Google Plus recently passed Twitter to take the No. 2 spot for social media. Facebook is still No. 1, of course, but a new report released by Global Web Index shows Google Plus gaining ground. The report, which included approximately 90 percent of the world's Internet users, found that about 25 percent regularly use Google Plus, compared to 21 percent using Twitter and 51 percent regularly using Facebook. To some, the report of Google Plus'  success came as a surprise. While Twitter and Facebook have become cultural phenomena, Google Plus gets comparatively little attention.

Government Technology has reported on various ways government organizations use Twitter over the past few years. For example, presidential candidates used Twitter to gain support for their candidacies, the micro-blogging platform is being used in 311 systems, and one company found a way to manage vehicle fleets using Twitter APIs. By comparison, Google Plus gets less attention, perhaps because many view Google Plus as a less popular alternative to Facebook. But with an estimated 343 million active users, there must be something Google Plus is providing that people aren't getting elsewhere.

The state of Utah, with a strong social media presence across multiple platforms, has seen Google Plus surge in popularity in the past few months. Chief Technology Officer David Fletcher said the state is keeping an eye on the platform to identify new opportunities for citizen engagement. The state's presence on Facebook continues to be strong -- much stronger than Google Plus, but Google Plus activity has spiked dramatically for the state in a short period of time. According to Fletcher, its following has gone from about 3,000 to more than 23,000 in just the past few months, and he anticipates that the growth will continue.  (click on image below to view larger image)

In addition to rapid growth, users on Google Plus interact with government differently than they do on Facebook, Fletcher said. “What I've seen is a different nature of interaction and collaboration on Google Plus than I see on Facebook,” Fletcher explained. "I'm seeing more interactivity with our Google Plus followers than I do with Facebook followers."

The differences between Google Plus and Facebook aren't limited to the way external audiences engage, he said. Rather there are considerable differences in the way they foster internal collaboration. Google has steadily added functionality to its application suite over the years, and recently, those improvements have become apparent on Google Plus. Because Utah uses Google Apps for Government, some of these changes have been very useful, Fletcher said. Features like Google Plus Circles are now more closely integrated with collaboration tools like Google Documents, he explained. Employees use the tools to easily share information with different workgroups or video chat while working on a spreadsheet. Since the applications are all integrated, they can be easily used for collaboration. This ease of use encourages engagement between users within the government, and outside of it.

Utah now uses Google Plus Hangouts to reach more people with its live announcements. Utah Speaker of the House Rebecca Lockhart opened the 2013 legislative session on Jan. 28 with a live update via Google Plus Hangouts, briefing citizens on what to expect in the coming year. (click on image below to view larger image)

The uptick of Google Plus users in Utah is not surprising, from the vantage point of Gartner Research Director Brian Blau. Google grows its services slowly and steadily, only releasing features when they are ready and useful to users, he said. Blau explained that by comparison, Facebook likes to make a big splash with a small stone. The recent unveiling of Facebook's Graph Search tool, for instance, was given a lot of attention and hype, but the tool is still undeveloped and few people actually have access to it, Blau said. “The thing that impresses me about Google and Google Plus is that Google Plus is integrally linked to a lot of other apps and services. Their features as they roll them out are a bit more mature, they work a little better. And these, I think, are some of the reasons why [some governments] are seeing an uptick.”

Blau is unsure whether Google is attempting to compete directly with Facebook. “If their intention is to become a feature-rich social network like Facebook, they're not quite there yet,” he said. Components such as a fully featured application programming interface for developers are among the tools that Google Plus lacks and Facebook users take for granted, he said. However, he predicts that Google Plus will likely continue to grow as more features and integration are added to Google Apps.

For government, there are few better ways to engage the public than with social media. “And it doesn't have to be that expensive,” Blau said. “A lot of things in social [media] are free, it just takes time.”

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com