- What Google Can Do To Make The Web Less Of A 'Cesspool'

Jim Spanfeller
Tuesday, May 5, 2009; 2:06 PM

Jim Spanfeller is president and CEO of He is also treasurer of the Online Publishers Association and chairman emeritus of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

After years of debate about the value of the near monopoly owned by the folks in Redmond, it would appear that this particular discussion is quickly moving south to the Googleplex. And from where I sit, appropriately so.

For some time there have been murmurings about the relative value generated by Google (NSDQ: GOOG) vs. the parasitical nature of its business model. In short, is Google being disproportionally compensated for what is fundamentally other people's work?

There is a strong case to be made that Google is indeed getting a bigger piece of the pie than it deserves. It certainly feels that way to content-producing companies when the advertising cycle is in a trough (as it is now) and the advertising lifeblood for branded professional journalism seems to be shrinking by the day. But is there substance to this feeling beyond the pain of lower ad dollars?

I think the answer is becoming more and more clearly, yes.

Let's consider some basic issues, all of which have been discussed in the industry for some time. First off, does the last click get too much credit? Just about everyone I talk with these days agrees that it does. Google is by far the biggest winner in this ill-conceived metric, and by selling branded keywords to the highest bidder, the company is, in fact, working hard to maximize it.

For the most part, a marketer's top-producing search terms incorporate its brand name. This is, in part, due to the fact that many end users navigate the web through the search toolbar. That's certainly not the fault of the search companies?in fact, one can salute them for making the navigation process that much cleaner and easier. What is their fault?and where value chains are muddied beyond recognition?is when Google makes marketers buy their own brand name so that their competitors will not. Herein is one of the basic ways that the last-click metric is flawed.

All of the value of "brand advertising" is discounted as consumers take action on that advertising by using their search bars to navigate to the marketer's web site. I have been told that in many cases over 90% of search spending by large-brand advertisers is targeted at keywords that are themselves (or have incorporated within them) the actual name of the brand.

Second, search is not really all that great at the moment, a comment repeated time and again by much more astute folks then me. This is especially true when looking for high-quality professionally created content. This is not to say that user-generated content or ecommerce options or product specs should not be returned in search results, simply that there is clearly a better way to showcase the different paths an end user might be pursuing. The idea that everyone is forced into trying to "game" the system so that they get their "fair" (or sometimes not so fair) share is testament to how terribly wrong this entire process has become.

For all the discussion about the vaunted search algorithms, is there any consideration for paid journalism over or even separate from ecommerce options or user-generated blogs and the like? When a colleague in the industry recently famously went to find information about the not-too-distant hostilities in the Gaza Strip, and did not get an actual professionally created journalistic result until the third page, something is wrong. Even when the results do work on some level, who wins here? At, we have estimated that Google makes roughly $60 million a year directing folks to our site. And by the way, 40 percent of those dollars are derived from the search terms of Forbes, or Forbes Magazine?simple navigation. Seems like a very nice chunk of change for simply being there.

In the end, in attempting to "do no evil," Google has done exactly that. I say this not just as someone running a content site but also as an end user. If this inequity of support continues along these lines, we will see a continuing destruction of our journalistic enterprises?enterprises that are one of the core building blocks of our democracy. Last year, while addressing the magazine publishers and editors of the MPA at the Google Campus, Eric Schmidt suggested that the web was a "cesspool" and that it was up to the major journalistic brands to clean it up. Well Eric, in a great many ways, Google has helped to create that cesspool, and as such I would hope that it can be part of the solution. There are many ways it can help make this happen. For starters:

?Better showcase professionally created content, as the fine people at the Online Publishers Association have been asking for, for some time now?Allow marketers to own their brand names in search results without fear of being cannibalized by their competitors in some sort of perhaps unintended brand extortion, and;?Cease stepping on or over the line of fair use.

Some say the market will, in the end, prevail. And on one level I agree with that. There will be a natural settling of all this. Marketers are smart and very directed. In time, there will be metrics that more fully reflect the value of advertising activities at all levels of the "marketing funnel." But between now and then, much bad can happen. We could see the loss of many of our most prized journalistic institutions. In many of these instances, Google is only a small part of the problem, but still it is a factor. And as these institutions fail to morph their offline business models online, we all lose. In fact, in the end, if the present path of activity is not amended in time, even Google will lose. With less content online there will less activity online, and with that reduction of overall activity there will be fewer searches.

So Google, help the web and heal thyself.

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