Is Google+ gaining against Facebook on Android?

Ahead of Facebook's Friday IPO, NPD released usage data for Android smartphones. Unsurprisingly, user reach is quite high. In looking over the data, I honed in on Google+, which makes a surprising showing for a social network not even a year old. But behind early adoption is a lesson for Google and Android developers about the app vs browser.

First, the data NPD highlights: Nearly 75 percent of Android users accessed Facebook, via app or browser, in March. But, separately for both, reach declined from February to March. However, the overall trend for the app is up. By comparison, Twitter: 23 percent web, 16 percent app. Google+ reach is 16 percent web, with the app swinging between 10 percent and 15 percent. For all three social networks, web reach exceeds the app.

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"While the app may offer a more optimized/richer experience, what we do find in our research is that some mobile users just prefer relying on the mobile website for some activities", Linda Barrabee, NPD research director, says, responding to my question about app versus web usage.

Yes, but there is such preference for social networks, where apps tend to offer more features and ways to interact than mobile sites? Among the considerations I see:

  • User experience of Android apps versus iOS ones
  • Android web browser, or Chrome, experience versus apps
  • Habits -- on the desktop, people generally consume Google services in the browser

Barrabee doesn't answer the first. "We currently do not meter smartphone behaviors on iOS, but will be adding those capabilities in the near-term". I asked because comScore data shows Americans largely favoring apps over the browser. The second says much about developers' mobile sites as Android browsers or apps. The third needs little explanation.

Behind reach there is something more important: Time spent online -- 470 minutes average in March using the Facebook app. NPD didn't release Google+ time online data.

Surprising Reach

But is reach high, considering Google+ opened in limited beta end of June and to the public in late September? I asked Barrabee: "The Google+ number, while lower than the others, strikes me as quite high for a social network not even a year old. Would you agree or characterize it differently?"

She replies: "In looking at the relative figures overall for Google+ compared to Facebook, Google+ app reach, which was around 10 percent in March, although trending down, is higher than what may be anticipated. Website use (reach) for Google+ has been more resilient -- 16 percent reach in March, similar level as seen a few months ago -- December".

As previously mentioned, Android smartphone Facebook app and website reach declined during the same time period Google+ web reach rose. Could it be -- and I don't have data from NPD -- that more Android users are choosing Google+ favoring or replacing it over Facebook?

Social networks have a timeless quantity in that something old becomes new when shared, as is case with February blog post "I 'get' Google+ Now and Apparently so do Others (Facebook May Have a Problem)" Plusing around this week. From the text:

How many people do I know in my friends list on FB. All of them. How many of them post content that I actually find interesting? Hardly any of them. Why? Because the list is built almost solely on physical contact from some point and time in life. None of it is based on interest in the content that they are posting or that I am posting. My stream is therefore a bunch of random noise about peoples lives. Sometimes there’s something interesting in there but most of it I could do without. I don’t exactly want to remove these people because it gives me a general idea of where they are in life and an easy way to contact them. But on a day to day basis I don’t care to see what they are saying...

Now contrast that to Google+. How many people do I know in reality on G+? Very few. How many of them post content that I actually find interesting? Almost all of them. This is because I have added people and have had people add me based on what they/I have to share rather than knowing me personally. I find chains of like minded and interesting people, NEW people, through conversations in comments. I add them and they add me without feeling awkward because there is no imposing idea of “friends” or any other association outside of sheer interest in content.

His experience mirrors my own. Does it yours? Certainly, there are Plusers who agree. Manny Otero posts: "Perfectly explains why I left Facebook and why I love Google+".

Still, any Google+ gains little diminish Facebook's huge presence: The larger social network accounted for 10 percent of all pageviews on Android smartphones in March, according to NPD. That's a stunning number.

The broader lesson is more than Google+ gains or even Facebook losses. For all three social networks, web reach exceeds apps -- for highly-engaged services. Cloud service developers targeting Android users should make mobile websites at least as compelling as apps.

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