Facebook vs Google Plus

Social media milestones

The second quarter of 2012 featured two social media landmarks: Facebook's launch on the stock market on 17 May; and the first anniversary of Google Plus on 28 June.

These networks each boast millions of users, both personal and business.

But, as autumn approaches, which has the best chance of helping you engage potential customers in your social media strategy?

The numbers

In sheer size, Facebook is undoubtedly the reigning world champion. Its total membership is rapidly approaching one billion, having grown by at least a whopping 200m users since Google Plus was launched.

In more detail, conclusive results are trickier to determine. Neither business regularly releases its own in-depth demographic figures - and never at the same time - and data sources rarely provide true comparables, tending to focus on different geographic regions, time periods and networks.

Within the UK and US, however, the analytical consensus is that Facebook remains far more popular than Google Plus.

Users (millions) Facebook Google Plus
Worldwide registered users 901 250
Source / date Facebook, April 2012 Google, June 2012
UK active users (visitors per month) 38.4 2.7
Source / date Socialbakers.com, July 2012 CircleCount, August 2012
US active users (visitors per month) 160.5 28.9
Source / date Socialbakers.com, July 2012 ComScore, July 2012

The numbers which really count

From a quantitative point of view, 901m is certainly an indicator of strength - and 250m is also quite impressive, for a network just over a year old.

Qualitatively, many more conclusions can be drawn by looking at what percentage of those users are truly engaged; as well as other facets such as rate of growth, accessibility, marketing success and user satisfaction levels.

Even the comparative gap between Facebook and Google Plus is revealing, with respective ratios for the UK and US of around 14:1 and 5:1. The latter, for the home nation of both companies, is significantly tighter and worrying for Facebook when paired with dwindling usage statistics.

A recent report by analytics specialist ComScore showed that in the six months to May 2012, Facebook's US unique visitors dropped by 4.8 per cent. There has since been an incremental rise, but the growth rate appears extremely slow. The company has also recently confirmed that around 83m of its accounts are fake, created for malicious or marketing purposes.

User engagement

Meanwhile, one of the chief criticisms levelled at Google Plus is its engagement of users. Is the majority of its membership the result of proactive choice, or a default outcome of already using popular Google services such as search, Gmail and YouTube?

The support camp for Google Plus is passionate and some thriving communities exist within the network, but these represent a small percentage of its overall membership. A study by RJMetrics in May showed that the average Google Plus post has less than one reply or re-share; while 30 per cent of users who create a public post never make a second one.

Google Plus and business

Google Plus is increasingly popular on a corporate level, however. Research in July by US SEO company BrightEdge showed that 75 per cent of top US brands now have a Google Plus business page.

In the UK, chocolate maker Cadbury has over 2m followers on Google Plus - double its May figure - while its Facebook 'likes' stand at only 992,000 and its Twitter followers at 66,000 [at the time of publication].

Customer satisfaction is an issue that no business can afford to ignore - and in this area Google Plus scores more highly than Facebook. Figures from the American Customer Satisfaction Index in July showed that Facebook scored 61 on a 100-point scale, while Google Plus achieved 78 in its debut ranking.

Facebook and business

In the three months since Facebook's initial public offering (IPO), its stock value has dropped from $38 a share (18 May) to just under $21.81 (10 August) - a loss of more than 40 per cent.

Many feel that this was inevitable, as its original valuation was inflated by hype and the company had disclosed shortcomings in its mobile strategy shortly before launch.

Facebook is working to combat this trend by experimenting with ways to improve its mobile advertising, alongside revenues from application development and gaming - and possibly even creating a Facebook smartphone.

Investing in strengths

When it comes to big numbers, Facebook, put simply, got there first. People have poured time and effort into it and are often fatigued at the very thought of doing it all again for a newer network. Google Plus is rather like the online equivalent of a New Year's Eve party - it has some appeal, but no one wants to commit until they know that everyone else is going.

However, both networks have a strong chance of long-term efficacy if they build on what they do best.

Google Plus could always be the preferred option for more specialised online communities - and its Google Plus Local feature may provide a serious alternative to review website TripAdvisor.

Facebook, as the mainstream choice, must adapt to suit evolving mainstream tastes - which increasingly revolve around ease of use and smartphone access.