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Summary:

Twitter has been having talks about a possible acquisition by either Google or Facebook, according to a WSJ report — and both companies could probably benefit from such a deal. But would an acquisition by either one be good for the service or its users?

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According to sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal in a story published late Wednesday night, Twitter has been having what the paper called “low-level” discussions about a possible acquisition by either Google or Facebook, at a valuation of between $8 billion and $10 billion. Obviously, the company’s financial backers — which include VC firms like Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers — are looking forward to a potential exit and a hefty return on their investment. And both Google and Facebook could probably make use of Twitter in some form or another. But would an acquisition by either web giant be good for the messaging service or its users?

It’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal’s report is filled with the sort of caveats that suggest Twitter investors shouldn’t start banking their Google shares or buying Facebook hoodies just yet. In addition to calling the talks’ “low level” (although it’s not exactly clear what that means) the newspaper report says that the talks have so far “gone nowhere” and that both companies have only expressed what the WSJ called “latent interest,” another phrase whose meaning is unclear at best. The general tone is that no deal is coming any time soon, and the Journal spends most of the piece talking about whether the valuation of the company implies there is a bubble in Silicon Valley. Some observers, including Valley legend Bob Metcalfe, saw the piece as a marketing effort by Twitter.

That said, however, would Google or Facebook be interested in theoretically buying Twitter? That seems like an obvious yes in both cases. Although the company is substantially larger than any of Facebook’s past acquisitions, and a number of observers have argued that this makes it unlikely the social network would be an acquirer, it’s not really that far-fetched an idea. Facebook bought FriendFeed in part because it wanted to get Bret Taylor, who is now the chief technology officer and the brains behind the network’s open graph API and other offerings, but it also clearly wanted to build the kind of real-time conversational elements of FriendFeed into Facebook — which it has done with its unified social inbox and the recent rollout of real-time commenting.

Twitter would arguably fit perfectly into that strategy. But the biggest problem for Facebook is the valuation — the company doesn’t have the cash to buy something for $8-$10 billion, and to this point the social network has done primarily small cash deals (although it has reportedly also issued stock to FriendFeed and others as part of those acquisitions), in part because it doesn’t want to push the company over the 500-shareholder mark and trigger public reporting of its financial results.

Google, meanwhile, desperately needs an injection of social features, as we have written a number of times, since it has completely failed to get much going in that area with ventures like Google Wave and Google Buzz. Buying Twitter (which it could easily afford to do) would give it a massive boost in terms of real-time social communication. But the search giant’s acquisition history isn’t likely to fill anyone with confidence about how Twitter might fare under the Google umbrella. Twitter founder Evan Williams knows that better than anyone, since he sold Blogger to the web company, and CEO Dick Costolo knows a bit about it too, since he sold Feedburner to Google before he joined Twitter.

For every acquisition that has paid off, like YouTube or Keyhole (which became Google Earth), the company has made a whole series of purchases that have gone absolutely nowhere. In at least three of those cases, it bought interesting social applications that could have easily become something huge — Dodgeball, the company that Dennis Crowley started before he founded Foursquare, the Twitter-style micro-blogging service Jaiku and question-and-answer service Aardvark — and did absolutely nothing with them. Twitter is obviously a lot larger than any of these, but that’s still no guarantee that Twitter wouldn’t be smothered by the Google-plex, and gradually lose momentum.

One of the best things about Twitter, despite all the problems it has had in the not-too-distant past with reliability and other issues, is that it is totally, 100-percent focused on being a real-time communications network. Being bought by either Google or Facebook might bring a big payoff, and substantial financial and operational resources, but it would almost certainly dilute that focus — simply because it would be a small part of a much larger company — and that would be a shame just when the service is starting to show its real potential.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Refracted Moments

  1. THANKS THATS GOOD NEWS

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  2. The probability of Facebook acquiring Twitter is exactly 0%. Those who think otherwise don’t fully understand either platform. Google on the other hand is an entirely different matter. Twitter’s orientation around the “Interest Graph” makes it ultimately much more monetizable over time than does Facebook’s Social Graph, and it dovetails quite nicely with Google’s subject-matter/intent-based value proposition. Twitter and Google are in this sense highly complimentary. No such synergistic relationships exist between Twitter and Facebook.

    In fact, if Twitter ever figures out that it’s primary value proposition is in it’s broadcast/notification capabilities and starts to re-orient its product roadmap within the channel metaphor as outlined by Joshua Kerievsky at Industrial Logic (http://bit.ly/ay7Hsy), they (Twitter) have the opportunity to ultimately become substantially more valuable than Facebook.

    Unfortunately the Twitter product has essentially drifted sideways for the last two years. Until they get someone on board who has a strong vision toward driving the product (and revenue) beyond the “Promoted” suite of ad products, they will fall disappointingly short of realizing their potential value.

    For the time being I don’t see Twitter entertaining any acquisition overtures. They have $300 million in the bank which gives them plenty of runway to figure some things out. If they can re-orient the product in the next year like I hope they will, they’ll have no problem getting to an IPO. And remember, neither Twitter’s current nor former CEO are especially fond of Google – both had their companies acquired by Google (Evan Williams with Blogger / Dick Costolo with Feedburner) only to watch Google essentially bleed them to death.

    The only way that Twitter sells to anyone is if Dick can’t get the revenue machine cranking on all cylinders within the next 12 – 24 months. If he can’t, I think the board takes it out of his hand and takes an offer from Google at between $15 – $25 Billion dollars. My bet (and hope) however is that Twitter eventually finds its groove and goes it alone.

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    1. Some interesting points, Jeff — thanks for the comment.

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      1. No problem. Completely agree with your headline.

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  3. A bigger question to ask, money aside, would it be in the best interest of Twitter’s Users? It’s almost certain that the real-time aspect of Twitter will be embedded into each one’s infrastructure, but will that serve the greater good?

    Twitter brings great value being independant of these giants, but money is hard to walk away from when you are talking Billions.

    I hope Twitter stays the course and doesn’t sell until they have ironed out the problems, then they might be able to sell for twice as much.

    Thanks for the post,

    owen

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  4. Assuming a reasonable sum could be agreed upon, it would probably be to the benefit of either Google (immediate positive social presence) or Facebook (unequivocal dominance in social) to acquire Twitter. It may (or may not) be so great for Twitter, although at least a few folks would benefit immensely. I doubt, however, that it would be good for consumers in the long run (with social consolidation being the worse of the two options).

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  5. I never quite understood the love American tech journalists/ bloggers had for twitter. A ‘real-time communications network’? Come on. 140 characters – that’s hardly ‘communication’. Hell, more meaningful messages were sent out in Morse code in former centuries!

    Twitter is nice to put shortened URLs into the orbit, and that’s what it’s mostly used for these days. It’s a headline distribution engine. The real communication happens elsewhere – on Google, on Facebook, and in the millions of blogs and forums.

    I am not a fan of Zuckerberg’s policy for a lot of reasons, and even though I am in awe of a lot of Google’s products (like gmail and Google maps), and even though it’s still the best search engine in the universe, I’m more or less indifferent toward the company. True, both earn their money with ads and/ or third-party apps. But you, Mathew, or at least the service you write for, do the same right here.

    As for your concerns: Facebook doesn’t have anything to gain from a Twitter acquisition, so why would they? They wouldn’t even shut down a competitor if they did: Most people who have active Twitter accounts have Facebook accounts too and have them connected via some feed engine. And if Facebook would choose to shut down Twitter after an acquisition, it could easily be replicated by a competitor.

    No more do I see Twitter go down if Google would buy them. Aardvark and Google’s other ‘purchases that have gone absolutely nowhere’ all had a much smaller user base than Twitter. You’re comparing apples with oranges here. Should Google indeed buy Twitter and do ‘absolutely nothing with it’, Twitter would just stay the way it is now – with an ever growing user base. A more valid comparison for Twitter would be Blogger: Blogger’s user base hasn’t decreased under Google’s regiment, but is still growing.

    I don’t much care for Twitter, but even if Google would buy it, it wouldn’t go down in flames. Although I think a much more likely (and promising) scenario for Google going social would be to start head-hunting out of the box. And I’m not talking about software engineers. If you look at Google’s job postings, it’s usually either techies or sales guys who they’re looking for. Wrong (or at least incomplete) approach, IMHO. Maybe it would be tome to dig into social sciences and humanities – journalists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, photographers, artists. People who ARE social, who want to be social, and don’t find personal fulfilment in writing code (like software engineers) or use their networks basically for optimizing their annual bonus.

    Just saying.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Gabi.

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  6. oh please do sell, the long goodbye will be so much fun!

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  7. TWITTER DON’T DO IT YOU HEAR ME?
    GOOGLE IS FULL OF RETARDS WHO DON’T KNOW SH** ABOUT SECURITY E.g. : ermm… get the linkextend toolbar and select safebrowsing report… install on Firefox 3.XXX
    FACEBOOK DOESN’T GIVE CRAP FOR USER PRIVACY LIKE THE INSTAPERSONALIZATION FEATURE THAT WILL SHARE YOUR INFO TO THIRD PARTIES
    YOU HELP SAVED THE FUTURES OF CITIZENS FROM THE US GOV. BY GIVING A WEEK FOR US TO UNFOLLOW WIKILEAKS…
    I’ll be more than glad to become CEO and keep twitter strong.

    Regards,
    Wellwisher

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  8. Can Yahoo buy twitter?

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  9. Please Twitter don’t get sold out.

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  10. Is Twitter done inventing yet ? Then they have no particular reason not to sell. Costolo should quite possibly smash this meme in the crib if he isn’t piloting the Fonz as he jumps the shark. I had thought Twitter was just getting started on its innovation curve until I heard about this rumor.

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