In the two years since its launch, a number of studies have been released to try to quantify Google+’s user base. This is of importance to marketing departments, and for people on the internet to argue over. But I’m interested in it because I don’t buy any of the results of these surveys.

Recently, for example, Burst Media claimed that Google+ was the second most popular social network in the US. In the same time period, GlobalWebIndex claimed that Google+ was being used by around a quarter of all internet users — a staggering 700 million users1 — but was more popular internationally than in the US. If these two studies are taken together, it essentially means that Google+ is popular in the US, and very popular internationally.

Why rely on third parties for this information? Well, it turns out that Google has been cagey as of late with disclosing its user base. The last time they publically gave a numerical figure was in December, where they claimed to have 235 million active users. This seems inflated when you consider that it includes people using chat in Gmail, or those searching for their friends’ names; the 135 million active Stream users seem to be those actually using Google+ as a social network. Since this press release, however, Google hasn’t released any user statistics. Furthermore, these stats aren’t very clear: are these active users per month, or per day? Google’s Vic Gundotra explained to CNet:

“You have to understand what Google+ is,” he said. “It’s really the unification of all of Google’s services, with a common social layer.” […]

“We really mean anyone using a Google property, signed in as a Google+ user, and taking advantage of the social graph. It’s pretty stunning number.”

No timeframe, and a nebulous explanation.

For comparison, in December 2012, Facebook reported 1.06 billion active monthly users, with 618 million active daily; in May 2013, it was 1.11 billion, with 665 million daily.

If we use this as a benchmark and assume that people on Google+ or Twitter are at least as technically-inclined as those on Facebook — and I think that’s very generous, considering that the large Facebook population is almost certainly, as an average, less technically-savvy than the smaller populations of Twitter and Google+ — they should probably be sharing at a similar rate. This is a little fuzzy, admittedly: sharing isn’t a comprehensive analysis by any measure. But it should give a comparative assessment of the state of social networks right now. And, at any rate, it’s exactly how Google wants to think of social, per the above CNet article:

Google execs see Google+’s features as a layer of social functionality on top of Google’s services. More specifically, users’ social signals, like those from the +1 feature, don’t just show up on Google+. Rather, the [sic] change Google’s core function, search — at least for people you’re socially connected to.

With that in mind, I set out to find stories and count the number of shares for each of these three social networks.2 This table shows the results of my informal survey, in alphabetical order of the publication title.

Story Facebook Twitter Google+
Egyptian Protests, Atlantic In Focus 2k 580 403
Statue of Liberty, Atlantic In Focus 895 288 1.1k
Phone Metadata, Business Insider 3.2k 692 193
Drone Pilots, The Economist 174 17 0
Asiana Crash, The Guardian 217 113 11
Snowden Brazil, Jornal O Globo 28k 2,397 707
Bieber Janitor, LA Times 167 18 3
Hunger Strike, LA Times 3.5k 493 20
Bolivia/France, Le Figaro 935 179 17
Euro, Greece, Le Figaro 66 41 0
Canada Day Trafalgar, Ottawa Citizen 68 3 0
Magna Carta Holy Grail, Pitchfork 895 375 3
Mexican Activist, Plumas Libres 5675 829 6
Cassazione, Repubblica 9.9k 167 10
Despicable Me 2, Rotten Tomatoes 1.2k 638 58
Bolivian/Snowden, SBS 70 13 2
Australian Gay Rights, Sydney Morning Herald 8.8k 326 17
Bieber Bucket, TMZ 38k 19.1k 223
Orwell Birthday, The Verge 1k 615 500
Portlandia, Wired 3.2k 346 56

There are several observations that you can derive from this table:

  1. Google+ is almost always third amongst these three networks, and by a big margin, too.
  2. The sole instance where Google+ was not third in the stories I found, the “Statue of Liberty” photo gallery, suggests a US-centric audience.
  3. Conversely, international pages, such as the “Mexican Activist” article, leaned heavily towards Facebook and Twitter, with Google+ in a distant third. (An aside: it actually reported the full number of Facebook shares, not a truncated version. It was the only page to exhibit this behaviour.)
  4. The Brazilian Jornal O Globo article has Google+ in third, despite Orkut, a Google property, being extremely popular there — the only country, in fact, where Orkut is popular.
  5. TMZ gets insane amounts of traffic.

Now, a caveat: you shouldn’t take these findings as gospel. It’s just twenty pages popular during ten days at the beginning of July, 2013. But for most of these pages, Google+ was in a very distant third. Why the giant gap? If people aren’t sharing links over there, what are they doing?

In May at Google I/O, the company introduced several updates to Google+. Heather Kelly of CNN:

During Wednesday’s Google I/O developer’s conference keynote address, Google+ played a big part in many of the more exciting product announcements, even though it wasn’t always called out. The redesigned version of Google Maps will recommend restaurants based on what your Google+ friends have reviewed and visited. The new Google Music All Access service will also use your social graph to hone in on music you might enjoy. […]

One feature demonstrated on stage was a voice search for a person’s recent vacation photos. If you are logged into Google Search under the same e-mail you use for Google+, and if you also use Google+ to upload and share your personal photos, you can get these types of customized search results.

This month’s Maps for Android update also provides deeper, more seamless Google+ integration:

The friend-tracking features of Latitude are being moved to Google+ (and the Latitude stuff will be removed from Maps on August 9), as are business reviews. This means that in order to get accurate recommendations, you need to actively build your Google+ network. It also means that if your favorite foodie doesn’t use Google+ on a regular basis, you’ll miss out on that tiny Thai place they love. Without real use amongst your friends, the recommendations become almost moot — unless you trust the tastes of the masses.

Lots of deep integration with other Google services, but this doesn’t seem to be driving increased interaction with Google+ as a social product. Sharing is far more popular amongst Facebook and Twitter users; before it was shut down, Google Reader drove more traffic than Google+.

Google doesn’t want you to think of it as its own social product, though:

Google+ isn’t an answer to Facebook or Twitter, Google says. It’s the connective tissue that more and more is tying Google’s most popular products together — and it will not be ignored.

It’s a layer on top of (or underneath, depending on your perspective) the rest of Google’s offerings. But if that’s the case, why do the Stream, the Profiles, the Circles, and so forth exist? These are what I think of as Google+, in the sense. Clearly, people simply aren’t using their Google+ profiles in the same way they would use Facebook, otherwise Google would be making regular announcements about how many photos are uploaded daily, or how many people are actively using their Google Music recommendations.

Only Google knows how well their layer-based strategy is playing out. Judging by their silence since December, it’s a ghost town.

  1. According to the ITU, an estimated 39% of the world’s population will be using the internet by the end of 2013, or about 2.7 billion people. Math was done. ↥︎

  2. I found twenty popular stories on a variety of websites; stories about or favouring a particular social network tend to be shared more on the network concerned. This survey was conducted on July 16, 2013; the stories chosen were dated between July 1 and July 10, for more settled numbers (if I chose stories from July 15, their sharing counters would likely be significantly different by the time you read this). The stories were selected by finding the most popular stories in the time period from certain domains on Reddit, and by guaging popularity with a quick Google search. The stories were from websites where sharing buttons from all three networks were available, and showed a counter. Finally, all figures are as reported by the sharing widgets; if it said “1.2k”, it’s shown that way. I don’t know how these widgets round their numbers, so I didn’t assume it would be safe to write “1,200”. ↥︎