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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On Brand Keyword 'Extortion'

As often happens, Danny has about 40 more paragraphs in him than I do on this issue -- Jim Spanfeller of Forbes moaning about Google at PaidContent.org -- but I do have a couple to spare.

On one hand, I actually think Spanfeller is within his rights to talk about Google's growing power. His is not the only sector rocked by the bad economy, and in the sense of figuring out who produces things of genuine value and who profits the most from that value, it's a valid armchair discussion. Are we getting away from rewarding productive people and companies for their contributions to our society or economy?

That said, who can take seriously the CEO of a company whose brand is an emblem of capitalism itself, raising Marxian concepts of "use value"? Forbes as humble content-producing "worker". Google as monopolistic "robber baron." Nice touch.

On the specifics of Google "forcing" brands to buy their own names as keywords: Danny rightly points out that no one has a gun to anyone's head. We work with this day-to-day for a wide variety of companies, and I really think when you start getting into a discussion like this, you have to dig into the details, not just spout off like a stereotypical CEO pointing at the SERP's on the screen and not really understanding what he's seeing.

On the legal and related moral aspects of who buys brand keywords for what purpose, as Danny points out in his example of selling his old Forbes magazines in a garage sale, brand names are going to be part of sellers' content and their advertising in many ways. They could be distributors, partners, writers of articles about companies, and many other things. Some trademark owners wish the law allowed them total control of every use of their brand name in every context. However, that's not what the law does, for very practical reasons.

But where I'd really like to zero in, is on the paltry sum it's costing the biggest companies to voluntarily buy their brand keywords (which convert extremely well to sales, and maybe better than organic varieties of listing that might get clicked more often if you don't bid on your brand keyword... the conversions are better because you tailor the copy, test the landing pages for response, etc.) in the AdWords auction. Larger companies have these garish line items for all sorts of marketing. Money going out the door in megabuck quantities based on whims and untested theories.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest sites for visibility in the world, Google, gets a few hundred k out of you for some keywords that happen to return a positive ROI. While sending you millions in free publicity from the organic SERP's.

It's a pittance to pay. And yet because of the Stereotypical CEO Pointing at the Screen syndrome, we're supposed to be all upset, because the law, or morality, or something else, should be forcing Google as some kind of public utility to hand over advertising space for free? Advertising has never worked that way. If Forbes wants Rich Beem to wear the Forbes logo on his cap so that every time someone watches him place 58th on a PGA tour event, they might glimpse the logo and remember the brand, does Rich sell the space for free? If you want people to pay attention to you and react in a certain way in a media venue, you pay to distract them. Google is a private company, not some public trust functioning as a "universal lookup service." Especially not one in service of any given CEO's exact wishes for the details of online navigation.

Where it really comes into focus is Spanfeller's focus on how much money Google is making. Because when you add it all up, Google takes in a lot of revenue. So? Why should you care how wealthy someone else is getting? Especially if individually, what they're "misallocating" from you is a pittance compared to various other forms of marketing? By rallying other poor, beleaguered businesses together so that collectively, they might whine about some sort of Mass Misallocation, Spanfeller seems to be calling for some revolutionary overthrow of our Google overlords, and buying into the Politics of Envy besides... flaky left-wing thinking I'm sure hundreds of his company's columnists have weighed in on over the years.

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