Facebook reports that as many as 83 million of its users are phony--but the numbers tell only part of the story.
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Like the number of people served at McDonald's, the number of users on Facebook is the stuff of legend: Three times the population of the United States! Almost one-seventh of the world's population, all using the social network!
Not so fast-- it turns out that a good number of those users aren't users at all, according to Facebook.
Facebook has said in a 10-Q filing that 83 million Facebook accounts are fake. Of that number--which represents about 9% of Facebook accounts--about 5% are duplicates, about 3% are misclassified, and about 2% are undesirable accounts, such as spam.
Facebook itself has made no bones about the fact that not all of its accounts are on the up-and-up. BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones shined the spotlight on this in July, when he conducted an investigation indicating that many Facebook "likes" may be bogus.
After being contacted by a social media marketing professional who said his clients were starting to suspect that their Facebook ads weren't reaching "real people," the BBC launched an unscientific investigation. It created a Facebook page for a phony company called VirtualBagel. The page received many likes, with a disproportionate amount coming from Egypt and the Philippines as opposed to the United States and the United Kingdom, according to the BBC story. It also seemed highly likely that many of the users who liked the VirtualBagel page were misrepresenting themselves in some way.
Facebook's Terms and Services could not be clearer on the issue of fake (and multiple) accounts: it states that users must commit to not providing any false personal information on Facebook or creating an account for anyone but themselves without permission, and to not creating more than one account.
If your business counts on Facebook for marketing, support, and general customer engagement, what should you take away from all this? First, it's important to stay on top of the numbers of users, not only for Facebook but for other major social networks such as Twitter. But as Facebook's news shows, you should take those numbers with a grain of salt. Focus more on who is using each network and how they're using it rather than on raw user numbers.
It's also important to keep your finger on the pulse of up-and-comers: Pinterest, for example, has only a fraction of the user numbers of Facebook or Twitter, but its numbers are rising--and the way that users engage on Pinterest is compelling.
The bottom line: User numbers tell only part of the story.
Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.
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