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What If Google Had Bought Friendster?

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The New York Times is running an article about Friendster’s woes, and latest attempts to revive itself. Naturally, it begins with Google.

    JONATHAN ABRAMS was in a spot. He could take the safe bet and accept the $30 million that Google was offering him for Friendster, the social networking Web start-up he began only a year earlier, in 2002. Saying yes to Google would provide a quick and stunning payout for relatively little work and instantly place the Friendster Web site in front of hundreds of millions of users across the globe.

Obviously, Friendster said no, Google released Orkut, MySpace emerged as the new number one, News Corp bought MySpace, and everyone (except Facebook) became largely irrelevant. But what if Google had completed the deal? What would be different?

Well, for starters, Jonathan Abrams would have over a billion dollars in Google stock, and Facebook’s incestors would also have cashed in on Google’s 2004 IPO. In fact, the money they would have made would have made Friendster a bigger sale than the recent YouTube deal, at least as far as money is concerned. Also, Google wouldn’t have bothered with Orkut, which basically went nowhere outside of Brazil.

What else? Friendster, as part of Google, would have had a better shot at success, just from increased exposure. Being part of a big company makes users feel safer, because they know the site won’t shut down in a year. Plus, if you look at Google’s history, its earlier project were far more often successful than the more recent ones. Hitwise’s chart of popular Google services practically reads like a timeline, with older projects being more popular than their quality, and younger projects being less popular (some are never even noticed by the market).

Friendster was actually popular once, and certainly was when Google almost bought it. If Google was stuck with a popular property when it was a smaller company, it would have put a lot of effort behind that company. We might have seen less of the small products we have seen from Google. Perhaps Google wouldn’t have the focus to buy Keyhole, and revolutionize things with Google Maps and Google Earth. I wonder if we’d never get Gmail, but instead watched as Google tried to convince us all to communicate through Friendster.

I’ll bet that if Google had bought Friendster, Friendster would still have lost just like it did without Google. The difference: They would have dragged down Google with them. Google would have watched as Friendster fell apart, and it had nothing but search to fall back on. Sure, Google search would still be popular, but the money and effort poured into Friendster would have dragged the stock price down. Google would have bought other social sites, like del.ioio.us, Flickr, maybe even Digg and YouTube, in an attempt to beat MySpace, and the company would be suffering ten times worse than Yahoo is now.

In two weeks, as the last piece of its Vista launch, Microsoft would announce it had bought Google.

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Nathan Weinberg writes the popular InsideGoogle blog, offering the latest news and insights about Google and search engines.

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