Google ain’t about search any more

The media’s inflation of Google’s reputation over the past two years is typical of the tech press pigpile that takes every new big thing and cover-stories it to death.  Google’s place in the world is certainly due to some smart fundamentals — their design was, and still is, wonderfully functional and spare. Their search methodology is generally accurate and fulfilling. They’ve made some good acquisitions. But to cast them as David to Microsoft’s Goliath, as the next big Borg in technology, dominating everything they touch, is to fall prey to the breathless vapors that saw Netscape in its early days get cast in a role it didn’t deserve, AOL over-inflate to the point of high humor, and Yahoo become the wunderkind of all things digital.

Today’s Saul Hansell piece in the biz section of the Times carries the great quote by John Batelle that Google ain’t about search anymore, but is now an advertising company. Commenting on the news that Google would begin expanding its pay-per-click Adsense model to include "image" advertising, Batelle said:

 "This drives the nail into the coffin of the idea that Google is a search business. It is an advertising business that has nothing particularly to do with search."

Right on, John. And that, my friends, is called taking one’s eye off of the prize. Google is squarely in the business of selling ad inventory to marketers. The premise is context and the premise is neither new, nor, in the end, particuarly compelling.  Google was just the first and best to deliver on the promise of putting scotch ads in front of scotch drinkers. First they did it with text links, now they’re going to do it with rich media.

 From the

"Among the changes: Google will let advertisers run animated display ads on non-Google content sites that contract with Google to sell ads. It will allow advertisers to specify the sites on which they want their ads to appear, without having to pick a keyword tied to the content on a page. It will begin auctioning ad placements for its partner sites based on how many people see the ad, known as cost per impression, as well as its traditional cost-per-click method."

Publisher’s don’t need to quake. Indeed, some, like CNET and the NYT, have already signed onto the program. Ad agencies and marketers aren’t going to shut their doors to the ad sales force at Fortune and tell them to go away, we’re buying inventory from Google. Never. First off, Google has nothing close to an integrated sale — no conferences, newsletters, special advertising sections and the other side dishes a publisher has to offer. Second, Google has squat for content. Google is a remora sucking on the side of the information industry. If the fish stops swimming, so does Google.

What’s the strategy for co-existing with Google in the advertising marketplace?

1. You can compete with what you don’t know. Publishers should sign-up for, and selectively enable their pages to accept Google advertising. It’s found money, particularly if there is any unsold inventory. Firing the ad sales force and using Google as a rep firm is lunacy.

2. Enable vertical search within their own niche — and every good magazine is about defining a niche — and then deliver new ad units against it. No one can better broker the relationship between reader and advertiser than a capable publisher.

3. Optimize your pages for not only Google, but all engines. That’s found traffic when implemented correctly. I suspect more than 50 percent of arriving traffic is shot deep into a site through search results.

4. Expect, and plan for, the next Google. Google has no defensible advantage in this space. Once we all get over our infatuation with the company — like those publishers did in the late 90s who paid millions for "tenant" space with AOL and quickly figured out it didn’t deliver — another one will come along with a better idea and methodology. Bank on it.

Google needs to focus on search and searching better. It’s desktop search pales against Blinx. Picasa is nice, but no Flickr. Blogger is no WordPress. As Google sticks Wall Street’s needle into its arm, it will scramble to make numbers one quarter after another. My prediction — Google is in the content business within two years, it has to now that it’s turned into an advertising company. 

Update: Google’s Letter to AdSense Publishers


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