Q&A: Ex-AdSense guru creates a social network with digital therapy sessions

What is the guy who helped create AdSense doing now? He's building a social network that can help connect you with people you don't know who want to help you or direct you to a digital therapist.

Instead of turning to family and friends for help, some suicidal kids have turned to SupportGroups.com.

SupportGroups' co-founder Eytan Elbaz was formerly of Applied Semantics, where he conceived and product managed AdSense. Elbaz has spent the last few years building out SupportGroups, social network that is focused on building a support system for people in times of need, so they can connect quickly for help.

Recently, SupportGroups spun out a new site called TherapyHub, to bring professional help to users of the social network.

SmartPlanet spoke to Elbaz about why he's creating a social network aimed at building relationships that extend beyond your circle of friends.

SmartPlanet: Why did you switch from working on ads to social networks?

EE: I conceived AdSense while at Applied Semantics (which was acquired by Google). I have the luxury of getting to work on what I want and while ad networks may be a great profit center on the Internet, it doesn't have the power to affect the world the way that SupportGroups does. So I wanted to work on something that I knew could directly make a positive impact on people's lives.

SmartPlanet: What happens when people come to your site for help? Didn't someone on your team help talk kids out of committing suicide?

EE: Yeah, we've had a couple incidents. Ultimately, SupportGroups is not a replacement for professional help but it certainly helps people who are feeling alone connect pretty quickly. [In a survey we conducted], 82 percent of our users would use an online therapist.

It became clear what our next step was.

SmartPlanet: You added another opportunity way for professionals to make money as they help out on the site too. How has that picked up?

EE: Yes, this is working. In fact, we have decided to roll this out into an entirely new site called TherapyHub.com.

TherapyHub will be a platform for users to find counselors, and have counseling sessions with them.

SmartPlanet: You also get money through referral service? Direct people to get help?

EE: The TherapyHub.com platform will have opportunities for affiliates to send us users and earn a percentage of the revenue that the affiliate generates.

SmartPlanet: Oh, so that's how TherapyHub was born? How much does a therapy session cost?

EE: Individual therapists determine prices. We launched TherapyHub 45 days ago.

SmartPlanet: When was SupportGroups developed? How did TherapyHub come about?

EE: It launched about two years ago now though we only started promoting it through our network about one year ago since then traffic tripled from about 30K monthly unique to about 100K. The return rate is really much higher than I expected majority of people are coming back for follow on sessions originally, it seemed like an extension of SupportGroups. But pretty quickly, I realized it's something different so SupportGroups ends up being the largest affiliate, or traffic source because these are people looking for support.

SmartPlanet: What is the anonymous trend that you're seeing on SupportGroups? What motivates people to help each other out and seek help on social networks? Why this move away from family and people you know?

EE: Many of our users are dealing with very serious, personal issues that they probably don't feel comfortable sharing with their social network. A great percentage of our users are dealing with family issues specifically so they may not be comfortable discussing with their family.

About 70 percent of our users do not upload a personal photograph, or use their real name as their username. We believe that the anonymity allows them to more comfortably deal with issues without having to reveal their own identity.

SmartPlanet: Tell me about the Support button you added. What's the thinking behind that?

EE: Users were looking for a way to continue and keep up with another user's updates and the "Support" button allowed them to do that. Once you "Support" someone, you get to see their latest comments and updates first on your news feed.

Additionally, we found that some users simply wanted to offer support rather than write a full comment back.

SmartPlanet: People who help each other out get reward points?

EE: While it's not a huge focus for us, we did want to highlight the users who were being the most supportive on a daily basis. We appreciate their contribution to the community. Support Points, as well as Badges, are sort of a "shout out" to those who are spending the most amount of time supporting others.

SmartPlanet: What motivated you to build out SupportGroups? Where do you want to take the company in a few years?

EE: My partner Vic Belonogoff was working in the addiction treatment space and recognized the lack of a social network to deal with this type of relationship. As for me, I was driven by a personal experience. Somebody close to me was dealing with a serious issue, and I felt like I didn't know anybody with which I could appropriately talk to. I sort of built this site both for me and for the person with the issue, in the hopes that it would help my friend seek treatment, and give me an opportunity to speak to others in a similar situation.

We are focused on continuing to grow SupportGroups. It's a very important site, but I don't think enough people know about yet.

SmartPlanet: Do you think social media integrating with health?

EE: Online support enables people who may not have local support groups, may not be able to travel to a support group, or simply may not feel comfortable attending a support group in person. While our web sites are not intended to replace professional, medical treatment, we do recognize that we are addressing an important need, at an important time.

Social networks for your friends (Facebook, MySpace) and colleagues (LinkedIn) are a clear need. As the dust settles on those markets, it's clear there is a need for other kinds of social networks to deal with other kinds of relationships.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com