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Whatever Became of Google Finance?

On a day when most of the financial media are speculating about the reasons that led to the retirement of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) chief financial officer, I'm more concerned about the company's chief financial offering.

It's been well over a year since Google Finance -- Google's slick online personal-finance portal -- was launched. It certainly turned heads at the time around Fooldom.

•  "Let me tell you why the new Google Finance rocks," exclaimed Tim Beyers.

•  It's an "aggressive volley," noted Alyce Lomax.

•  "Google Finance may be a watershed moment for Web 2.0," opined Stephen Ellis.

•  "There is promise there," I noted a few months later, when the portal launched discussion boards.

But when was the last time you found yourself at Google's personal-finance portal? I can go days -- weeks, even -- without dropping by, and I'm someone who sets up a sleeping bag in front of nearly every financial resource available online.

The rise and stall of a financial portal
Google Finance came out roaring. It was more than just the slick interface. Aligning major news events to stock charts? Brilliant. Incorporating blog searches into the ticker symbol queries? Genius!

It may have lacked the depth of financial information available through Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) or the stock-screening tools available through Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) MSN, but it was an inspiring freshman effort.

So why is it that, a few months into its sophomore year, we find Google Finance essentially stuck in the mud?

The site still packs an impressive wallop at first glance. You get an unmatched assortment of resources on each stock's landing page. Publicly traded peers, upcoming corporate events, and key financials come up right away.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long to notice the cobwebs. Check out the active discussions, and you'll typically be treated to silence.

Take Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) , for example. It's always an incendiary stock -- the kind of company that you either love or hate. I've owned it since 2002, and I always love to hear what other investors -- long, short, or on the fence -- have to say about the company.

Well, it doesn't take long to assess the user perspectives on Google Finance. There have been just three posts on the Netflix page over the past week. They're not even three good posts, as each entry is just one sentence long.

Over on Yahoo!, there are 106 messages that have been posted to the Netflix board over the past week. Our own Netflix discussion board has 132 postings in that same time span. There's also a Netflix-specific board available to Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers -- it's one of the newsletter's recommendations -- that has collected 49 posts over the past seven days.

Quantity of posts is not a barometer of usefulness, but I'll hold the quality of the posts on our moderated forums up against any stock forum.

So what's going on at Google Finance? While there are some pretty lively exchanges going on if you happen to land on the right stock -- like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) -- the investor exchanges are pretty thin. Even on the board for Google itself (which you'd think would be a hot topic given the stock's meteoric rise from $85 to more than $500), it's a thin forest. There are just nine posts on the GOOG board over the past three days.

More than words
Maybe I'm reading too much into the lack of posting traffic on the majority of Google's stock boards. The company's got a great section of blog entries on third-party sites, and engaged investors are always welcome to carry on with the conversation over there.

Typical Google. It knows how to draw a crowd but then can't find a way to make folks stick around. That's a strategy that works great on its search engine. When a user clicks out of Google through a paid-search spot, Big G rings the register. That may happen through sponsored news and blog feeds, but isn't the ideal situation to make a community site sticky?

I realize that monetizing forums is as challenging as getting through the first level of Odd Pawn without online cheats, but it's better to keep a crowd close than to find them bookmarking a stranger's blog instead.

Maybe the problem is in the same landing page that packs such a visceral first impression. There's so much clutter going on -- far unlike the simplicity of Google's own search-engine landing page -- that it's easy to get distracted by things like a listing of key executives or a calendar of upcoming conference calls.

Obviously, Google isn't about to abandon Google Finance. In fact, it just launched a Canadian version last month. Still, it would be nice to see the site evolve into something more potent. Like way too many of the Google pet projects, Google Finance appears to be brushed off to the side, and we know how hard it is to grow in the shade.

I'd complain about it on the Google Finance stock board, but what would be the point? Who would notice? Who would respond?   

Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. Yahoo! and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Try sampling any or all of the newsletters with a free 30-day trial subscription.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a huge fan of Google, and it would be his homepage if it weren't for taking up that piece of real estate. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story, save for Netflix. Rick is also part of theRule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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