Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Facebook Metrics may be BS

A graph surfaced this past week, that showed US Share of Time Spent Online for major web properties.  This chart began in Q3 2006 and is current through Q3 2011.  The graph illustrates that Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft properties have seen a decrease in time spent online, Google showed a slow and steady increase, and Facebook illustrates the classic and elusive hockey stick.  Twitter, Google+, and the internet in general seemed to think that this graph signaled the demise of Google and society in general.  Be warned, however, that this graph is crap.

A few weeks back I was contacted by a client about a campaign that recently ended.  He noted that his impressions from standard reporting were much lower than what Facebook was saying his fan page views should be.  After digging around for a while we uncovered that Facebook counted any view by any person at any time.  Standard reporting was only counting users who were logged in and who liked the page.  While Facebook's reporting was not wrong, it wasn't presenting the data in the most accurate manner (their inability to slice and dice data by active users/likes is a different story entirely).

As soon as I saw this hockey-stick graph I immediately thought about my previous experience with Facebook data.  Looking at the web properties listed, they all serve different functions.  Facebook is a social network with photos, games, and chat.  Yahoo is a portal with news and fantasy football.  Google is a search engine with email.  While it is certainly important to note that more time overall is being spent on Facebook, that's not the entire story.

Some have argued that this increase in time spent is due to Mafia Wars and Farmville.  Others have noted that almost every web page is connected to the social graph which may be counted as "time spent on Facebook."  As I noticed with my client, what exactly do these numbers mean?  More importantly, what do these numbers mean for the other companies on the graph and the industry as a whole?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the resultant commentary on this graph suggests that Google should be shaking in its boots.  I honestly do not see this to be the case.  While Facebook has become a powerful site with many uses and purposes, it serves no real utility.  Facebook does not let you communicate with people outside of its ecosystem.  Facebook won't let you share documents with friends, family, or colleagues.  Facebook cannot give you directions to the new Thai restaurant that just opened, and Facebook does not allow you to keep and share a calendar of personal events.  For all of the things that Facebook does, and all of the things we use Facebook for, it serves no real purpose.

Should Facebook disappear overnight, many of the things we use it for exist elsewhere.  We can share pictures on Picasa.  We can check-in to places on Foursquare.  We can connect with friends and colleagues on any number of websites.  While Facebook is a powerful platform, it is not indispensable.  Maybe Google should  be concerned that Facebook has seen a meteoric rise in time spent on its services.  At the same time, Facebook should be equally concerned.

There is no question that Facebook has gained serious momentum in its short existence.  With nearly 800 million users there is also no question that Facebook is a popular service.  How is Facebook going to continue to build and retain its user base?  How is Facebook going to fend off the growing number of people who are "over it?"  Most importantly, how is Facebook going to stay relevant and keep from going the way of Myspace?

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