Exclusive: New Google+ Study Reveals Minimal Social Activity, Weak User Engagement

Larry Page recently called Google+ the company's "social spine." If that's the case, then Google's backbone might be much weaker than Page has been letting on, at least according to a new report from RJ Metrics.

This week, the data analytics firm provided Fast Company with exclusive new insights on Google+. The findings paint a very poor picture of the search giant's social network--a picture of waning interest, weak user engagement, and minimal social activity. Google calls the study flawed--we'll explain why in a second--and has boasted that more than 170 million people have "upgraded" to the network. RJ Metrics' report, on the other hand, is yet another indicator that Google+ might indeed just be a "virtual ghost town," as some have argued.

Let's start with the findings. For its study, RJ Metrics (RJM) selected a sample of 40,000 random Google+ users. RJM then downloaded and analyzed every sample users' public timeline, which contains all publicly available activity. One important caveat: RJM was only able to look at public data, which as it points out, "is not necessarily reflective of the entire population of users," since some users are private or at least have private activity. That said, the stats are eye-opening:

  • According to RJM's report, the average post on Google+ has less than one +1, less than one reply, and less than one re-share
  • Roughly 30% of users who make a public post never make a second one
  • Even after making five public posts, there is a 15% chance that a user will not post publicly again
  • Among users who make publicly viewable posts, there is an average of 12 days between each post
  • After a member makes a public post, the average number of public posts they make in each subsequent month declines steadily, a trend that is not improving

In a statement provided to Fast Company, a Google spokesperson challenged the claims made in RJM's report. "By only tracking engagement on public posts, this study is flawed and not an accurate representation of all the sharing and activity taking place on Google+," the spokesperson said. "As we've said before, more sharing occurs privately to circles and individuals than publicly on Google+. The beauty of Google+ is that it allows you to share privately--you don't have to publicly share your thoughts, photos or videos with the world."

In its report, RJM acknowledged that it only provided insight into "public-facing actions of Google+ users." Still, in many instances, RJM said it was "quite surprised" by the low levels of engagement on public Google+ postings. For example, RJM said it was "shocked at the high average time between public posts among users." On average, a user waits 15 days between making his or her first and second public post. That figure improves with each subsequent post, but only slightly: There is an average of 10 days between a user's fifth and sixth public post.

"Remember that since we are only looking at public posts, it is very possible that users are making non-public posts between the ones that we were able to see," RJM's report indicates. "Despite this, however, we were still quite surprised by the large amount of time between public posts."

Of all the areas RJM studied, it felt social sharing was the one category that was "the least likely to be biased by the fact that we only studied public posts. These public posts will still be visible to each member's private networks, and actually could attract +1's, shares, and replies from external users as well. If anything, we would expect our numbers here to be higher than in the general population."

However, in its analysis of almost 70,000 posts, RJM found:

  • An average of 0.77 +1's per post
  • An average of 0.54 replies per post
  • An average of 0.17 re-shares per post

These low engagement levels do appear to match up with a recent study by ComScore. In February, it was reported that, according to ComScore, non-mobile visitors to Google+ spent an average of roughly three minutes on the network per month, between the months of September and January, compared with nearly seven hours per month on rival Facebook during the same timeframe.

Even with users who have engaged with Google+ on multiple occasions, there are signs that the network never becomes quite addictive. "Once a user has made one public post, the chances that they will make a second post are quite strong: around 70%," RJM's report says. "After that, however, Google+ does not perform as well as we were expecting. In charts like these we typically expect to see the probability of repeat posts shoot up to well north of 90% by the time the user has made several posts."

"This is basically the 'once you're using it you're hooked' principle. With Google+, however, this number never crosses the 90% mark. Even after having made five such posts, the chance of making a sixth is only 85%. This means that 15% of people who have made five posts never came back to make a sixth."

On the other hand, it could also mean that the more a user engages with Google+, the more likely he or she is to engage with Circles, which would yield more private activity.

The same, arguably, could be said of waning engagement on Google+. RJM did a cohort analysis that highlights the rate of public postings throughout time. "This is a cumulative chart, so we're basically showing the 'average number of total posts made' as it grows over time for users in each cohort," RJM's report said.

"The decay rate here is very concerning," the report continued. "Users are less and less likely to make additional posts, even a few months after initially joining."

Part of the reason there have been so many reports on the so-called Google+ "ghost town" is because Google has refused to provide clear figures and metrics for its social network's active user base. The company has said there are 170 million people who have "upgraded" to Google+, which is just a confusing way to say that 170 million people have signed up for the service (which takes about a click or two if you are already a Gmail user).

The company has been asked repeatedly for monthly active users, and it's repeatedly denied such requests, essentially calling them irrelevant. The closest we've seen of active usership was when the company explained how many Google+ users were engaging with Google Plus-enhanced or -related products. The problem is that Google Plus-enhanced products include YouTube and Google.com, meaning if you are engaging with basically any Google property (there are 120 Google+ integrations thus far) while signed up with Google+, Google is basically counting this as engagement with Google+, which is incredibly misleading, as some have argued

Google has continuously fudged its numbers and dodged specifics around Google+, as search guru Danny Sullivan has recorded in his brilliant rundown of Google's lack of transparency on the subject. To confuse things all the more, Larry Page recently said in an earnings call that "there are 2 parts to the Google+ experience: the part that is the social spine, and the other part that's the social destination part of Google+ exclusively. Both of these are growing fast, but the social destination part of Google+ is growing as a new product with very healthy growth."

There's a simple way to solve this problem: Just provide the number of active monthly users on Google+ (proper). Facebook does it. Google even does it with YouTube, which, as Larry Page boasted recently, has 800 million monthly users. But when I made a request for such figures, Google did not provide them.

This is why the press is increasingly turning to third parties, such as ComScore and RJ Metrics, to learn more about Google+ usage. "Google is just refusing to answer the question for its own reasons," Danny Sullivan wrote, "which is probably because Google+ has far less activity as a standalone social network than either Facebook or Twitter."

Or as RJM's report put it, "At the end of the day, Google+ simply does not show the same level of ravenous user adoption and engagement that we've seen in other social networks."

[Image: Flickr user Snap Man]

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32 Comments

  • Kirsten Jeanne

    I interact on Google+ daily with people I know in real life and some I've met through G+. I was curious about what assumptions of my usage would be made based on only public posts.

    I've made two public posts since April 4. They were on April 11 and May 2. So my usage according to public posts is about in line with the stats cited in this article.

    That said, I've posted a total of 29 times since April 4.
    My number of public posts say nothing about my actual usage except for how many times I've wanted to say something to the public.I'm on G+, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pintrest, and Ravelry (a specialized social network for knitters and crocheters). I joined Tumblr for a project at work, but the others I joined for personal use. I use them all differently. To assume that G+ should be just like Facebook, or used in the same way, to me just shows a misunderstanding of the strengths of G+.I would like to see Google release more specific numbers on usage of Google+. But people who call it a ghost town just aren't looking in the right places.

  • Ann Holman

    For me its simple, Google + shouldn't be about competing with Facebook. It should be about facilitating and leveraging social business. IMHO! 

  • karthik

    I have to agree that the usage is still very low compared to FB. But would not call it a ghost town which I think is a headline grabbing trick.

    The reason I use G+ is because of the private sharing options. A lot of my family share photos on G+ and avoid FB for these concerns. I also use hangout with family and some friends for exam preparation for group study across many miles. 
    Of course none of these would show up on your statistics and that's the point - privacy. 

  • Dara Schulenberg

    Not addressed in the article - nor in the comments I've read - is a measurement of the value of the engagement on Google+. To asses G+ in the social business framework, I would want to understand the value of my G+ circle vs. my Facebook friends vs. my LinkedIn group etc. 

    Don't fall into the trap of data blindness and vanity metrics. Know your KPIs; understand multivariate analysis of your sales funnel and ignore the noise!

  • Cat Trip

    Great article and based on my friends, very accurate.  I also have two teenage children, (with one heading to college) and both have Google+ NEVER use it and the only reason they have it, and this might explain the expansion is it was given to the automatically with their android phone and REQUIRED Google Account.  Same with friends; several signed up, but they just don't use it.  It's my 2nd and possibly 3rd choice.  With FB being first and twitter 2nd.  Though I do not post on twitter that's my news feed.  Google+ is basically a day late and just feature short.  Like a lot of their products, they are eh, just OK

  • Carter Gibson

    Okay. Austin. You realize that you more comments on Google+ than you do here or on Twitter right? You realize that that makes Google+ YOUR most active social network right?

  • Max Minzer

    I posted ONCE on Google+. I am Google+ "guru" now and know everything about it.Thank you for reading my "guru" article.
    I'm Austin Carr and I approve this message.

  • Webstats Art

    My hat is off to the writer who has taken the time to do the proper research on the data available, especially the revealing user engagement time. Your conclusions reflect what is happening in the real world. Everyone knows Facebook and uses it while no-one except a couple of die hard Google fans use Google+. Lets not forget people running seo related websites and others who use Google Plus for non social reasons e.g. to regurgitate information on products and services that already exist on the web.

  • stephanie

    You may want to actually LOG IN to Google Plus. Your page shows no activity since November and there has been a flurry of activity on the one and only public post you've made.

  • Lambert Schlumpf

    EXCLUSIVE!!! This was circulating a long time ago in google+ but it is still quite actual, I can see. Please read below, buffoons.

    "To those who say Google+ is dead, dying or a failure

    Please try this:

    1. Go to Twitter.com from a fresh browser, ie, not logged in.

    2. Sign up for a new account, name it anything you like.

    3. Without following anyone, sit and view your stream for a little while. An hour or two should do.

    4. Return in a month, view your stream. Does it still look like it did a month ago?

    5. Write an article on how no one uses Twitter, it's a ghost town and a complete failure.

    Let me know how that works out for you."

  • William Ryan Kus

    Go build your own search engine and go tell everyone how many people use it.  Probably none.  The article was extremely slanted and negative towards Google+.  Not a good journalistic article by ANY measure.

    This article was an advertisement for FaceBook.

    Google is the greatest invention ever created for internet search and connectivity between people.  Anyone who thinks that Google+ will not shake off it's slow juggernaut-like lurch the same way Google.com was just as relatively unknown and slow to gain traction is unable to grasp obvious market trends.

    Every great invention or innovation takes time for idiots to get on board and leave behind their childhood toys like FaceBook.

    The same way radio, television, the internet, video games, and anything, it takes time for them to take hold.

    FaceBook took MySpace and gave it a different UI with some different bells and whistles.  You're comparing apples and oranges when talking about Google+.

    Google+ does EVERYTHING.  FaceBook is like playing with a rock compared to using Google+.

    Anybody who would possibly say that FaceBook should not be completely abandoned, is the same idiot who still pays $20 a month for World of Warcraft after beating every single thing in the game and playing every character.  I can't even play through that game once.  How can ANYONE just sit there and grind out monster XP.  Apparently tens of millions.

    Those same people are the ones that listen to their idiot friends to stay playing WoW, probably because it's the only place many of you meet any women.  But if they found out that there are DOZENS of MMORPGS out there that are 10x better, they might have an epiphany.

    This is the same for everything. 

    If you only knew how much better you could have it, and less expensive, and everything.

    You just accept crap and that's what you get.

    Like watching crap referees on the NBA.  They need some sort of fan vote type of thing, or let the announcers do it, and then let the fans judge the announcers.  Because the referees are paid off mafia goons.

    We could have it so much better, instead we go the opposite way and screw it all up.

  • Cat Trip

    I would have to disagree.  I thought the article was very neutral and based on facts and numbers of research that is available.  Not some childish defensive rant (referring to your post).  What I find - and you are proof - is the Google knee pad crowd have a hard time with reality so this must sting pretty bad for you, because they use numbers.  Based on my experience of a Select Soccer club , Church Technology Group, Swim & Dive Team (300 members)  and two HS kids (one private and one public ) - I know 4 using Google+  yet 100's in those groups use FB and Twitter.  The Swim & Dive teams put together a FB page and twitter not one person thought about Google+.  So if I need to reach out to a lot of people what am I going to use....hing it's not G+ why would i?

  • Talking Finger

     Followers do not count for anything on Google+. It is the most open network available, with everyone connecting as much as they can continually. On G+, it seems that is the whole point: getting big numbers for some reason. Facebook is gated (you add one at a time via a connected entity or request), and Twitter users are a bit more discerning on following, and it takes longer to get followers than on G+. I myself have 1000+ people on my G+, and I barely do anything. I get 10-15 requests to connect per day. 

    We have a google+ and as well we maintain 8 for clients (compared to 150+ facebook pages, 30+ youtube accounts etc…we are a social media marketing agency). I can tell you right now from our own stats:

    Not one lead, prospect or $ amount has ever come from Google+. It is a ghost town, and there is absolutely no consumerism whatsoever. It is a lame network that is only good for SEO. In time, it may change, but for now our metrics indicate similar findings of this report.

  • Peter Bailey

    I just want to say that on Facebook I have 50 friends (no followers), Twitter I have 130 followers (no interaction at all) but over 5000 followers on Google+.

    So you can claim all the statistics you like, but for me it's the busiest network I've ever used.

  • George Bush

    For a social network to succeed, it has to be... well... social.

    I had an account with Google+ for several weeks, using my usual screen name alias.  It was very quiet during that time, despite the fact that I found many friends' accounts and added them to my social circles.  At the end of several weeks, Google+ informed me that I would have to provide my full legal name and other personally identifiable information to keep using their social network.  I never have (and never will) provide that level of information to a social network, archaically believing that I have a certain right to privacy even on the Internet.  So I closed my account.  I'll never go back.

  • Cat Trip

    LOL - I did the same thing (except close my account).  I post my photographs up there.  NO ONE responds even (the asinine) +1.  I post them on FB - and WHAM I get comments and looks and likes etc.  Some of them are on G+  as well.  So explain that to me - my conclusion (assumption) is they are not using G+. 

  • Marc_Razia

    You have to wonder how low the usage would seem if they did this study on Facebook.  I know less and less people that post publicly on Facebook all the time.  IN fact, if you tried to scan the average circle of friends and see what they were posting from a public stand point, you'd see nothing.  Yet somehow only public posts are used to determine the success of G+.  Over 90% of my posts are to specific circles that this author nor any of you would ever see, yet you'd call me inactive.  What a joke.  There is no objectivity.  

    Good timing though with the Facebook IPO coming up next week.  

  • Peter Brown

    Anybody who says that Google Plus is a ghost town must be either:

    1. Paid off (by FB or MS) or
    2. Having some other agenda or
    3. Incompetent

    If I see another article with an outrages lie like this - just consider the fact: G+ had about 60 million unique visitors last month - then I will remove the publisher from my circles and from Google News (did you know that now you can ask Google News not to display news from sources you choose!!!). Yes, there is a way to fight back this propaganda. Will you join me?

  • Scp

    I saw this exact comment somewhere else. Are you just going around leaving defensive comments on articles that criticize Google?