Google+ funny numbers mask falling growth

Friends with Posh and Becks


Open ... and Shut Google has always been about crunching big numbers. But only recently has it begun to apparently fudge them.

That's the impression one gets when looking at Google's attempt to convince the world that Google+ has been a runaway success. Even as Google missed analyst sales and profit estimates for the first time in Larry Page's time as Google chief executive, Page took to Google+ to tell everyone that things are fine because Google+ is growing and even David Beckham hangs out with fans there.

Well, sure he does. He and Posh are there all the time. But unfortunately most everyone else is on Facebook and Twitter.

This is a problem, as the average price Google gets when people click on ads dropped eight per cent last quarter, forcing Google to find new ways to improve its advertising business. Social, a la Google+, may hold the key.

Which is why Page was quick to point to Google+'s 90 million users, and to tout other statistics on user engagement that make it sound like Google+ is flying. Except that these numbers don't reflect reality, as analyst Rocky Agrawal illustrates:

This isn’t the first time Google has tried to mislead with statistics about Google+. In July, Page claimed that the service had 10 million users who shared one billion items a day.

That sounds incredibly impressive. But let’s do the math. That would mean that the average user was sharing 100 items a day. Robert Scoble was flooding my feed before I blocked him, but I don’t think even he was sharing 100 items a day.

So how did we get to that number? Well, it turns out Google was counting every potential recipient of that message. A single message from Scoble today would count 240,000 times toward that number. That’s preposterous.

Google's math, in other words, isn't great. But the "brute force" manner in which it pushes users into Google+ isn't much better. Google increasingly pushes new Google account users into Google+ accounts. Some of these users may turn into active Google+ users, but the rest are going to be more like me: aware that Google+ exists but unsure as to why I should use it.

This is, in fact, the easiest (if anecdotal) way for me to tell how Google+ is doing: no one in my immediate circle of friends or business peers uses it much and those that have, including me, have stopped using it after a brief fling with the joy of "circling" and such. It's hard to know why to use Google+ when Twitter already serves so well as a business information tool and Facebook is great to connect with friends and family, none of whom really want to go experiment with a new social network, no matter its features.

Meanwhile, Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey apparently can't even be bothered to think about Google+, such is the company's growth, with 100 million active users.

Not that everything is doom and gloom at Google. The things that matter most in terms of future growth - Android and Chrome - are booming. So is Google's enterprise business, which adds 5,000 new customers every day. And Page has done an excellent job of trimming the fat in its various services, allowing the company to focus more.

Having said that, Page may have gone too far in hiding desserts from employees or cutting back on other food served in its campus eateries. Man may not live by bread alone, but employees and visitors to the Googleplex must have premium food to thrive.

Google is a great company, and will continue to help define the future, along with Twitter, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley titans. But its Google+ numbers don't seem to add up, and the company can't use them to mask the cracks in its main business. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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