Your relatives and friends on Facebook are Google+'s greatest challenge

Search giant's public social networking service sees traffic drop after initial surge

After drawing a number of tire-kickers once it became available to the general public on Sept. 20, Google+ has seen traffic fall by more than 60 percent, according to data analytics company Chitika.

The company last Friday posted a graphic on its blog showing Google+ traffic surging for two days after the public beta, only to drop off sharply.

The data shows that, on the day of its public debut, Google+ traffic skyrocketed to peak levels (increasing more than 1,200%). But, soon after, traffic fell by over 60% as it returned to its normal, underwhelming state. It would appear that although high levels of publicity were able to draw new traffic to Google+, few of them saw reason to stay.

First, as Forbes contributor Tim Worstall points out, if you follow the math, Google+ is left with a traffic gain of 480% in less than a month once the smoke clears. We all should flop so badly.

But let's get back to Chitika's analysis of the data:

Despite its striking new interface, rapid release of new features, and focus on user interaction, Google+ does not seem to be able to drive unique visits in a sustainable fashion. We believe there are two driving reasons for this lack of interest:

* The supply of users for social media sites is limited. To survive you must stand out and provide a service that others do not.

* Features unique to your site must be just that – unique and difficult to duplicate – if they are not, the competitive advantage quickly disappears.

I think those are two valid points. But the real reason Google+ is having trouble maintaining traffic and repeat visits is simple: Most users' friends and family aren't using the social networking platform.

And that's because they're all on Facebook. So if a Google+ user's goal is to interact with friends or family online, they are much better off (at the moment) relying on Facebook, much as a person seeking to auction an item online is better off using eBay -- because that's where the action is.

Google+ reportedly reached 50 million users in the first week after its public beta. Now, that might mean 50 million people have an account, but if the dropoff in traffic detected by Chitika is accurate, the number of active users may be closer to 30 million.

Facebook, in contrast, reportedly has 800 million users. Even if you assume that's an inflated number (many Facebook users, such as myself, hardly visit the site), it's clearly the social networking platform to be on if you want to interact with friends and family on a social networking platform.

This is especially so because the vast majority of people on Facebook -- your friends, neighbors, relatives -- aren't tech-savvy or "early adopters." Rather, they're regular folks who just want a simple social networking platform that allows them to easily post pictures of their grandkids so they'll be seen by the largest number of people. Nothing wrong with that.

None of which means Google+ can't become a serious rival. But it probably would take some self-inflicted wounds, a la Myspace, for Facebook to truly become vulnerable. Given the company's penchant for privacy-challenging policy changes, the odds of that happening are better than zero.

Overall, though, Google's best bet is to keep challenging Facebook with new and unique features such as Hangouts, its group video chat service. And hope that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg start messing up. This probably is going to be a long battle.

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