Even though social networks have begun to rival search in raw traffic-driving power, no one who wants to be visible online can ignore Google's influence.
Google's new focus on Google+ social signals and fresh content means news organizations have to learn to understand those factors. How are they doing so far?
Searchmetrics has released new data about the Google+ visibility of top U.S. newspapers that reveals stark differences in performance. But what it reveals most of all is that engagement on Google+ is still too low to send reliable social signals about a story to Google.
Of the top U.S. newspapers, The New York Times has the most popular Google+ page by more than double. As of April 2, when Searchmetrics collated the data, it was in the circles of 360,032 people. The Wall Street Journal had 149,905 followers. It drops off precipitously after that.
The Los Angeles Times had 21,294 encirclers, and The Washington Post had 19,674. Then it drops off another order of magnitude for USA Today and Chicago Sun-Times, and then you're into the hundreds of followers.
Oddly, only The Washington Post is on Google+'s suggested news circle, and it's a distant fourth on the list. But all of these papers are household names with massive Web presences of their own, so they have plenty of other ways of driving followers.
360,000 of anything is a lot. Even 20,000 followers represent significant influence. But Google's all-important social signal, the +1 button, does not even correspond to the number of Google+ followers for these major newspapers. If people are seeing stories from these papers on Google+, they either don't like them or they aren't bothering to tell Google.
The New York Times, with over 360,000 followers, receives an average of 26,665 +1s per week. That's fewer than one +1d article a week for every 10 followers. The Times only posts to Google+ a few times per week, and it's not always posting links to NYTimes.com pages. But few of its Google+ posts have more than 50 +1s, and they theoretically reach 360,000 people.
Notably, there is no +1 button in the sharing option on NYTimes.com.
But anyone can share an article to Google+ and accumulate +1s. It's not even limited to the 360,000 New York Times fans on Google+. It just isn't happening.
What's even weirder is that The Washington Post, with 5% of the followers The New York Times has, gets more +1s than any other newspaper. With 33,206 +1s per week on average, the Post is the only major U.S. paper (with more than 200 followers) that gets a significant multiple of weekly +1s per follower. It gets 1.7 +1s per person encircling it, and the rest of the leaders get a small fraction of their follower count.
Now, the Post has the +1 in its share buttons on WashingtonPost.com:
But so does WSJ.com, the #2 U.S newspaper in terms of Google+ followers, and its +1s are still a small fraction of its number of followers. All these papers have about the same level of activity on their Google+ pages, and their +1 activity on those posts is about the same.
The Post, the one paper that's in the Google+ suggested news circles, has vastly fewer followers, but it does get more +1s. Maybe higher-quality followers follow The Washington Post as a result. Certainly, the Post does something differently to get this drastically better engagement. But the crazy numbers of +1 interactions suggest that it's not even worth going down this road.
It doesn't look like +1 activity has much of a connection to the number of Google+ followers for these major media outlets. With 360,000 Google+ followers, The New York Times still can't get 10% engagement once a week.
There are two takeaways: Mainstream news organizations are not yet getting much value out of Google+. The value proposition for publishers should be huge. Articles that get lots of attention on Google+ surface more prominently in Google search and Google News results. The Searchmetrics numbers show, simultaneously, that being a suggested news organization doesn't lead to lots of Google+ followers and that having lots of followers doesn't lead to lots of engagement.
Which leads us to takeaway number two: Google+ followers are not active. It's safe to call The New York Times one of the most influential sources of information in the world, and even it can't drum up much interest on Google+. Sure, plenty of people added +The New York Times to their circles, but now they're silent.