Commentary

Google Is Your Ultimate Frenemy

Xerox. Kleenex. Coke. It’s the rare brand that achieves the high accomplishment of becoming synonymous with the very thing they offer to the extent that the brand name itself is used as the noun (or verb in some cases) in common parlance. That kind of cachet is well earned by simply being one of the best at what you do, but in a market based on fair competition, industry juggernauts largely dictate that industry’s direction and growth and, by extension, force everyone in the ecosystem to play by their rules.

Though there are many power players in the digital sphere, Google is unarguably the heavyweight. The data giant became synonymous with the concept of online search and established itself as the front door to the internet years ago. These days, Google has its fingers in pies across the breadth of media and technology and, as it has continued to grow, it has acquired a great deal of influence over many of the industries in that space.

For those of us trying to survive and thrive in the ad-tech ecosystem, Google is an omnipresence with which most have a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, Google is the most plentiful source of the data that is the lifeblood of the industry; on the other hand, Google is so enormous an entity that the rest of the companies that partner with them (and let’s face it, most of us are on the Google hook in some way or another) are essentially forced to play by their rules.

For example, recently Google has been flexing some of that power with several changes to their own policies on who can buy and access their search data. Many publishers no longer get to see what keywords brought users to their pages or led to particular actions, meaning they are now missing a crucial piece of the audience targeting puzzle. The entire affiliate advertising business has experienced numerous upheavals thanks to Google’s rule changes. 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to vilify Google here. It’s a vital data source for organizations of all sizes and the majority of their offerings and recent endeavors have been legitimately exciting for our industry and for technology as a whole. Google isn’t an evil empire and their rule changes are not nefarious; they may very well be for the good of the digital ecosystem and even for the consumer. The problem is, it’s risky to rely solely on a single data partner, even one as “too big to fall” as Google, because that puts you entirely at the mercy of their actions. Google’s moves in the industry always have ripple effects, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on your role in the ecosystem, and it’s just a smart survival tactic to diversify.

It’s true that search data is an extremely effective indicator of consumer intent, but the fact is, even Google’s data can’t provide the complete picture of consumer intent required to significantly boost targeting accuracy and results and decrease waste. It is most advisable to work with several comprehensive data providers and advertising platforms, which will, of course, still include Google data but will also supplement it with enlightening demographic, behavioral and intent data to ensure that whatever gaps Google’s policies leave in their audience insight are filled.

Think back to your junior high science classes; how many tales of species extinction did you learn that were the result of shakeups in the food chain? When the primary food source runs dry, species dependent upon that food source die out, and so do the species that were dependent on that species to survive, and the effect cascades from there unless a species can find alternative food sources. In ad-tech, Google is an indelible and omnipresent part of our ecosystem, and its relationships with its partners are usually symbiotic, but there are no guarantees. Companies on both the buy and sell sides should temper their reliance on Google to ensure they maintain access to its vast data pool but avoid becoming too dependent on it.

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