By Ingrid Lunden
After the whole Insta-gate incident where we saw a lot of back and forth about whether Facebook-owned, popular photo sharing app Instagram was losing users, today a report has come out that claims user attrition at an even bigger target: Facebook itself.
According to an article in the Guardian, the social network lost some 600,000 users in December in the UK, the sixth-biggest market for Facebook by subscribers. Using numbers from the analytics firm Socialbakers, the Guardian links the fall to speculation that the UK had reached a Facebook saturation point. (As of today, Socialbakers puts the decline even higher, at 946,000.)
With Facebook one day away from unveiling some new product news that has people speculating about big moves in mobile and other new products, the company has been quick to respond to dismiss the report.
The main reason, Facebook says, is that Socialbakers’ data is being gathered using Facebook’s advertising tool — Socialbakers is primarily a marketing partner that sells its data to brands that use Facebook to market themselves — but this does not always provide a complete picture of the full set of users.
“From time to time, we see stories about Facebook losing users in some regions,” Facebook noted in an emailed statement. “Some of these reports use data extracted from our advertising tool, which provides broad estimates on the reach of Facebook ads and isn’t designed to be a source for tracking the overall growth of Facebook. We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook – more than 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.”
Jan Rezab, the founder and CEO of Socialbakers, was quick also to put some air between that story and his company, and he describes it like this: among the users who do not always get counted in the ad tool are those reading Facebook on mobile or at work. The ad tool divides people up by region, but because these two sets of users are by nature moving around (work may be in one place, like Washington D.C., and home in another, like Virginia) counting them becomes ambiguous. Indeed, even when Facebook announced its 1 billion user milestone, the user counts based on the ad tool only registered 940 million.
Facebook gets around this by regularly reshuffling its data, but that also means that the December numbers used by the Guardian are actually from November. So if you think the report might be linked to Facebook’s privacy changes, as this article in the UK’s Daily Mail based on the Guardian report implies, then that is incorrect. ”From a privacy point of view there is nothing here,” Rezab says.
He does note, however, that the Guardian article accurately notes that the UK market is one of the most saturated for Facebook. Socialbakers puts Facebook penetration for the UK at nearly 53 percent of the country’s population and 62 percent of all Internet users. “The market is definitely reaching a saturation point,” he says.
In a blog post the company has now put up in response to the Guardian article, Rezab also notes that, in fact, 62 percent may be the upper limit at the moment. “About 15% of people in UK are under 13 years old [and] therefore ‘not allowed’ on Facebook; 16.5% of people in UK are older than 65 and typically not on Facebook (only 4% of 65+ year olds out of the 33M are on Facebook in UK).”
The UK is the sixth-largest market for Facebook worldwide, with 32.8 million users, growing by over 2.1 million over the last six months. In that context, even if 600,000 were an accurate number, it’s still a very small count if you consider that there are regular fluctuations. “I would give it a week or two to reshuffle again,” Rezab said. “Holiday traffic is likely to account for bigger growth.”