Google Inc.'s new social networking site, Google+, has seen a dip in its traffic growth, according to Experian Hitwise, which tracks Web traffic.
That begs several questions -- Is the traffic drop a mere aberration, or does it indicate that the Google+ hype is finally wearing off? And does it indicate that Google+ will meet the same fate as its doomed predecessors -- Google Buzz and Google Wave?
Google+, which was launched on June 28, became a social phenomenon very quickly, notching up 20 million users within the first three weeks of its beta testing. However, Hitwise said on Wednesday that Google+ witnessed a drop in traffic growth for the week ending July 23.
Hitwise said visits to Google+ had soared 283 percent for the week ending July 16 compared to the week before and 821 percent for the week ending July 9 compared to the week before that.
For the week ended July 23, Google+ received only 1.79 million visits (down 3 percent compared to previous week) and the average time spent on the site was also down 10 percent, compared to previous week, to 5 minutes and 15 seconds.
Hitwise didn't offer any explanation for the drop in numbers.
While it remains to be seen whether the dip is an abberation or a sign of things to come, there are several afctors to consider.
Web Surfers Have Less Free Time: Last week, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said Google+ won't catch on because social networks take too much time out of our days and there are already many other good social networks for people to turn to, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
The world's No.1 social networking site Facebook, Weiner said, is for family and friends, micro-blogging site Twitter is for sending 140-character messages and LinkedIn is for professional life. In this circle of massively successful social networking sites, Google+ has no place. "You introduce Google+, where am I going to spend the next minute or hour of my discretionary time? I have no more time," Weiner said at an event.
Weiner may be correct. On the other hand, he might also be just trying to talk down a competitor because Tom Anderson, founder of MySpace, had in a guest post on TechCrunch opined that that distinct networks can thrive in the market and he doesn't feel social networking is a "zero sum game."
Google+ Business Profiles Controversy: Google+'s biggest controversy to date is booting corporate profiles because the site hasn't been optimized for them yet.
According to Christian Oestlien, Google+'s product manager, Google+ is currently "focused on optimizing for the consumer experience" and Google+ "will continue to disable business profiles using regular profiles."
To avoid deletion, the organization must "find a real person who is willing to represent (it) on Google+ using a real profile as him-or-herself."
Meanwhile, Google+ will select a limited number of business partners for a test period, Oestlien said.
Those who failed to obey Google+'s diktat, such as blog Search Engine Land, as well as Ford and Sesame Street, were all deleted. Others, like the blog Mashable, escaped the axe because the profile was transferred in the name of the site's CEO, Pete Cashmore.
Google+'s decision left many businesses bitter and Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, didn't hesitate to say that it smacks of favoritism.
"I know you have great plans to have super wonderful business profiles eventually. But if you're going to only let a "tiny" number of businesses operate before that, then you taint them and yourselves with favoritism," Sullivan wrote on an open letter.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the situation, Facebook was quick to launch Facebook for Business.
Facebook for Business teaches companies how to grow their businesses using Facebook's "powerful marketing tools" including Facebook Pages and Facebook Ads.
However, it isn't true that Google+ is ignoring the needs of the corporate. It's just that Google, which is a consumer-focused company, wasn't prepared for the flood-rush of companies, nonprofits, bands and other entities that wanted a piece of action in the fledgling social network.
"We have a great team of engineers building a similarly optimized business experience for Google+," Oestlien said, adding that Google expects "to have an initial version of businesses profiles up and running for EVERYONE in the next few months."
"Doing it right is worth the wait," he said.
Chris Murphy of InformationWeek also believes "Google isn't indifferent to the needs of business."
"Google's consumer-first approach can indeed produce creative products for business use. Just go in knowing where you stand in Google's line," he said.
And, let's not forget that Google has already apologized for the matter. Vic Gundotra, Google's vice president of engineering who is overseeing Google+, has also acknowledged the lapse, saying "We should have anticipated brands and people who want a following would be very frustrated when we didn't have proper profile support."
"This is my fault...We prioritized making a great experience for people first. None of our internal models showed this level of growth. We were caught flat-footed," Gundotra said.
The Google+ team, he added, is doing everything "to accelerate the work to properly handle this case."
Real Names for Google+ Accounts: A controversy erupted when Google decided that people must use their real name for Google+ accounts or risk being deleted. In other words, Google+ users must use their real names - no handles, no pseudonyms, no group names, not even a nom de guerre. That opened a floodgate of complaints - while some said they used their real name and had their account deleted anyway, others said they should be able to use a pseudonym to protect their privacy.
However, let's sit back and think for a moment. It's not that Google wants full legal names. The company just wants to delete obviously fake and offensive names and wants real names so that friends and acquaintances of the users can find them easily on Google+.
Moreover, after the controversy hit a fevered pitch this past weekend, Google has promised to give the affected users a chance to respond and address their grievances.
Exclusivity or Limited Availability: Google+ was launched in its beta phase and people are allowed to use it on 'invite-only' basis. Because of the limited availability, it may be that after checking it out and setting up a basic profile, existing Google+ users aren't finding enough reasons to return because a critical mass of their friends aren't on it yet.
In other words, if anything, the drop in numbers only indicate that users aren't too happy with the aura of exclusivity that Google+ currently presents and it could indicate a marketing gimmick that's run out of steam.
The problem can be easily rectified if Google+ is made open to public in general, which it should be doing anytime soon.
Boring: To keep users for a longer time on Google+, Google will need to ramp up the features on the social networking site. According to Facebook, its users spend over 2 billion minutes a day playing games on their website. If that's true, Google+ can follow the Facebook model and add social games on the site to make users stay longer. In fact, Google+ games looks inevitable.
Hitwise Data: The numbers thrown up by Hitwise are true but let's not forget that Hitwise doesn't measure visits through mobile apps or APIs. In other words, any use of the Google+ app for iPhone or Android isn't being counted.
Moreover, given that the Google+ iPhone app was launched only last week and has quickly risen to the top of the App Store rankings (even beating Facebook app for iPhone in the process), there's a good chance that mobile users could have made up for the losses that Hitwise is reporting.
The decline in traffic growth could also be a mere blip. Let's not judge Google+ too hastily or recklessly. It's too early to write Google+ off because though the red flag may be up, yet, let's not forget that Google+ still hasn't opened up to the public. Google's action of purging business accounts and fake names, could also be good reasons for contributing to the losses.
However, given Google's powerful ecosystem of products and services and plenty of hype, Google+ will have no problem in attracting new registered users and converting them into returning visitors.