Facebook Doubles US Users

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Facebook’s great 2009 growth through its fifth year recalls that of Google, which took off and went public after its fifth year

Facebook more than doubled its U.S. audience from 54.5 million visitors in December 2008 to 111.9 million visitors in December 2009, according to researcher comScore.

The success of the social network in its fifth year is the greatest for a Web company since that of Google, which went public after its fifth year and now earns nearly 2 billion a quarter in profit.

Facebook, which continues to add new features geared to retain and grow its loyal audience past 350 million users, soaks up 7 percent of all time spent online by users in the U.S.

ComScore also found that many of Facebook’s core metrics more than doubled. From December 2008 to December 2009, the site’s unique visitors grew 105 percent; its page views grew 151 percent and total time spent grew 198 percent.

Other stats, such as average minutes per usage day and average usage days per visitors grew more modestly, at 6 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

Facebook did see its the average minutes per visit drop 11 percent, to which comScore noted makes sense when one considers the increasing frequency with which people are coming back to the social network. See comScores’ full stats in full here.

ComScore Director of Industry Analysis Andrew Lipsman said the great growth spurts validate Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Law, in which the amount of information people share doubles ever year.

“In other words, once the network is in place and people are active and engaged, the dynamics of the social interaction taking place incentivize participants to share information about themselves more regularly, which in turn solicits more engagement from others, creating a virtuous cycle of interaction,” Lipsman noted.

What is perhaps astounding about the growth is that Facebook only opened registration to the masses a few years ago. Zuckerberg launched the company from his Harvard University dorm room in February 2004, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2006 that Facebook became available to the general public. Facebook is just shy of its sixth birthday (4 Feb).

With that level set, the company’s meteroric growth is comparable to and in some ways better than that of Google, with whom it is vying for peoples’ attention on the Web.

Google took off incredibly after its fifth birthday, and debuted on the stock market in August 2004, almost six years after Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched it from Stanford University.

The parallels are interesting but remember that Facebook is a social network and Google is a search engine, making them somewhat apples and oranges from a user experience perspective.

People go to Google to search the Web. Google tallied 87.8 billion searches in December 2009, or 66.8 percent of the more than 131 billion searches conducted worldwide, according to comScore.

People go to Facebook to hang out with friends and even meet new people online, as the comScore stats show. Time spent at the social site is bound to be greater.

However, each company is dabbling in the other’s backyard. Facebook has improved search to surface more relevant social and news information. Google has begun socializing its search experience. How these efforts will pan out for the respective companies is unclear.

It’s impossible to compare them from a financial perspective because Facebook, which makes millions each year, is private. The publicly traded Google just made a profit of 1.97 billion for the fourth quarter and has $24.5 billion in the bank.

Though if Facebook were to go public in 2010 at age six it would draw greater comparisons to Google for being on a similar trajectory, if in Facebook can draw up a monetization engine that rivals Google’s AdWords system. They say there is money in the social network mines, but few have been able to mine it and product success worth widely publicising.

Meanwhile, while Google’s search innovation continue at a rapid clip, Facebook showed in this just ended third week of January that it is building a full head of steam after the holiday. Facebook is ramping up its efforts to let users access external applications through Facebook.

The site now lets users receive updates from MSN, Yahoo! or Gmail accounts in their Facebook e-mail inboxes, similar to how they may receive e-mail notifications from Facebook when they’re tagged in a photo or receive a message.

In the ultimate nod to its great growth, Facebook on 21 Jan. broke ground at its first custom data center. Located in Prineville, Ore., the facility houses thousands of networked computer servers that in turn houses data on Facebook’s users.

This will be crucial as the site builds out its developers platform and Facebook Connect bridge to external sites.

Google is believed to have dozens of data centers all over the world, but remember it is twice Facebook’s age. Give Facebook time; as Google proved, the best Web companies grow up big, strong and fast.

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