Sophomore Slump? One Month In, Google+ Sees A Traffic Minus

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Tomorrow, it will be exactly a month since Google+ was first unveiled. In that short amount of time, they’ve managed to sign up well north of 10 million users, which is amazing. Of course, the easiest path to tens of million of users is to start with hundreds of millions of users. Just ask Buzz or Wave. Still, kudos to Google — phase one of G+ was clearly a success.

Now comes the hard part. Keeping those users around and engaged.

Some numbers today released by Experian Hitwise suggest that Google+ has already started to experience the sophomore slump. For the week ended July 23 (last week), their data says that traffic decreased 3 percent versus the previous week. It’s important to note that this data is U.S.-only, and that Google+ is still technically in limited beta (though it’s easy to get an invite now). Still, the trend is the important thing: traffic is down week to week.

While it’s totally circumstantial, my own observations and usage seem to support this data as well. After initially checking it several times a day, I now load Google+ about twice a day, mainly to see if I’m missing anything. I rarely find that I am. I +1 a few things here and there, maybe leave a comment. But overall, the content feels fairly stale. Almost everything shared remains about Google (or worse, Google+ itself). And even though I have nearly 370 people in my circles, very few seem to be sharing anything in any sort of limited fashion with me.

As a “power user”, I know that I’m a bit of a weird use case when it comes to sharing. But others I’ve talked to in the past couple weeks have had similar observations. Google+ started off with a bang — a big one. Part of it was the new car smell, but a bigger part was that expectations were so low for what Google would come up with in the social space (their own doing). When Google exceeded those expectations, people were genuinely surprised. And that also spurred usage. There was a sense of excitement: Could this really be the next big social network?

But now things are calming down. The new car smell is wearing off. And it’s time for reality.

Google gave users a compelling reason to sign up, now they need to provide a compelling reason for coming back. That’s a lot easier said than done. Just ask Twitter. User retention is a bitch.

Google has their secret weapon: the (ugly) black toolbar that resides across all of their properties. If it weren’t for that thing, my usage of Google+ would be once a day instead of twice a day. But even that won’t matter in the long run if Google doesn’t have the network and the content to back up G+. In addition to an overall traffic dip, average time spent on the site was down 10 percent, Hitwise says. That’s not good.

From what I’ve seen, Hangouts are the major strong point of Google+ retention right now. While Sparks seem to be a major weak point.

Circles, while initially praised for their simplicity and design, are now also facing backlash. The fact of the matter is that they’re a pain in the ass to maintain — just like every other type of list. And aside from “Friends”, “Family”, and maybe “Co-Workers”, it’s still not clear how they’re being used, or if usage will continue. Well, aside from the Robert Scoble Circle. That is useful.

Meanwhile, after an initial amazing burst, traffic referred from Google+ is dropping. And fast. Obviously, I can only speak to the TechCrunch data here. But again, the trend is clear. Each of the past three weeks, we’ve been seeing less and less traffic referred. And that’s with the overall network supposedly growing.

Part of that may be Google’s own fault. They really screwed up the brand situation. They even gutted one of our employees who just wanted to share content.

It would be hard to overstate just how important this second phase of Google+ is for Google. While they’re not a small startup limited by resources and money, they still only get one chance to make a first impression. In the first two weeks, that impression was very good. In the last two, not as good.

I’m sure this post will get a hundred comments on Google+ about why I’m wrong, an idiot, something about Apple, and why Google+ is the bomb. I’d argue that this may be a part of the overall problemone we’ve seen before. But that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. All that matters is what Google does with Google+.