Google, Facebook: Not On The Same Page

Includes: FB, GOOG
by: Steve Auger

Since its debut in 2004, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has rapidly grown in popularity to become the world's largest social network with more than 950 million active users. While Facebook has flourished, arch rival Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has floundered with several failed attempts at social networks, starting with Orkut, then Open Social, Wave and Buzz.

Google Plus (Google+) is the latest undertaking, a network similar to, and by most expert opinions, superior to Facebook. In little over a year, Google+ has attracted 250 million active users, 1/4 that of Facebook and 1/2 that of Twitter.


The impressive growth of Google+ is not particularly surprising given that Google is the largest internet company, is the dominant player in search engine technology, and has $40B in cash to play with.

But what constitutes an active user? By all accounts, each social network has its own definition, and the graph shown above may not be comparing apples to apples. Despite suspect statistics, it is possible to determine active user engagement on a relative basis by conducting a simple survey. In fact, this is what I did using Google+ and two other major players in the social network wars: Facebook and Twitter.

The basis of my survey was to compile statistics of active user engagement by counting article votes: "Likes", "Tweets" and "g+1 votes". I selected four popular areas of social interest: sports news, entertainment, business news and political news. Other areas of interest could have been chosen but in the interest of time I decided to limit my efforts to these four.

Within each area of interest I chose five high traffic websites. From these sites I randomly selected five articles. The table below summarizes the sites, topics and whether or not the social network icons are supported.

Area of Interest Website g+1
Sports News Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Entertainment Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Business News Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Political News Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

My original assumption was that Google+ votes were essential in the competitive internet environment; the logic being that Google (likely) skews search results in favor of websites using Google products. Thus any website operator serious about being discovered on the internet should include a Google+ button.

To my surprise I found that many sites do not appear to support the Google+ button, at least for individual posts. To keep this experiment fair, I chose to eliminate the sites that don't universally support voting capability for each of the three social networks.

Next, I selected five different articles or posts from each of the remaining sites and recorded the number of Tweets, Facebook Likes and Google+ votes for each article. The results were tallied for each area of interest as shown on the bar chart below. The right most entry entitled "Total" is the sum of the four areas of interest.

Another surprise! Google+ votes were practically non-existent.

Here is where things got interesting. In order to determine relative active user engagement I normalized the results by giving Facebook a score of 100. The table below summarizes the quoted number of active users and user engagement in the form of votes for each of the three social networks.

Social Network Active Users Active Users (Normalized) User Engagement User Engagement (Normalized)
Facebook 950 M 100 9570 Likes 100
Twitter 500 M 53 4595 Tweets 48
Google+ 250 M 26 168 Votes 1.8

As can be seen from the table, Twitter user engagement was reasonably consistent with that of Facebook, with 48 engaged users compared to 53 active users. On the other hand, user engagement for Google+ had 1.8 engaged users compared to 26 active users, a discrepency of almost 15 times.

This simple survey demonstrated that Google+ had a much smaller user engagement than active user base, and only 1/56th the user engagement of Facebook. If Google+ were a truly superior version of Facebook then one would expect to see a higher level of user engagement. The reasons for these results lie in how users are registered to Google+ and how active users are counted.

Google has structured its products so that when users sign up for services such as Gmail or YouTube, Google+ account creation is automatic. In addition, any "Google+ -enhanced" account activity counts as user activity. In other words, any person who logs into their Google account to use Gmail, YouTube, or other Google service is counted as an active user. In contrast, Facebook counts an active user as someone who shares content with his/her friends.

So it seems that Google+ active user statistics are misleading. Instead of having 250 million users actively engaged, Google+ actually has a much smaller number, estimated at 1/56 that of Facebook's active user engagement.

Conclusion: Google+ is not on the same page as Facebook, and not even in the same book. Since Google+ is the only direct competitor (functionally) for Facebook, it can be safely assumed that Facebook has a long and bright future.

Disclosure: I am long FB. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.