Same Same but Different

How Facebook and Google+ took different paths to the same result.

Co-authored with Nishant Bhajaria

1.0 HYPOTHESIS

Over the last decade, Facebook and Google+ have built a sizable user base.  This enables them to store and relate user information, as well as to augment traditional means of connectivity such as email and messaging.

Facebook, as a community incubator for youth, started with a broad user base. The data gleaned from a growing and evolving base enabled the creation of apps and other tools, which lead to further user growth.

Google approached an identical outcome from an opposite end. Each Google app (GMail, Google Drive, YouTube, etc.) brought with it dedicated users. These apps and their users coalesced to form a unified Google platform.

Put simply, Facebook started with a user base and expanded functionality to that base while Google started with functionality and unified a base around it.

This paper will seek to provide time-layered data to conditionally validate or repudiate this operating hypothesis, while also exploring how engaged the users of both platforms are.

 

2.0 GROWTH IN NUMBERS

This paper’s theory that Google and Facebook are striving for a similar goal and have reached similar results when measured in number of features and users calls for empirical evidence. The following year-end stats provide initial guidance:

 

Timeframe (year end) Facebook users Google users
2008 100 M
2009 360 M
2010 608 M
2011 845 M 400 M
2012 1.0 B 435 M
2013 1.23 B 1.15 B

Facebook shows user-growth that started off a smaller base, tripled and doubled in 2009 and 2010 respectively but then grew by 33% or lower rate of growth leading to the company ending 2013 with 1.23 billion users. Google, contrarily, started later and bigger, and is growing faster to end 2013 on relative parity with Facebook at 1.15 billion users. Google’s growth occurred from a bigger base than Facebook and in a shorter timeline.

 

Growth in Numbers2

Further research shows, as cited by Janrain’s Social Login Trends Report for Q1, Facebook’s lead over Google in consumer preference has dropped from 10 points in Q4 2013 (Facebook 45%, Google 35%) to 4 points in Q1 2014 (Facebook 42%, Google 38%). Beyond the numbers, Janrain states that “Google has made a strategic push to unify each of its services (Gmail, Google+, YouTube, Drive, Android, Play, to name a few) under a single Google identity. Consumers are using a single Google identity to access each of these services, which may have a positive impact on the value and equity they place in that identity. Social login preferences tend to closely reflect these consumer affinities, and as services become stickier for consumers, the identity used to access those services tends to follow suit.”

Janrain’s research supports the concept: Google started with multiple apps i.e. users, all of whom are coalescing under one identity. Each of Google’s apps supplied the company with a loyal and acclimated base of users to unify under the Google+ banner.

Correspondingly, Facebook’s breakout at the dawn of our selfie-centered culture drew 100 million mostly young users by the end of 2008. As the next section shows, Facebook’s continual growth was fueled by features that engaged their base and expanded it.

 

3.0 FANS GATHER AROUND FEATURES

In the previous section, we have examined the user growth for both these platforms. We will now examine how this user growth correlates with the growth of features available, and what it says about user engagement.

3.1 Facebook

Launching in 2005, and opening to the public in 2006, Facebook began with a single focus app. User profiles and relationships became the core offering. The addition of the status prompts with a newsfeed led to 1000% growth in Facebook users. This number has grown from an initial 5.5 million at public launch to over 1 billion currently.

 

Timeframe Feature(s) introduced Users Active
2005 August: TheFacebook becomes FacebookOctober: Unlimited photo storage 5.5 m
2006 September: Newsfeed and opened doors for everyone 12 m
2007 May: Facebook platform (third party developers)November: Facebook pages and self-service ads 50 m
2008 April: Facebook chat 100 m 100m
2009 February: “Like” button 360 m 197m
2010 August: Facebook places 608 m 550m
2011 September: Facebook timeline 845 m 800m
2012 April: Instagram purchaseMay: NASDAQOctober: Reaches 1b 1 b 955m (q2)1.056b (EOY)
2013 January: Graph search 1.23 b 1.11b
2014 February: WhatsApp purchase 1.276b

Source

3.1.2

 

 

3.2 Google+

Watching the success of Facebook, Google recognized the pieces for a social network of similar feature and scale to Facebook in their distributed properties. Properties such as Gmail, Google Voice, YouTube, and many more provided the user base required to compete with Facebook. At launch in 2011, Google+ had 400 million users. Due to consolidation of Google properties, that number has more than doubled in 3 years to over 1 billion.

 

Timeframe Feature(s) introduced Users Active
Oct 2011 Google + open to public
2012 Sept: Timeline refresh 400M 100M
2013 May – Related hashtags, hangouts, cloud integration, photo editing tools 1.01B 300M

Source

3.2.2

3.3 Data Available From Each Platform

Facebook and Google+ each offer rich demographic data to app creators and online marketers. While categorized slightly differently, the data is for all intents and purposes the same. Facebook offers an advantage of engagement, thereby encouraging users to share more data. Google+ on the other hand excels in consolidation of multiple applications.

Facebook Google+
User, FriendList, Group Person
App, Open Graph Stories Activities
Comment Comments
Event, Location Moments
Likes, Message App Activities

High Level API Objects by Platform

4.0 WHY IT MATTERS

Both Facebook and Google+ offer an experience for users to make explicit declarations about their likes, dislikes, interests and friends. As this data builds out for each user across millions, these platforms explicitly learn about the users. The level of granularity for Facebook and Google+ members coupled with the high volume of users, makes for an extremely valuable marketing resource. Although specifics are beyond the scope of the this paper, the value remains to be explored in future editions.

Online marketers can better target the user with advertisement tailored to the users preferences. This in turn increases likelihood of a conversion. Therefore, the marketer can charge a premium. Both online marketers and app creators are viewed as customers for=demographic data by Facebook and Google+. The larger and more detailed the data, the more valuable it can be to drive the engagement objective.

App creators, utilizing this data can customize a consumer experience. Once the application becomes personal, the consumer is more likely to consume more frequently with more longevity per session. Additionally, Facebook and Google+ provide known and trusted authentication techniques. As a result, neither Facebook nor Google+ rely solely on new functionality for user growth. The influence of user data on existing functionality assists with growth as well.

Having started from very different places, Facebook and Google now serve the same need with a sizable and roughly equivalent user base.

5.0 SUMMARY

For a majority of users, Facebook and Google+ offer feature parity. That is, each provides approximately the same services. However, despite the features, Google+ offers more user data for online marketers due to it’s ability to make use of data from other products like YouTube, Google Voice, Search and more. As demonstrated by the graphs above, when measured in terms of engaged users, Facebook’s strategy of starting small and growing is demonstrating stronger results than Google+’s data by acquisition. Correspondingly, due to product superiority and cross-platform market dominance, Google has the most entrenched users.

Subtle differences achieved from two dissimilar growth patterns have brought both platforms to the same place in the market. The hypothesis stated at the beginning is therefore validated.

6.0 FURTHER QUESTIONS

This is the first in a series of research posts planned by the authors. There are several lines of future inquiry, some of which include:

  • Does the lack of engaged users help or hurt Google+ when compared to Facebook?  Is there savings in operational costs?
  • Are engagement levels the same?  For Facebook, engagement is measured in a single location while Google+ requires a consolidated number from all contributing properties.
  • What impact has the Edward Snowden NSA revelations had on Social Network use?
  • Is discovery harder in Google+ than Facebook?
  • Why did Google+ choose a 2 column presentation?  Why did Facebook choose a single column?
  • The addition of YouTube to Google+ was a disaster – WHY?
  • The winners here are the platforms, the online marketers, and the app developers.  Is this in the best interest of the consumer?  What’s the trade off?  What’s the value proposition?

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