UPDATE November 25, 2015: In mid November 2015 Google+ started rolling out a beta of a completely revamped Google+ interface. There are many changes. Among them is the disappearance of view counts from profiles and pages. Google has told us that some things that dropped out in the update will eventually return, but many won’t. We don’t know yet whether view counts will be back. I will update this post when we have more news.
In the meantime, you might be interested in our study showing what drives more engagement on Google+.
Below is the original post.
On March 31, 2014 Google+ added a new visible metric to profiles and pages: view counts. View counts now appear on the cover images of pages and profiles, next to the follower count (if the person or page has made that count visible). In this post you’ll learn:
- What view counts are and what generates them
- Why Google+ implemented them
- How to evaluate them
- Why they’ve replaced the Page +1 count (yes, they have!)
- How important they are (or aren’t!)
Understanding Google Plus View Counts
What are Google+ view counts numbers? According to the official Google help page:
This number tells you how many times your content has been seen by other people, including your Photos, Posts, and the page itself.
Thanks to Google staff member Yonatan Zunger, we have more detail on exactly how each of those features increments your view count:
- Posts are counted for any view of them in any Google+ stream. A viewer does not have to click on or otherwise engage with a post for it to count as a view. So even if the viewer scrolls by the post in her stream, a view is counted. Basically, the post just has to have been seen on someone’s screen. Interesting tidbits:
- All shares of a post that are seen by others count as views, both for the sharer and for the original poster.
- Posts that become recommended content in others’ streams because someone +1’ed them can count as views for the original poster.
- Embedded Google + posts also can increment this view count. That’s because a post embedded in a site page using the post’s embed code displays in an iframe, which means it is actually being viewed on the plus.google.com server.
- Photos/images (UPDATED!) must be “opened” only need to go by in someone’s stream (or be seen on Blogger, Picasa, or Chromecast) to count for a view.
- Profiles & Pages only count as a view when someone opens them in their own tab or window.
In addition, we know:
- View counts may not be exact.
- View counts are not updated in real time.
- Views are counted when posts are viewed in communities.
- Views are counted whether or not the post was shared publicly or privately.
- Views of a Youtube comment integrated with your Google+ count may count, but Yonatan wasn’t sure, and even if they do, he doubts they count if they are also made visible on Google+ itself.
- View counts are from October 2012 forward (according to this post by Googler Eddie Kessler)
- Images on Blogger blogs are hosted on Google+, and thus views there count as views for the associated Google+ profile.
- Views of images on a user’s Picasa account count as views for their Google+ account.
- Google+ images shown as Chromecast screensavers may count as views for the profile that posted the photo.
- View counts for pages have replaced the +1 button and associated count on the page. But the page’s total +1 count is still in the Google+ API, and still appears on on-site buttons or badges that display it (at least for now).
Users and page managers can choose whether or not to display the view count to the public. (Instructions to change this setting)
BONUS: Wonder what drives more engagement on Google+? See our study of 30K+ posts!
Why Has Google+ Implemented View Counts?
The one thing no Google staffer has addressed, to my knowledge, is why they are now showing us these view counts. So that leaves me free to speculate 😉 But first, we need to understand a basic Google tactic in interacting with its users:
Google and User Behavior Modification
Google maintains an interesting symbiotic relationship with its users, especially users who generate content (UGC) that Google makes use of. Some of that content is just indexed by Google (Search, Maps). Some is hosted on Google properties (Google+, YouTube). And some Google even grabs from sites to repost on its own.
Google needs that content; helping the world to find information is Google’s stated mission. And users, to varying extent, need Google to help their content to be found or made visible.
So users have a high incentive to do whatever it takes to make their content more visible to other Google users. But Google has a counterbalancing incentive to filter that content, and try to maintain high quality levels. Why? Because if they don’t, people will stop using Google.
Over the years, Google has experimented with various ways of gently–and sometimes not so gently–pushing its users toward practices that help Google to more consistently deliver better content. This is what I call Google user behavior modification (UBM).
Search UBM. In Google Search, this experiment in UBM originally was all carrot and no stick (and not much carrot, really). It consisted mostly of the Google Webmaster Guidelines, which too often had about as much force behind them as the Pirate Code:
Over time, Google found they had to turn more to stick. First came algorithm changes that attempted to sniff out spammy or “cheating” sites and devalue them in search. Then came manual penalties directed at specific sites. More recently, there seems to be an arms escalation as Google appears to be intentionally singling out very visible sites in order to create examples that will get a lot of publicity.
Google+ UBM. I see the new view counts as a gentle form of User Behavior Modification within Google+.
For the longest time, many Google+ users and brands have tended to focus on two primary metrics: follower counts and +1 counts. That’s not surprising since these were the most visible metrics for Google+ engagement. Actually, they were about the only metrics one could get without resorting to third-party services.
But in my view follower count and +1 focus unintentionally created user behavior that was not in Google’s best interests (and probably not in most users’ best interests either). In pursuing these numbers, users too easily succumbed to the temptation to game them in various ways. It is not difficult to find sites that will sell you Google+ +1’s and/or followers for your page or profile. In the case of followers, massive (“snowball” or “megaball”) circle sharing became popular.
In these circle sharing schemes, users create sharable circles of up to 500 people (the maximum). Usually the “entry fee” to getting in to the circle is to +1 and/or share it to your own followers. This creates a sort of pyramid effect, as the circle gets pushed out to hundreds of thousands of followers. The intent is to quickly bolster the followers of the people in the circles.
It is my contention that obsessing with follower counts is behavior that benefits neither Google nor the users. I’ll leave aside the users for now to focus on why Google would want to change that behavior. And why they added in viewer counts to help do it.
The Lure of Follower Counts
Why would Google+ want us to focus less on follower building? I think it’s because at some point follower building becomes eating the seed corn. We’re all competing for the same pool of Google+ users. And when that competition is focused on a number (follower count as some kind of bragging right), then users will be less concerned with creating content and engagement and more concerned with gaining followers (and at worst, followers who often have little relevance to the user or interest in his or her content). In other words, follower and plus-building activities are inward focused. They are not true growth activities. [Tweet This!]
Follower- and plus-gaining activities set up a situation very similar to many pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing (MLM) plans. In many such get-rich-quick scenarios, the promise of unlimited wealth comes from the idea of building an ever-growing downstream network. The idea is that people at the next rung down in your network become customers for whatever product the MLM is supposedly selling, and then you get some kickback from people further down in those peoples’ networks. But inevitably, more and more people become obsessed with network building over product selling, and the scheme collapses.
I believe Google+ was seeing a similar breakdown on their platform. Users obsessed with building follower numbers were less incentivized to build engagement (analogous to “selling product” in my MLM comparison), and it is engagement that Google+ wants and needs for Google+ to grow and thrive.
I believe view count is meant to incentivize the things that bring about engagement. [Tweet This!]
The Value of Engagement to a Network
Why is engagement more valuable to Google than users trying to grow following and plus numbers? Because engagement is produced by more and better content. And engagement + more/better content brings two things any network needs to thrive:
- Time on site
- New users
Engagement and Time on Site: Most websites or social networks fight a two-front battle. Getting users to their site, and then keeping them there. The latter battle is only won with engaging content. There has to be some “there” there. There has to be enough “Lays potato chip” content:
Like a good potato chip, engaging content keeps users coming back for more. And that means more time on site.
Why should a social network care about time on site? For one thing, poor time on site metrics can get bad publicity as supposed evidence that the network is failing. Certainly Google+ has suffered from past studies that show users spending only a fraction of the time per month there that they spend on Facebook.
But most people never see those figures. Probably of more importance to a social network is the satisfaction and enjoyment that existing users get from the network. If they are compelled to spend more time there, they provide the network with more user data that helps the network better monetize through things like improved ad targeting. Moreover, happy users are more likely to recommend the network to their friends. That leads to our second incentive for a network to incentivize engaging content:
Engagement and User Growth: As noted above, engaging content produces happier existing users, and those users will be more likely to recommend the network to their friends. But that’s not the only way engagement helps in new user recruitment.
For at least its first two years, Google+ suffered from a perception that it was a “ghost town.” Many of us who have been around from the beginning think that appellation was always unfair, but it caught on early in segments of the press and became “true by repetition.”
To be fair, though, it was the experience of far too many potential new users that they would sign up for Google+ and soon lose interest because not much seemed to be happening in their streams. If they weren’t particularly proactive about going out and finding the active communities (in the general sense, not necessarily referring here to G+ Communities), even if they followed some people, not much happened in their stream. So they lost interest and left.
So obviously it would behoove Google+ to incentivize its existing user base to turn their energies less toward follower-building and more toward engaging-content-building.
Enter View Counts
Think about what generates view counts (see “Understanding View Counts” above). Views are primarily of content. (The exception, perhaps, are profile views, although one could argue that a profile is content about the profile owner.) So to increase the viewer count, a user can do the following (in escalating order of effort):
- Create and share content (posts and/or images)
- Create more of the kind of content that seems to best resonate with his/her followers
- Build a network of real followers and fans who are more likely to engage with and reshare the content
Unlike some of the follower- and plus-building activities I mentioned above, there is no way around the necessity of content for view count building. Furthermore, the most successful view count builders are going to be those who are a) building real relationships on Google+, and b) working at building a network of _real_ and _active_ followers and followers-of-followers.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t ways of “gaming” view counts, just as there are with follower and +1 numbers. For example, a number of Google+ users who value the platform for the way it has attracted thoughtful people who tend to post more in-depth, text-based content, fear that we will now see an onslaught of silly meme images, the kind of content that more frequently tends to go viral (and thus rack up views).
Those user fears may have some merit, but from the viewpoint of Google+, content is content. More to the point, engaging content–content that gets commented, plussed, and shared–does what Google+ needs. Such content makes the network more “alive” and active. That serves both of the goals I mentioned above: increasing time on site and gaining new users.
Oh, and one more thing (channeling either my inner Columbo or Steve Jobs, take your pick): View counts are likely also a ploy to lure more brands to Google+. Why? Because view counts on brand pages demonstrate what I think is Google+’s greatest strength for brands: reach. When you look at the huge number of views the most active brands on G+ have, if you’re a brand owner it should make you sit up and take notice. This is why I have been preaching to brands for two years that whether or not your customers are currently on Google+ makes little difference. Google+ is designed to create exponential reach, and that’s not even including its potential reach into Google Search and other Google products valuable to your business.
Conclusion: At least one major reason Google+ has implemented view counts is to incentivize user behavior toward producing more engaging content. [Tweet This!]
How Important are View Counts to the User?
Much of the discussion on Google+ about the new view count metric over the past few days has centered around what view counts mean to users and brands, whether or not we should care about them, and how to use them to evaluate profile or page value. It’s not my intention here to cover all of that discussion, but I will offer my opinion on each of those issues.
What do view counts mean? Another way of asking that is, “What is the importance (if any) of view counts?” or “How much importance should we assign them.”
First off, I agree with many that this is a very limited metric. Of course, so are follower counts and +1 numbers. It’s much more important for me to know who are those followers, which ones are most valuable to me, why are people plussing some content and not others. Raw totals don’t tell me any of that. Same with view counts. An aggregate total doesn’t tell me who is viewing my content, which content is getting viewed more, where the views are occurring, and dozens more pieces of information I’d love to know.
Should we care about view counts? But an aggregate total does have its uses. First off, it’s useless to deny that social proof numbers open doors. Just as people at a conference glance at your name badge to see if you’re with a company worth their time, so people will look at your follower count, +1’s on your page, and now views, as a quick evaluation of “is digging into this person/brand further, or even following them, worth my effort.” That may be unfair, but it’s the reality in which we live.
Moreover, a view count may be a good indication of whether or not a particular user or brand is actually creating engaging content and is active on Google+. If I see someone with a lot of followers but a relatively low view count, I’ll be suspicious that they may be gaming followers instead of earning them.
How should we evaluate view counts? Obviously the raw view count number can only tell us so much. As I said above, a high view number may indicate a more valuable user or page, but it is certainly no guarantee. Someone could build such numbers entirely out of posting funny cat GIFs, but that may not be what I’m looking for.
Very quickly after view counts were introduced, some users began proposing using them in conjunction with other metrics to try to develop some kind of useful “profile quality score.” The most popular of these was dubbed the “V2F” ratio by Gideon Rosenblatt. That metric simply divides the number of views by the number of followers, with the idea that the higher the number, the more engaging the profile or page is likely to be. For example, today I have 18,253,100 views with 79,881 followers. So my V2F score would be 229. Our Stone Temple Consulting Google+ page has 658,468 views with 2,720 followers, so a V2F score of 242. Great!
But…look at a user like David Amerland. David is easily one of the most engaging and interesting Google+ users I know. His fans are, well, fanatical about him and his content. His posts are all substantive, yet they consistently get high numbers of comments, plusses, and reshares. Now David currently has 15,112,926 views with 283,142 followers. That gives him a V2F score of only 53, way lower than mine. Clearly V2F doesn’t reflect David’s value. What went wrong?
Some time last year David was put on Google+’s Suggested User List (SUL). The SUL is a curated list of users and pages in a number of topics that are suggested as follows to all new users. Typically when someone makes that list they will start gaining thousands of new followers per day. So David’s follower count rapidly inflated. Unfortunately, most people who have been on the SUL will tell you that the vast majority of followers from the SUL never engage. They’re just adding people from a list without any personal investment in who those people are or why they should care about them. So being on the SUL actually “hurt” David’s V2F score. And therefore merely looking at V2F would give a false signal about David’s Google+ activity.
Others have suggested other ways to try to improve the usefulness of V2F (for example, Yonatan Zunger suggested using V/(P*F) where P=number of posts). But at the end of the day, my suggestion is that you use the viewer count as just one of a number of signals you look at to evaluate whether or not any Google+ user is worth following and/or engaging with.
Recommended: For more on this topic, watch a 25 minute video discussion about view counts I had with Google+ expert Martin Shervington.
What do you think about the new viewer counts? Does your viewer count matter to you? Will you use it to evaluate other Google+ users? Let me know in the comments!
BONUS: Wonder what drives more engagement on Google+? See our study of 30K+ posts!