When Did Google Become the Bad Guy?

Something happened to Google over the last few years. Perhaps it’s just me, but within certain clusters of individuals and certain groups, Google seems to have gone from doing no evil to being the bad guy.

This transformation hasn’t really hit the Google search masses. However, marketers and advertisers — as well as government agencies — often don’t feel as warmly toward Google as they have in the past. There’s a growing discomfort with Google and a heightened awareness of its position in the Internet information ecosystem.

Let’s examine a few of those sources of discomfort.

Trademark Friction

The most recent catalytic event that has shifted the perception of Google as a bit mercenary has been its trademark policy changes in the United States. Many trademark holders are very protective of their trademark, and they expect the search engines to lock down trademark bidding — even if the viability of a locked-down keyword bidding system for trademarked keywords is a challenging undertaking.

Is it fair of advertisers to expect Google to offer full-scale trademark protection? Protection of trademarks seems easy enough, but it isn’t always as simple as you might think.

Consider a keyword like “delta.” Most searchers looking for “delta” are looking for Delta Airlines. But a fair number of “delta” searchers are looking for Delta Faucet, Delta Dental, Delta Apparel, or even the Tri Delta sorority. Similar examples abound: Barney, the purple dinosaur, and Barneys, the upscale clothing store; Ford Models and Ford Motors; Yale Security, Yale Materials Handling Corp., and Yale University. No matter how committed Google may be to brand protection, overlapping brand names will inevitably produce keyword ambiguity, which makes brand protection extremely difficult.

Furthermore, a loose brand policy may upset Delta Airlines, Ford Motors, or even Yale University, but Google claims it offers a wider array of results for searchers to choose from. And for Google, it’s all about the best searcher experience, even if a good searcher experience may mean upsetting advertisers along the way. After all, if Google lose its searchers — who are its true customers — the search engine is indeed in big trouble.

Google will argue that loosening brand restrictions provides a richer experience for searchers. From the brand holders’ perspective, though, Google has fostered an environment in which advertisers feel that their brands are put at risk. That feeling is bound to create friction between Google and many of its advertisers.

The Government Is Watching

Prior to the trademark policy change, Google and Yahoo proposed an alliance that would have made the AdWords system the gateway to nearly all Internet search advertising. The monopolistic control that would have resulted caught the attention not only of marketers but also of U.S. government regulatory agencies. The increased attention aimed at Google may result in increased regulatory scrutiny of the search engine in unrelated areas.

Quality Score and Trusting the Increasingly Blacker Black Box

Google pioneered the hybrid PPC (define) search result. GoTo.com and, later, Overture had a relatively transparent system; and while it had its faults, generally one could anticipate the cause and effect of bid changes. The current Google system — with the addition of query-specific Quality Score (define) calculations and a bunch of unpublicized Quality Score factors — has marketers leery of the black box and the lack of transparency.

Your Conversion Data

With Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, the Google AdWords pixels, and Google Analytics, the potential for misuse of conversion data became a specter. That’s so, even if it seems that the current Google management has no intention of using the new data sources for anything beyond delivering better reporting to Google advertisers and Google Analytics users.

Search Advertising Looking a Lot Like a Toll or Tax

One outcome of Google’s allowing competitive bidding on brand terms is that many brand owners feel they have little choice but to bid on their own names, simply to ensure that competing brands don’t poach the traffic that’s searching for them. Many advertisers feel that this effectively amounts to a toll Google has set up by standing in between brands and their customers.

Friction With Agencies

Some folks within the current Google management believe that eliminating friction also means eliminating agencies. As Google augments its ad sales with traditional agency/media planner roles, many agencies are nervous that, should a standoff come up between Google and agencies, many marketers will be more than happy to go to Google directly.

Google Wants Your Display, Offline Advertising Budget

Google’s aims at becoming a one-stop advertising and media portal that will offer great opportunities for scores of advertisers. But the media concentration also has many advertisers and regulatory agencies nervous.

For the time being, Google remains a cornerstone of any online marketing plan. But it’s only natural that advertisers, agencies, and others might be concerned with Google’s growing strength. If Google can take the high road whenever possible, keep from getting arrogant, and find a balance between advertisers’ and searchers’ needs, perhaps the shift from a Google love-fest to a nervous love-hate relationship need not continue.

Search ads and display ads offer a powerful one-two punch for your marketing plan. Join us on Wednesday, September 30, 2009, at 1 p.m., for a free Webinar to hear how recent studies show that search and display advertising used together can drive sales more effectively than either channel by itself.

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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.