Google to buy Twitter?

So today’s hot rumour is that Google and Twitter are in ‘advanced talks’ about the search engine buying the microblogging phenomenon. Is the story true – and would it be a good idea if it were?

It’s been confirmed that Google and Twitter are talking, but it’s less clear what they are actually talking about: it may be discussions about working together on a Google real time search engine rather than a full takeover.

But there’s something “right” about the idea of Google taking over Twitter, in exactly the way that the prospect of Facebook acquiring Twitter felt completely “wrong”.

There’s been a slew of stories recently that Twitter is starting to encroach on Google‘s home turf of search – that Twitter is now more useful in finding news and links than the omnipotent but traditional search engine. That kind of story was always going to irritate Google high command, who don’t like incursions onto their turf from any quarter – and especially not from a pipsqueak operation of the likes of Twitter.

But there’s no denying that you can get an awful lot of information from Twitter, far faster than you can from a search engine: a case in point being the plane crash in the Hudson. That’s why the idea of Google and Twitter collaborating on a real-time search engine to capture this new ground is such a good one; but does it mean Google would be interested in buying Twitter lock, stock and barrel?

Google’s history shows a mixed track record on this. On the one hand, they’ve been quick to see new sources of information that can be fed into their search engines, from Google News to Google Blogs, from analysing the chatter in private emails in Google Mail to collecting priceless web stats information from Google Analytics, and finding out the stories people are reading via RSS by making Google Reader available. All of this information about what people are reading/talking about is very much Google’s core business. However, Google’s shortlived Lively rival to Second Life was a bust on all levels – not very good, not offering anything you couldn’t get far better from Second Life, and most of all completely unrelated to the Google core information business.

But would buying a service like Twitter succeed within the Google culture? Google will always love its own children more than the stepchildren it buys up from other companies: the purchase of YouTube has been a success in business terms, but it still looks out of their main business focus and there’s something semi-detached about YouTube’s operations.

And Google has actually already bought a microblogging social network platform, a year and a half ago. It was called Jaiku, and you probably won’t have heard about it. After taking it over, Google closed Jaiku to new registrations while it mused what to do with it .. and then at the start of 2009 decided not to reopen it at all but to close it down and release the source code onto Google AppEngine instead.

This is very odd, because it looks like Google had the superior platform for microblogging (Jaiku is streets ahead in technology from the archaic, trouble-prone Twitter tech base), but completely missed the boat and throttled the life out of it’s own candidate by shutting down registrations. And now, having completely botched that, they’re in the position of possibly paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up Twitter instead.

Would they treat Twitter any better than Jaiku? Well, yes: and the amount of money involved is one big reason why. You tend to value and treasure things that cost you an arm and a leg, whereas Jaiku was more like an impulse purchase that you forget to take out of the bag until months later.

Twitter would certainly benefit from the huge technological know-how and sheer quantity of resources Google could bring to it – the fail whale would become part of folk memory, lost to the ages with Google’s server farms on tap. The real time information and search possibilities that Twitter has created make it the kind of service that will appeal to Google techies, who will have countless innovations to bring to it. All in all – it’s actually hard to see a downside to a Google/Twitter buy-out.

Many would question that conclusion and find too little synergy between a search engine company and a social networking one. Surely the more obvious tie-up would be between Twitter and Facebook as they operate in similar areas?

Well – no, that would be disastrous, as I’ve argued before. What would Twitter add to Facebook? Absolutely nothing. Facebook already has a status update features, and recent (much-hated) changes to its home page have added Twitter-esque rolling news. How could Facebook see Twitter’s less sophisticated service as adding anything to what’s on offer already?

The thing is that Twitter succeeds because (like the original Google home page) it does one thing, and one thing only – but it does it brilliantly. Add a whole lot of things around it, you take the focus off that service and you end up with a mishmash – like Yahoo! when it went all portal. Even today, with all the difference products and services it offers, Google’s homepage retains that simplicity and clarity, it’s just that it’s been very clever in how it integrates all its new services in the results page you get next without distracting the user in the slightest.

Google’s not a perfect solution for a takeover partner for Twitter, but it’s better than just about any others you could name like Adobe, NewsCorp or (God forbid) Microsoft. The latter in particular seems to be really struggling in Web 2.0 and is tone deaf to almost any aspect of social media, which is quite extraordinary for such a leading tech company.

Twitter does need someone to buy them up. As hugely successful as they are at signing people up at the moment, the fact is that they’re not making any money out of it. While they flirt with Google AdWord-style boxes on the home page, Twitter’s executives don’t seem to have a business plan capable of sustaining the service long- or even medium-term. And in these recessionary times, it’s going to be hard to attract more investment funds while remaining independent.

So personally I think Google’s as good a potential suitor as Twitter could hope for. A deal with Google may assure Twitter of a long life, while any others risk having the Friends Reunited effect (which essentially fell apart the minute that social networking site was bought by British broadcaster ITV.)

Let’s hope that Twitter, after almost being the blushing bride with Facebook in aborted and ill-tempered talks in 2008, can find lasting happiness in the arms of its new suitor.

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