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Not Who, But What, Is Driving Google?
With the depth of attention given to Google’s broken promises lately, the natural-language-processing, sometimes-sponsored-content-identifying engine clearly has some ‘splaining to do.
For those of you who haven’t read Danny Sullivan’s excellent piece from a few weeks ago, let me elaborate on those broken promises.
Google at one time decried paid inclusion — but then, in 2012, it turned its once-organic shopping search engine into a pay-to-play ad product. More recently, in 2013, it went back on a promise to never display banner ads on search results pages, delivering giant images on behalf of brands like Nike, Virgin America and Under Armour.
Now, my opinion about the shopping ad value proposition has always been the time-honored “you get what you pay for.” With direct-response ads like these, retail marketers at least know what they’re getting because they can see conversions (or not) and adjust spend accordingly.
My main concern with product listing ads (PLAs) will be answered by what retail search buyers do this holiday season compared to what they did last season. In other words, did paid shopping simply bleed off existing paid search budgets or did it create new revenue for Google?
Image Is Everything
On the other hand, Google’s testing of the image ad format on SERPs should have marketers, as well as shareholders, reasonably concerned. About as concerned as, say, the world is every time a new country starts to test nuclear “energy” solutions.
First, a question for the skeptics among us: was the image test acknowledgment coincidentally or intentionally delivered the same day another 9- or 10-figure, upfront ad deal with a holding company was announced? The media buying agency’s leadership had a very telling quote in the Financial Times (paywall) on October 24th, just as word of the image ad suddenly popped up in social media.
“For years, the digital world has been asking for the dollars and laying out a case for why,” Brian Terkelsen, chief executive of MediaVest, said.
OK, I’m with you so far…
“This is a moment in time where we are beginning to see a new level of transparency, a new level of partnership and a new appreciation of the size of the prize that is available,” he added.
I thought that last part was an odd statement to come from someone in an agency leadership position. I kept reading to see if this “new level of transparency” meant that clients would be informed about the margins on said media buy. But, no, I guess the prize must be the delivery of honest, unbiased recommendations to clients (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) given there’s obviously no conflict of interest.
I’ve said it publicly before, I will say it again: Google employs the best public relations minds in the world. A reasonable, in no way conspiracy-prone person like me would never think the move — leaking an ad test to divert attention away from sweetheart media buying margins in an otherwise level media buying playing field — was pure marketing communications genius. (Of course, this assumes the right hand knows what the left hand is doing at Google, which might be a compliment the company doesn’t really deserve.)
What’s An Image Ad, Really?
Diversion or coincidence, many of us prefer to talk about what may end up being nothing more than an image ad extension as a sign of the coming Googlepocolypse.
For Google’s sake, I hope the graphic ad representation test fizzles to become nothing more than an ad extension that serves as a brand’s landing page. Just as the “Knowledge Graph” organic results mean that users, more and more, are finding their answers directly on Google rather than having to click through, this new format puts the brand’s landing page directly on the SERPs.
Since many brands have yet to discover the concept of using landing pages effectively, the aforementioned new format would have little impact on brands (certainly it wouldn’t deliver traffic that could be converted), but would create a whole new cash flow for Google.
Again, Google is demonstrating pure genius by taking a brand’s inefficiency and turning it into money. Of course, Google would call this “providing a service” for brands. But is this effectively throwing up an unnecessary gate for brand interaction? Can Google charge the advertiser twice for a click they would only pay for once if they got the landing page tactics correct?
A recent study [PDF] put together by eBay, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago concluded that “… consumers who query such a narrow term [the brand name] intend to go to that company’s website and are seeking the easiest route there. Brand paid search links simply intercept consumers at the last point in their navigational process…”
Imagine the following scenario:
- Advertiser purchases search ad from Google
- Ad is directed to a Google-hosted image ad landing page with 10 other opportunities to buy a click
- Four of the ten paid link ads are headed to YouTube pages for the brand’s videos; YouTube pages also offer paid ads that (may) finally deliver a user to the company’s website
The advertiser has just paid thrice to get one person to its website. Now imagine if display ads, local ads, shopping ads and pay-for-action phone number ads existed in that buying sequence. That sound crazy? Advertisers buy Facebook ads to send people to Facebook pages with other ads on them every day. Lots of ’em.
Total Genius Or Total Insanity?
If the desired action — a visit to the website or a conversion — is achieved in performance marketing, no one likes to question how they got there. It’s a good thing agencies haven’t committed their client’s hard-earned dollars to this bucket of crazy. Oh, wait…
These upfronts, I’m sure, have nothing whatsoever to do with the branding-oriented YouTube ads being the equivalent of distressed (hard-to-move) inventory. If you aren’t buying Google search ads, your business has a snowball’s chance in Rio of survival. YouTube ads? Less so, but as FT reported, Google will also help measure the effectiveness of the ads. That, in no way, sounds like a conflict of interest.
If you’ll put aside what will certainly be largely believable analytics and sophisticated reporting, here’s a hypothetical email thread between agency, brand and Google rep:
Client to agency: How are the YouTube ads doing?
Agency to client and Google: How the heck should we know? Google, how are the YouTube ads doing?
Google to Client (accidentally neglecting to cc: the agency): The ads are doing really good. I predict you are going to spend another 10 million dollars on them this quarter.
I can’t believe it has come to agencies committing to buy media that may or may not have any value on behalf of its clients and celebrating their total reliance on the seller to determine the media placement’s value post festum. And, the clients seem okay with this insane proposition.
So What Is All This Adding Up To?
The trust relationship problem exemplified by the image ads and paid shopping ads is shining a light on Google’s struggle with its value proposition. In many ways, this tells the story of Internet marketing as a whole — advertisers have long been perfectly happy to pay for clicks (that go to their websites), but media sellers have meanwhile been arguing that there’s more value there — aka branding value — especially where visually-oriented inventory like that on YouTube is concerned.
Facebook doesn’t like it when you stack its ads against sponsored-directive search ads; so, it makes sense Google would also want to create a healthy but somehow connected distance between its lower-funnel intent-driven search ads and its more amorphous branding opportunities.
What we are seeing is actually the beginning of a foundational shift in the perception of Google’s ad sales value proposition. I think it’s a good move for the ad world to offer competition for television, and winning over agencies like MediaVest, Razorfish and DigitasLBi is good news. I’d prefer it if an agency surrendering its objectivity and lack of measurement prowess wasn’t heralded with thunderous applause, however.
Fumbling this enhancement to the paid ad model is really just a stepping stone to broadening the relationship consumers have with search and find, and Internet media in general. Additionally, the black and white relationship advertisers have with the text or directive components of advertising will eventually broaden to encompass a more rounded metric akin to reach and frequency success criteria.
As things evolve, the answer to Danny’s “Who’s In Charge” question will result from Google’s complex array of positioning, perception and performance. The move away from directional intent ads is a move toward a white whale to many digital marketers — the brand advertising budget. The brand ad budget is a magnificent beast, with its sleepy accountability requirements and graceful, yet predictable, lumbering movements.
I think the ad budgets are really in charge, but for some reason are volunteering to not make any of the important decisions. I suspect that will need to change at some point if digital media sellers want to spear that leviathan and keep it hooked.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.