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What to make of the misleading comScore report.

Analytics firm comScore did a report on usage of social networks, and The Wall Street Journal did a big story on it.

Long story short: It's a good story about a misleading report that appears to show that Google+ is a "ghost town" compared to Facebook.

This characterization stands in stark contract to the actual experience of active users. To many of us, Google+ is a frenetic hive of activity, and we struggle to keep up with it all. This -- -- is a "ghost town"?

By the way, Google+ is a fantastic site for beautiful and haunting photos of actual ghost towns:

The most damning numbers from the report are that the average Google+ user spends three minutes a month on the site, whereas the average Facebook users spends up to seven hours per month.

Here's why it's misleading. Google+ members fall into two categories: 1) users; and 2) non-users.

Some unknown number of people have signed up for Google+, and use it. Some other unknown number of people have signed up and don't use it.

Why would people sign up for Google+ and not use it? There are lots of reasons. They just wanted to look. They wanted to grab their name. They're just agreeable, and Google pushed them into it.

The fact is that millions of people are signed up for Google+ and don't use it.

The 3-minutes-a-month number is derived by factoring in users with non-users. Without knowing how many people are non-users, the result is perfectly useless. It tells you literally nothing.

Let's say for the sake of argument that 100 million people have signed up for Google+ and that on average they use the service three minutes a month.

That means there are 300 million man-minutes of Google+ use per month.

One possibility is that 100 million people are each using the service for 3 minutes a month.

Another possibility is that 1.25 million users are using Google+ eight hours a day, seven days a week, and the rest are never using it.

That's the range of possibility. There are somewhere between 100 million and 1.25 million actual users, and somewhere between zero and 98,750,000 non-users. This is what comScore's results tell us.

See how meaningless it is to average users and non-users without knowing how many of either?

The reality is almost certainly that there are tens of thousands of people like me who use Google+ seven days a week, more than 12 hours per day. That number is growing.

There are tens of thousands more who use it every day, for 8 hours or more. That number is growing.

There are millions of people who use Google+ as much as the average Facebook user does. That number is growing.

And the majority of people who have signed up never use the service. That number is also probably growing.

Another misleading quality of the comScore report is that Google+, a social network that opened to the public five months ago, is being compared with Facebook, a social network that has been open to the general public for six years.

I would love to see a comparison of Google+ today with Facebook in 2006.

Needless to say the obvious, but I'll do it anyway: Building friendships, loyalty and activity takes time. Size, activity and all other social networking metrics are primarily a function of time spent on the network. Everything goes up every day.

Imagine a marathon where each runner started at a different time. Runner B starts the race two hours later than Runner A. After Runner B has been running for ten minutes, is he an inferior runner than Runner A because he's 20 miles behind?

That's what the comScore report is implying. It's ludicrous.

Having said all that, the Journal makes some good points. They point out that Google hasn't succeeded yet in conveying to the general public what's compelling and different about Google+. But they also point out that Google is working on it, with mainstream TV advertising, for example (which I think are very good ads).

The bottom line is that comScore's 3-minute result tells us precisely nothing about the activity level or future prospects of Google+.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my notifications box says "34." I've got to keep up with all these friendly ghosts.
Val Schuman's profile photoLee Smallwood's profile photoKaren Kazaryan's profile photoDavid Gifford's profile photo
I joined Facebook originally one day, then didn't go back for another 6 months, then a year after that before I engaged in more discussions/friendships. Here, I've been much more engaged since first signing up. Comparisons like that are much more meaningful.
Another point to remember is that comScore doesn't track mobile usage - and probably isn't tracking non-public posts either. Furthermore, they most likely only look at time spent on - but, as was pointed out today by +Glenn Ferrell, G+ can easily be used both for posting and keeping track of comments etc without ever going to
+Mike Elgan and +nikkole couture, this proves that statistics on something and understanding it are not the same thing at all.

I found that Facebook had too much "What I ate for breakfast..." noise on it. There's some actual content here.
I downloaded my FB records. I was surprised to find links to people and services I did not know.

They obviously sold my info immediately to an east European matchmaking service as soon as they figured out I was male. (My wife would be impressed.) I have not analysed it further, but I can tell you I know how they get their operating funds.
All of this makes sense, and I agree with the argument that FB has been around for years, and so the comparison isn't " fair".

But regarding the averaging shortfalls (users vs non-users, etc.), that's equally applicable to the numbers for Facebook, twitter, etc. So, assuming comScore uses the same method for counting/averaging FB minutes and G+ minutes, it's undeniable that FB has a huge edge over G+.
And don't forget that a significant amount, maybe even a majority, of Google+ traffic is not public. How might that skew estimates.
Bravo +Mike Elgan

The fact is that comscore did not really break down on how they came up with their usage stats. And as long as they don't share that info then their results remain suspect.
I just spent one of my 3 minutes/months reading this :)
+Karim Younes No, I don't believe it is the same. Facebook is Facebook. You sign up when you want to use it, for the most part. All kinds of people -- Gmail users, search users -- are being lured into signing in, and are counted as users, even though that wasn't their intention.
This is why DAU (Daily Active Users) is a pretty important stat. It draws a clear line between active and inactive users. Curious what G+'s DAU is as compared against MySpace and the like.
Would it be unreasonable to ask +Amir Efrati to engage in some discussion on social media sites, as opposed to just posting story links? I see very occasional engagement on Twitter (@amir_efrati), but apparently none at all on Google+.
+Mike Elgan I see your point. G+ has a lot more passive users than FB because they signed up automatically or unwillingly through other services, whereas FB users specifically signed up to use FB. That would correct - at least partially - for the difference in averaging, but it would mean that the 100 million number that people throw around these days for G+ is meaningless and should be a lot smaller.
Sometimes I feel these articles about Google+ are funded by competitors for their own vested interests..... Its hilarious that they are comparing google+ to facebook , which is just 8 months old.... google+ is still a baby ... let it become a teen and then its surely going to bring down the other social network bullies :)
My first thought when I heard that "average" number was, um, can you define your terms, please? Median and mean are often very different, to start with. And some discussion of methodologies behind that headline-grabbing figure would be nice.
Yeah - another set of meaningless stats that do not reflect the real usage. Good thing that I ignored the pundits when I signed up for G+ and daily when I check for interesting stories.
Whenever I read reports like this, I always envision this humongous uproar of applause coming from Facebook users, who all must surely be sitting on pins and needles each day, just waiting for more validation of their choice of social network.
+Mike Elgan one thing as well there has not been any stats on private users. A couple of my relatives never posts anything in public, but use Google+ everyday to stay in touch with their friends . Also they use hangouts to stay in touch with their children and grandkids as well.

I think Comscore is not taking to account such G+ users.
A+ on this G+ post. I personally have a tab open on average 6 hours a day at my job, the I go home and open my browser for most of the afternoon and night. I post an average of 2 to 3 times a day and now I have a page I am dedicating daily posts to. I open Facebook on average once a day and barely spend more than 10 minutes on it because it's boring. I have nearly 3000 people I follow and about 1025 followers so my stream stays pretty busy because there are quite a few who posts daily and often. Heck, I find myself considering a pause extension for Google Chrome cause sometimes it hard to keep up. BTW, this doesn't affect my work. LOL.
+Dave Taylor, 1 minute, funny!

I'm out of minutes reading all the comments.
Also don't forget the Wall Street Journal. which added the "Ghost Town" tag, is a Murdoch newspaper and he is no fan of anything Google.
For Google+ it's all about quality not quantity.
Yeah ummm, I would beg to differ as well. Facebook was a time sink for me. G+, is so much more useful. I can connect with people easier here.
i keep being follow by ghost according to the Washington Post :Sean Swann and 167 others added you on Google+
I wonder how they count Facebook games versus core Facebook and how separating that would affect the number?
Actually, when it comes to comparisons on active users and the suggestion that the "actual" number should be expressed as such, I think that +Mike Elgan's comparison of Facebook in 2006 probably also applies here. Google+ is still overcoming it's initial "social inertia" in much the same way as Facebook was when it first launched.

I would bet that Facebook has a LOT more "inactive" users back in 2006. People signed up, took a look around the echo chamber, and then went away until the proper critical mass of their friends showed up.

Social networks -- ALL social networks -- are plagued by this same startup issue. Until you have somebody to interact with, the network isn't really all that useful to you. In fact, this is why it's so difficult for many of these smaller startup social services like Path, Fondu and even Instagram and GetGlue to really achieve the same type of social traction as the big players.

Google+ is doing better than the rest of these because it uses a more Twitter-like open follower model, but at the same time doesn't suffer from being completely open, providing a nice balance between Facebook-style friends-and-family sharing and broader discovery of interesting people and topics. However, ultimately until the critical mass of friends and family is achieved, for many people Google+ really is little more than a Twitter with better presentation of information and significantly better engagement. However, the classic "Facebook crowd" isn't interested in that model, so unless their friends and family are willing to cross over from Facebook, they sign up and then quickly discover that they have little reason to hang around.
Can we please get over the "ghost town story, already???!!!
Step by step preparation for G+ outside G+ is required and an agreed strategy within G+, at least of those people who regard themselves as peers, discussion without conclusion would not make a difference for me. That is why I chose to initiate a team on behalf of G+Tutor in both languages (English/German) for a start and work out a process. I appreciate that you share your asumption +Mike Elgan, you seem to have found a role that works. Patience is required, Facebook has flaws that are inherent to the business model of facebook. We should focus on collaboration and look for leadership - yet leadership is also taken. May be I missed the point, just tell me.
This sums it up for me, G+ need have no worries:
“The ComScore data does come with caveats. Rather than coming directly from the sites themselves, it is estimated via a user sample who have a toolbar installed on their desktop or laptop PCs - and so does not record visits to sites made by people using tablets such as the iPad, or from mobile phones. Facebook and Twitter have significant use via mobile phones. It is unclear how much use Google+ gets from mobile phones; it is now built into (from The Guardian )
+Mike Elgan I agree with your sentiment. The number of Circles I am in has jumped by more than 500 just since yesterday. I posted about this WSJ story and have an engaging discussion going on my Google+ page while the post hasn't seen any response at all on Facebook. I generally find the Google+ audience more present and enthusiastic.

That said, I have one criticism of your assessment of the "averages" used by Comscore .I get your point that averages can be skewed. I don't know how many tablets an "average" person has, but there are five in my house so I am sure I am skewing the average some. But--as long as Comscore applies the same flawed math to BOTH Google+ and Facebook, it seems to me it is still a fair or relevant comparison.

Out of 850 million users, Facebook has its fair share of dormant accounts as well. Isn't the math used to determine that Facebook users average six to seven hours a month the same flawed "averages" you are pointing out for Google+?
It is like I said above it is in the games two years i had friends emailing me join me in farmville i finale did I had so much spyware and mall ware it was unreal. (and i know the article is about money.) most people on This site want to talk and interact share words and thoughts as well as posts not play games
I just signed up on Google+ yesterday. I am not liking the new Time-Line on FB (I haven't converted to it yet). Seeing my friends pages I was so surprised on how difficult it was to follow their posts and the pics were huge taking up the majority of the page. G+'s format with post stream down the center is a much easier read and I love the Circles idea. I love photography/Videography so added that group to my circle. In fact that's how come I added you Mike. I already posted to my FB Page that I was converting to G+ and a few comments asking what I thought. I'm sure G+ will gain a lot of new Subscribers once FB makes their new Time-Line official for everyone. I think they shot themselves in the foot. Keeping it simple is so much more enjoyable in this hectic, complex world your Posts...
As someone who is concerned with the fate of humanity, a website people spend hours of their day on, wasting time in virtual farms, and not doing their jobs, might be great for Facebook, but it sucks for the economy and human development as a whole. But I actually set up businesses on here, this is a platform that can be used (along with the other Google properties) to do actual work.
And WSJ can go suck a lemon.
Oh, and all their minutes...TEN HOURS people are averaging on social sites. That's just disgraceful. Please, alien overlords, save us soon.
+William Brine Great points. I don't have a business, but I created a page in the hope to use my knowledge on tech and Internet to help others by finding cool stuff such as free software, a cool desktop wallpaper, remember an 80's movie, cartoon or music video and even some cool Chrome extensions to help make Google+ and the Internet a better, easier and more productive experience. Heck I will even share in experiences with PC stuff in the hopes people learn and avoid the problems themselves. On Facebook this would all be wasted data for me.
+Leo Laporte commented before on TWiT that maybe the WSJ was doing some negative spin articles on Google. This was my first thought when I read about this.
Google+: The friendly and very informative "ghost town"! 'nuff said.
Another good comparison: If you measure the average speed of cars on the road, but count the speed of parked cars (aka 0 mph) then you would end up with a pretty low average speed. You would think that all the roads are full of slow speeding cars.
Nice post, +Mike Elgan. Essentially, you're talking about the bluehead/inactive accounts phenomenon, and that makes sense.

I wonder though, if there's a bigger discrepancy here though. Thanks to +Gabriel Fitzpatrick, I was able to track down how ComScore does their measurement, and it seems to me that, based on the way they're describing it, it would have to include people popping into Google+ from Search Plus Your World searches. Given that this ComScore data is January data and SPYW was in full effect then, that might just have a major impact on the denominator that ComScore is using to determine these average minutes per person figures - even bigger than just the inactive accounts.

Here's the ComScore methodology:

I'm no expert on this front, so it would be great to have someone who understands this better weigh in. If the explanation I'm positing is true, it paints a very different picture than what ComScore and WSJ are painting.
I like how the story ends with someone who reverted to whatbook. I suppose that's one way to confirm your story that one social network is a ghost town if you find a deserter. My own experience however doesn't show many people leaving. Let's revisit this in a few more months, i'd be willing to see how things have progressed then.
It is also interesting to note the comparison to MySpace, as it is no longer a social network, rather it is a music service, for all intent and purpose.
The best explanation for Google+ I have heard? Facebook is for People, Google+ is for Passions.
The G+ ads are awesome! They're very creative and I think they do a good job of conveying how G+ can be used.
Anyone who is active here know it's basically codswallop and hype.
Sure - there are likely tends of thousands who barely use it.
Then again, those that do ... do use it, and well/heavily.
It takes time/effort to craft a post, and then often more to actually interact (properly) with commenters. how many of those of FB etc. are investing the time and effort like that?
ok...I think I'm probably wrong with where I was going above. Just looked at the unique visitors that ComScore is citing (, relative to what we know about the user base of each service. 15 million for G+ out of an estimated base of 100. 166 million for FB out of a base of roughly 850 million. 35 million for Twitter, out of a base of roughly 500 million (best guess...). The percentages are close at: 15%, 20%, and 7% respectively. So Google is not proportionately higher, which might be the case if there were lots of SPYW search results coming in, as I suspected might be a cause for distortion.
+William Brine I don't thinks its a bad thing to spend that much time on the computer, I think its a bad thing that they spend that much time on the computer looking at the latest cat/dog/squirrel. If they spent that much time on the computer doing work, that moves the fate of progress along.
Lets not forget that we need time to play, to motivate the human spirit.
how much engaged time is games vs posts/comments? I imagine FB has a good % just gaming, which still counts as engagement, but of a different kind.
Shhh, let the muggles have their facebook. If I wanted G+ to have the irrelevant functionality and population of FB, I'd use FB.

Yep, it's a ghost town. <whistling> Nothing to see here, nope. No point in spamming G+ or porting FarmVille to it. Nope, there's nobody here to poke. Move along...
shutter your windows quick like, +Cameron Reid. A stranger not from these parts approaches from yonder.
It isn't an antipathy for strangers. It is more that I'd rather live in, say, a small university town than a great big sprawling stripmall-infested suburb.
I wonder why we even pay attention to these publications. They keep coming around, just as the facebook comparisons. The only thing I care about is my timeline, which just keeps getting busier
Well, I read that article and I don't care. I like it, the way it is.
Nice article dissecting the usage. But isn't it true that both Facebook and G+ were measured the same way?
Good article Mike: I also noticed one post from Robert Scooble that relays an article by some WSJ journalist who give wacky ideas about G+: G+ is for nerdy people because he does not get people as excited as those on other networks! It (the WSJ guy's illogic) is a little bit like the one used by comScore, as you depicted it above :)
Watched the video in the WSJ article. These people are either dumb, or someone is paying them to bash G+. Or possibly both...
Pretty much everyone said that comScore don't count mobile (and app) usage, but also consider this: you can access G+ from any google service. Myself, I'v usually post from Reader or Gmail, and view comments and notifications where I'v noticed them. Most likely comScore have trouble with counting hangouts (you can start it from Youtube for example).
Am I missing something here? Where is this report, actually, I mean has anyone read it? I might as well come right out and say it; - What is it with reference-less news? +Mike Elgan Do you know where this report is?
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