How Google+ Will Reach 400 Million Users In 2012

(Latest private estimate shows 76.6 77.2 million Google+ users today with strong and steady growth continuing in January)

This afternoon on Google's quarterly earnings call, Larry Page will hopefully provide some new public statistics about the surprisingly strong growth and usage of Google+.

Update (4 pm ET): here is the official data from the press release:

"Google had a really strong quarter ending a great year. Full year revenue was up 29%, and our quarterly revenue blew past the $10 billion mark for the first time,” said Larry Page, CEO of Google. “I am super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally – well over double what I announced just three months ago. By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services. I’m very excited about what we can do in 2012 – there are tremendous opportunities to help users and grow our business.”

Wow!

Last year, many pundits wrote off Google+ after just a few weeks, describing it as a ghost town or worse. They couldn’t have been more wrong. As the Chrome TV ads say, the web is what you make of it. So is Google+.

Every day, more people than live in Denver, CO or Washington DC discover Google+. Many soon learn that can turn it into an incredibly informative and enjoyable social experience. And the best is yet to come. The Google+ team constantly emphasizes that they are just getting started.

Since mid-December, Google+ has been growing by more than 600,000 users daily. So it wasn’t just a “holiday bump” after all. Based on growth since Jan. 1st, my updated linear projection shows Google+ ending 2012 with 273 297 million users. But here’s why Google will surpass that number by a long shot.

1) Android. Many observers are mistakenly assuming that most of the new Google+ users are being registered to Google+ as they activate their Android devices, perhaps with no intention of even using it.

The problem with this assumption is that it is not true. Only a small fraction of the 600,000+ new daily users of Google+ are coming from Android. Remember, Android comes in many different flavors. (Differentiation. Not fragmentation). As of Jan. 2nd, a report on Wikipedia shows that only .6% of all Android device usage is from 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich devices.

Only a handful of handsets currently ship with Android 4. But many of the most popular handsets from Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola will enable upgrades to Android 4 “early in 2012” (18 handsets), "in Q1” (12 handsets), “in Q2” (18 handsets), and “in Q3” (5 handsets). Another 18 handsets will support it sometime this year.

(For specific details on how Android 4.0 upgrades will be rolling out to more than 60 popular handsets and tablets this year, visit AndroidIceCreamSandwich.me. This site tracks announcements-and hints/leaks--from all major Android device manufacturers.)

Current Distribution of Android by usage (Jan. 2, 2012)
4.0.x Ice Cream Sandwich ----- 0.6%
3.x.x Honeycomb ------------------ 3.3%
2.3.x Gingerbread ----------------- 55.5%
2.2 Froyo ----------------------------- 30.4%
2.0, 2.1 Eclair ----------------------- 8.5%
1.6 Donut ----------------------------- 1.1%
1.5 Cupcake ------------------------- 0.6%

Assuming Android ends the year on 550m devices (phones plus tablets), and assuming that Ice Cream Sandwich by then is on about 40% of all Android devices (less than Gingerbread today but greater than Froyo), that means as many as 220m mobile users will have registered for Google+ while activating a phone or upgrading a phone to Android 4. Most of these users will be in addition to the 273m from the online daily signups.

2) Chrome. Google's Chrome browser share has increased dramatically during the past 2 years and will likely continue. One report shows that it grew from 16% to 27% last while, while both IE and Firefox browser share declined. Chrome may end 2012 with as much as 40% market share.

It is not clear how Google+ will be integrated into Chrome, if at all, but there are already dozens of popular Chrome extensions that enhance the usage of Google+. And it is very clear by following Google employees and by participating in hangouts with them, that Google employees are responding constantly to customer requests. They are also watching the adoption of these plug-ins, and trying to determine how Chrome and Google+ can work together. One example is that many Google+ users use a Chrome extension so they can see their Google+ notifications counter no matter where they are on the web. When they return to Google+, they now have duplicate counters. That could be fixed - Google+ could become conscious of Chrome and vice versa. And certainly, Chrome could work very nicely with Google+ sharing. A Chrome user could potentially share any web content they discover anywhere (in a Posterous kind of way) with their Google+ circles. This kind of sharing would be careful, conscious, and curated -- not frictionless and automatic and overdone, a la Facebook.

3) YouTube: and Turkish-video-sharing virality. Last year more than 1 trillion videos were played on YouTube. The potential for this to be leveraged in Google+ sharing can hardly be overstated. If you track fast growing Facebook apps, you'll know that every few months a Turkish video sharing app experiences hypergrowth. All it takes for an app like that to gain millions of users quickly is for it to a) provider FB users with a robust video library b) let them browse by category and watch any video while still on FB and c) at the end of the video prompt them to share it with their FB friends.

YouTube has a share button underneath each video; but it's too hidden to make YouTube videos go massively viral through Google+. Suppose that at the end of each video, instead of (or in addition to) the ad that overlays the video, the Google+ share feature were overlaid on top of the video. Using algorithms matching the content with people's interests, Google could suggest which circles you ought to share the video with. If only 1% of the 1 trillion YouTube videos were shared with circles, averaging 100 people, that would be 1 trillion invitations sent to friends/family/others to watch videos. And those who responded would likely be viewing the videos at plus.google.com, where the viral loop could be repeated.

4) Google+ APIs and Developers. Google IO has been scheduled for June and has been extended to 3 days this year. There are hundreds of thousands of Android developers, many of whom are anxious to build apps for Google+. Unleashing the creativity of these developers will provide Google+ users all kinds of apps. Facebook leveraged its platform to energize developers and provide thousands of apps for users; that's when Facebook experienced hypergrowth. But Facebook lost face with most of its developers when the platform shifted so dramatically in 2009-2010 and most of the viral channels and communications touch points were eliminated. A few companies continue to thrive on Facebook Platform, but they almost feel hand-picked. "Let's do music now." "Now let's do social TV." You don't see thousands of entrepreneurs and developers flocking to Facebook, excited about building their company on Facebook Platform like you did in 2007-2008.

Google is likely to learn from the mistakes of others and to build a healthy ecosystem that doesn't constantly shift. With all its productivity tools (email, docs, etc) used by corporations and other institutions worldwide, and with Google+ being the social layer for all the other Google properties, the potential for developers to build valuable apps (for both consumers and businesses) and to get distribution online and via mobile is probably bigger than for any previous platform.

Facebook's Platform has created a very successful social gaming ecosystem. Zynga is worth $6 billion. More recently, Facebook has branched into online music sharing with partners like Spotify and iheartradio. There is talk that social TV is next. Google has 84 APIs including some of the world's most popular APIs (maps, etc.). As these APIs intersect with Google+ social APIs, Google may have a far greater ability to achieve Zuckerberg's vision of helping developers reinvent every industry with social than Facebook does.

But Will All These Hundreds of Millions of People Actually Use Google+?

While most of my Google+ estimates have been welcomed by members of the media and tech communities (we all like social proof, don't we?), a minority have criticized the very notion of talking about "total users." That doesn't matter, they say. What matters is engagement, time spent on site, and whether anyone is leaving Facebook for this new service.

Last week's launch of Search Plus Your World ought to show these critics to see that Google has at least a billion opportunities every day (that's the number of daily queries they process) to get people re-engaged with Google+. Re-engagement will not be a problem, long term.

And in addition to search, you have photos to engage people, where Google will soon be the world leader. My estimates show that more than 100,000,000 photos are uploaded to Google+ every day, and with more Android activations, and more Instant Uploads, and more users sharing more content, I forecast that Google+ will pass Facebook in daily photo uploads by the middle of 2012. That means that as its user base grows, more than 250 million photos will be uploaded to Google+ every day. By the end of 2012 it could be as high as 500 million photos uploaded daily.

And then there is video. This week Google+ made it possible to record a video and share it with your circles. You can also play YouTube videos directly from a little tab on the far right of Google+. Video watching and recording and sharing will be another powerful draw which will help make Google+ irresistable over time.

And most important of all, I think this is the year when Google+ will expand from being a better-than-Twitter microblogging platform, where you can follow and be followed by anyone; it will also become (I predict) better-than-Facebook for interactions with family and friends.

When Google+ is really able to bring families together via hangouts, including parents and kids, and grandparents with grandkids, from the web and from mobile devices; and when Google improves its algorithms to make it really easy for you to find old classmates (like Facebook did) and former co-workers and put them into the proper circles (like Facebook did not) - millions of people will experience the satisfaction of reconnecting with old friends without the gnawing regret that they're now going to be expected to stay current with each other after years or decades of separation. Most Facebook users I know have gone through emotional phases, where they are so happy to reconnect with all the people they have known in their lives, and then they wonder what to do with them, and then finally, they regret having a stream that is so filled with updates that don't feel relevant to them.

Even though Facebook reintroduced lists after Google Circles debuted, if only 5% of Facebook users actually use lists (which is why they were deprecated in the first place), then most Facebook users are still experiencing having one giant mashed together (although admittedly addictive) stream. People spend hours each week on Facebook because they don't want to miss anything. What if you can have all the benefits, without the downside? That seems to be what Google+ can offer this year.

What Would Surprise Me

When I estimate Google+ user growth, I am not just making wild guesses. I have a counting system and a statistical model which tracks adoption rates by people with hundreds of surnames that are uncommon in the U.S. but common elsewhere. My model is not perfect, because I don't have population data by surname from many countries (yet). But if you analyze the number of users with my handpicked 336 surnames on Oct. 13th, when Larry Page announced "more than 40 million users" and compare it to the number of users today, it has grown by nearly 91.9%. We counted just over 16,000 on Oct. 13th and about 30,700 30,899 now. (Note: a new count from my elance team arrived after I made this post. The past 2 days Google+ growth has increased yet again.) That's how we get the 76.6 77.2 million user estimate. It would really surprise me if Google+ hasn't reached at least 75 million users.

What we don't know is how far past 40 million Google+ was on Oct. 13th. We also don't have a sophisticated enough model to account for the probability that Google is growing much faster in some countries (including some with non-Latin alphabets) than in others. I have recently experimented with tracking Google+ adoption in Japan, using 500 surnames and Kanji characters; and my earliest estimates are that there are already between 2-3 million Google+ users in Japan.

What Won't Surprise Me

It won't surprise me too much if Google announces 80 million Google+ users or "we have more than doubled our users since Oct. 13th." However, I will be surprised if the numbers are significantly higher than that. Vic recently commented on +Max Huijgen recent guess of 140 million and said that was off, and it seems the even more recent 100 million guess (based on comparisons with LinkedIn) also has no real basis.

In a few hours we'll see once again how accurate my model is. I really can't wait. Once again I hope to be able to re-calibrate my model based on actual official numbers so that it will be even better next time.

Future Tracking

I may continue to track Google+ this year, but as I mentioned, I'm already gathering surname data from other countries in order to refine my model. If there is general interest, I may expand my tracking beyond Google+ growth to include usage statistics (I've tracked usage for several months already, but with a very small data set). I may also expand the effort by tracking other fast-growing social sites like Pinterest and Foursquare. The same methodology may also help me track the growth and usage of some publicly traded companies. I continue to explore the possibilities.

Ping me if you are interested in this kind of data. I've considered kind of open-sourcing this tracking effort so that thousands of people could each do a little bit of tracking, and it would roll up into one super-accurate estimate. Perhaps a distributed tracking/counting system could be applied in many fields--not just counting social network users--and might become a valuable resource. If you have any specific ideas, let me know.
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