Google warns users in Australia free services are at risk if it’s forced to share ad revenue with “big media”

Google has fired a lobbying pot-shot at a looming change to the law in Australia that will force it to share ad revenue with local media businesses whose content its platforms monetize — seeking to mobilize its users against “big media”.

Last month Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) published a draft of a mandatory code that seeks to address what it described as “acute bargaining power imbalances” between local news media and tech giants, Facebook and Google,  by engaging in good faith negotiations and via a binding “final offer” arbitration process.

Back in April the country’s government announced it would adopt a mandatory code requiring the two tech giants to share ad revenue with media business after an attempt to negotiate a voluntary arrangement with the companies failed to make progress.

In an open letter addressing users in Australia, which is attributed to Mel Silva, MD for Google Australia, the tech giant warns that their experience of its products will suffer and their data could be at risk as a consequence of the regulation. It also suggests it may no longer be able to offer free services in the country.

The letter is being pushed at users of Google search in the country via a pop-up that warns “the way Aussies use Google is at risk”, according to the Guardian.

“This law wouldn’t just impact the way Google and YouTube work with news media businesses — it would impact all of our Australian users, so we wanted to let you know,” Google writes, adding that it’s “going to do everything we possibly can to get this proposal changed”.

In the blog post, it deploys three scare tactics to try to recruit users to lobby the government on its behalf — claiming the regulation will result in:

  1. a “dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube”: Google says the content users see will be less relevant and “helpful” as it will be forced to give news businesses information that will help them “artificially” inflate their ranking “over everyone else”
  2. risks to users’ search data because Google will have to tell news media businesses “how they can gain access” to data about their use of its products. “There’s no way of knowing if any data handed over would be protected, or how it might be used by news media businesses,” adds the data-mining tech giant
  3. overarching risks to free Google services; Giving “big media companies” special treatment will encourage them to make “enormous and unreasonable demands that would put our free services at risk”, is the claim

Google’s open letter instructs users to expect to hear more from it in the coming days — without offering further detail — so it remains to be seen what additional scare tactics the company cooks up.

Consultation on the draft code closes on August 28, with the ACCC saying last month that it intends for it to be finalized “shortly”, so Google’s window to lobby for changes is fast closing.

It’s not the first tech giant to try to repurpose the reach and scale of its platform to mobilize its own users to drum up helpful opposition to government action that threatens its corporate interests.

Over the last half decade or so, similar tactics have been deployed by a variety of gig economy platforms, including Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, to try to politize and overturn regulations which present a barrier to their continued growth.

Such efforts have, it must be said, only had very fleeting successes vs the scale of the platforms’ regulatory ‘reform’ ambitions. (Gig giants Uber and Lyft are facing a huge fight in their own backyard on key issues like worker reclassification, for example, so in fact regulators and courts have successfully pushed back against BS.)

But it’s interesting to see the tactic moving onto the front page of Google — perhaps signalling the scale of alarm the company feels over the prospect of being forced to share ad revenue with publishers whose content it monetizes, creating a model that other countries and regions might seek to follow.

In a statement responding to Google’s open letter, the ACCC went on the attack — accusing the tech giant of publishing “misinformation” about the draft code.

“Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so,” the regulator writes, further asserting that any move to charge for free Google services like YouTube and search would be the company’s own decision.

“The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services. This will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook,” it goes on, adding: “A healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.”

Google’s parent entity, Alphabet, reported full year revenue of $161.8BN in 2019 — up from $136.8BN in 2018.

Tencent wants to take full control of long-time search ally Sogou

It’s been seven years since Tencent picked up a 36.5% stake in Sogou to fend off rival Baidu in the online search market. The social and gaming giant is now offering to buy out and take private its long-time ally.

NYSE-listed Sogou said this week it has received a preliminary non-binding proposal from Tencent to acquire its remaining shares for $9 each American depositary share (ADS) it doesn’t already own. That means Sohu, a leading web portal in the Chinese desktop era and the controlling shareholder in Sogou, will no longer hold an interest in the search firm.

Sohu’s board of directors has not yet had an opportunity to review the proposal or determine whether or not to take the offer, the company stated. Sogou’s shares leaped 48% on the news to $8.51 on Monday, yet still far below its all-time high at $13.85 at the time of its initial public offering.

Founded in 2005, Sogou went public in late 2017 billing itself as a challenger to China’s biggest search service Baidu, though it has long been a distant second. The company also operates the top Chinese input software, which is used by 482 million people every day to type and convert voice to text, according to its Q1 earnings report.

Ever since the strategic partnership with Tencent kicked off, Sogou, which means “Search Dog” in Chinese, has been the default search engine for WeChat and benefited immensely from the giant’s traffic, though WeChat has also developed its own search feature.

The potential buyout will add Sogou to a list of Chinese companies to delist from the U.S. as tensions between the countries heighten in recent times. It will also allay concerns amongst investors who worry WeChat Search would make Sogou redundant. So far WeChat’s proprietary search function appears to be gleaning data mainly within the app’s enclave, from users’ news feed, user-generated articles, e-commerce stores, through to lite apps integrated into WeChat.

That’s a whole lot of content and services targeted at WeChat’s 1.2 billion active users. Many people need not look beyond the chat app to consumer news, order food, play games, or purchase groceries. But there remains information outside the enormous ecosystem, and that’s Sogou’s turf — to bring what’s available on the open web (of course, subject to government censorship like all Chinese services) to WeChat users.

The arrangement reflects an endemic practice on the Chinese internet — giants blocking each other or making it hard for rivals to access their content. The goal is to lock in traffic and user insights. For instance, articles published on WeChat can’t be searched on Baidu. Consumers can’t open Alibaba shopping links without leaving WeChat.

Sogou is hardly WeChat’s sole search ally. To capture a full range of information needs, the messenger has also struck deals to co-opt fellow microblogging platform Weibo, Quora-like Zhihu, and social commerce service Xiaohongshu into its search pool.

Google brings free product listings to its main Google Search results

Earlier this year, Google made a significant change to its Shopping search tab in the U.S. to allow the service to primarily feature free product listings selected by Google’s algorithms, instead of paid ads. Building on that change, Google is today introducing a shift to free product listings in the main Google Search results page in the U.S. Before, it would only showcase sponsored links in its “product knowledge panel.”

This panel appears when a Google user searches for a product that has matching listings on e-commerce website. But until now, those links were paid ads. Google says, starting this summer, these panels will instead feature free listings.

This change will roll out first in the U.S. on mobile, followed later by the desktop.

Shopping ads aren’t going away, however. These ads will appear separately at the top of the page, where they’re marked like Google’s other ad units.

Since its shift to free listings in April of this year, Google says it’s seen an average 70% increase in clicks and 130% increase in impressions across both the free listings and ads on the Shopping tab in the U.S. These metrics were based on an experiment looking at the clicks and impressions after the free listings were introduced, compared with a control group. The control group was a certain percentage of Google traffic that had not been moved to the new, free experience.

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Google has positioned its shift to free listings as a way to aid businesses struggling to connect with shoppers due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But the reality is that this change would have had to arrive at some point — pandemic or not — because of Amazon’s threat to Google’s business.

Amazon over the years has been steadily eating away at Google’s key business: search ad revenue. In a report published last fall, before the pandemic hit, analyst firm eMarketer said Google’s share of search ad market revenue would slip from 73% in 2019 to 71% by 2021, as more internet users started their searches for products directly on Amazon.

Now the coronavirus is pushing more consumers to shop online in even greater numbers, much to Amazon’s advantage. The online retailer reported the pandemic helped drive a 26% increase in its first-quarter 2020 revenue, for example. Meanwhile, a new eMarketer forecast estimates that Google ad revenues will drop for the first time this year, falling 5.3% to $39.58 billion due to pandemic impacts on ad spend — particularly the pullback in travel advertiser spending.

Google needed to change its Search service to return more than just paid listings to better compete. Paid listings alone wouldn’t always feature the best match for the user’s search query nor would they show as complete a selection — a problem Amazon’s vast online superstore doesn’t have. But Google’s shift to free listings also incentivizes advertisers to pay for increased visibility. Now, advertisers will need a way to stand out against a larger and more diverse selection of products.

“For many merchants, connecting with customers in a digital environment is still relatively new territory or a smaller part of their business,” notes Google’s, Bill Ready, President of Commerce. “However, consumer preference for online shopping has increased dramatically, and it’s crucial that we help people find all the best options available and help merchants more easily connect with consumers online.”

Google launches Covid-19 page and search portal with safety tips, official stats and more, US-only for now

Google says Coronavirus has become its biggest search topic by a country mile this year, and to continue its efforts to harness that attention in the best possible way, late on Friday the company launched a new information portal dedicated to the pandemic as well as an improved search experience for desktop and mobile.

The search experience, Google says, was updated in response to “people’s information needs expanding,” while the new information portal also provides the basic, most useful information (for example around symptoms), plus a lot of links and on-site options to explore further.

Something notably absent on Google’s page or search experience are any links to conversation forums or places to hear and talk to other average people. Google has never been particularly successful in its many efforts to break into social media and this underscores that, while also helping it steer away from the fact that many of these forums are not always well managed. I would imagine that more tools for direct communication, such as the Google Hangouts product, and possibly others in that same category, might well be added or linked to as well over time.

Let’s dive into some more details.

The new search experience now not only includes search results but also a number of additional links to “authoritative information” from health authorities and updated data and visualisations.

“This new format organizes the search results page to help people easily navigate information and resources, and it will also make it possible to add more information over time as it becomes available,” Emily Moxley, Google’s product manager for search, writes in a blog post.

The search experience now also includes links to a Twitter carousel featuring accounts from civic organizations local to you, and also a new “most common questions” section related to the pandemic from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is rolling out first in the US in English and Google said it would be adding more languages and regions soon.

Meanwhile, the portal — also available first for the US — features tips on staying healthy and advice for those who are concerned; links to further official resources; links to more localised resources; links to fundraising efforts; the latest statistics; and an overview of all of Google’s own work (for example, the specific efforts it’s making for educators). We have asked the company when and if it plans to cover other regions beyond the US, and we’ll update this as we learn more.

This is an important move for Google. The internet has figured as critical platform from the earliest days of the Novel Coronavirus emerging out of China, but it hasn’t all been positive.

On one hand, there has been a ton of misinformation spread around about the virus, and the internet overall (plus specific sites like Google’s search and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter) has played a huge role in being responsible for disseminating the majority of that bad news. (Not all those searches and clicks lead to the right information, or good data, unfortunately.)

On the other hand, it’s also been an indispensable resource: in countries where health services have already become overwhelmed by the influx of people seeking help, official online portals (like this one) are serving a very important role in triaging inbound requests before people resort to physically getting themselves into the system (if they need to). And the internet is the main place people will turn in the days and weeks ahead as they are asked to socially isolate themselves to slow down the spread of the pandemic, serving its role in providing information, but hopefully also some diversion and enrichment.

Google’s site is bringing together as many of the positive and legitimate strands of information as it can.

The main page focuses on the most important basics: an brief overview of the virus, a list of the most common symptoms, a list of most common things you can do to prevent getting infected or spreading the infection and a (very brief, for now) section on treatments.

From this, it goes on to more detailed links to videos and other resources for specific interests such as advice for the elderly, a map-based data overview to monitor what is going on elsewhere; and then resources for further help for topics that are coming up a lot, such as advice for people working from home, or for how to set up self-isolation, online education advice, cooking resources and more. Relief efforts so far only has one link, to the Solidarity Response Fund started by the UN Foundation, which has had a donation of $50 million from Google. \

There are a number of other relief and fundraising efforts underway, including those to help fund the race for research to improve the medical tools and medicine we have to fight this. I think the idea is that all of these sections will grow and evolve as the situation evolves.

Google’s Collections feature now pushes people to save recipes & products, using AI

Google is giving an AI upgrade to its Collections feature — basically, Google’s own take on Pinterest, but built into Google Search. Originally a name given to organizing images, the Collections feature that launched in 2018 let you save for later perusal any type of search result — images, bookmarks or map locations — into groups called “Collections.” Starting today, Google will make suggestions about items you can add to Collections based on your Search history across specific activities like cooking, shopping or hobbies.

The idea here is that people often use Google for research but don’t remember to save web pages for easy retrieval. That leads users to dig through their Google Search History in an effort to find the lost page. Google believes that AI smarts can improve the process by helping users build reference collections by starting the process for them.

Here’s how it works. After you’ve visited pages on Google Search in the Google app or on the mobile web, Google will group together similar pages related to things like cooking, shopping and hobbies, then prompt you to save them to suggested Collections.

For example, after an evening of scouring the web for recipes, Google may share a suggested Collection with you titled “Dinner Party,” which is auto-populated with relevant pages from your Search history. You can uncheck any recipes that don’t belong and rename the collection from “Dinner Party” to something else of your choosing, if you want. You then tap the “Create” button to turn this selection from your Search history into a Collection.

These Collections can be found later in the Collections tab in the Google app or through the Google.com side menu on the mobile web. There is an option to turn off this feature in Settings, but it’s enabled by default.

The Pinterest-like feature aims to keep Google users from venturing off Google sites to other places where they can save and organize things they’re interested in — whether that’s a list of recipes they want to add to a pinboard on Pinterest or a list of clothing they want to add to a wish list on Amazon. In particular, retaining e-commerce shoppers from leaving Google for Amazon is something the company is heavily focused on these days. The company recently rolled out a big revamp of its Google Shopping vertical, and just this month launched a way to shop directly from search results.

The issue with sites like Pinterest is that they’re capturing shoppers at an earlier stage in the buying process — during the information-gathering and inspiration-seeking research stage, that is. By saving links to Pinterest’s pinboards, shoppers ready to make a purchase are bypassing Google (and its advertisers) to check out directly with retailers.

Meanwhile, Google is simultaneously losing traffic to Amazon, which now surpasses Google for product searches. Even Instagram, of all places, has become a rival, as it’s now a place to shop. The app’s Shopping feature is funneling users right from its visual ads to a checkout page in the app. PayPal, catching wind of this trend, recently spent $4 billion to buy Honey in order to capture shoppers earlier in their journey.

For users, Google Collections is just about encouraging you to put your searches into groups for later access. But for Google, it’s also about getting people to shop on Google and stay on Google, no matter what they’re researching. Suggested Collections may lure you in as an easy way to organize recipes, but ultimately this feature will be about getting users to develop a habit of saving their searches to Google — and particularly their product searches.

Once you have a Collection set up, Google can point you to other related items, including websites, images  and more. Most importantly, this will serve as a new way to get users to perform more product searches, too, as it can send users to other product pages without the user having to type in an explicit search query.

The update also comes with an often-requested collaboration feature, which means you can now share a collection with others for either viewing or editing.

Sharing and related content suggestions are live worldwide.

The AI-powered suggested collections are live in the U.S. for English users starting today and will reach more markets in time.

‘Disney Plus’ was the #1 U.S. Google search term in 2019

Google today released its annual “Year in Search” data that takes a look back at some of the biggest searches of 2019. Specifically, Google looked at the biggest trends — meaning, search terms that saw the largest spikes in traffic over a sustained period in 2019 compared to 2018. In the U.S., Disney’s new streaming service “Disney Plus” was the biggest search trend of 2019, followed by Cameron Boyce, Nipsey Hussle, Hurricane Dorian, Antonio Brown, Luke Perry, Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones, iPhone 11, and Jussie Smollet.

“Game of Thrones” was also the biggest U.S. TV show search trend of the year, followed by Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and “When They See Us,” then HBO’s “Chernobyl,” and Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian.”

On the global stage, Apple’s iPhone 11 was the fifth biggest trend of the year, one ahead of Game of Thrones (#6), but behind searches for “India vs South Africa,” which ranked No. 1. The rest of the list included (in order): Cameron Boyce (#2), Copa America (#3), Bangladesh vs India (#4), Avengers: Endgame (#7), Joker (#8), Notre Dame (#9), and ICC Cricket World Cup (#10).

Tech companies’ influence on Google’s Top Trends could also be found in the music category, where “Old Town Road” was the top trending Song globally and in the U.S. in 2019. The Lil Nas X hit song went viral on TikTok this year after the rapper himself uploaded it to the platform back in December 2018.

In addition to topping Google’s list, Lil Nas X was also the No. 1 artist on TikTok according to its own year-end round-up.

Elsewhere, online and tech-influenced trends could be found under the “What is…?” category in Google’s top U.S. search trends. For example, the meme “Storm Area 51” which grew out of of a viral Facebook joke that turned into a real-world event led many this year to search “What is Area 51?”

No. 2 was “What is a VSCO girl?” referring to the latest teen trend and meme whose name comes from the hipper-than-Instagram photo-editing app, VSCO. The VSCO girl dresses in oversized tees, Birkenstocks, wears her hair in a messy bun, and adorns herself with accessories like scrunchies, Burt’s Bees lip balm, puka shell chokers, and carries around a Hydro Flask water bottle.

Also on the “What is…?” list were “momo” as in the “Momo Challenge,” (an artistic sculpture turned viral hoax) and “What is a boomer?,” referencing the latest teen insult for old people, “OK boomer.” The latter also became a huge TikTok meme.

Various online cultures influenced Google’s top U.S. outfit trends, too, including the No. 1 outfit idea of Egirl, a popular demographic found on TikTok that’s a sort of emo subculture (or perhaps an emo-anime-goth variation), followed by Eboy, Soft girl (another TikTok subculture, this time with a hyper-cute aesthetic), and finally Biker shorts and VSCO girl. (If you don’t know which one you are, don’t worry — there’s a BuzzFeed quiz for that, of course.)

Google’s top trends are mainly a reflection of pop culture for the year, Google did take a longer look back this year with its “Decade in Search” retrospective, where it highlights the music, movies and people who influenced culture over the past 10 years.

The company put together a busy visualization of the decade in music through Year in Search, for example.

It also points to some of the people who trended over the course of the decade, including Justin Bieber, Betty White, Lebron James, as well as long-lasting TV and movie trends, including “Toy Story”, “Iron Man,” and “The Walking Dead.”

The full list of Google’s Global Top Trends, which can be filtered by country, is here.

The slow death of Flash continues as Google begins to remove it from search

The death of Flash has been a long time coming… and a long time going on, too. For years we’ve heard that it’s on its way out, but who among us has not found an errant Flash video or widget in the last month or two? To hasten its demise Google is taking the understandable step of… pretending it doesn’t exist.

Yes, Google Search will stop indexing Flash content starting later this year. Why was it even doing so today, years after any sane webmaster stopped using it? Well, there’s a lot of legacy content out there. Probably Google wanted to give the long tail a chance to curl up.

Deindexing Flash doesn’t mean if you have website that serves it, it’ll be ignored entirely. But any information accessed through that Flash container, like a storefront, video description, game, or what have you will be skipped over by Google’s crawlers.

And if we’re honest, you’ll probably get demoted pretty hard by the algorithm too.

Most people probably won’t notice any change, partly because Flash-serving websites aren’t often very high on the list anyway, and of course the major browsers all block Flash by default. Even Adobe is giving it up.

If you want to play some of those old Flash games, and really some of them were pretty awesome, you’ll still be able to find them if you search directly for them — there are sites collecting them that will want to show up for Google and as such will work to appear prominently in search results for things like “cool old flash games” and the like.

So is Flash dead now? Probably not, but I wouldn’t call what it’s doing living, either. Still, I imagine we’ll get a few more uses out of that top image.

Google starts highlighting key moments from videos in Search

Google today announced an update to how it handles videos in search results. Instead of just listing relevant videos on the search results page, Google will now also highlight the most relevant parts of longer videos, based on timestamps provided by the video creators. That’s especially useful for how-to videos or documentaries.

“Videos aren’t skimmable like text, meaning it can be easy to overlook video content altogether,” Google Search product manager Prashant Baheti writes in today’s announcement. “Now, just like we’ve worked to make other types of information more easily accessible, we’re developing new ways to understand and organize video content in Search to make it more useful for you.”

In the search results, you will then be able to see direct links to the different parts of a video and a click on those will take you right into that part of the video.

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To make this work, content creators first have to mark up their videos with bookmarks for the specific segments they want to highlight, no matter what platform they are on. Indeed, it’s worth stressing that this isn’t just a feature for YouTube creators. Google says it’s already working with video publishers like CBS Sports and NDTV, who will soon start marking up their videos.

I’m somewhat surprised that Google isn’t using its machine learning wizardry to mark up videos automatically. For now, the burden is on the video creator and given how much work simply creating a good video is, it remains to be seen how many of them will do so. On the other hand, though, it’ll give them a chance to highlight their work more prominently on Google Search, though Google doesn’t say whether the markup will have any influence on a video’s ranking on its search results pages.

Google’s new feature will help you find something to watch

Google Search can now help you find your next binge. The company this morning announced a new feature which will make personalized recommendations of what to watch, including both TV shows and movies, and point you to services where the content is available.

The feature is an expansion of Google’s existing efforts in pointing web searchers to informative content about TV shows and films.

Already, a Google search for a TV show or movie title will include a “Knowledge Panel” box a the the top of the search results where you can read the overview, see the ratings and reviews, check out the cast, and as of spring 2017 find services where the show or movie can be streamed or purchased.

The new recommendations feature will instead appear to searchers who don’t have a particular title in mind, but are rather typing in queries like “what to watch” or “good shows to watch,” for example. From here, you can tap a Start button in the “Top picks for you” carousel to rate your favorite TV shows and movies in order to help Google better understand your tastes.

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You can also select which subscriptions you have access to, in order to customize your recommendations further. This includes subscriptions services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO and HBO NOW, Prime Video, Showtime, and Showtime Anytime, CBS All Access, and Starz.

You can also indicate if you have a cable TV or satellite subscription. And it will list shows and movies available for rent, purchase or free streaming from online marketplaces like iTunes, Prime Video, Google Play Movies & TV, and Vudu, plus network apps like ABC, Freeform, Lifetime, CBS, Comedy Central, A&E, and History.

To get started, you’ll use a Tinder-like swiping mechanism to rate titles. Right swipes indicate a “like” and left swipes indicate a “dislike.” You can also “skip” titles you don’t know or have an opinion on.

After giving Google some starter data about your interests, future searches for things to watch will offer recommendations tailored to you.

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The company notes that you can even get specific with your requests, by asking for things like “horror movies from the 80’s” or “adventure documentaries about climbing.” (This will help, too, when you can’t remember a movie’s title but do know what it’s about.)

Google’s search results will return a list of suggestions and when you pick one you want to watch, the service will — as before — let you know where it’s available.

The company already has a good understanding of consumer interest in movies and TV thanks to its data on popular searches. Now it aims to have a good understanding of what individual users may want to watch, as well.

The new recommendations feature is live today on mobile for users in the U.S.

 

How Zhihu’s become one of China’s biggest hubs for experts

Zhihu may not be as well known outside of China as WeChat or ByteDance’s Douyin, but over the past eight years, it has cultivated a reputation for being one of the country’s most trustworthy social media platforms. Originally launched as a question-and-answer site similar to Quora, Zhihu has grown to be a central hub for professional knowledge, allowing users to interact with experts and companies in a wide range of industries.

Headquartered in Beijing, Zhihu recently raised a $434 million Series F, its biggest round since 2011. The funding also brought Zhihu two important new partners: video and live-streaming app Beijing Kuaishou, which led the round, and Baidu, owner of China’s largest search engine (other participants in the round included Tencent and CapitalToday).

Launched in 2011, Zhihu (the name means “do you know”) is most frequently compared to Quora and Yahoo Answers. While it resembled those Q&A platforms at first, it has grown in scope. Now it would be more accurate to say that the platform is like a combination of Quora, LinkedIn and Medium’s subscription program.

For example, Zhihu has an invitation-only blogging platform for verified experts and since launching official accounts, it has become a channel for companies and organizations to communicate with users. A representative for Zhihu told TechCrunch that the platform had 220 million users and 30,000 official accounts as of January 2019 (for context, there are currently about 800 million Internet users in China), who have posted a total of 130 million answers so far.

The company’s growth will be closely watched since Zhihu is reportedly preparing for an initial public offering. Last November, the company hired its first chief financial officer, Sun Wei, heightening speculation. A representative for the company told TechCrunch the position was created because of Zhihu’s business development needs and that there is currently no timeline for a public listing.

At the same time, the company has also dealt with reports that its growth has slowed.