Those of us who've been in the interactive biz for a while have grown accustomed to all the grumbling about Google.
You've heard all these grumbles and perhaps grumbled yourself that Google is too big, its ad systems are too opaque, it's just a one-trick pony, it's arrogant, monopolistic, bent on dominating the world, crushing Madison Avenue, sucking all the profit out of e-tailing, etc. (Did I miss anything? Feel free to add your grumble to the comment area below).
The uneasy, tendentious, and sometimes angry relationship between search marketers and Google is quite similar to the one that many U.S. citizens currently have with their government. I mean, isn't it simply awful that we have to pay taxes, stay under the speed limit, fill out our census forms, refrain from sedition, and (sometimes) show ID when we buy an AK-47?
Nobody's saying that Google is perfect, or that the SEM ecosystem couldn't benefit from increased competition. But to those Google detractors who've been loudly cheering from the sidelines whenever Google launches a product that fails (and it's done so many times) or lumbers into the crosshairs of government regulators, all I can say is "be careful what you wish for."
Case in point: Apple, whose new OS-embedded ad platform was just announced last week. I'm not bashing Apple's products here or claiming Steve Jobs isn't a Super Genius, but I don't know of another technology company more fanatically devoted to controlling what its users and partners do than Apple. True, we don't know all the details about how the iPad and iAd are going to work, but we've already received a startling list of prohibitions, eg., No Flash (because Jobs just doesn't like Adobe, it seems), No Sharing Of Metrics With 3rd Parties (and how are you supposed to know how well your ads are performing if you have no metrics?), and even No Creative (Apple, not ad agencies, will create the application-based ads, at least at the beginning).
Of course, Steve Jobs has the right to configure his platform any way he wants. But if iPad/iAd is indicative of the way interactive ad systems are going to function for the long-term, the landscape of our collective future looks a lot more like North Korea than it does Sausalito.
Which brings us back to Google. I don't think there's a grown-up on the planet who believes that Google's actions are based on humanistic philanthropy. Google, like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, or Exxon, exists to reward its shareholders, not to make the world a better place. But there's no question that the way companies behave in respect to their customers and partners derive from their unique corporate cultures. For example, Wal-Mart and Costco are both successful retailers but their widely differing attitudes about how to treat their workers make them very different companies to work for and do business with.
The iPad has been called a "polarizing device" because it splits the computing world into those who create and those who consume. For we who do online marketing, it goes even further. By banishing the self-service model from its ad platform, limiting what third-party mobile ad platforms can do, and banishing Flash, the lingua franca of rich media, it exiles all non-Apple parties from the marketplace. Basically, if you want to reach iPad users, it's put up and shut up.
What's truly scary about this regressive model isn't that it attempts to restore the structure of the ad and media world back in the bad old days, it's the fact that Jobs could actually pull this off -- because there are plenty of deep-pocked brand guys out there willing to hand over big bucks to Apple to take their turf back, and they've got plenty of allies in the form of media companies who hope that The Great Leader Jobs will somehow save them from ruin -- a ruin they blame Google for, but which they've largely brought upon themselves.
Where does that leave the rest of us? The folks who run small campaigns, code up our ads in Flash, rely on metrics -- or, in my case, the folks who work at agencies? Have we just been exiled from the new walled garden?
Not necessarily, because iPad/iAd, at least at this stage, is just a vision of the future. The future is still open; closed walled gardens have a miserable history (see AOL), and the human instinct for freedom is at least as powerful as the desire for control and security.
So the next time you find yourself grumbling about Google, think about the kind of future it's already brought to users and marketers. It's far from perfect, but I'd choose a thriving, imperfect ecosystem to a pristine desert any day of the week, and I don't think I'm alone.
Correction: Last Thursday's Search Insider, "Takeaways From SMX Toronto," incorrectly identified Shari Thurow's company affiliation. She is now Founder and SEO Director of Omni Marketing Interactive.