Getting it Wrong

by Doc Searls

For quite some time, Google (which runs on upwards of 10,000 Linux boxes) has offered advertisers ways to present short text messages along with targeted search results. These "sponsored links" have more in common with newspaper classifieds than with banners or any other form of graphical display advertising, and they have been the source of very few complaints. More importantly, they mostly seem to be working for everybody involved: users, advertisers and Google.

Recently, Google updated the program--previously called AdWords and now named AdWords Select--with a variety of improvements. For both users and advertisers, it improved the chances for relevant sponsored links.

But on Tuesday, February 19, the Associated Press put out a story by Michael Liedtke (here it is on the New York Times site) about the new program, delivering news that Google had morphed into yet another pay-for-placement search engine. It starts off this way:

Online search engine maker Google Inc. is introducing a program that allows Web sites to be displayed more prominently if sponsors pay more money--an advertising-driven system derided by critics as an invitation to deceptive business practices.

Four paragraphs pass before Liedtke writes:

Mountain View-based Google will continue to reserve most of its site for results sorted by relevance to a search request--a model that has cultivated a local following among Web surfers and turned the 300-employee company into one of the Internet's emerging power brokers.

But writing "continues to reserve most of its site" hardly deflects the thrust of the story, which is mostly about pay-for-placement.

Since AP is the primary source of news for countless newspapers and other news organizations, the story was picked up all over the place and then run under headlines that delivered the same bad news:

  • "Google offers 'bid for placing' web searches", Silicon.com

  • "Google Lets Sites Bid for Rankings", Excite

  • "Google lets sites bid for rankings", Orlando Sentinel

  • "Google introducing 'pay-for-placement' program", Nando Times

This whole situation proved to be one where the press release did a better job of telling the story.

As far as I've been able to tell, the only news organization that got the story right was CNET, where Lisa M. Bowman wrote "Google unveils new pay-for-play plan". But even there the headline gave the impression that Google was now a pay-for-placement search engine. And, as with the AP piece, the secondary story was about Google's "rivalry" with Overture Services, Inc., which seems the antithesis of Google: "The Leader in Pay-for-Performance" search services.

Of course, the whole thing got thrashed out on Slashdot, where a careful reader would gather that Google had, in fact, produced a system that improved matters for everyone concerned. Ads were still unobtrusive, and (among other improvements) advertisers paid only for actual click-throughs.

Here's how Cindy McCaffrey, Google's VP of Corporate Marketing, put it in an e-mail to me yesterday:

All we've done is modify our AdWords self-service program so that advertisers can pay on a CPC basis (this is good news). The search results continue to be as unbiased and objective as ever. We do not allow advertisers to influence rankings in any way through payment.

What remains to be seen is how much damage AP has done to Google's reputation.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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