Can Google+ be a Facebook Killer?

Google+ is growing fast and it's winning fan from technology's cutting edge users, but can it knock off Facebook?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Google+ is growing by leaps and bounds. When I looked at Google+'s membership numbers earlier this week, it looked like Google+ had already reached 5-million users. Guess what? It looks like it's growing even faster than the first estimates.

According to Paul Allen, founder of Ancestry.com, a leading genealogy site his original estimates were on the low side. Allen now thinks:

Surname-based analysis shows that the number of Google+ users worldwide reached 7.3 million yesterday (July 10) - up from 1.7 million users on July 4th. That is a 350% increase in six days. The userbase is growing so quickly that it is challenging for me to keep up, since the number of users of any given surname (even the rare ones I am tracking) seems to be climbing every day.

More impressive than last week's growth is the astonishing growth in users from yesterday at mid-day to tonight -- a 30% jump. My latest estimate tonight shows approximately 9.5 million users. This suggests that 2.2 million people have joined Google+ in the past 32-34 hours.

I project that Google will easily pass 10 million users tomorrow and could reach 20 million user by this coming weekend if they keep the Invite Button available. As one G+ user put it, it is easy to underestimate the power of exponential growth.

This isn't just tech-fans. Users, like my own lovely wife who has no inherent interest in new tech. toys, are flocking to Google+. They like the control that circles give them over who sees their posts and who doesn't; they like how it gives them more control over their data; and they like how it well Google+ already integrates with the rest of Google's applications.

Google's engineers are well aware of that last factor. They're working on improving it. Mark Striebeck, Engineering Manager for Gmail's front-end recently announced that "We are working on several Gmail/Google+ integrations."

All this spells trouble for the former unchallenged champion of social networking: Facebook. I think that Facebook is already running a little scared of Goggle+. No sooner than tools such as Open-Xchange's program for exporting Facebook friends to Google+ show up, than Facebook blocks it.

Of course, Facebook is like a black hole when it comes to personal information anyway: friends go in and don't come out. But, it's only now that Facebook is actively blocking efforts to get your and your friends' information out of it. Before, they just made it very hard to do with Facebook's own inadequate data exports tool:

Account > Account Settings > Download Your Information > Learn More > Download

But, all that said, is Facebook really in danger of going the way of MySpace? No, I don't think it is. Not immediately anyway. That doesn't mean though that Facebook is going to come off unharmed.

Yes, Facebook has 750-million users. And sure, even at Google+'s current growth rate, it will take some time for it to catch up with Facebook. On the other hand, for all its popularity, a lot of people don't like Facebook. According to the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Business Report, "Facebook scored 64 on the ACSI's 100-point scale, which puts its satisfaction even lower than IRS e-filers. This puts Facebook in the bottom 5% of all measured private sector companies and in the same range as airlines and cable companies, two perennially low-scoring industries with terrible customer satisfaction." Google, on the other hand, scored 80.

Facebook also appears to be reaching market saturation. In short, everyone who's interested in Facebook appears to already be on Facebook.

Here's how I see it shaking out. I see Google+ continuing to grow at a remarkably fast rate. Unlike Google's abortive earlier attempts to get into social networking, Google+ is already getting real fans and not just people who love the newest, shiniest tech. toys. As Google integrated more and more of its other programs into Google+, I can only see its popularity growing. Indeed, I think, short of a major system meltdown or security blow-up, Google+ will reach 100-million users by the year's end. I won't be surprised though if I'm wrong and it gets there even before January 2012.

Facebook is going to decline. Those Google+ users aren't going to appear out of a vacuum. To paraphrase a friend of mine, "I'd have to go to two sites instead of one every day? Yuck!" Yuck indeed. As Google+ gathers steam, users will slowly move off Facebook.

That's bad news for Facebook, and even worse news for Facebook's proposed initial public offering (IPO). Even if Google+ does nothing more than stall Facebook's growth, this spells real trouble for Facebook's business model.

So, will Google+ kill Facebook? No, no it won't. But, it may very well maim Facebook's business plans and profits.

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