Survey Anecdote Suggests We Have No Idea What’s Going On At Google+

By Google’s count, Google+ has over 500 million “upgraded” members and some 135 million people active “in just the stream.” By researchers’ best estimates, however, the answer is a bit more complicated.

According to Pew Research Center’s latest social-media survey, which was published recently and aimed at sampling the demographics of social media use, 67 percent of online adults are self-proclaimed Facebookers, and Pinterest and Twitter claim 16 percent and 15 percent of online adults as users, respectively. Meanwhile Google+ — the so-called “#2” social network — was completely left out of the survey results.

According to survey designer Maeve Duggan, this was no omission: “In pre-survey testing, we found that respondents had a difficult time distinguishing Google+ from all of the other Google services they might use,” Duggan writes to TechCrunch. “As a result, we decided to exclude Google+ from the list of services we measured this time around.”

Estimating traffic or usage from the sidelines is tricky business, and those who make bold claims should be treated with suspicion. Take Trendstream, for example, a consulting firm that runs a survey called GlobalWebIndex and recently pegged the number of active users at 150 million. Those numbers have been since recycled throughout the web, but meanwhile the company provides no direct evidence to support such claims and failed to provide detail about their methodology, such as the actual sample size of this particular wave of surveys.

“This data might seem really surprising from the outside, but it’s not a real big surprise for us at GlobalWebIndex,” writes Marcello Mari, a social marketer at Trendstream’s GlobalWebIndex.

GlobalWebIndex uses pop-up survey companies like Lightspeed Research to “recruit” respondents across various age groups. Pressed for answers regarding their methodology for the Google+ data, Mari writes that GlobalWebIndex used two questions to source the Google+ data and asked them of 30,000 people in its latest “wave” of surveys:

  1. Which of the following services have you used or contributed to in the past month using any type of device, e.g. PC/Laptop, Mobile phone, tablet, etc.?
  2. Account Ownership – On which of the following services do you have an account?

If the Pew research anecdote regarding Google+ users is correct, and users are having a hard time distinguishing their Google+ accounts from their usage of other Google services, then the usefulness of these questions should be reevaluated. The fact that survey respondents are typically self-selecting and self-reporting doesn’t strengthen the case made by such data.

Pew Research Center’s Duggan won’t offer an opinion on why users have a hard time distinguishing Google+ from “search, gmail, google docs, drive, etc.” When questioned she writes: “we usually don’t extrapolate beyond our reported data.”

One such extrapolation is how well Google users can distinguish between Google-computed information, such as Bacon numbers and information sourced from other pages — an interesting question if, after all, it turns out Google users can’t even distinguish among Google’s own services.

The bad news for Google competitors is that the Google+ survey anecdote suggests that the accused content assimilation is getting more effective.

Customer ignorance of this sort was one of the principle claims in an otherwise limpid Federal Trade Commission investigation last year into the competitiveness of Google’s search practices. Competitors like local restaurant review site Yelp voiced concerns that Google first usurped their content “without permission” in order “to prop up its own, less effective product” and then later practiced bias when interlacing its own services within standard results pages.

Google took heat at the time but ended up getting a pass by arguing that the accused “anti-competitive” behavior was in fact essentially a hyper-competitive market where users decide what’s most useful. Google boasts on its “10 things” list that “We may be the only people in the world who can say our goal is to have people leave our website as quickly as possible.”

The bad news for Google competitors is that the Google+ survey anecdote suggests that the accused content assimilation is getting more effective. With the introduction of products like the “Google bar” there is arguably more interweaving of Google+ and other Google properties than ever before. Adding to Google’s inscrutability, the web giant reports direct measurement and traffic estimates for all major top-level domains — except for itself.

To be sure, Google isn’t the only social site whose usage is confounding. Take social upstart Pinterest, for example. In 2012, Forbes reported that while Pinterest drives traffic it does not appear to drive revenue. A recent article in Entrepreneur claims the opposite.

Comparing across services can be even more confusing: Is an “active user” who signed up at Twitter really the same as an “active user” at Google who managed to hit a button to “upgrade” their account?

Arguably the most trustworthy traffic estimations come from companies that install packet-inspecting hardware at ISPs in order to shoulder surf Internet users to provide direct samples of how many unique IPs are trafficked across various domains. Despite the questionable privacy implications, with Nielsen telling publications like the Wall Street Journal that it can’t capture per-show traffic on sites like Netflix “due to the way Netflix Inc. and some other platforms encode their shows” (i.e. DRM-wrapped video) this appears to be the direction in which the industry is moving.

Do we need to know exactly how many users are at Google+ and other social services? Of course not. Services like Facebook are used to occasionally trotting out favorable numbers that give the broad stokes of characterization for their user base. But without a legitimate source offering up such info on a regular basis, the armchair surveys are the best we’ve got. And if those are flawed, then it’s true that we have no idea what’s going on at Google+ and, perhaps, nor do we elsewhere on the social web.