The Google Black Hole
Sergey and Larry just bought my company. Uh oh.
Technical problems appear to be hampering other recent acquisitions. Last October, when Jaiku announced that it had been purchased by Google, the company's founders said that they would close the site to new users "for the time being" in order to work with Google's engineers. Three months later, new sign-ups were still down, and Jaiku offered another update on its blog: "To be honest, a lot of our time in the early going was spent on getting to know Google," wrote co-founder Jyri Engeström. In April, Jaiku said again that its troubles were almost over. And then in May, after users complained that Jaiku was slow, Engeström promised, once more, that the service would ride high. "We feel the short term pain, too," he wrote. "Thanks for sticking with us!" Now, 10 months after the acquisition, Jaiku still remains closed to new users. In that time, both Twitter (which is hampered by its own legendary tech problems) and FriendFeed, another here's-what-I'm-doing start-up, have been signing up new people. Both, incidentally, were founded by former Googlers.
A Google spokesman assured me that Jaiku's delays had nothing to do with the merger; he suggested that they were the normal troubles faced by any company trying to build a popular service. In an interview, David Lawee, the Google vice president in charge of acquisitions, outlined the rigorous steps Google takes after it buys companies. All prospective deals are approved by Google's executive management team, and every merger is assigned an executive "sponsor" who marshals the resources—engineering, PR, sales, etc.—necessary to get the new company running within the Google infrastructure.
While Lawee acknowledged that it takes work to move a new company onto Google's systems, he said that Google is "pretty accurate" at predicting how difficult that technical transition will be. Usually, Lawee said, the move takes three to six months, and its benefits are significant: YouTube, one of Google's largest acquisitions, now slurps up 13 hours of video every minute, a scale that it would have had a tough time achieving on its own.
Lawee also pushed back against the idea of a Google black hole—even if the public doesn't immediately see the results, the companies that Google acquires change the firm in big ways, he argued. Early in 2006, Google bought Measure Map, a much-beloved tool for bloggers to check traffic on their sites; the service has been closed to new users ever since. But Google didn't buy Measure Map for Measure Map, Lawee said. It bought the company so it could add its features to another Google traffic program, Google Analytics—"and we did that." Google had similar shape-shifting intentions for JotSpot, a company Lawee characterized as being "midway through a pretty exciting development plan." JotSpot's users might not like changes to the service, he said, but behind the scenes, JotSpot's employees are hard at work throughout Google.
Considering Google's history, Digg fans should probably be celebrating rather than lamenting the company's nonacquisition. Diggers who were excited about a potential Diggoogle argued that such an arrangement would be preferable to Digg under Microsoft or another tech giant. But there's little reason to believe that would be the case. TechCrunch's Arrington reported that Google wanted to integrate Digg into Google News—not an indication that the Big G would have let Digg be Digg.
It's important to note that acquisition hiccups aren't unique to Google: In general, merging a start-up with a big company creates more problems than it solves. I called up Jason Fried, the head of 37 Signals, a successful Web company that makes software for small businesses and that has been adamant about staying independent. "You take great talents and you put them in this big company and they get drowned out by all this policy stuff," Fried argues. "Putting a small company in a big company kills what was good about the small company."
Is that what's happening to Jaiku? Is it working on a supersecret social site that'll blow away its competitors—or has it been left to wither? And what about GrandCentral, that great telephone company start-up Google bought a year ago—why is it still closed to new users? Nobody really knows. For now, all of those details are stuck inside the black hole.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews.