The Google+ social networking service pioneered by American tech giant Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) officially boasts a membership of 2.5 billion people. Of course, anyone who signs up for a Gmail account is automatically granted an account on this social network, a much lower hurdle to clear than registering a Facebook or Pinterest account. In fact, it may be that most Google+ users don’t even know that they have an account. By some accounts, less than 10 percent of the network’s account holders post regular content. Some have accused the parent company of being unaccommodating to certain user innovations, like business or pseudonym accounts. For whatever reason, everyone seems to be on Google+, but no one seems to be using it.
The social networking service operated by Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) enjoys a far more devoted fellowship. Facebook posted the largest gains in consumer satisfaction of any e-business over the past year and it also recently broke a milestone with one billion active users in a single day. The company is an advertising juggernaut; in the second quarter of 2015, $3.82 billion of the $4.04 billion earned by the company came from advertising. The only mention of Google+ in Google’s most recent earnings report was as a source for additional information for investors. There was certainly nothing about the social network adding at all to the bottom line of its corporate parent.
Yet Google refuses to think that the battle for social networking dominance is over, laughable as that is to some. There have been reports recently of a joint venture between Google and Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR) to develop a social networking service that will compete directly with Facebook. The venture, which has not been named as of yet and which neither Google nor Twitter are commenting on publicly, will seek to provide a competitive product to Facebook Articles, a new service for publishing news content.
Back in May of this year, Facebook unveiled the Instant Articles service to the world to serve as a publishing platform for news providers which natively hosts the content within the publication’s news feed. Facebook maintains that the program uploads content at speeds up to 10 times faster than standard mobile apps and is compatible with posts from HTML and RSS feeds for automated content uploads. Facebook has agreed to share data analytics with publishers but it does plan on selling some advertising space that it will collect some earnings from, up to 30 percent of advertising fees by some counts. However, publishers selling their own ads without Facebook’s help keep all of the advertising revenue they generate. The service started up with a number of recognizable publications already on board including National Geographic, The New York Times and BuzzFeed.
The joint venture between Google and Twitter will differ from Instant Articles in a few ways. First of all, the instant article platform these two companies develop together will be open source in the hopes that it will be quickly adopted by a collection of other tech companies. Neither Google nor Twitter will natively host the content; the platform will provide links to cached content on the web. The publication service also will not vie for advertising revenue in the way that Facebook has leveraged its ownership of Instant Articles.
For Google in particular, the news content sector of the Internet is likely one where it hopes to challenge Facebook more vigorously. In July, Facebook pulled ahead of Google as a source of news content for readers obtaining their news online. As of the end of August, Facebook accounted for 38.3 percent of referral traffic to almost 400 digital publishers, compared to 35.8 percent contributed by Google according to digital publishing analytics website Parse.ly. Facebook’s new dominance in news content traffic reflects a larger trend which is seeing social media websites become a more competitive source of news links to search engines, which of course has long been the domain of Google. In December 2014, social media sites were responsible for 31.24 percent of referral traffic, an increase from 22.71 percent for the same period the prior year.
Twitter is uniquely situated in the world of digital news journalism: sometimes it breaks the news and sometimes it is the news. The term “Twitter revolution” came into popularity during the Arab Spring movement because the social media platform served as a source of useful information to political activists in many countries. The short message format of Twitter isn’t useful for in-depth news analysis but it’s perfect for putting headlines in the faces of millions of readers very quickly. In July, the CEO of the British newspaper The Guardian said that 10 percent of the paper’s online traffic comes from social media and that most of that crowd is coming from Twitter.
Social media has been getting a lot more serious about the business of breaking news to a massive online readership. In the middle of September, Facebook launched a new service called Signal which provides a platform for the discovery and curation of news content in a way that helps journalists see which items are trending. A news outlet can also use Signal to embed content collected from social networks directly onto a web page. Signal isn’t available for mobile yet but it’s hoped that the ability to rapidly parse through content on Facebook, Instagram and other networks will pry users away from Twitter.
If anything is clear, it’s the fact that social media is having an ever-increasing effect on shaping today’s news media industries. As a May 2011 report on online news from the Pew Research Center’s Journalism & Media project stated, “If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.” Of the news traffic that’s driven by Facebook, 70 percent of traffic comes from links that were posted by a family member or the friend of a reader; only 13 percent is driven by the news organizations themselves from social media to their websites. The front page of social media’s digital newspaper is entertainment as nearly three-quarters of surveyed Facebook users regularly come across that content, as opposed to 37 percent who see science & tech news or the 31 percent who come across business news in these networks. This begs a reminder that content and substance are two different things. However, with a new spate of digital tools for news outlets using social networks, legitimate news journalism may be finding a way to having its voice heard more loudly on social media. Whether those voices are heard more loudly on Facebook or elsewhere remains to be seen, but it’s pretty clear that Facebook is the currently major player in news services for online social media.