Does Facebook Traffic Data Show Any Fallout from Privacy Issues?

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By Eric Eldon Comment

Facebook is headed towards 500 million monthly active users, judging by where its long-term growth trends are taking it now. Yet recent privacy changes have sparked what appears to be a bigger outcry than ever before.

Some users have very publicly said that they’re going to deactivate, delete or minimally use their accounts. For example, the search term “how do” on leading search engine Google now shows the algorithmically-determined phrase “how do i delete my facebook account.” Sites that provide answers to that question are seeing lots of new traffic.

The changes — for those who missed the widely covered debates — include asking users to make more personal profile data public and introducing more ways that third parties can get access to some user data.

So here’s a closer look at what the numbers and trends suggest.

Web measurement firm Hitwise says today that visits to the Facebook.com domain are up 3% last week versus the previous week, and it is currently receiving 8.59% of all visits to web sites by people in the US. Visits have risen by 8% for May so far versus April, which appears to be slower than the gain it saw from March to April, although more than what it appears to have been seeing earlier this year.

Facebook said last week that it has gained more than 10 million users since its f8 developer conference on April 21st, based on some pointed questions from Search Engine Land‘s Danny Sullivan. But it didn’t provide a total number. It had most recently said it had 400 million users in early February, when the company turned six years old.

The company’s traffic announcements appear to be coordinated with product launches, and to include as many zeros as possible (it has likely held off on announcing 450 million, for example, so it can announce 500 million with a bigger bang). One can interpret Facebook’s phrasing about past numbers to mean that the numbers are tied directly to the day the number is announced, as Sullivan did, but this is not a sure thing; the company has generally avoided being precise with what its numbers are.

However, we report on Facebook’s US and worldwide stats every month, by looking at the company’s advertising tool, and then comparing the numbers with what third party measurement services like comScore, Nielsen, Compete and Quantcast show. Although the tool is typically at least a few weeks behind, the numbers generally line up with third parties, and with Facebook’s occasionally-released numbers. This gives us at least some sense for what the general trends look like.

The most recent data we have is for March (April is due out soon). Only comScore and Facebook’s ad tool show worldwide data, so that’s what we’ll compare with Facebook’s statement that it grew by 10 million in less than a month in order to determine if the latest numbers indicate slowing traffic due to the privacy flare-up.

ComScore reported that Facebook had 484 million users in March. The advertising tool showed 436 million users in its advertising tool a couple weeks ago, which we think reflects its numbers from sometime around that time frame.

From here, the monthly worldwide growth rate gets harder to determine. ComScore showed 472 million uniques in January, then a drop 463 million in February before rising by 21 million in March. We tracked 373 million at the end of January, then 394 million at the end of February before going up by 42 million in March.

The other third party services, which do not provide publicly available global numbers for Facebook, generally showed a slow-down in February with stronger growth in January and March, possibly due to the fewer number of days in February.

There’s no average growth rate to determine from these numbers — just a bunch of fluctuations.

And, there are all sorts of other factors to take into account. Here are a few. ComScore says that users who go to Facebook pages but are not logged-in users may be counted, thus causing their numbers to look high. As we mentioned, the advertising tool does not clearly cover a specific time frame — so growth rates here are not precise. And Facebook’s announced milestones are so irregular that discerning growth trends out of them is currently impossible.

So, given all of these qualifications, we believe that Facebook may have seen a slight slowdown after f8, but it has seen dips before, and we do not have enough information yet to determine if there is a meaningful relationship between traffic and the privacy changes… or if there is even a slowdown.