Google+: Gunning for Facebook

Google+Facebook never has lacked for ambition. Consider that the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has explicitly said he wants Facebook be a blue-chip firm — you know, a business on par with Proctor & Gamble (NYSE:PG) or Coke (NYSE:KO).

With more than 800 million active users — which likely will reach 1 billion soon — Facebook already is a mega-brand. According to the buzz, its IPO is expected to raise $10 billion at a valuation of more than $100 billion. Not P&G or Coke market cap, but bigger than other Dow members like 3M (NYSE:MMM, $57 billion) and United Technologies (NYSE:UTX, $66 billion).

But in the social networking world, Internet users are fickle and the competitive landscape can change quickly. If you remember, Facebook was once the underdog. Yet it ultimately was able to kick aside Friendster and dethrone MySpace.

Now the competition is knocking on Facebook’s door. For example, Twitter recently introduced new features that make it even easier for its users to share their thoughts. The company also struck a key deal to integrate within Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS platform. And Twitter has the resources to compete with Facebook — so far this year, the company has raised more than $1 billion, including a recent $300 million investment from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Despite this, Twitter still has its challenges. Do users really see it as a place to hang out with their friends? Not really. For the most part, Twitter is a place for news and celebrity happenings.

Instead, it looks like Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) social network, Google+, is the most viable alternative to Facebook. According to Paul Allen — an Internet traffic expert and the founder of (NASDAQ:ACOM) — the service has reached 62 million registered users. About 15 million came on board during December alone.

Google has launched an aggressive national television advertising campaign, including commercials featuring the Muppets, as well as National Basketball Association stars. They highlight Google+’s cool Hangouts capability, which allows for video chat.

Based on current trends, Allen believes the social network could reach 400 million users by the end of 2012. If this happens, Google+ will be the world’s No. 2 player in the space.

However, one issue is engagement. Are Google+ users doing much on the network? The problem is, while total user numbers are available, details on activity are scarce. But engagement takes time and likely will improve as the user count continues to grow, as was the case with Facebook.

Google+ has another interesting advantage: Google’s Android mobile operating system. During the Christmas weekend, there were a staggering 3.7 million activations. This compares to a daily average of 700,000 (which still is substantial). Besides being a new way to snag users for Google+, Android also might help improve engagement — probably from an explosion of photo-sharing, among other features.

It’s no secret that Google CEO Larry Page has indicated Google+ is the main priority for the company — it’s a must-win that cannot afford to lose marketing dollars to Facebook. So far, it looks like Google is a worthy competitor — and perhaps even a serious threat.

Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPOPlaybook, a site dedicated to the hottest news and rumors about initial public offerings. He also is the author of “All About Short Selling” and “All About Commodities.” Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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