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If Google buys Twitter, what happens next?

By Adrian Weckler

Published 26/09/2016

Twitter has struggled to attract new users to the service, which has around 313 million active monthly users
Twitter has struggled to attract new users to the service, which has around 313 million active monthly users

Should we care if Google buys Twitter? Would it mean a slow death for the struggling social network? Or could it save Twitter from its own financial underperformance in turning a profit?

It seems clear now that Twitter is up for sale. A number of companies are said to be interested, including Salesforce, Microsoft and the US mobile carrier Verizon.

But Google is the hot favourite.

On paper, it looks like an easy transaction. Google's profit last year was €20bn, around €5bn more than Twitter's current share value. It also has around €60bn in cash. So it could handily afford to buy Twitter.

What's more, Twitter is struggling badly to make money. After a decade, it still hasn't made a profit. Many investors now reckon it's stuck, resulting in its share price falling by 70pc in the last year.

And while news and sports addicts love the platform, no one else is joining in: its "active" monthly user figures have plateaued at 300m while recently spawned rivals such as Snapchat surge ahead in daily usage.

(Facebook has long ceased being a bona-fide rival, growing to nearly 30 times the size of Twitter in the last three years.)

So Twitter needs something to keep its mojo going.

Is Google the answer?

In the short term, it looks like a great fit for Twitter and a reasonable one for Google.

Twitter gets a huge new funding well and some of the world's best engineers and advertising specialists. It's a terrific shot at a stable future.

On the other hand, Google gets another chance to stick its oar into the world of social networking, meaning deeper data to try and exploit. After the poor performance of Google Plus, this might be tempting.

And Twitter might be considered cheap at an expected takeover price of around €17bn. LinkedIn, which was suffering similar challenges with growth and monetisation, sold for €23bn (to Microsoft) a few months ago. Whatsapp sold for almost €20bn (to Facebook) a couple of years ago.

The sale of those companies - especially Linkedin - makes Twitter more attractive as it is arguably the only social network of significant scale available. (Snapchat is still reaching for the moon and shows no sign of selling up yet.) Lastly, Google might like some of the things that Twitter is experimenting with, such as live-streaming sports events like Wimbledon and NFL football games.

But there are downsides to both companies too.

Twitter will be aware that Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, have never really been natives at social media. Even though Google is now run by chief executive Sundar Pichai - who might be more attuned to it - the two founders may not be natural stewards of such a trigger-happy, controversial forum as Twitter.

For Google, the hurdles might be more immediate. It would be taking over a company that is regularly at the forefront of controversy because of its basic service: free speech online. This brings with it all sorts of issues around abuse, censorship and political involvement. These are not things Google's owners would relish.

Then there are the potential regulatory challenges. Google already has a lot of heartache going on with the European Commission over alleged abuse of its dominant position. Would adding Twitter to its arsenal aggravate this scenario?

(Some might legitimately say that it wouldn't - it is precisely because Twitter isn't succeeding as a competitor to Google or Facebook that it is for sale in the first place.)

But business is risky. If it wasn't, anyone could do it. Despite all of the potential downsides, whoever gets to buy Twitter would be getting involved in something pretty exciting.

For all its woes, Twitter is probably the pulse of the world when it comes to breaking news and unfolding events. It has an urgency and relevance that few rivals match. What's more, its core users - media, celebrities and news and sports addicts - make up a very committed demographic that no other service presents in such a focused way.

Whoever buys it will inherit a culturally important entity.

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