The phrase "uncharted territory" came up several time during Google's earnings call last week. In the context of the call, the phrase referred to the fact that no one really knows whether conversion rates, CPC prices, or consumer confidence will return to normal anytime soon.
But the phrase has resonances beyond these narrow concerns, because Google's challenges extend beyond the first quarter of '09. As the year progresses, the company may find itself exposed to a number of unmapped hazards, including:
1. Uncle Sam. Think of government regulations as a smoldering volcano. We all know there are hot, trapped gasses down there, but when exactly the mountain will shatter remains uncertain. Google crossed swords with the government several months ago, when its co-marketing deal with Yahoo tripped the DOJ's antitrust tripwire. This battle was avoided, but ominous subsurface rumblings continue, from the FDA (which is now insisting, somewhat absurdly, that 95-character pharma ads include full drug side-effect disclosures), to the FTC (which still hasn't figured out if will allow the online industry to self-regulate). Any and all of these alphabet agencies are watching Google, constraining its efforts to bust out of its core search ad business into true growth areas. And in an era in which only 53% of the American population believe that freewheeling capitalism is a better idea than socialism, Uncle Sam casts a long shadow.
2. Shifts in the competitive landscape. The efforts of Google's competitors to provide a meaningful check on its market dominance have so far been pathetic. And yet advertisers and publishers are clamoring (if not actually dying) for increased competition. I don't buy into the idea that Twitter or another emergent platform can possibly overtake paid search as a sales and distribution channel. What's of more concern is the idea that Microsoft and Yahoo could actually pull their online operations together and get them firing on all cylinders. Before you conclude that this is impossible, recall that Microsoft has gotten a lot smarter in recent months when it comes to attacking its archrival Apple. Instead of running silly ads featuring Jerry Seinfeld, it's taking Apple to task for being faux-cool but unaffordable. And with $100 million budgeted to promote its forthcoming search service (whatever its name happens to be), it's got a lot of ammo.
3. Cornered incumbents. Old media, especially print, is increasingly behaving like a cornered animal fighting for its very survival. Call me paranoid, but when The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, who usually reserves her dragon-like tongue for the likes of Dick Cheney, directs her attention to Eric Schmidt, public opinion begins to be shaped in ways we haven't seen before. Opinions change quickly in the age of Twitter, as we saw last week with the Dominos-disgusting food scandal. Whether or not Google is the key player responsible for the demise of the Fourth Estate is irrelevant (I'd argue, with many others, that the news guys did this one to themselves). What matters is that you can't just smile and throw crumbs to a cornered, frightened, hungry animal without expecting said animal to lurch onto the table and sink its teeth into your face.
Will 2009 be the year when these hazards surface like Jaws, Moby Dick, or U-505? I don't know. But this is going to be a long, long year, for the economy, Google, and everyone working in online advertising -- and when you're in uncharted waters, the smart money never sleeps far from the lifeboats.