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Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Search Advertising Story and the Quest for Balance

Lisa Baertlein of AP weighs in with another story about the growing interest in paid search ads. The piece seems balanced and accurate. Not so for all recent coverage of paid search, some of which has focused nearly exclusively on click fraud.

Now the little "good Gazoo" is floating over my shoulder, saying "control yourself," since I have enormous respect for most of the analysts and consultants who are close enough to this action to be able to write or speak about it. I consider them all friends.

"Bad Gazoo" as usual wants me to write a few paragraphs more. And promote my new book. I think Bad Gazoo just won.

David Vise's most recent piece in the Washington Post, quoting Jessie Stricchiola extensively on the issue of click fraud, seemed to me to be a bit too much tilted towards "scandal"... is it merely representative of what we can expect from the print media when it reports on new media companies? As far as some newspaper publishers are concerned, everything in the new media is a suspect, a scandal. I suppose Google's honeymoon had to end, since it went public and lost its innocence.

But I'm a bit surprised that a reporter of David Vise's caliber is feeding into the "new economy porn" level coverage that we see so often. Jessie's and the others' comments on the click fraud problem are sensible for the most part. I like the fact that David exposes the actions of actual fraud perpetrators and points out that Google is suing them. No one with a shred of common sense (as the product from manager from Yahoo points out) would minimize the fraud problem. OK, so why do Vise and Stricchiola turn around and accuse Google of this, while exonerating Overture? So the issue I take is not with Jessie's admirable holding of Google and Overture to account on click fraud and other issues of importance to clients. I take issue with the specific quotes "sometimes Google does not even look at the data" and "Yahoo tends to be more proactive." That's true. But it would also be true if you wrote it this way: "sometimes Yahoo does not even look at the data" and "Google tends to be more proactive."

Nothing at these companies is static, but if you look at how the two (behind the scenes) have innovated and tried new things to help advertisers better manage their accounts, Google wins. Both mix good traffic in with the bad stuff. But you'll pay more per click for content clicks on Overture, and ... well... the list of quirks of both programs would be long, and I'd rather save it for a staff meeting. That's where we swap stories about this stuff all the time. Unfortunately, the public just reads the story in the Post and remembers "Google bad."

It may well be that Jessie has experienced better service from Overture than from Google, but I'm here to tell you that both companies have been responsive some of the time on click fraud issues, but in other cases -- *particularly* with Overture -- complaints have been met with a shrug. I've conveyed at least one of my experiences to John Battelle, a frequent writer on this topic, in hopes that he'll write it up soon (hopefully in a balanced way). I have been contacted less and less by reporters on the click fraud issue, probably because I'm not willing to help them fill up column inches with salacious anecdotes designed to make Google look bad. In case anyone hasn't noticed, the slander isn't hurting them. Their stock is still up there and the financials still look good, probably because advertisers love and need Google.

This brings us to the next point. Well known speakers like Jessie and myself may not have an accurate picture when it comes to the level of service offered on certain glaring click fraud issues. I had one client receive a sizeable refund based on our careful analysis of the case (some nonconverting content traffic), but then again, I presented some details of that case publicly. Not exactly a fair test. And I'm sure Overture people know Jessie and want to ensure that her clients are treated well.

That may actually be one of the emerging secrets to Overture, and to a lesser extent Google. On click fraud refunds, your powers of negotiation may come into play. These are *not* directly proportional to your ad spend, necessarily. I've seen advertisers who qualify for Overture's "Diamond Service" receiving Dumpster Service. Google salespeople work in mysterious and inconsistent ways. Depending on the day, it might actually be better that Google has an engineering culture at the back end, since a well-presented fraud case based on good data will be taken very seriously. It shouldn't be about backslapping (at least not entirely).

These search companies have plenty of money. In a lot of ways, Google couldn't give a hoot about money as long as there are four or five good blue chip advertisers available to bid up the top spots. So, at this stage, this business is about relationships. Which makes it harder and harder to get unbiased information. Those who have some kind of relationship with Google or Overture may have special insight, but also bias. Those who work in traditional news organizations may be shut out to some extent, so they may have less bias, but no insight.

In any case, some of those being quoted on these issues begin to be pigeonholed (or at least suspected of being) "Google people" or "Yahoo people" etc. I think that's a real danger.

We know David Vise isn't a "Google person," so we'll be prepared when his book The Google Story comes out in the fall.

As for whether operators of consultancies are pro Google or pro Overture, etc., I don't think any of us can afford to be unduly either pro or against them if we're to be effective for our clients. We can't alienate them or point fingers unfairly, but we must advocate for our clients first and foremost. As these firms grow in size, this balance becomes more apparent. Kevin Lee has written many columns for ClickZ and although at times in the early days he might have seemed "pro" at least one vendor, the evolution of the business means he works closely with both companies, and it shows in his writing.

When my book, Winning Results with Google AdWords, comes out in a few weeks, I urge you to read it and decide for yourself. Am I pro-Google? Anti-Google? Or just pro-advertiser? At least one other how-to of this nature has come out by now, but these are sometimes done in close cooperation with the vendors themselves. This can lead to a rather "canned" experience. My publisher, McGraw-Hill, decided it would be best if my material was written independently, and I'm very happy with that decision. I work closely with Google in my day-to-day job, but did no book research with them, and received no official sanction or advice. In other words, we just called it as we saw it. If you read the book, you'll see that I'm critical of Google in some places, but I don't think unduly so.

Balance is possible, even when evildoers are out there clicking on our ads.

More than balance, though. Writing the book excited me because search excites me. Each individual chapter posed a different challenge, and the final one, an opportunity to think about the future of online targeting, reminded me of how far we've come and how many new targeting opportunities advertisers will need to experiment with in the next five years. So if being a little fired up makes me "unbalanced," guilty as charged.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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