's "World News" in an interview with anchor Diane Sawyer.

Even as Facebook hits this milestone, company watchers are looking at future growth. Could Facebook hit 1 billion?

Though there are signs that U.S. growth is starting to plateau, Facebook’s international growth is increasingly in the spotlight as the website amasses a global following.

That's a welcome breakthrough for Facebook, which for years had encountered obstacles overseas as it took on  entrenched regional social-networking services. Now it’s starting to see some serious traction in Latin America, Europe and elsewhere.

And even as China cracks down on Facebook, the world's most popular social-networking site has a lot of room for growth in Asia. This month, Facebook closed a deal with MOL Global, the Malaysian company that owns social-networking service Friendster, to make its virtual currency available in Southeast Asian countries. It's not just regional players that give Facebook trouble. Google’s social-networking service Orkut is wildly popular in Brazil, where the netizens are still resisting the lure of Facebook.

So can Facebook chart a course to 1 billion users? Analysts say time will tell. But they are not ruling it out.

“Clearly, as they have rolled out sites in foreign languages, that has greatly helped the adoption in those areas,” said Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray.

Italian users flocked to Facebook after it rolled out an Italian version of the site, Ray said.

“There is probably still some significant area for growth overseas,” he said.

But he issued a caveat: The University of Michigan’s 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index E-Business report gave Facebook 64 on its 100-point scale, making its rating lower than that of the IRS and in the bottom 5% of all the private companies the report measured, which included airlines and cable companies.

"Facebook is a bit of a juggernaut. At times, it seems that no one can take them on given the amount of time people spend on Facebook," Ray said. "But we used to think that about big websites in the ’90s and some of those don’t exist anymore."

Check here for messages of thanks to users from the Facebook team. Here is a video from Zuckerberg. Updated stats are here.

-- Jessica Guynn

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