Is Google Plus as dead as its detractors say it is?

Ever since Google Plus czar Vic Gundotra announced he was resigning in April, the rumor mill started churning out storylines about Plus’s impending death. This was surely the beginning of the end for the social platform that Gundotra had unsuccessfully rammed down users’ throats in a highly un-Google manner. Or so went the kneejerk narrative, anyway.

Under Gundotra, Plus had integrated itself into (and/or cannibalized) so many of Google’s leading products (YouTube identities, Gmail Circles as Contacts, Gtalk Hangouts, Picasa, Local, Authorship) that many wondered if Google was fudging their user stats. As of February, Google claimed to the New York Times that Plus had 540 million active users, although they also admitted that nearly half of these “active users” rarely visit Plus itself.

On the other hand, social media marketers often cite Google Plus as a brand engagement goldmine. Is this simply because so few people are on there that there’s negligible competition to get your posts in front of them?

Would the real Google Plus please stand up? Is it the “ghost town” described by the New York Times, is it the “walking dead” described by Techcrunch, or is it the number two social network in the world, as some measurements would have us believe? (“That is a lot of ghosts,” Gundotra posted last January, back when he was in the thick of his pan-Google integration spree.)

Google Plus’s highly respectable 1.1 billion user sessions per month

Comparative statistics from SimilarWeb PRO provide us with a clearer picture of how much traffic the four big social networks are actually getting. Facebook has bay far the most average daily visits, with 829 million. Twitter follows with 65 million, Google Plus has 37.4 million, and LinkedIn trails behind with 18.7 million.

It’s clear from these metrics that although Google Plus is not competing with Facebook, it’s holding its own in relation to Twitter and LinkedIn, so let’s drill down into the war for second place.

G+ pages per visit

Plus pulls in the lead for pages per visit compared to its second place competitors

After racing neck-and-neck for a long time, it seems that Plus recently pulled significantly ahead of Twitter and LinkedIn when it comes to stickiness, as measured by pages per visit, although Plus’s bounce rate is also significantly higher than these competitors, suggesting that if we were to remove single-page visits from the sample, Plus’s pages per visit would be dramatically higher than anyone else’s.

G+ search referrals

Google Plus gets the most visits from search

For all the talk of Google Plus’s over-integration into Google Search, it’s remarkable to see that Twitter’s search traffic share has a solid lead over Plus’s.

G+ share of referrals

Traffic sent from other sites to Google Plus dwarfs the competition

The metric where Plus is crushing the other two contenders for second place, though, is referral traffic. It seems that people like linking to Plus much more than Twitter and LinkedIn.

Why are some marketers so excited about Plus, singing its praises like it ought to unseat Facebook as number one? What’s to be gained here that can’t be found elsewhere?

One clear benefit for businesses is the search ranking impact potential of Google Plus, both in the short term (social signals are already crawled if not given the same weight as “do follow” links) and in the long term (it’s a given that social influence and Authorship rankings will eventually become major SEO factors).

Secondly, many marketers claim that engagement on Google Plus is high in quality and volume alike. A Forrester study found that brands were equally as likely to be involved on Plus as they were on Twitter. The sample of top brands scraped during this research had more followers on Google Plus than they had on YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram combined.

And thirdly, there are the functionalities that are distinctly Plus. No other social network offers a free native webinar-ready engine like Hangouts On Air. In fact, no other platform offers such a thing. Other Plus modules that marketers drool over include Shared Circles, Ripples and Communities.

Clearly, all of these benefits add up to a respectable amount of activity. And it can’t be only marketers on there, unknowingly engaging solely with each other, can it?

The Plus paradox can perhaps be explained best by looking at its outbound traffic, a key signpost as to how it’s being used. If Google Plus was never meant to be a Facebook killer, but rather to serve as an entry point for Google’s social data collection and user identity management, then it all suddenly makes sense. SimilarWeb’s crawlers estimate that 96 percent of the visitors following links from Google Plus to other social sites ended up on Google Search and YouTube pages.

G+ referrals to YouTube pages

The URLs of the YouTube pages that Google Plus sends traffic to most often

What specific YouTube pages are seeing so many more referrals from Plus than from the other networks?

Based on the URLs, it looks like a whole lot of user settings screens and transactional screens – not video view pages. This is the true power of Google Plus, a hub for Google ID activity. And using a social network like that isn’t necessarily helpful to users, nor to marketers. The primary beneficiary here is none other than Google itself.


About Ben Jacobson

Ben Jacobson is a freelancer specializing in digital marketing, content and community management for startups, small businesses, travel publications and entertainment brands.