Social networking phenomenon Google+ (or Google Plus), whose early growth has been meteoric, has finally hit turbulence - Web analytic firm Experian Hitwise said the site witnessed a drop in traffic growth and average usage time - but it still poses a threat to Facebook.
Google+ launched on June 28 and, despite being in the beta phase, grew at a blistering pace and hit the 20 million member mark in its first three weeks, according to data released last week by comScore.
Earlier this week, Hitwise reported that 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.
Google+, it seemed, had only one aim - to be the best social networking site and it was well headed in that direction. No wonder, Google CEO Larry Page was boastful: "We want to make products that everybody uses twice a day, like their toothbrush."
And indeed, everybody from private individuals to the largest of the business
corporations wanted a piece of action on Google+.
However, what happened next was unexpected. Google+ began to boot businesses from the site and urged users to use their real name for Google+ accounts or risk being deleted.
Not surprisingly, it resulted in a rush of complaints - while some businesses felt Google+ is ignoring the needs of the corporate, others felt Google+ was indulging in favoritism it said it will select a limited number of business partners for a test period following which it will "have an initial version of businesses profiles up and running for EVERYONE."
However, businesses were not the only ones to complain of Google's policy. When Google said Google+ users must furnish their real names or risk account deletion, some users said they used their real name and had their account deleted anyway, while others said they should be able to use a pseudonym to protect their privacy.
The controversies as well as the fact that users aren't too happy with Google+'s aura of exclusivity (currently people are allowed to use the site on 'invite-only' basis) as a critical mass of their friends and contacts aren't on it yet, not surprisingly tarnished Google+'s halo and user's ire/frustration translated in a drop of traffic and usage activity last week.
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.
Though Hitwise didn't offer any explanation for the drop in numbers, it suggested that Google+, which witnessed a dream start, has finally crash-landed.
And, to make matter worse, Facebook quietly attempted to poach on businesses that are dissatisfied with Google+'s decision, by releasing Facebook for Business that teaches companies how to grow their businesses using Facebook's "powerful marketing tools" including Facebook Pages and Facebook Ads.
"Business owners can learn best practices for creating a Page and engaging customers in a two-way conversation to answer questions, get valuable feedback, and to reach their friends," a Facebook spokesperson wrote.
However, by no means, the traffic slump indicates the end of Google+.
Though currently a fledgling social network compared to Facebook, Google+ is perhaps the biggest threat Facebook has ever faced and there are seven reasons why:
Best Facebook Rival: According to Search Engine Land's founder Sullivan, Google is "the only company well positioned to launch a Facebook alternative."
"People like alternatives. Twitter doesn't offer a full-fledged alternative to the Facebook experience. Google does," he said.
Indeed, Google+ offers one of the best social networking experience. Google+ offers one-stop-shop social networking experience for people who want to link up with friends and family, but don't like using multiple sites.
According to technology analyst Rob Anderle, "Google+ has aspects of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in it, and folks are a bit overwhelmed with all of the different social networking services."
"Folks have also crammed these other services with tons of 'friends' they don't really know, and the sheer volume of activity has weakened the quality of the experience," Enderle told ABC News in an email.
That's true. Facebook is for family and friends, LinkedIn is for professionals and Twitter is for micro-blogging. The experience could turn out to be quite overwhelming but Google+ could be the perfect solution for it offers various ways to connect to your friends, family and more - through video, SMS, etc - while at the same time boasting of privacy and content-sharing features that are better and easier to use than Facebook's.
Circles: Google+ Circles offers a simple means of organizing one's social network by grouping contacts into anything you can possibly imagine - family, friends, co-workers, etc and sharing content with the customized groups. Thanks to Circles, users can group their contacts under specific names such as Family, Friends, Acquintances, Co-workers, in fact, anything at all.
In other words, Circles will allow Google+ users to focus on the things a subset of the profile's contacts are interested in and will help it to separate the signal from the noise.
Circles, in fact, could be Google+'s biggest strength as neither Facebook nor Twitter allows you to group your contacts and both force users to share anything and everything they post with all their friends, with few options to control. On the other hand, Google+ allows users to share information with only those contacts or group of contacts they want to share with.
Privacy Approach: Privacy issues have been Facebook and Twitter's bugbear for long. Anything posted up on Facebook or Twitter is displayed for the world to see, be it your family, your boss or even complete strangers, even as horror stories of contents not meant to be seen by family members, friends or co-workers continue to grow. However, Facebook has done little to address the issue and has adopted a cavalier attitude towards this.
On the other hand, Google has attempted to circumvent this problem by introducing "data liberation" tool in Google+ which allows you to pack up and take your data away from Google+ should you decide to leave the service.
If you want to leave Facebook, it's a Herculean task to export your data elsewhere. All you can do is delete your profile.
Hangouts: Perhaps the greatest strength of Google+, the multiuser video conferencing tool allows up to 10 users to see and talk to one another at the same time. The one with the loudest voice gets the centerstage. Hangouts can be the future of webinars and it has already sparked users' imaginations about potential business use cases. Despite Facebook announcing the integration of Skype videoconferencing, nothing will be able to beat Hangouts, at least for now.
Integration: A major strength of Google+ and its advantage over Facebook is integration. Almost all the existing Google online services, from Search and Documents to Email (Gmail) and Video, will be built into Google+ social networking features. It will allow the user to monitor all Google+ events in such a way so that the user never misses out on anything, anywhere, anytime.
Search: Google's most powerful weapon is its unrivaled search engine, imitated by many but mastered by none. If Google integrates its own Google+ live feed Sparks with the Search service, it will blow away Facebook because though Facebook has had a huge headstart as a social network site BUT it has little or no penetration into the search market.
With Facebook, a user must leave the site to find stuff to share or wait until their friends share it with them. On the other hand, with Sparks, you can get an instant fountain of relevant information to share with friends.
Blistering Pace of Growth: If we take the latest figures from Hitwise to be an aberration, we cannot help but say that compared to Facebook, Google+ has been growing at a blistering pace. Facebook, which opened to the public in September 2006, had only 30 million subscribers by March 2007. The site, however, now has 750 million users.
Moreover, within a short span of time Google+ has become the 42nd most-visited social networking site and the 638th most-visited site overall in the U.S, according to Hitwise.
In fact, though traffic may have slowed down at Google+, Hitwise's Matt Tatham was careful not to overplay the findings and acknowledged, "this is not a huge drop." There could be three reasons why. Firstly, let's not forget that Google's decision to purge business accounts and fake names could have contributed to the losses. If Google addresses the issues, the problem will be solved. Secondly, Hitwise figures doesn't take into account visits through mobile apps or APIs i.e. any use of the Google+ app for iPhone or Android isn't being counted. And, given that the Google+ iPhone app launched last week and quickly rose to the top of the App Store rankings, there's a good chance that mobile users have easily made up for the losses that Hitwise is reporting. Thirdly, the figures are just for the USA does not include countries like India where Google+ has seen an uptick.
In conclusion, it's too early to write off Google+. In fact, only an idiot will write off Google+ because the site is still in its beta phase and hasn't yet opened up to the public. Moreover, if Google+ had the trappings of its doomed predecessors like Google Wave and Google Buzz, the market cap of Google Inc.wouldn't have jumped by $45 billion since the launch of the site.
And, 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. The world needs a new social networking site, if the 20 million people who have joined Google+ is any indication, and "For people who love Google," said Sullivan, "it's like they've found a home where they can be loud and proud about the company."
There is a very good chance Google+ will not only continue to survive but also it will thrive and unless Google truly messes it up in the next two years, it will become an unstoppable force and can be a threat to Facebook. Otherwise why would Facebook go on an overdrive to delete Google+ ads on its site or try to keep Facebook users from exporting Facebook contacts into Google+?
What do you think? Does the traffic slump indicate that the Google+ hype has worn off or is this just a blip on the road to world domination? Leave your comments below.