Google needs to quit being coy and release real usage numbers for Google+. Google owes this to the brands and people risking their time and reputations on the service.
We're told repeatedly by Google executives that Google+ is not a social network like Facebook. It's a "social layer," a means of unifying disparate products and services including search, Android, YouTube, and 120 more into a single, unified platform.
And that's great, but it also leads to handwaving by Google when called on to answer the simple question: How many people use Google+ regularly?
MarketingLand's Danny Sullivan runs down the history of Google's evasions on this issue, and calls on Google to just answer the question.
At first, Google said it had 10 million signups in July, then 40 million in October, 90 million in January, and 170 million in April. That looks like fantastic growth -- but it turns out the early figures were simply people signing up for the service. If someone created an account, took one look at Google+, turned up his or her nose and never came back, that person counted as a signup.
Later, as Google began integrating YouTube, search, and other services into Google+, it counted many of the logged-in users of those services as Google+ users, even if those users never actually visited plus.google.com.
"The numbers don't really mean anything, and it's becoming absurd that Google keeps quoting them as if they do." Sullivan says.
What Google won't share are the real active user numbers: the number of people who visit plus.google.com with the intent of interacting with the content and people there.
I asked Google to reply to Sullivan's post. The company declined to comment, referring me to this video interview featuring Vic Gundotra, Google senior vice president for social business, and Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management for Google+. The first six minutes are particularly interesting, in which the two men describe how Google counts usage numbers, Google+'s mission, and how it differs from other social networks.
When Google discloses usage for Google+, "we really mean anyone using a Google property, signed in as a Google+ user and taking advantage of the social graph, seeing their friends' comments, or themselves commenting or endorsing," Gundotra says.
Google's unwillingness to disclose true usage for Google+ is a shame because Google+ is active. There's a lot of great content and smart people and brands interacting there. It's probably a small town compared with the mighty city that's Facebook, but it's still early days yet. Google+ is less than a year old. It's off to a great start.
True usage numbers from Google would be a little disappointing at first. Google would be the butt of a lot of jokes on blogs. But that storm would pass, and Google would then have a solid foundation on which to demonstrate future growth.
And indeed, third-party numbers are promising. For example, some 61 million people visited Google+ in March, up 27 percent from February, according to Experian Hitwise.
That usage should see a significant boost due to a big redesign launched Wednesday. Among the many changes: more prominent placement for shared photos and videos, and a more flexible and expandable sidebar for apps, indicating that Google+ will become an app platform, as Facebook is, including branded apps.
More good news: Hangouts are about to get a lot more useful for brands. The Google video chat feature is currently limited to 10 participants. But Google has been working on streaming video from Hangouts through YouTube. That capability is available only to a chosen few test users, but soon that livestreaming will be available to everyone.
Google+ is a great platform. Google needs to quit handwaving about its usage, and come clean. Brands including Ford, H&M, Starbucks, and others that have staked a claim on Google+ deserve it.
Do you think the new Google+ design and upcoming apps and Hangouts upgrade make it an effective marketing platform?
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— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, The CMO Site