Why Google+ can never compete with Facebook

In June of 2011, Google+ debuted to a whole lot of hype and fanfare. Eight months later, Google+ still hasn't caught on and here's why it never will

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That notwithstanding, Google executives and spokespeople have embarked on an unofficial campaign to convince everyone that Google+ is actually a popular, happening place, and not a virtual ghost-town.

Recently, Google's Social maven Vic Gundotra dished out some Google+ statistics to the New York Times in an effort to combat the widespread perception that Google+ is a barren wasteland inhabited exclusively by Google employees, photo enthusiasts, and a handful of tech oriented folks.

Specifically, Gundotra highlighted that 50 million Google+ account holders use 'the company's Google Plus-enhanced products daily." Measured against a 30-day period, Gundotra claims that this number jumps to 100 million users.

Seemingly taking a page from Penn and Teller, Gundotra adeptly employs a bit of misdirection here. Note how the metric he uses is "Google Plus-enhanced products", a phrase which encapsulates many of Google's other web properties, including YouTube and Gmail.

I have a Google+ account I check up on maybe once every two weeks (hey, it's quick to catch up when there's a new post every 5 days). I use Gmail and YouTube, however, on a daily basis. According to Gundotra's criteria, I'm one of the 50 million "active" Google+ users.

What a crock.

If you're trying to figure out how many people actually make use of Google+ on a daily basis and how long they use the service for, good luck. Google doesn't like handing out the statistics that matter most.

And so, the number of active Google+ users remains a well kept secret.

What's more, even the total number of Google+ users is inflated.

Beginning in January, Google began leveraging its other, more popular, web properties to articifically inflate the total number of total Google+ users. Every time someone (over the age of 13) now signs up for a new Gmail or YouTube account, for example, they are required (yes, required) to sign up for Google+ even if they have no interest in joining. The end result is millions of users with Google+ accounts are part of a social community they have no desire to participate in.

Here's the screen users see after they sign up for a Gmail account. You can see here that a Google+ profile is created whether someone wants one or not. It can't be bypassed.

What's funny is that Google's shenanigans here actually hurt their overall engagement rate. If you force Google+ user accounts onto people who aren't otherwise interested, you're going to simultaneously lower the percentage of people who use the site actively.

It's therefore no surprise that Google remains reluctant to divulge how many people are actively using Google+. And for a company that never misses an opportunity to brag about how many daily Android activations it sees, Google's silence and misdirection here speaks volumes.

So where does that leave us?

So is Google+ going anywhere? Will it be cast off like Google Buzz and Google Wave before it?

Don't bet on it.

Despite the challenges involved, Google has no other choice but to get into social. While it's easy to derisively label Google an advertising company, the fact is that bulk of their revenue does come from ads. And since they have a duty to shareholders to increase the value of the company, Google+ is a necessary byproduct of their business model.

Google used to be the primary means by which people acquired and searched for information on the web. The  web landscape however has changed quite dramatically over the past few years. Today, people use all sorts of alternative sites to glean information, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia.

Google tried to compete with Twitter with Google Buzz. That was a complete flop.

Google+ is their effort to compete with Facebook and to get a better understanding of the interests of its user base.

For Google, it's a battle that must be fought.

But as I laid out above, it's likely a losing battle.

One last anecdote - A few days ago I asked a female friend of mine if she likes Google+. She's quite web savvy and maintains active Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts.

Her response was telling.

"What's Google+?"

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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