Google – Little evil is healthy

Google’s initial spell on an uninitiated user during it’s toddler years of early 2000’s was one of freshness. Freshness in presentation, freshness in efficiency and economy, freshness even in it’s ideology. It’s efficiency in delivering super-fast results and it’s boldness in thought at organizing and prioritizing search results was an instant hit. No other search engine of the time came close to churning relevant data to the top like Google. Google’s ideology, even though not something that was stage managed by the corporate, was perhaps the most impressionable aspect. Especially to us working in IT at the time.

Google’s loyalty to it’s official motto “Organize worlds information and make it accessible” was transparent to most of it’s consumers. Without any real ideas about how to monetize this incredible platform which was attracting users by the millisecond, Google’s unofficial motto “Do no evil” was also easily accepted by the world. Even during the months on either side of it’s IPO, Google continued to maintain it’s reputation, although by then they had solved the problem of monetization. By successfully mimicking what had figured out initially, it started selling ad-space based on words. In it’s subsequent and unrestrained thirst for profits it created other innovative avenues to sell ad space. Through an idea ingested by corporate acquisition, it launched the Adsense service which could be embedded in any site’s content where it would display a text-only advertisement that was also relevant to the content of that page. With this innovation in marketing, the landscape for digital billboards became limitless.

It’s perhaps during this growth phase that Google began diluting it’s stake in it’s unofficial motto. Although the news agencies were still enthralled with Google’s phenomenal success story as well as other environment and employee friendly cultures which it promoted, to the players in the know of digital marketing their transformation was unmistakable. The concept of Adsense itself was contentious. The ads which Google displayed on it’s search results page (Adwords) were clearly defined. It’s location and format was distinctly demarcated from the results and was easily distinguishable to repeat visitors. In contrast, Google allowed Adsense ads to be customized in how it looked. This, though, is a necessary feature. After all, publishing ideology changes from site to site and it would be juvenile of Google to impose a single format for text ads across all sites. The problem with the customization though is that many sites that have sprung up with the sole appetite for a slice of the digital marketing pie would customize these ads so much that they would blend in as text. In sites the distinction is so blurred that not even a cuttlefish could do a better job at blending in. Visitors would click on these ad links expecting to be taken to useful and related content of their interest but instead find themselves on the receiving end of a digital telemarketer. Such practices by websites could not have gone unnoticed by Google. They do have an internal process for redressal of fraudulent siphoning of ad sales. Without enforcing a policy of clear separation of ad from content on the Adsense sites even their best intentions seems like an effort to appease the lawsuit devils rather than to please the ethics gods.

Adsense get’s even murkier as one starts looking into the details of it’s usage. As an agency responsible for buying media channels, the tools which Google provides have consistently been the best of the lot. Yahoo, the erstwhile competitor of search ads and Microsoft (as well as Facebook) the wannabe contender are still woefully incapable of delivering the same granularity of managing a budget that Google does. To use a physical world analogy of billboards, Google tools could allow you to buy billboard space for as little as $1 a day (the duration would be proportionately shorter at say 5 minutes). It will not guarantee the location of this billboard but will track, after spending, which websites were responsible for generating leads. Google does not practice any serious vetting of websites before including them in their Adsense network. This allows websites with dubious intentions to profit from unsuspecting advertisers. It becomes tedious for any agency spending even as little as $1000 a day to keep track of all the websites that were responsible for getting leads. With Google charges starting at 1 cent per click, the data reaches unmanageable proportions very easily. Because of it’s position at the vanguard of digital marketing there were no real alternatives for agencies either. The only challenge happened to be a legal one.

The problem with selling ads based on words is that without defining the context of some of the words the ads could be attracting completely irrelevant leads. To compound matters, because the ads also contain branding, from the advertisers perspective, there was a real threat of loosing brand equity if their ads were displayed on sites of dubious repute. For instance, clinics advertising for “Lasik eye surgery” would find it objectionable if their ads were displayed on a site promoting techniques and suggestions for eye care that are at odds with medical opinions. Google’s solution to this was borne more out of an effort to avoid inevitable lawsuits rather than soul searching. Google began classifying websites in it’s Adsense networks into Health, Education, Finance, etc. Now, as an agency spending your advertisers dollars, you could choose which types of sites you would want to display the ads on thus controlling exposure. There added another twist. Not all domains that are registered have a website with content backing it. Just registering a domain without directing it to a server where the content is hosted leads to what the industry terms as ‘parked domain’. Like a car that’s parked even a parked domain is not serving it’s intended purpose. Such unfulfilled domains are leveraged by canny domain registrars as well as registering entities by displaying a page that’s filled with Adsense ads. In many cases the domain names are either a result of a frequent typographical error of another popular site or a name with quality words – words that make it eligible to be displayed in Google search results. With the latest figure of total domain registrations nearing 200 million and almost 25% of these categorized as parked domains, the numbers are lucrative. Too lucrative for even Google to ignore. Even though these domains have no content and serve no purpose to Google’s stated motto of “organizing worlds information…”, they not only spew out such domains as valid search results but they also allow such domains to be part of their Adsense network. Google took it one step further. They refuse to classify such domains as “parked” in the Adsense spend manager tool where agencies can choose to exclude advertising on dead-end domains displaying empty promises. Advertisers are left with no other choice but to write off such expenses to cost of doing business with this new avatar of Google.

Corporate institutions like Google which began with the best of intentions had inspired some followers in it’s marriage of ethics with profits. Sadly, this is just another account of how ethics has taken backseat to profits at the moment at Googleplex.

8th September, 2010. Mumbai.

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