The overnight success of Google + is reminiscent of a young Hollywood starlet bursting onto the screen and upstaging her seasoned, beloved costar, much the way then-newcomer Cameron Diaz won more acclaim than “America’s Sweetheart,” Julia Roberts, in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Just a month after its debut, Google+ has had 20 million different visitors. It’s fresh, it’s exclusive, and its juxtaposition to Facebook, the Queen Bee of social media, makes the monolith’s shortcomings glaringly obvious.
It isn’t any help that, in recent months, many have noticed an undeniable and potentially worrisome trend in Facebook’s membership. Despite boasting 750 million members worldwide, thanks to increased membership in emerging markets, developed countries are witnessing significant drops in membership. In June, Amy Lee of The Huffington Post reported “U.S. accounts fell by close to 6 million, from 155.2 million at the beginning of May to 149.4 million at the end, [marking] the first time American Facebook membership has dropped in the last year.” Lee also noted that Canadian users decreased by roughly 1.5 million. But the trend is not restricted to North America alone. According to Lee, a marked trend has emerged across regions: once half a country’s total population joins Facebook, membership rates stagnate, or even decline.
Meanwhile, Google+, which some have called “The Facebook Killer,” is sidling into the social media world with the first iteration of the social networking tool. Its exclusivity has contributed to an aura of mystique. Joining is only available to those who are invited by existing members. What has generated the most buzz, however, is a sophisticated solution to the perennial privacy problems plaguing Facebook since its inception. Google+ groups users’ connections into “circles,” or categories of friends, family, and acquaintances. With circles, users can selectively share information with certain groups of people, separating colleagues from college friends, or grandmas from fellow partiers. The aim is to eliminate the embarrassment of unflattering or incriminating accidental shares of information or photos. Of course, Google+ is not without its own set of problems.
Declining membership and a fresh, promising alternative recently prompted headlines to question Facebook’s relevancy, asking “Is Facebook the Next MySpace?”
Not so fast. Google+ may have a leg up when it comes to the initial user experience, but there’s something Facebook has a strong grip on: advertising. As Andrew Newman recently reported in The New York Times, Facebook proves to be an increasingly valuable tool for businesses to engage consumers. “Now, companies increasingly are running online ads that focus less on pitching their products than promoting their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.” Many companies have embraced a new method, where consumers can simply scroll over a brand’s name to see their Facebook page, without leaving the one they are currently browsing.
The result? Impressively increased engagement. Google, the pervasive search engine, reported that consumers on average spent 30 seconds interacting with the ad, compared with an average of just 11 seconds. That level of uninterrupted interaction with consumers is gaining ground in ongoing debates, as companies carefully weigh where they invest their ad dollars.
If you ask us, it’s too soon to tell if Google+ will surpass Facebook in popularity, especially as it continues to grow as a portal for businesses to engage more intimately with their consumers. But the shifts in Facebook member demographics and emerging, formidable competition will surely shape Facebook’s future direction – and make the fight for center stage worth watching.