GoogleClick, MicroQuant, And The Public Double Standard

Last week, aQuantive's shareholders allowed Microsoft to acquire it; the Federal Trade Commission already gave the green light to the deal on July 6. But Google-DoubleClick, a very similar case of a search giant looking to acquire a leader in online display advertising, still faces hurdles from Congress, the FTC, and public distrust. Google now stands accused of working toward a monopoly on online advertising, and of potentially threatening privacy through the use of personalized data to deliver targeted ads.

Which leads me to my question of the week: Why has MicroQuant received none of the scrutiny that GoogleClick has?

Double Standards at Work
There seems to be a double standard at play. Again, the FTC has OK'd Microsoft-aQuantive, but has yet to do the same for GoogleClick. Congress launched an investigation into Google/DoubleClick; at least within the text of the letter opening that inquiry, Microsoft-aQuantive doesn't come up as a concern. And then there's the public rhetoric and the press, which repeatedly mention GoogleClick as a threat to privacy and competition, and only mention MicroQuant as a related, smaller issue. (For a good example of that trend, note the title of this note from the Center for Digital Democracy.)

To be sure, a lot of the concern over GoogleClick -- and lack of concern over MicroQuant -- is objectively warranted. It's estimated that Google and DoubleClick own about 60% of the search and display ad market, respectively. That's mammoth compared with Microsoft's roughly 13% share of searches, and aQuantive's 5% share of online display ads.

But those factors can't explain everything. For starters, the comparative price tags of each deal should speak for something. Google bid $3.1 billion for DoubleClick, showing a serious interest in owning all of online advertising. But Microsoft has bid $6 billion for aQuantive. And considering Microsoft's serious drive and deep pockets, don't expect the aQuantive purchase to be its last major online buy.

Meanwhile, for all the fear over GoogleClick's potential use of personal data, little has been mentioned about the ways Microsoft already uses personal data to deliver targeted ads. Personal information is the basis, for instance, of AdCenter's highly sophisticated ad targeting system -- which pulls information from Hotmail accounts, among other sources, to create demographic profiles of searchers.

Indeed, it's useful to compare the public silence over AdCenter with the public outcry over the way Gmail uses e-mail content to deliver contextual ads. There's definitely a bigger "creepiness" factor in ads that read your e-mail than there is in data collection through a relatively little-known ad platform. But at the same time, Hotmail is far more popular than Gmail (currently, Gmail owns 0.39% of the e-mail market share to Hotmail's 1.95%); and so AdCenter's targeting stands to affect the privacy of many more people than Gmail's contextual ads do. Yet while Gmail has been the source of intense attack over the years, few in the privacy-concerned public have mentioned Microsoft's AdCenter.

Love's Labors Lost
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why GoogleClick and MicroQuant are being treated so differently. But it's still hard not to feel that Microsoft isn't benefiting from an ironic upside of its less-than-loved corporate persona. And Google looks to be feeling the brunt of the same irony.

When Google was the underdog ready to take on the world, the public cheered it as the ambitious little guy. But now Google, a company about to buy another company for $3.1 billion, is no longer the little guy. Google is a member of the corporate elite. Its fans feel deserted -- and Google is now an easy target for public outrage and government scrutiny. This is only my conjecture, of course. But it does looks like Google is the local hero who's finally made the big-time -- and who suffers unkind attention as a result.

Microsoft, the feared monopoly in the technology world, is in the opposite situation. The public fell out of love with the company (but not with its products) back in the '90s. If the public does feel (rightly or wrongly) that Microsoft is a privacy or antitrust threat, few will feel terribly surprised.

That lack of surprise is Microsoft's gain. It allows Microsoft to move ahead without the fear of a backlash. And it explains why Microsoft can openly use Hotmail data to target users, while Google needs to tiptoe through a PR minefield when it comes to behaviorally targeted search ads.

This double standard on public image will have a real impact on who can do what when it comes to targeted ads. Microsoft will have the opportunity to forge ahead unnoticed on the behavioral targeting front, while Google will need to move with extreme caution. We may be seeing a real turning point in the history of Google -- when the company's meteoric rise may be becoming as much of a liability as it's been an asset.



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