New figures from metrics firm comScore show that, in May, the battle of the social-networking sites may have gained a new front-runner: Facebook appears to have surpassed long-time rival MySpace in worldwide unique visitors for the first time.
ComScore representatives said that Facebook's lead began in April, when the site passed MySpace by a hair, and widened in May.
Facebook, according to comScore, pulled in 123.9 million unique visitors in the month of May, beating MySpace's 114.6 million, and 50.6 billion page views, compared to MySpace's 45.4 billion.
It has been a slow but steady upward climb for Facebook, founded by then-Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg in 2004. The site was initially restricted to members with email addresses from a handful of elite universities, before gradually expanding to the general public and becoming a genuine Silicon Valley sensation when it kick-started the developer platform craze last year.
It was a very different story for MySpace, which was founded in 2003 and achieved mass-market success in a relatively short time by gearing itself toward independent bands and their fans.
MySpace, owned by News Corp since 2005, nevertheless remains far ahead of Facebook in the US, where both companies are based. The same comScore figures found that MySpace has 73.7 million unique visitors in the US versus Facebook's 35.6 million, and that neither site grew much in the past month. Other number-crunching firms show similar results: a Compete.com graph of the two, for example, shows MySpace's US traffic shrinking slightly while Facebook's is growing steadily, but not astronomically.
This appears to confirm the common wisdom that Facebook's present growth is largely overseas. And that, of course, assumes that the numbers are accurate--online metrics firms, comScore included, have been subject to plenty of scrutiny on behalf of web companies and ad firms. Additionally, some of MySpace's overseas traffic does not come from the MySpace.com domain; its Chinese-language site, for example, is MySpace.cn. ComScore representatives, however, have said that its assessment of MySpace's traffic encompassed all the site's domains.
In January, Facebook unveiled plans to provide translated versions of the site, something that MySpace has done since 2006 after first launching separate versions of the site for other English-speaking countries, such as the UK and Australia. There are now 29 localized versions of MySpace, and the company has office space in 20 different countries. MySpace representatives have explained in the past that their aim is to build communities centered on regional culture, not to simply expand the same networking tool worldwide.
But the Facebook strategy appears to be working, too. Figures released by comScore earlier this week concerning Facebook's growth in France suggest that the translated sites are having some positive effects in building international audiences. On Thursday, Chinese and Russian versions of the site debuted, bringing the translation offering to around 20 languages.
Still, even a fast-growing site like Facebook faces issues abroad. Advertising dollars--typically stronger in the US than overseas--still aren't rolling in on social networks in the way many expected them to, and last month Facebook took out a $100 million loan to keep pace with growth. MySpace, meanwhile, has just rolled out a site redesign that aims to make it more appealing to both users and advertisers.
In addition, there's the fact that, while MySpace might be Facebook's chief rival in the US, there are plenty of other social networks with big followings in different pockets of the globe, posing local competition. Orkut, run by Google, has a lock on Brazil and also a big portion of the market in India. Hi5 is popular in Latin America. Friendster, long past popularity in the US, has nevertheless gained a sizeable following in several Asian countries.
Facebook continues to work on image issues. The independently run company, its valuation pegged at a jaw-dropping $15 billion after an investment from Microsoft, has also been boosting its executive team to lift its reputation from a Palo Alto start-up to legitimate international corporation. This spring, the company recruited Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public affairs at Google, to join its roster in a similar capacity, as a policy-focused PR tsar.