Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) recently hired Christopher Poole, founder of the controversial imageboard site 4chan, to work under Bradley Horowitz, its VP of streams, photos, and sharing. Google didn't disclose exactly what Poole will be working on, but it will likely be related to challenging Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) with fresh social networking tactics. Let's take a look back at why Google needs to "get" social, and how Poole might help.
Google's social networking woes
Google's long list of social networking failures include Orkut, Latitude, Buzz, Jaiku, and Dodgeball. It launched its latest effort, Google+, over four years ago in response to Facebook's growth. In late 2013, Google claimed that 300 million users viewed Google+ streams on a monthly basis, but it stopped providing updates after that.
Last January, pseudonymous blogger Edward Morbius claimed that excluding linked YouTube comments, only 4 million to 6 million people actively posted and interacted with each other on Google+ every month, and that less than 200 million users had posted any public content at all.
Google neither confirmed nor denied those numbers, but the network clearly wasn't living up to expectations. In 2014, Google removed Google+ profile photos and circle counts from its search engine, and Google+ founder and chief Vic Gundotra resigned. Last year, Google split the network into stand-alone Photos and Streams services, removed Google+ integration from all of its ecosystem services, and relaunched the entire brand with new "Communities" and "Collections." Communities encouraged users to join groups with similar interests, while Collections lets users curate photos and videos.
Can Poole help Google?
Poole, who founded 4chan in 2003 at the age of 15, clearly understands how to attract people to a site and let them create and join groups based on their personal interests. Therefore, it's likely that Google will ask him to handle the new Google+ Communities and Collections. TechCrunch's Josh Constine, who previously interviewed Poole, recently declared that the 4chan founder "truly gets the sociology behind why people use (social products)," and it's that "understanding of emotion, not just algorithms, that Google needs." Rolling Stone once called Poole the "Mark Zuckerberg of the online underground."
However, that praise might be a bit premature. Poole admits that 4chan wasn't an original idea -- it was based on the Japanese imageboard site 2chan. 4chan hosts 22 million monthly visitors, but that's a tiny figure compared to Reddit's 232 million monthly visitors and Facebook's 1.59 billion monthly active users.
4chan's user base mainly consists of men between the ages of 18 to 34, whose primarily interests include Japanese culture, anime, comics, video games, technology, music, and movies. That's a narrow spectrum of users compared to Facebook's broad reach among both genders and all age groups.
4chan's controversial reputation also dwarfs its actual size. Much of 4chan's growth was attributed to the fact that it wasn't tightly monitored like other online forums. Although the site was previously known for publicizing pranks and memes, it became infamous after being used to spread nude photos from the iCloud hack and proliferate the "GamerGate" attack on women in the gaming industry. It's highly doubtful that Google will let Poole turn Collections and Communities into unmonitored and uncensored forums simply to boost user numbers.
Poole stepped down from running 4chan in early 2015, writing at the time "... The journey has been marked by highs and lows, surprises and disappointments, but ultimately immense satisfaction. I'm humbled to have had the privilege of both founding and presiding over what is easily one of the greatest communities to ever grace the Web." Poole, known by the nickname "moot," wrote on his own website that he is "impressed by Google’s commitment to enabling these same talented people to tackle some of the world’s most interesting and important problems."
Why Google needs to "get" social soon
It's unclear how much Poole can actually help Google, but the search giant needs to find a way to fight back against Facebook soon for two major reasons. First, the more time people spend within Facebook's ecosystem every day, the less data Google can gather for its targeted ads. To expand that ecosystem, Facebook launched its own video and news publishing services, added search and location-based features, and uses single sign-on buttons to tether third-party apps and sites back to its site.
Second, users voluntarily submit personal data to Facebook with their profile information, check-ins, likes, and social interactions. That data arguably offers a more detailed advertising profile for marketers than Google's data, which is mainly based on search queries and website visits. As a result, research firm eMarketer expects Google's annual digital ad revenue in the U.S. to rise just 7.5% to $25.1 billion this year, while Facebook's is expected to surge 28.7% to $9.9 billion.
The key takeaway
In my opinion, a key problem with Google's social strategy is that it keeps imitating more successful sites instead of creating new features. The original Google+ was too similar to Facebook, the new Photos app was influenced by Instagram, Communities is structured like 4chan and Reddit, and Collections clearly resembles Pinterest.
Unfortunately, all those sites have established user bases that aren't likely to simply switch over to Google. Hiring Poole is an interesting move that shows that Google is interested in letting users take charge, but investors shouldn't expect the "underground Zuckerberg" to pull off any miracles.