Google+ continues battle with fading user interest, data say
One of technology's big unresolved dramas is whether Google can still cut into the giant social networking lead now held by rival Facebook -- or if its Google+ service is already sunk.
Data on the subject have been sparse, with much of the more recent information coming from traffic measurement firm Experian Hitwise. Hitwise has tended to release its numbers after Google+ has had a good week or two. Last week, for instance, was the site's third-biggest since launch, drawing nearly 7 million visitors, Hitwise said Wednesday.
But now a more complete set of data shows that Google+ has been fighting declines for most of its nearly five-month history.
According to data given to The Times by Hitwise, U.S. traffic to Google+ has dropped in 11 of the 21 weeks since its launch in late June, regularly falling between 10% and 20% from one week to the next.
To be fair, Google+ has seen a substantial overall gain in visitors since its launch in late June. But the large majority of its growth came in a single week in September, after it opened its doors to the public. Since then, much of that gain has ebbed.
For two months before Google+ opened to the public, the platform was accessible only to users with an invitation. Still, buzz around the nascent site helped it build a large audience of early adopters, and Google+ quickly ramped up to nearly 2 million unique visitors by the end of its third week. But as the data show, a steady decline set in just as quickly -- and user interest appeared to wane: After a strong start, the service lost visitors for six of the next nine weeks, dropping nearly 42% from its initial high in mid-July.
Then in late September, a similar pattern of rapid growth and stagnation began. When the service went public, Google+ experienced a huge spike, going from 1 million to 15 million visitors in a single week, again according to Hitwise.
But that didn't last. More than half of those users did not return the following week, and the network has since lost nearly 50% of the gains it had made since opening to the public.
Then, starting a couple of weeks ago, the site began to see a third, smaller bounce, with traffic rising 30% -- by about 1.5 million visitors -- since it launched initiatives to further open the network to businesses and professional users.
Google appears to have kick-started some modest growth with these features, but the question lingers: Will Google+ be able to grow without help from its parent company?
Businesses are forever seeking "organic growth," in which a product naturally catches on with a widening group of consumers. Facebook, for instance, has enjoyed years of rapid, almost automatic growth, helped along by free word-of-mouth advertising and a broad presence in popular culture. By one recent count, Facebook attracts close to 160 million monthly visitors in the U.S. alone.
Google wants some of that too. If it can keep the its recent momentum going for a while, the bump of the last two weeks may turn into an upward curve, giving Google+ the kind of sustained growth it needs to take on Facebook and its 800 million users.
But if the bump starts to flatten out again, the company may have to reckon with one Google engineer's opinion that, when it comes to building a social network, "We all don't get it."
A Google spokeswoman said the company does not comment on third-party research, but added that the company had been "pleasantly surprised" by the performance of the service.
An important caveat: Hitwise data is not exact. For instance, it does not include traffic from mobile devices, an increasingly important part of the way users access Google.
Clarification, 2:44 p.m.: The post initially said that Google+ had ramped up to nearly two million users in its first three weeks. In reality, two million is the approximate number of U.S. visitors to the service during its third week, according to Hitwise. The number of users that had started a Google+ account by then was closer to 10 million, according to the company. However, creating an account does not necessarily mean a user will become a regular visitor to the site.
-- David Sarno
Image: Weekly visitors to Google+ since launch in early July. Credit: Experian Hitwise