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]