Facebook's traffic may be plateauing. So what?

Statistics from ComScore show unique visitors to the hot social network leveling off in the U.S., but a graph can only say so much.

There's been a lot of buzz this week about Facebook's traffic leveling off or declining, and naturally, it's been accompanied by schadenfreude over the fact that the hottest start-up in Silicon Valley may soon be losing its laurels.

Blog chatter, unsurprisingly, is at a fever pitch.

Earlier this week, the U.K. arm of audience measurement firm Nielsen reported that traffic from several social-networking sites , including Facebook, had dipped from December 2007 to January 2008. Now, numbers from ComScore (reported Friday on TechCrunch), suggest that Facebook's U.S. traffic may be in trouble as well. Graphs show unique visitors reaching a plateau, and with a small dip between December (34.7 million unique visitors) and January 2008 (33.9).

Facebook has not yet issued an official statement on the ComScore statistics.

It's inevitable that the explosive expansion that Facebook experienced in 2007 can't possibly go on forever. And since no hot new destination has popped up to potentially suck away Facebook traffic, the obvious conclusion is to blame it on social-networking fatigue. Facebook, one could say, is a trend and users have simply grown tired of it.

The argument makes sense. For many there was an initial novelty to keeping in touch with faraway friends and classmates, wasting time at the office with games and other developer-created applications, and voyeuristically sifting through online photo albums all on a single destination site. Me, I've grown tired of the Scrabulous gaming application on Facebook--it's way more fun to play word games in person.

But an apparent leveling in traffic doesn't equal mass account deletion. "Coolness factor" always fades; now it's up to Facebook to prove it can stay relevant and useful in its post-expansion era. Remember when instant-messaging client adoption was soaring and people were IMing each other just for the heck of it? We're all still IMing, but it's no longer a novelty, it's a utility. ("Utility," by the way, appears to be one of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's favorite words.)

And there are a few very important points to keep in mind when it comes to dealing with statistics. First, the ComScore numbers only point to U.S. traffic. It's clear that Facebook is aware that some of its best opportunities for growth lie overseas, as the company has launched a translation project to offer its site in foreign languages and hence appeal to a bigger base abroad. None of that international growth (in both English- and non-English-speaking regions) is reflected in the numbers.

Then there's the fact that some say you just can't rely on Web metrics. Many a new-media property, among them Major League Baseball's MLB.com, has complained that it's been tough to roll in ad dollars because traffic measurement firms like ComScore and Nielsen Online don't report numbers accurately. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which represents more than 300 digital publishers including CNET Networks (publisher of News.com), has asked those two firms to undergo an audit (currently in process) to explore discrepancies between their metrics and IAB members' internal server logs.

Either way, this shouldn't induce doomsday prophecies. Facebook's traffic may indeed be leveling off, something that should naturally happen after any site's phase of frenetic growth. Now it's up to the site to prove that it can stay relevant and useful to the base that it's already built up.

About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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