Search vs Native Ads
Google owns search, but are they a one trick pony?
A couple weeks ago Ben Thompson published an interesting article suggesting Google may follow IBM and Microsoft in peaking, perhaps with native ads becoming more dominant than online search ads.
According to Forrester, in a couple years digital ad spend will overtake TV ad spend. In spite of the rise of sponsored content, native isn't even broken out as a category.
Part of the issue with native advertising is it can be blurry to break out some of it. Some of it is obvious, but falls into multiple categories, like video ads on YouTube. Some of it is obvious, but relatively new & thus lacking in scale. Amazon is extending their payment services & Prime shipping deals to third party sites of brands like AllSaints & listing inventory from those sites on Amazon.com, selling them traffic on a CPC basis. Does that count as native advertising? What about a ticket broker or hotel booking site syndicating their inventory to a meta search site?
And while native is not broken out, Google already offers native ad management features in DoubleClick and has partnered with some of the more well known players like BuzzFeed.
The Penny Gap's Impact on Search
Time intends to test paywalls on all of its major titles next year & they are working with third parties to integrate affiliate ads on sites like People.com.
The second link in the above sentence goes to an article which is behind a paywall. On Twitter I often link to WSJ articles which are behind a paywall. Any important information behind a paywall may quickly spread beyond it, but typically a competing free site which (re)reports on whatever is behind the paywall is shared more, spreads further on social, generates more additional coverage on forums and discussion sites like Hacker News, gets highlighted on aggregators like TechMeme, gets more links, ranks higher, and becomes the default/canonical source of the story.
Part of the rub of the penny gap is the cost of the friction vastly exceeds the financial cost. Those who can flow attention around the payment can typically make more by tracking and monetizing user behavior than they could by charging users incrementally a cent here and a nickel there.
Well known franchises are forced to offer a free version or they eventually cede their market position.
There are sites which do roll up subscriptions to a variety of sites at once, but some of them which had stub articles requiring payment to access like Highbeam Research got torched by Panda. If the barrier to entry to get to the content is too high the engagement metrics are likely to be terrible & a penalty ensues. Even a general registration wall is too high of a barrier to entry for some sites. Google demands whatever content is shown to them be visible to end users & if there is a miss match that is considered cloaking - unless the miss match is due to monetizing by using Google's content locking consumer surveys.
Who gets to the scale needed to have enough consumer demand to be able to charge an ongoing subscription for access to a variety of third party content? There are a handful of players in music (Apple, Spotify, Pandora, etc) & a handful of players in video (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime), but outside of those most paid subscription sites are about finance or niche topics with small scale. And whatever goes behind the paywalls gets seen by almost nobody when compared against to the broader public market at the free pricepoint.
Even if you are in a broad niche industry where a subscription-based model works, it still may be brutally tough to compete against Google. Google's chief business officer joined the board of Spotify, which means Spotify should be safe from Google risk, except...
Google's Impact on Premium Content
I've long argued Google has leveraged piracy to secure favorable media deals (see the second bullet point at the bottom of this infographic). Some might have perceived my take as being cynical, but when Google mentioned their "continued progress on fighting piracy" the first thing they mentioned was more ad units.
There are free options, paid options & the blurry lines in between which Google & YouTube ride while they experiment with business models and monetize the flow of traffic to the paid options.
"Tech companies don’t believe in the unique value of premium content over the long term." - Jessica Lessin
There is a massive misalignment of values which causes many players to have to refine their strategy over and over again. The gray area is never static.
Many businesses only have a 10% or 15% profit margin. An online publishing company which sees 20% of its traffic disappear might thus go from sustainable to bleeding cash overnight. A company which can arbitrarily shift / redirect a large amount of traffic online might describe itself as a "kingmaker."
In Germany some publishers wanted to be paid to be in the Google index. As a result Google stopped showing snippets near their listings. Google also refined their news search integration into the regular search results to include a broader selection of sources including social sites like Reddit. As a result Axel Springer quickly found itself begging for things to go back to the way they were before as their Google search traffic declined 40% and their Google News traffic declined 80%. Axel Springer got their descriptions back, but the "in the news" change remains.
Google's Impact on Weaker Players
If Google could have that dramatic of an impact on Axel Springer, imagine what sort of influence they have on millions of other smaller and weaker online businesses. One of the craziest examples is Demand Media.
Demand Media's market cap peaked above $1.9 billion. They spun out the domain name portion of the business into a company named Rightside Group, but the content portion of the business is valued at essentially nothing. They have about $40 million in cash & equivalents. Earlier this year they acquired Saatchi Art for $17 million & last year they acquired ecommerce marketplace Society6 for $94 million. After their last quarterly result their stock closed down 16.83% & Thursday they were down another 6.32%, given them a market capitalization of $102 million. On their most recent conference call, here are some of the things Demand Media executives stated:
- By the end of 2014, we anticipate more than 50.000 articles will be substantially improved by rewrites made rich with great visuals.
- We are well underway with this push for quality and will remove $1.8 million underperforming articles in Q4
- as we strive to create the best experience we can we have removed two ad units with the third unit to be removed completely by January 1st
- (on the above 2 changes) These changes are expected to have a negative impact on revenues and adjusted EBITDA of approximately $15 million on an annualized basis.
- Through Q3 we have invested $1.1 million in content renovation costs and expect approximately another $1 million in Q4 and $2 million to $4 million in the first half of next year.
- if you look at visits or you know the mobile mix is growing which has lower CPM associated with it and then also on desktop we're seeing compression on the pricing line as well.
- we know that sites that have ad density that's too high, not only are they offending audiences in near term, you are penalized with respect to where you show up in search indexes as well.
Google torched eHow in April of 2011. In spite of over 3 years of pain, Demand Media is still letting Google drive their strategy, in some cases spending millions of dollars to undo past investments.
Yet when you look at Google's search results page, they are doing the opposite of the above strategy: more scraping of third party content coupled with more & larger ad units.
Originally the source links in the scrape-n-displace program were light gray. They only turned blue after a journalist started working on a story about 10 blue links.
The search results can be designed to have some aspects blend in while others stand out. Colors can change periodically to alter response rates in desirable ways.
The banner ad got a bad rap as publishers have fought declining CPMs by adding more advertisements to their pages. When it works, Google's infrastructure still delivers (and tracks) billions of daily banner ads.
Search ads have never had the performance decline banner ads have.
The closest thing Google ever faced on that front was when AdBlock Plus became popular. Since it was blocking search ads, Google banned them & then restored them as they eventually negotiated a deal to pay them to display ads on Google while they continued to block ads on other third party sites.
Search itself *is* the ultimate native advertising platform.
Google is doing away with the local carousel in favor of a 3 pack local listing in categories like hotels. Once a person clicks on one of the hotel listings, Google then inserts an inline knowledge graph listing for that hotel with booking affiliate links inline in the search results, displacing the organic result set below the fold.
Notice in the above graphic how the "website" link uses generic text, is aligned toward the right, and is right next to an image so that it looks like an ad. It is engineered to feel like an ad and be ignored. The actual ads are left aligned and look like regular text links. They have an ad label, but that label is a couple lines up from them & there are multiple horizontal lines between the label and the actual ad units.
Not only does Google have the ability to shift the layout in such a drastic format, but then with whatever remains they also get to determine who they act against & who they don't. While the SEO industry debates the "ethics" of various marketing techniques Google has their eye on the prize & is displacing the entire ecosystem wholesale.
Users were generally unable to distinguish between ads and organic listings *before* Google started mixing the two in their knowledge graph. That is a big part of the reason search ads have never seen the engagement declines banner ads have seen.
Mobile has been redesigned with the same thinking in mind. Google action items (which can eventually be monetized) up top & everything else pushed down the page.
The blurring of "knowledge" and ads allows Google to test entering category after category (like doctor calls from the search results) & forcing advertisers to pay for the various tests while Google collects data.
And as Google is scraping information from third party sites, they can choose to show less information on their own site if doing so creates additional monetization opportunities. As far back as 2009 Google stripped phone numbers off of non-sponsored map listings. And what happened with the recent 3 pack? While 100% of the above the fold results are monetized, ...
"Go back to an original search that turns up the 3 PAC. Its completely devoid of logical information that a searcher would want:
- No phone number
- No address
- No map
- NO LINK to the restaurant website.
Anything that most users would want is deliberately hidden and/or requires more clicks." - Dave Oremland
Google justifies their scrape-n-displace programs by claiming they are put users first. Then they hide some of the information to drive incremental monetization opportunities. Google may eventually re-add some of those basic features which are now hidden, but as part of sponsored local listings.
After all - ads are the solution to everything.
Do branded banner ads in the search results have a low response rate? Or are advertisers unwilling to pay a significant sum for them? If so, Google can end the test and instead shift to include a product carousel in the search results, driving traffic to Google Shopping.
"I see this as yet another money grab by Google. Our clients typically pay 400-500% more for PLA clicks than for clicks on their PPC Brand ads. We will implement exact match brand negatives in Shopping campaigns." - Barb Young
That money grab stuff has virtually no limit.
The Click Casino
Off the start keywords defaulted to broad match. Then campaigns went "enhanced" so advertisers were forced to eat lower quality clicks on mobile devices.
Then there was the blurring exact match targeting into something else, forcing advertisers to buy lower quality variations of searches & making them add tons of negative keywords (and keep eating new garbage re-interpretations of words) in order to run a fine tuned campaign specifically targeted against a term.
In the past some PPC folks cheered obfuscation of organic search, thinking "this will never happen to me."
And of course Google not only wants to be the ad auction, but they want to be your SEM platform managing your spend & they are suggesting you can leverage the "power" of automated auction time biding.
Advertisers RAVE about the success of Google's automatic bidding features: "It received one click. That click cost $362.63."
The only thing better than that is banner ads in free mobile tap games targeted at children.
Above I mentioned how Google arbitrarily banned the AdBlock Plus extension from the Play store. They also repeatedly banned Disconnect Mobile. If you depend on mobile phones for distribution it is hard to get around Google. What's more they also collect performance data, internally launch competing apps, and invest in third party apps. And they control the prices various apps pay for advertising across their broad network.
So maybe you say "ok, I'll skip search & mobile, I'll try to leverage email" but this gets back to the same issue again. In Gmail social or promotional emails get quarantined into a ghetto where they are rarely seen:
"online stores, if they get big enough, can act as chokepoints. And so can Google. ... Google unilaterally misfiled my daily blog into the promotions folder they created, and I have no recourse and no way (other than this post) to explain the error to them" - Seth Godin
Those friction adders have real world consequences. A year ago Groupon blamed Gmail's tabs for causing them to have poor quarterly results. The filtering impact on a start up can be even more extreme. A small shift in exposure can lower the K factor to something below 1 & require the startups to buy exposure rather than generating it virally.
In addition to those other tabs, there are a host of other risks like being labeled as spam or having a security warning. Few sites are as widely read inside the Googleplex as Search Engine Land, yet at one point even their newsletter was showing a warning in Gmail.
Google can also add friction to
- websites using search rankings, vertical search result displacement, hiding local business information (as referenced above), search query suggestions, and/or leveraging their web browser to redirect consumer intent
- video on YouTube by counting ad views as organic views, changing the relevancy metrics, and investing in competing channels & giving them preferential exposure as part of the deal. YouTube gets over half their views on mobile devices with small screens, so any shift on Google's rank preference is going to have a major shift in click distributions.
- mobile apps using default bundling agreements which require manufactures to set Google's apps as defaults
- other business models by banning bundling-based business models too similar to their own (bundling is wrong UNLESS it is Google doing it)
The launch of Keyword (not provided) which hid organic search keyword data was friction for the sake of it in organic search. When Google announced HTTPS as a ranking signal, Netmeg wrote: "It's about ad targeting, and who gets to profile you, and who doesn't. Mark my words."
Facebook announced their relaunch of Atlas and Google immediately started cracking down on data access:
In the conversations this week, with companies like Krux, BlueKai and Lotame, Google told data management platform players that they could not use pixels in certain ads. The pixels—embedded within digital ads—help marketers target and understand how many times a given user has seen their messages online.
"Google is only allowing data management platforms to fire pixels on creative assets that they're serving, on impressions they bought, through the Google Display Network," said Mike Moreau, chief solutions officer at Krux. "So they're starting with a very narrow scope."
Around the same time Google was cracking down on data sharing, they began offering features targeting consumers across devices & announced custom affinity audiences which allow advertisers to target audiences who visit any particular website.
Google's special role is not only as an organizer (and obfuscator) of information, but then they get to be the source measuromg how well marketing works via their analytics, which can regularly launch new reports which may causually over-represent their own contribution while under-representing some other channels, profiting from activity bias. The industry default of last click attribution driving search ad spending is one of the key issues which has driven down display ad values over the years.
Investing in Competition
Google not only ranks the ecosystem, but they actively invest in it.
Google tried to buy Yelp. When Facebook took off Google invested in Zynga to get access to data, in spite of a sketchy background. When Google's $6 billion offer for Groupon didn't close the deal, Google quickly partnered with over a dozen Groupon competitors & created new offer ad units in the search results.
Inside of the YouTube ecosystem Google also holds equity stakes in leading publishers like Machinima and Vevo.
There have been a few examples of investments getting special treatment, getting benefit of the doubt, or access to non-public information.
The scary scenario for publishers might sound something like this: "in Baidu Maps you can find a hotel, check room availability, and make a booking, all inside the app." There's no need to leave the search engine.
Take a closer look & that scary version might already be here. Google's same day delivery boss moved to Uber and Google added Uber pickups and price estimates to their mobile Maps app.
Google, of course, also invested in Uber. It would be hard to argue that Uber is anything but successful. Though it is also worth mentioning winning at any cost often creates losses elsewhere:
Google invests in disruption as though disruption is its own virtue & they leverage their internal data to drive the investments:
“If you can’t measure and quantify it, how can you hope to start working on a solution?” said Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures. “We have access to the world’s largest data sets you can imagine, our cloud computer infrastructure is the biggest ever. It would be foolish to just go out and make gut investments.”
Combining usage data from their search engine, web browser, app store & mobile OS gives them unparalleled insights into almost any business.
Google is one of the few companies which can make multi-billion dollar investments in low margin areas, just for the data:
Google executives are prodding their engineers to make its public cloud as fast and powerful as the data centers that run its own apps. That push, along with other sales and technology initiatives, aren’t just about grabbing a share of growing cloud revenue. Executives increasingly believe such services could give Google insights about what to build next, what companies to buy and other consumer preferences
Google committed to spending as much as a half billion dollars promoting their shopping express delivery service.
Google's fiber push now includes offering business internet services. Elon Musk is looking into offering satellite internet services - with an ex-Googler.
The End Game
Google now spends more than any other company on federal lobbying in the US. A steady stream of Google executives have filled US government rolls like deputy chief technology officer, chief technology officer, and head of the patent and trademark office. A Google software engineer went so far as suggesting President Obama
- Retire all government employees with full pensions.
- Transfer administrative authority to the tech industry.
- Appoint Eric Schmidt CEO of America.
That Googler may be crazy or a troll, but even if we don't get their nightmare scenario, if the regulators come from a particular company, that company is unlikely to end up hurt by regulations.
President Obama has stated the importance of an open internet: “We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.”
If there are relevant complaints about Google, who will hear them when Googlers head key government roles?
Larry Page was recently labeled businessperson of the year by Fortune:
It’s a powerful example of how Page pushes the world around him into his vision of the future. “The breadth of things that he is taking on is staggering,” says Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz. “We have not seen that kind of business leader since Thomas Edison at GE or David Packard at HP.”
A recent interview of Larry Page in the Financial Times echos the theme of limitless ambition:
- "the world’s most powerful internet company is ready to trade the cash from its search engine monopoly for a slice of the next century’s technological bonanza." ... "As Page sees it, it all comes down to ambition – a commodity of which the world simply doesn’t have a large enough supply."
- “I think people see the disruption but they don’t really see the positive,” says Page. “They don’t see it as a life-changing kind of thing . . . I think the problem has been people don’t feel they are participating in it.”
- “Even if there’s going to be a disruption on people’s jobs, in the short term that’s likely to be made up by the decreasing cost of things we need, which I think is really important and not being talked about.”
- "in a capitalist system, he suggests, the elimination of inefficiency through technology has to be pursued to its logical conclusion."
There are some dark layers which are apparently "incidental side effects" of the techno-utopian desires.
Mental flaws could be reinforced & monetized by hooking people on prescription pharmaceuticals:
It takes very little imagination to foresee how the kitchen mood wall could lead to advertisements for antidepressants that follow you around the Web, or trigger an alert to your employer, or show up on your Facebook page because, according to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Facebook “wants to build a system that anticipates your needs.”
Those business savings are crucial to Rifkin’s vision of the Third Industrial Revolution, not simply because they have the potential to bring down the price of consumer goods, but because, for the first time, a central tenet of capitalism—that increased productivity requires increased human labor—will no longer hold. And once productivity is unmoored from labor, he argues, capitalism will not be able to support itself, either ideologically or practically.
That is not to say "all will fail" due to technology. Some will succeed wildly.
Michelle Phan has been able to leverage her popularity on YouTube to launch a makeup subscription service which is at an $84 million per year revenue run rate.
Those at the top of the hierarchy will get an additional boost. Such edge case success stories will be marketed offline to pull more people onto the platform.
While a "star based" compensation system makes a few people well off, most people publishing on those platforms won't see any financial benefit from their efforts. Worse yet, a lot of the "viral" success stories are driven by a large ad budget.
Even Google has done research on income inequality in attention economies - and that was before they dialed up their brand bias stuff.
Category after category gets commoditized, platform after platform gets funded by Google, and ultimately employees working on them will long for the days where their wages were held down by illegal collusion rather than the crowdsourcing fate they face:
Workers, in turn, have more mobility and a semblance of greater control over their working lives. But is any of it worth it when we can’t afford health insurance or don’t know how much the next gig might pay, or when it might come? When an app’s terms of service agreement is the closest thing we have to an employment contract? When work orders come through a smartphone and we know that if we don’t respond immediately, we might not get such an opportunity again? When we can’t even talk to another human being about the task at hand and we must work nonstop just to make minimum wage?
Just as people get commoditized, so do other layers of value:
In SEO for a number of years many people have painted brand as the solution to everything. But consider the hotel search results which are 100% monetized above the fold - even if you have a brand, you still must pay to play. Or consider the Google Shopping ads which are now being tested on branded navigational searches.
Google even obtained a patent for targeting ads aimed at monetizing named entities.
You paid to build the brand. Then you pay Google again - "or else."
One could choose to opt out of Google ad products so as not to pay to arbitrage themselves, but Google is willing to harm their own relevancy to extract revenues.
A search in the UK for the trademark term [cheapflights] is converted into the generic search [cheap flights]. The official site is ranking #2 organically and is the 20th clickable link in the left rail of the search results.
As much as brand is an asset, it also becomes a liability if you have to pay again for every time someone looks for your brand.
Mobile apps may be a way around Google, but again it is worth noting Google owns the operating system and guarantees themselves default placement across a wide array of verticals through bundling contracts with manufacturers. Another thing worth considering with mobile is new notification features tied to the operating systems are unbundling apps & Google has apps like Google Now which tie into many verticals.
As SEOs for a long time we had value in promoting the adoption of Google's ecosystem. As Google attempts to capture more value than they create we may no longer gain by promoting the adoption of their ecosystem, but given their...
- cash hoard
- ex-employees in key government rolls
- control over video, mobile, apps, maps, email, analytics (along with search)
- broad portfolio of investments
... it is hard to think they've come anywhere close to peaking.