The Google+ 'ghost town' has plenty of life left

New ComScore stats are getting pressed into service as Exhibit A to sound the alarm over the future of Google's social network. I'm not buying it.

For some reason -- maybe it has to do with the limitations of human cognition -- we have a predisposition toward making this-or-that characterizations: Ginger or Mary Ann? Bird or Magic? Facebook or Google+?

Facebook or Google+?

Yep. That one's getting trotted out today by the Wall Street Journal, which seized upon new ComScore data to present Google's (relatively new) social network as a "virtual ghost town."

On the surface, this doesn't look promising. The ComScore data indicate that users with personal computers spent only an average of 3 minutes per month on Google+ in the last six months compared with about 7 hours a month on Facebook. And though the piece includes the usual journalistic "to be sure" caveat, the dreary engagement stats put together by ComScore raise the question of whether it's already game over.

This sort of horse race handicapping goes on all the time in the tech world, but it offers a misleading picture of what's happening on the ground. The numbers are what they are, but people use the two social networks differently.

Facebook is an easy (and yes, superficial) way to keep up with friends and family on the fly. It's a terrific product and that's why the company's upcoming IPO has inspired such frenzied anticipation.

The smash success of Facebook raised the bar for Google, which was unsuccessful with earlier attempts like Google Buzz and Google Friend Connect. The search titan was late getting a viable social network up and running, but when it finally did (last September), the company did a fine job. On Google+ -- where I tend to lurk -- the conversations are deeper and more varied, especially among people who are passionate about technology. Often you'll meet someone new on Google+, a perfect stranger who has something smart to say about a topic you're interested in. How frequently does that happen on Facebook, where you're more likely to get friend requests from a guy in high school who you never liked in the first place?

Another anecdotal difference: On Google+ I've yet to encounter the Facebook phenomenon in which "friends" misuse the platform to kvetch about everything under the sun. Maybe that will change as Google+ gets more popular, but for now, at least, there's no comparison between the depth of interaction on the two services.

An advertising exec quoted by the WSJ worried about the absence of "active engagement" on Google+. That's a legitimate concern, but advertisers also need to weigh targeted demographics versus a shotgun approach that focuses on the sheer number of eyeballs.

These are still the early innings and whatever marketing weaknesses may exist, Google has the luxury of time to get it right. Unlike Facebook, Google+ was not designed as a destination site. Rather, it's another service on top of the company's other offerings. As a poster (on Google+) noted, what we're talking about is a layer of social in between all the other things that Google touches. Sure, Google might still blow it but the potential for something big to happen is anything but spent. That's the real story here.

 

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