Google has a bit of an image problem.
For people peering in, Google Plus, Google’s latest attempt at social media, has been a ghost town. Some say it is a desolate wasteland that is used only by, well, Google employees and a few Google faithful.
Yet internally, Google says that Google Plus is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or cars that can drive themselves. It says Google Plus is the quickest-growing product the company has ever built.
“Not only is Google Plus not a ghost town,” Vic Gundotra, Google’s vice president for engineering, said in an interview at the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, “we have never seen anything grow this fast. Ever.”
In response to the public perception of Google Plus, the company said it has decided to share some of the user numbers for Google Plus. About 50 million people who have created a Google Plus account actively use the company’s Google Plus-enhanced products daily, Mr. Gundotra said. Over a 30-day period, he said, that number is 100 million active users.
This is where the image problem gets a little bit blurry.
Although these numbers sound impressive, the catch is that Google Plus-enhanced properties include YouTube, the Android Marketplace and Google.com, the company’s flagship search engine. Yet Google contends that these numbers illustrate that more than 100 million people have signed up for a Google Plus account and are now actively engaging with Google Plus-related products across the company.
In a view from outside the company, a report released last month by ComScore, the market research firm, says Google Plus users spend about three minutes a month on the social network. By comparison, ComScore says that people spend an average 405 minutes a month on Facebook, the service Google Plus is trying to displace.
Although Google did not share the amount of time people spend on Google Plus, the company said numbers did not illustrate what was really happening at Google.
“This is just the next version of Google,” Mr. Gundotra said, noting that he sees Google Plus as a social blanket that envelopes the entire Google experience. “Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We’re now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0.”
In Google’s eyes, citing the amount of time people spend on Google Plus would be like judging a takeout restaurant by how many people sit down to eat at a table, even though a number of people take food to go.
But Nate Elliott, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research, said the numbers just are not adding up correctly.
“I don’t know how you can have a social layer without having a social network that people use,” Mr. Elliott said in a phone interview. “If Google is saying that someone who once signed up for Google Plus makes them an active user, then that’s not entirely convincing.”
Mr. Elliott said that although there were pockets of people using Google’s social network, its use did not come close to that of Facebook or Twitter. Google Plus “looks like Facebook from one year ago,” he said.
Google cited advertising as a prime example of the success of Google Plus. Mr. Gundotra said that any advertisement on Google that has a “social annotation” to it, specifically someone who has clicked the +1 button on an ad, is experiencing a drastic increase in engagement.
“We are seeing 5 to 10 percent click-through-rate uplift on any ad that has a social annotation on our own Web sites,” Mr. Gundotra said. ”We have been in this business for a long time, and there are very few things that give you a 5 to 10 percent increase on ad engagement.”
Mr. Gundotra said Google Plus-enriched ads differentiated Google from social competitors, as the company can now deliver a “socially enhanced ad at the time of intent” rather than an ad placed randomly in a social stream. For example, when someone searches for a microwave, Google can deliver an ad for a microwave that has been suggested by people in a user’s Google Plus Circles.
Realistically, the debate over how many people use Google Plus, how many real users it has, or how long they spend clicking little +1 buttons on Google properties, seems almost irrelevant. Google is determined to make Google Plus work at all costs, even in the face of naysayers.
Or as Mr. Gundotra put it, ”We have started the social engines at Google and we’re about to step on the gas.”