As Europe is enriched by many different national and regional languages, social networking sites were initially highly regionalized. For example, in around 2006 practically every large European country had a different market leader. In France the site with the largest number of members was Skyrock; in Germany it was StudiVZ, and in Spain it was Tuenti (Palmer). All these sites basically performed the same role as Facebook, but in local languages.
In 2007, Facebook began to focus on putting its content in other languages and quickly ranked among the most popular social networking sites across Europe. In France, in 2009 there were around the same number of users in Facebook as in Skyrock, and by 2010 it had twice the number as its local competitor.
Meanwhile, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In attempted to wrest members from local competitors. They were also aided by the massive increase in penetration of social networking on Europeans. In just one year, between 2009 and 2010, this figure increased by nearly 11% (Alberto Urueña, Ferrari, Blanco, and Valdecasa).
This trend continues today. If we look at Alexa’s statistics on web traffic for September 2012, two factors are immediately apparent. First, it shows that an overall Top 10 ranking in Europe is unhelpful. Second, the global players have a high number of users in Europe (Top Sites. The Top 500 Sites on the Web).
These statistics are extremely useful, as they show visits rather than just members, and are updated on a monthly basis. The visits figure provides a more telling view of which social networking sites are actually used, as users may be members of several sites, but after a while habitually visit just one. Some reports on internet users’ habits are published and not updated for at least six months. Trends are changing so rapidly in this market, therefore, it is far more useful to have monthly figures.
An overall top ten list of visits for social network sites in Europe over the last month would read as follows:
3. Linked In
At first glance, it can be concluded that there are no substantial surprises in this list. All the global players are present and consolidating their presence. For example, Facebook and Twitter are both available not only in national languages, but also in other languages, such as Catalan, Welsh and Basque.
However, entry number 7, Odnoklassniki, gives a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface. This is a Russian website which aims to bring old school friends back in contact. It ranks as number 2 in Russia but is also among the top 10 in Germany and Italy. Not only does it tell a story of a Russian diaspora in parts of Europe, but also indicates that the more localized sites are still popular.
In fact, a look at the top 10 most visited social networking sites in six of Europe’s highest internet-using countries shows a different story. A pan-European top 10 list gives a jaundiced view of the real trends.
Facebook and Twitter still rank among the top three in each of the six countries: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. However, there are three sites which only feature highly in Germany: XING, Wer-kennt-wen and Wer-weiss-was.
Xing, which ranks second, is a professional contacts site, competing with Linked In. It also ranks above Linked In in Austria. Wer-kennt-wen was the original German market leader before Facebook was translated into German. It has lost its market share considerably but still ranks in the eighth place. Wer-weiss-was, which is tenth in the list, does not actually have a global competitor. It is a community website for swapping knowledge that provides more of a social community experience than Wikipedia.
The aforementioned Linked In does not figure at all in the Italian top ten. In fact, no professional networking site features in the list. Web traffic numbers suggest that Italians use the internet for nonprofessional networking, videos and newspapers. London-based Badoo, a direct rival to Facebook, ranks third in traffic and meeting sites. MeNePe and Twoo are also in the top ten. Furthermore, Italy has one of the largest small business sectors in Europe, along with Germany. This sector has thrived through using well-established face-to-face professional contacts for centuries. This way of doing business is preferred in Italy and, therefore, a formalized online network is superfluous to requirements.
In France, governments since the 1960’s have continually prided themselves on being a ‘cultural exception’ to the rest of the western hemisphere. This is somewhat reflected in its top 10 social networking sites. While Facebook, Linked In and Twitter occupy the top three spots, local products Viadeo and Over-blog are in fourth and fifth. The former is also a business networking site; whereas the latter is a mix between a blogging site and social forum. Curiously, former number one Skyrock is in the tenth, one place behind Badoo.
Spain has the same top three as France, but Facebook-competitor Tuenti is close by in the fourth place. However, it does not merely depend on loyal members. Demographic reports show that the Spanish site is used more by young people than Facebook. Tuenti has carved out a niche and is thus able to diversify itself from its giant rival. There are also two websites which serve the needs of particularly Spanish cultural nuances.
The Spanish population is well known for its love of gossip, celebrity or otherwise. There are seven magazines and three daily television programs dedicated to the subject. With this in mind, Taringa! From Argentina and the local Menéame rank in the top ten most visited. They act as a kind of virtual plaza or town square where users post articles, photos or videos which other members discuss and vote on. On Taringa! moderators award points for the posts they deem the best and users can be given a ‘Diamond’ ranking.
In the Netherlands, the only local site featuring in the top ten is Hyves, which led the market before Facebook published in Dutch. It has nevertheless maintained a strong position, currently in the sixth place. The main reasons why no other Dutch-based sites rank highly are that locals tend to use the internet more for searches and reading newspapers. Additionally, multilingualism is high in the Netherlands. There is, therefore, a much smaller linguistic barrier to using the global English-language sites than in many other European countries.
Of course, in the United Kingdom, no linguistic barrier exists at all. This is reflected in the list of sites with the densest internet traffic. With the exception of Gumtree, which is partly backpacker’s forum, partly classified ad’s site, all of the top ten are popular sites globally. In fact, while in some countries Badoo is popular, it barely features at all in its native UK.
It is clear then, that a pan-European top ten only tells part of the story. A breakdown of the highest internet-using countries shows there are large variations across the continent. Culture plays a significant role in these differences. The internet may be global, but certain services are far more local than others.
Nevertheless, it appears that the main explanation for the popularity of the localized sites is language. While the British and the Dutch follow the global model, the Spanish and French (where fewer people speak English fluently) have a greater propensity to use networking sites in their language. The fact that an Argentinean site does well in Spain is a case in point.
As the global websites’ translated versions become more used and develop a larger visitor base, it will likely become rarer to see local sites in their country’s top ten. Thus, the linguistic hypothesis will become more difficult to test. The exception to this exists in case there are cultural preferences for a particular site.
To continue testing this theory, one should look at where translation into local languages has not yet become the norm. In Russia, Facebook is in the third place in general social networking sites, behind local rivals V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki. The overall top ten social networking sites are mainly Russian, although Twitter and Linked In are the only global sites to infiltrate the top 5.
Yet, Russian has been available on Facebook since 2007. It has had as much time to reach the top spot as it has in other countries. As V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki are both designed to enable eventually meeting or reuniting people, it can be concluded that popularity is not just about availability of language, but also about fulfilling the needs of the local community.