Much has changed since we examined the ongoing war between Facebook and Twitter in the spring of 2010. The stakes are higher, the competition has increased, and we see LinkedIn and Google roaring into the social networking arena like never before.
A year and a half ago, you might have thought the reverse would have happened - that Facebook and/or Twitter would have crushed any remaining competitors and that would be the end of it.
Instead, what happened was that LinkedIn and Google were able to find unfilled niches, and we now have four different major social networks, each with its own specialty, but with major overlaps.
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The biggest point of overlap is in sharing news and other content online. Each site provides a mechanism for sharing the latest headlines with your friends and colleagues. Caught in the crossfire are sites that specialize in social media, where users submit and vote on Web content - and so we have seen weaker social media sites like Digg and Delicious struggle, while stronger sites like StumbleUpon and Reddit have hung in there.
Of the big four, Facebook is still the big kahuna. It now has more than 800 million members. In April 2010, analytics site Compete.com said Facebook attracted 135.4 million unique visitors, and that number improved to 156.3 million in September 2011.
What sets Facebook apart is its personal nature - and this has been both a blessing and a curse. People turn to Facebook because it is the place where more of their friends are sharing photos and general updates on their lives. The flipside is that, because people see Facebook as so personal, they are shocked when Facebook tries to leverage their personal information, and they get upset when the interface changes with new features.
Twitter benefits from its immediacy and its simplicity. At 34.7 million unique visitors in September, according to Compete, it still has a fraction of Facebook's visitors, but has seen 60% growth since spring 2010, vs. Facebook's 15%.
Twitter doesn't suffer from Facebook's personal-information problem. Apart from the occasional congressman, most people regard Twitter as a more public place, a place to share news, chime in on public events and see what others are saying about them, and this formula has remained constant. If you want the world (as opposed to just your friends) to know about something, you go to Twitter, not Facebook.
LinkedIn was always around, but in recent months it has stepped up its efforts to be more relevant to its users. These efforts appear to be successful, with monthly unique visitors rising more than 80% to 23.8 million, according to Compete.
LinkedIn's niche is its business focus. More than Facebook and Twitter, it's still the place you go to build your virtual Rolodex. You post your resume there and you can see others' resumes. If you belong to any groups, they are likely related to your job focus. (Plug: Network World's LinkedIn group)
So what accounts for the rise? LinkedIn ratcheted up its efforts on sharing news. Now, the most-shared news gets delivered to your email inbox via newsletters, or you can seek out the news on LinkedIn's site. The key differentiator for LinkedIn is not the personal factor (that's Facebook), or the immediacy factor (that's Twitter). Instead, LinkedIn's goal is to bring you content that is most relevant to whatever industry you are in.
Last of the big four is Google+, and it is the wildest wild card here. There was tremendous excitement when Google was sending out select invitations earlier this year. Everyone saw huge potential, and everyone wanted to be a part of this next big thing. In September, Google+ launched to the general public, and Compete says its unique visitors hit 13.4 million in that month alone. Google is now saying it has 40 million signed up, and it is shutting down a more halfhearted effort, Buzz.
However, the backlash is already happening, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that people - including Google CEO Larry Page - are using Google+ less now than they did initially. Industry watchers are saying it's no Facebook and never will be. Even a Google engineer publicly called Google+ "pathetic" (though he didn't mean to be so public about it).
And yet, you can't count Google out. Google remains the most-visited site on the Web. Page recently said, if I may paraphrase, you ain't seen nothin' yet. He indicated that the real value of Google+ is yet to come, with even more relevance in your search results and your ads. The identity you create with Google+, wittingly or unwittingly, will inform your overall Google experience. Google will be all up in your stuff in ways you never dreamed possible.
Will users choose one of these four over the other three? The answer may be different for each user. You may have a favorite. That favorite may change over time. But most people will probably have their fingers in two or more of these sites at any one time. For now, these four social network providers have proven that there is enough interest to go around.