Google's Mission in Context

"We're not just a search engine," she said.

I almost wept. It's like hearing a friend who's been an acclaimed pediatrician say he's switching careers to become a stockbroker.

The woman quoted is Jane Butler, Google's head of travel, who participated in one of the three "Next Big Thing in Search" panels at TravelCom last week. Butler was discussing Google's new advertising developments. Let's first review them and then see what they mean in the context of Google's mission. One new offering is site targeting, allowing advertisers to select specific sites where their contextual ads run. Another is the expansion of Google's image ads program: enhancements include testing Flash ads and a new wide skyscraper ad format. Additionally, for contextual site targeting, Google introduced CPM (cost-per-thousand) bidding, complementing the cost-per-click model. Back when the banner ad was king, CPM was the predominant advertising model. To quote JupiterResearch Analyst Nate Elliott on his blog, "Welcome back to 1997."



To get our terminology straight, publishers sign up through AdSense; advertisers sign up through AdWords. Ads purchased through AdWords may appear on Google (or one of its licensees such as AOL); those are triggered by search. The ads may also appear on Google's network of publishers that have signed up through AdSense. Advertisers might have control over where the ads appear (as they do with the new site targeting), or the advertiser might not have control.

So what do Google's developments have to do with search? On one level, absolutely nothing.

This makes the latest developments all the more confusing. Contextual advertising is not search. With search, a user types in a query to help complete a mission. With contextual advertising, a user reads an article or other content, and ads run alongside it. If the article is about price comparisons of flights to Haiti or DVD burners, the reader is likely planning a purchase. If the article is about Haitian cooking or Sony's stock, the consumer mindset is unclear. And if the article is about Iraq, the Pope, social security, Michael Jackson, or the basketball playoffs, it's unlikely the reader is in the market for anything at all.

In this regard, it doesn't matter whether the advertiser uses a text or image ad, chooses which sites display the ad, or bids per click or per impression. None of these options connect to search. Contextual advertising works for many advertisers, publishers, and contextual ad networks, yet search ads have about as much in common with contextual ads as search ads do with billboards. That's not to belittle outdoor advertising. I just don't see Viacom getting into the search engine business.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), online display advertising accounted for 39 percent of online advertising in 2004, compared with 40 percent for search. Together, that's nearly an $8 billion opportunity, with plenty of growth ahead. Google has a brand name, advertisers, publishers, and partners to make its contextual initiatives work.

Yet they don't fit in with Google's mission statement: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Google, the search engine, accomplishes this. Froogle and Gmail can apply. Google News, Local, Mobile, and Scholar exemplify the mission.

AdSense, however, doesn't fit. AdSense is a way for advertisers, publishers, and Google to make money, and it often works well for all of the above. There's nothing wrong with that; I'm a big fan of capitalism. But Google needs to either adhere to its mission statement or change it. Psychologists refer to such an imbalance between beliefs and actions as cognitive dissonance. When the dissonance exists, something must give.

What about Yahoo!? Yahoo! plans to test a contextual image ad network in the coming weeks, according to eWeek. How does this fit with Yahoo!'s mission? "Our mission is to be the most essential global Internet service for consumers and businesses."

Want to play a video game, set up a fantasy sports league, chat, download a pop-up blocker, or access the Internet? All fit with Yahoo!'s mission, as do Yahoo! Search, HotJobs, Yahoo! Mail, and other services. According to Yahoo!'s mission, it can basically do whatever it wants online and stay true to its vision. Not bad, right?

Google's another story though. Its mission is more tightly defined, though there are countless creative and profitable ways to achieve it.

As I was dying to tell Butler before, Google's not just a search engine, but it's so good at being a search engine - organizing information and delivering it in a useful way for consumers. The advertising generally provides relevant options for consumers and benefits all parties.

Google, your mission has rallied consumers, advertisers, investors, the press, and your thousands of team members in shouting your praises. Stay true to your mission.

And if at any time you're unclear what your mission is, Google yourself.

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