Specifically, I asked Gundotra how many of the over 40 million users reportedly on Google Plus are active, daily users? "It's a number we're very happy with," was the best answer that I got. Rather than focus on hard user metrics, Gundotra instead steered the conversation to the engagement levels of Google Plus users and Google's plan to integrate Google Plus across all its products.
Regarding the unknown quantity of active daily users, Gundotra said that "the key metric is that those people are coming back to Google [and] we're seeing some amazing dynamics."
Those "amazing dynamics" weren't enumerated, although Gundotra did explain what he meant by "people are coming back." He said that very early Google Plus users had stopped using the service for a while, because there weren't enough of their friends and family on it. But apparently those people then re-engaged with Google Plus, when the user base grew and their friends joined.
Why Won't Google Reveal Active, Daily User Numbers?
Despite the bullish talk about levels of engagement on Google Plus, I continue to find it strange that Google won't tell us how many of the reported 40+ million users are active, daily users.
Frustrated at not getting a straight answer to that, I optimistically asked Gundotra if he would at least give me the percentage of active daily users to total. But he wouldn't be drawn into that question either.
So I asked: what kinds of things are people doing on Google Plus right now? Vic Gundotra pointed to photo sharing.
"Since we went to field trial on June 28," he remarked, "we've had 3.4 billion photos uploaded to Google Plus."
That is indeed an impressive number, however note that it includes photos that were posted via Picasa or mobile devices. Also, a good portion of that 3.4 billion number is automated sharing - what Google calls "instant upload" and Facebook calls "frictionless sharing." In response to those qualifications, Gondotra said that the user has to manually turn the feature on. What's more, he noted that "they have to go through a lot of steps to turn this on" (not so sure that's a good thing!).
Integration With Other Google Products
So Google won't talk about hard user metrics. But if the engagement levels are as good as Gundotra says, I have to agree that is promising. Because if Google can get the integration of Plus across its other properties right, then Plus becomes crucial to Google's future.
The strategy for Google Plus has undergone a subtle shift since it launched at the end of June. At first it was thought to be a Facebook killer (to be fair, Google itself never claimed that - it was mostly media speculation). At first Gundotra and co positioned Google Plus as an experiment in social networking, but now they are explicitly talking about Google Plus as the social layer built into all Google's Web products.
Back to the engagement metrics. Why then are those early Google Plus users so key? They came back, claimed Gundotra, because "they were active to Google." Not Google Plus, per se, but Google products as a set of services. Gundotra pointed out that it was the notifications, such as from within Gmail (see screenshot from my Gmail account, to the right), that brought those very early users back into the fold.
This ability to re-engage, said Gundotra, is unique to Google. "We have the unique ability to cause re-engagement as our [social] graph grows," said Gondotra, "Most companies don't have that capability."
"It's a critical piece of our strategy," explained Gundotra, "that really allows us to grow the graph and continue to increase our engagement."
He added that "the engagement numbers are dramatically affected when the services they [Google Plus users] use daily become activated with Google Plus - things like Gmail, YouTube or search."
So YouTube, Google search, Google Maps and more - "all of those services are going to be fundamentally changed by the use of the Google Plus graph."
"With Google Plus," continued Gundotra, "we've now started taking some of the most basic things you need in an identity platform and we're making them common across all Google services." So if you define a family circle in Google Plus, that will get applied across all other Google services - search, maps, YouTube and more. That's just one example, noted Gundotra. "When we're done," he told the gathered press circle, "Google is going to come across as a beautiful, integrated set of services."
Wait... What About Those Active Daily User Metrics?
Vic Gundotra is exceptionally good at steering the conversation to the things he wants to discuss. And yes, I buy into the idea that Google Plus will be the key part of Google's plan to integrate its services.
But I am still not convinced that Google Plus has been as successful as the 40 million user number purports it to be. Google won't give any numbers to assuage my concerns. But I look at my own Google Plus profile. It has over 55,000 followers (thanks in large part to my being on its Suggested User List), yet hardly any of my non-tech friends are on there. A couple of my family members tried it out, but neither stuck around. Maybe they will "re-engage" later, but right now I am just not seeing evidence of an active daily user base - beyond of course the tech and media community. It seems to me that most of my 55,000 followers, for example, are not actually using the product on a daily basis.
Perhaps the below exchange that I had with my brother on Google Plus sums up Google's predicament - and opportunity.
As my brother said, he hasn't gotten into Google Plus so far - but he uses a number of their other products. If Vic Gundotra's theory is correct, then eventually my brother and millions of other Google users will re-engage with Google Plus.
Google's problem right now, I suspect, is that the percentage of active daily users to total users is rather low. Do you think it can successfully re-engage all of those tens of millions of people who have probably tried Google Plus but haven't continued to actively use it?