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Monday, February 04, 2008

Internet Freedom Fighters: Remember Us?

So on the heels of news of a war of words between Google and Microsoft (complete with counter-punch)...

It's evident that "what's good for consumers" is trotted out constantly as the justification for big companies' new initiatives, including M&A's or complaints against them. A lot of those platitudes, I agree with. Google, in particular, has been a revolutionary company. But their very might is starting to blind them to their own possible role in creating an arbitrary economy that is increasingly set up to benefit Google first.

Behind in a vertical like email? Worried that your two biggest competitors, if combined, could be "uncompetitively competing" in that vertical? Why should regulators or consumers care? Nothing stops anyone currently from using GMail, and it's unlikely their competitors are going to obliterate the open Internet anytime soon. It would appear that being the leader in online advertising and still feeling like an underdog leads to a complete loss of perspective on the whole evil-not-evil question. Has it just come down to: "if not invented (or assimilated, aggregated, or ripped off) here, it's evil"?

As search engine companies with huge power, companies like Google have made strides towards gaining that worldly perspective, through initiatives in reaching out to the interested community (not only users). They've put together things like the Sitemaps protocol, webmaster tools, and the like. Many of those initiatives would never have happened without goodwill and hard work on the part of identifiable Googlers. And they definitely would never have happened without concerted pressure and cohesive arguments coming from the interested community - in particular, vocal advocates such as Danny Sullivan. Maybe that's the takeaway here. Forgive me for being vocal, but if everyone just shuts up, we tend to be forgotten.

It's that goodwill - that stuff that can only come from individuals and their sense of community, as opposed to an algorithm or a balance sheet - that threatens to be forgotten as these companies grow in size and become more concerned about bashing each other than behaving in civilized fashion.

As consultants, resellers, advocates, authors, and agencies, we feel like no matter how much we try to understand and even advocate complex things like Quality Scores on keywords, we're treated to arbitrariness and large variances in the human interventions that can make or break the not-entirely-automated process. In other words, there is a growing suspicion by agencies and advertisers that a lot of your dealings with Google - especially around questions of website and landing page quality - revolve around how much someone over there likes you. Public releases like the one I commented on here, about "business models that tend to get bad quality scores," do nothing to assuage such concerns. We're left to wonder whether even worse arbitrariness lurks beneath that not-altogether-shiny veneer: whether random likes and dislikes are being invoked to harm particular, identifiable companies.

So it's fair enough to say that consumers have benefited from many of the giants' well-priced services, but it's also the question that a huge middle swath, of suppliers, partners, agencies, and related vendors, out there in the ecosystem, are impacted by the industry giants.

It's like yoo hoo, we're out here too. Remember?

On that front, no one's going to call Microsoft an angel. But what they do have in terms of grassroots reseller relationships and partnerships is decades of experience. If they weren't doing something right, they would have been chased out of all those countries they successfully operate in, years ago.

In response to such concerns - they began to be expressed 3-4 years ago - Google has spent some time building partnerships with agencies and resellers. For example, newly-developing products like Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer have reseller programs (even though the products are, um, free). Google recommends companies who produce radio ad content. And so on. Relationships are beginning to be forged.

In other areas of course, these companies move to aggressively consolidate verticals, and disintermediate stray dogs in the marketplace. On some of their websites, Google steps beyond just aggregating information, to competing directly with perfectly good content creators (knol's just a recent high-profile example - do you want the full list?). They can use confidential information in many ways, to compete with other large entities in the ecosystem. And the smaller players are little more than an afterthought in some cases. When Google or Yahoo "knock off" someone's third party products, publications, services, etc. - which happens, luckily not all the time - where does that stand on the "freedom and responsibility" meter? Can I get access to that algorithm?

Isolated practices at these giant ("Internet freedom fighting") companies still need work, in other words. We're grateful for the strides they've made - not so crazy about the times when loyal third parties are treated as afterthoughts, or worse, enemies to be crushed. Beyond platitudes about consumer choice, respect for channels seems to be still in the somewhat nascent stages.

If the Big Merger goes through, the online advertising ecosystem will need to band together and chant the lyrics that most memorable hit from Scottish crooners Simple Minds: "Don't You Forget About Me."

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