News is a lousy business for Google too

There is a widespread myth that search engines have taken profits away from news websites. A few months ago, Rupert Murdoch said: “Google has devised a brilliant business model that avoids paying for news gathering yet profits off the search ads sold around that content.”

The reality is that news is a lousy business. Period. Even Google doesn’t make money on it. For example, here are Google’s search results for the phrase “afghanistan war”:

Notice there aren’t any ads on the page. This is because ads for “afghanistan war” generate such low revenues per query that Google doesn’t think it’s worth hurting the user experience with a cluttered page. Google can afford to do this on news queries (along with many other categories of queries) because their real business is selling ads on queries where the user likely has purchasing intent. Big money-making categories include travel, consumer electronics and malpractice lawyers. News queries are loss leaders.

It’s an historical accident that hard news categories like international and investigative reporting were part of profitable businesses. The internet upended this model by 1) providing a new delivery method for classified ads (mainly Craigslist), 2) increasing the supply of newspapers from 1-2 per location to thousands per location, thereby driving the willingness-to-pay for news dramatically down, and 3) unbundling news categories, making cross subsidization increasingly hard.

The internet exposed hard news for what it is: a lousy standalone business. Google arguably contributed to this in many indirect ways, including by helping users find substitute news sources. But the idea that Google takes profits directly from newspapers is simply misinformed.

A massive misallocation of online advertising dollars

In an earlier blog post, I talked about how sites that generate purchasing intent (mainly “content” sites) are being under-allocated advertising dollars versus sites that harvest purchasing intent (search engines, coupon sites, comparison shopping sites, etc).  As a result, most content sites are left haggling over CPM-based brand advertising instead of sponsored links for the bulk of their revenue.

But there is an additional problem:  even among sites that monetize via sponsored links there is a large overallocation of advertising spending on links that are near the “end of the purchasing process” (or “end of the funnel”). For example, an average camera buyer takes 30 days and clicks on approximately 3 sponsored links from the beginning of researching cameras to actually purchasing one.   Yet in most cases only the last click gets credit, by which I mean:  1) if it’s an affiliate (CPA) deal, it is literally usually the case that only the last affiliate (the site that drops the last cookie) gets paid, 2) if it’s a CPC or CPM deal, most advertisers don’t properly track the users across multiple site visits so simply attribute conversion to the most recent click, causing them to over-allocate to end-of-funnel links 3) if it’s a non-sponsored link (like Google natural search links) the advertiser might over-credit SEO when in fact the natural search click was just the final navigational step in a long process that involved sponsored links along the way.

What this means is there are two huge misallocations of advertising dollars online: the first from intent generators to intent harvesters; the second from intent harvesters that are at the beginning or middle of the purchasing process to those at the end of the purchasing process.  This is not just a problem for internet advertisers and businesses – it affects all internet users.  Where advertising dollars flow, money gets invested. It is well known that content sites are suffering, many are even on their way to dying. Additionally, product/service sites that started off focusing on research are forced to move more and more toward end-of-funnel activities.  Take a look at how sites like TripAdvisor and CNET have devoted increasing real estate to the final purchasing click instead of research.  For the most part, you don’t get paid for the actual research since it’s too high in the funnel.

As with all large problems, this misallocation of advertising dollars also presents a number of opportunities.  One opportunity is for advertisers to correctly attribute their spending by tracking users through the entire purchasing process (in the case of cameras, the full 30 days and multiple sponsored clicks).  Very likely, these sites are currently overpaying end-of-funnel sites (e.g. coupon sites) and underpaying top-of-funnel sites (e.g. research sites). There is also an opportunity for companies that provide technology to help track this better. Finally, if over time advertising dollars do indeed shift to being correctly allocated, this will allow research sites to be pure research sites, content sites to be pure content sites, etc instead of everyone trying to clutter their sites with repetitive, “last click” functionality.

Speculation on Apple’s purchase of Quattro Wireless

Apple has entered the online advertising business for the first time with its purchase of Quattro Wireless. They are now also competing head-to-head against Google in the mobile advertising market.

Mobile ads will be displayed to users either in a web browser or in a mobile application. Thanks to the iPhone and now Android, web browsing on mobile devices is becoming just like web browsing on the desktop. Sites are often running the same HTML – and the same ads – whether the browser is on the desktop or mobile web. Thus, if an ad network supplies ads to the nytimes desktop version, they’ll also supply ads to the nytimes mobile version. The battle for web publishers on mobile browser-based ads would seem to be the same battle already happening on the desktop web.  This battle is dominated by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft etc. and I can’t imagine Apple is trying to seriously enter the battle at this late stage.

Thus, Apple’s interest in Quattro must be about ads in mobile applications. Apple is currently in a very strong position with respect to app developers, given their tight control over the dominant app platform. How could Google supplant them there? For one thing, Android and other platforms could gain significant market share. But Google could threaten Apple even on ads in iPhone apps. Unless Apple forced developers to use their ad network, iPhone app developers would select the ad network that provided the highest payouts, which – as with all ad networks – would depend heavily on which had the most advertisers.

So the Quattro purchase seems to be mostly about Apple getting a base of mobile advertisers (not publishers) that will allow them to offer competitive payouts on mobile app ads (not mobile browser-based ads).

What’s strategic for Google?

Google seems to be releasing or acquiring new products almost daily. It’s one thing for a couple of programmers to hack together a side project. It’s another thing for Google to put gobs of time and money behind it. The best way to predict how committed Google will be to a given project is to figure out whether it is “strategic” or not.

Google makes 99% of their revenue selling text ads for things like airplane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers. A project is strategic for Google if it affects what sits between the person clicking on an ad and the company paying for the ad. Here is my rough breakdown of the “layers in the stack” between humans and the money:

Human – device – OS – browser – bandwidth –  websites – ads – ad tech – relationship to advertiser – $$$

At each layer, Google either wants to dominate it or commoditize it. (For more on the strategic move known as commoditizing the complement, see here, here and here). Here’s my a brief analysis of the more interesting layers:

Device: Desktop hardware already commoditized. Mobile hardware is not, hence Google Phone (Nexus One).

OS: Not commoditized, and dominated by archenemy (Microsoft)!!   Hence Android/Google Chrome OS is very strategic. Google also needs to remove main reasons people choose Windows. Main reasons (rational ones – ignoring sociological reasons, organizational momentum etc) are Office (hence Google Apps), Outlook (hence Gmail etc), gaming (look for Google to support cross-OS gaming frameworks), and the long tail of Windows-only apps (these are moving to the web anyways but Google is trying to accelerate the trend with programming tools).

Browser: Not commoditized, and dominated by arch enemy! Hence Chrome is strategic, as is alliance with Mozilla, as are strong cross-browser standards that maintain low switching costs.

Bandwidth:  Dominated by wireless carriers, cable operators and telcos. Very hard for Google to dominate without massive infrastructure investment, hence Google is currently trying to commoditize/weaken via 1) more competition (WiMAX via Clearwire, free public Wi-Fi) 2) regulation (net neutrality).

Websites/search (“ad inventory”): Search is obviously dominated by Google. Google’s syndicated ads (AdSense) are dominant because Google has the highest payouts since they have the most advertisers bidding. This in turn is due largely to their hugely valuable anchor property, Acquired Youtube to be their anchor property for video/display ads, and DoubleClick to increase their publisher display footprint. On the emerging but fast growing mobile side, presumably they bought AdMob for their publisher relationships (versus advertiser relationships where Google is already dominant). The key risks on this layer are 1) people skip the ads altogether and go straight to, say, Amazon to buy things, 2) someone like Facebook or MS uses anchor property to aggressively compete in syndicated display market.

Relationships to advertisers:  Google is dominant in non-local direct-response ads, both SMB self serve and big company serviced accounts.  They are much weaker in display. Local advertisers (which historically is half of the total ad market) is still a very underdeveloped channel – hence (I presume) the interest in acquiring Yelp.

This doesn’t mean Google will always act strategically. Obviously the company is run by humans who are fallible, emotional, subject to whims, etc. But smart business should be practiced like smart chess: you should make moves that assume your opponents will respond by optimizing their interests.

Why the web economy will continue growing rapidly

Here’s the really good news for the web economy over the next decade.  Consumers are spending more and more time online, yet only about 10% of all advertising dollars are spent there.

Let’s assume that, over time, ad spending on a medium becomes roughly proportional to the time consumers spend using that medium. I doubt there are any technologists reading this blog who doubt that in five years most people in industrialized countries will spend 50% or more of their “media time” on the web.  This means there are hundreds of billions of ad revenues waiting to move to the web.

Advertising is usually divided into two categories: direct-response and brand advertising. Direct-response advertising tries to get users to take immediate action. Brand advertising tries to build up positive associations over time in people’s minds. In the past decade, we saw a massive shift of direct response advertising to the web. The main beneficiary of this shift has been Google. We saw far less of a shift of brand advertising to the web.

It is therefore very likely that most of this new ad spending will be brand advertising.  This is why Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are all so intensely focused on display advertising. It is why they paid huge premiums to acquire Doubleclick, Right Media, and Avenue A.

Right now there are lots of inhibitors to brand advertising dollars flowing onto the web. Among them 1) most of the brand dollars are controlled by ad agencies, who seem far more comfortable with traditional media channels, 2) it is hard to know where your online advertising is appearing and whether it is effective, 3) banner ads seem extremely ineffective and are often poorly targeted, 4) big brand advertisers seem scared of user-generated content, today’s major source of ad inventory growth.

But economic logic suggests these problems will be figured out, because advertisers have no choice but to go where the consumers are.