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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Google Doesn't Lack for Transparency for Individual Tentacles, But the Whole Octopus Scares Us

I just wanted to clarify the previous post, given that blog tone can sometimes be as brittle as email.

Compared with the 'typical' company, Google has shone far more light on advertising performance than any company that has come before it. If all it had done was to come out with Google Analytics, advanced segmentation, free to everyone, that would have been enough. But in addition -- save for a few quibbles -- the advertiser has pretty much gotten their wish on all kinds of disclosure points. Running a placement performance report in the AdWords back end, for example, gives you minute information about the click and conversion performance of publisher partners. While such info may be too strict for those seeking reach and frequency to build their brands, it is surely nice (more than nice) that it is offered.

In releasing Google Webmaster Tools on the organic side, Google also took a major stride forward in communicating with site owners about their page indexing status, the true status of inbound linking, etc.

It's not like we haven't been noticing this stuff. It is worth noting though that such disclosure and communications have been hard-won. Folks on the outside needed to clamor for them, and there needed to be advocates inside Google willing to spearhead those initiatives.

We've written about Google's transparency previously, here and here. This transparency has been insufficient to convince some analysts, however.


Exceptions:

  • We don't know the exact specifics of how the AdWords ranking algorithm works, especially on landing page and website quality and anomalous words like trademarks or just weird stuff that seems to get you into more trouble. That said, Google publishes a lot about the Quality Score recipe, publicly (anyone who says they don't is blowing smoke). And spokespersons, primary among them Nick Fox, Frederick Vallaeys, and Hal Varian, have always been extremely forthcoming about details. Nick in particular has helped to combat common myths, including some I tried to dispel here in a Landing Page and Quality Score Refresher over at SEL. In hindsight, it was quite a bit easier to overcome snake oil stories about the ranking formula back when it was essentially CTR X Max Bid. The funny thing is, that's pretty much how it still works, outside of a few quirks and exceptions. But by making the algorithm sound so sneaky, Google has opened the door to an endless procession of seminars by "experts" (mea culpa on this also), and has indirectly allowed old-school SEO companies to re-enter paid search as the kinds of "experts" who never feel like they're delivering a service properly unless their spreading FUD and doing a number on their clients' brains. Quality Score Fascination has risen from its opacity, and has indirectly distracted some marketers from marketing. For example, you really should test landing pages for your users and for business results -- not to make Quality Score happy!
  • Disclosure is relatively poor to AdSense publishers;
  • Search partner traffic still performs worse than Google Search traffic, but you can't bid it lower (though you can opt out). This makes it actually worse than content targeting (placements) today.

Flies in the ointment:

The many products Google has now developed fall under the broad heading of "free" stuff that comes with hidden strings attached, as addressed in Chris Anderson's new book. Google is a Super Funnel (or perhaps Mega Octopus is a better term) that actually relies on the fact that the terms and conditions of engagement with any given tentacle don't adequately capture the reality of the fuller relationship you're developing with the company as a whole. In that sense: you cannot criticize great, free products like Google Maps integrations and GMail... you just can't! After all, they're great, and they're free. So why is it that at some point, these wonderful gifts start to make everyone feel just a little bit uneasy?

Maybe that's why I like to focus on their advertising program. You pay. I can wrap my head around that.

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