Look Out, Television: Google Goes For The Biggest Advertising Prize Of All

Google's BrandLab at YouTube headquarters

Google’s BrandLab at YouTube headquarters

From my Forbes magazine feature story:

IT’S MID-SEPTEMBER, and Volkswagen of America has a problem: It won’t have any new models coming out until the spring. Keeping VW front and center in consumers’ minds has drawn a group of marketing folks from the automaker and two of its ad agencies to Google’s BrandLab at its YouTube headquarters south of San Francisco. Dedicated to “evangelizing the art and science of brand-building,” the richly appointed meeting space is basically a man cave for ad creatives, complete with overstuffed couches, booze and the mother of all big screens, an assemblage of 32 flat-panel displays massed into 300 square feet of video overload.

In one corner of the BrandLab, Google’s Jeff Rozic goes to work running VW’s folks through a rapid-fire succession of video ad campaigns the BrandLab feels have worked. His earnest delivery is well-honed, courtesy of 100-plus similar “private workshops” held for potential advertisers from Coca-Cola to Toyota over the past year. VW has some catching up to do, a point Rozic makes intentionally or not by highlighting 13 travel vignettes produced by a rival, Nissan Mexico. His larger point: Don’t clutter a story with too blatant a call to action. “We shouldn’t apologize for trying to sell cars,” one VW exec protests. “Sure,” Rozic shoots back, “but you have to be careful to distinguish when you’re telling a story and when you’re selling.”

Fair point. Rozic is clearly selling–and it’s a product intended to change Google’s path. The king of the click is now lecturing one of the world’s most accomplished advertisers to forget those clicks and amp up the image ads. CEO Larry Page can go on as much as he wants about self-driving cars, wearable computers or any of the company’s other “moon shots.” But Google fundamentally remains the most disruptive advertising company of the past half-century. As its total advertising-revenue growth rate has halved in the past two years, from 29% to 15% (thanks in part to Facebook and Twitter), it’s now charging full-bore toward the biggest pot of advertising gold it doesn’t own: brand advertising, the image ads you see in glossy magazines and on television.

Most online ads–the banners that litter nearly every commercial website and, most notably, Google’s search ads–have failed to help marketers move the needle on classic advertising measures like brand awareness and intent to purchase. Instead, they mainly drive people to a product page to click the buy button. Direct marketing is lucrative: Search is still upwards of 60% of Google’s ad revenue, helping it earn an estimated 15.8% net margin in 2013–but image ads will come to dominate digital advertising in this decade.

Look at the numbers: Digital brand advertising is an $18 billion market this year, according to eMarketer. Its forecast implies that number will double by 2018, at which point it will have passed search and direct marketing, with plenty of room to grow. Television advertising, comprising almost entirely image ads, is currently a $200 billion global market. And it’s a vulnerable one, as the medium’s iron grip on the bulk of ad spending looks a little less firm as younger people scatter to YouTube and Netflix when they aren’t Snapchatting or Instagramming on iPhones or skipping ads entirely on their DVRs. Some 75% of respondents to an Interactive Advertising Bureau poll of 5,000 ad execs expect to see some spending move from TV to digital video in the next year.

This explains the man cave. YouTube remains one of the greatest acquisitions of the Internet era. Larry and Sergey paid $1.65 billion in 2006 for a business that today would conservatively be worth $20 billion as a stand-alone. So what’s another $400 million or so to build out a brand ad business? …

Read the rest of the story.

Meet Hummingbird: Google Just Revamped Search To Answer Your Long Questions Better

google15bday1

From my Forbes blog:

Google has updated its core algorithm that controls the answers we get to queries on its search engine in a bid to make them work better for longer, more complex questions.

The update, code-named Hummingbird, is the biggest change to the underpinnings of the world’s leading search engine since early 2010, when Google upgraded its algorithm to one it called Caffeine. Google made the change about a month ago, it announced at a press event in the garage of the Menlo Park (Calif.) house where Google started. The event also celebrated the 15th anniversary of Google’s founding, which is tomorrow.

Most people won’t notice an overt difference to search results. But with more people making more complex queries, especially as they can increasingly speak their searches into their smartphones, there’s a need for new mathematical formulas to handle them.

This update to the algorithm focuses more on ranking sites for better relevance by tapping further into the company’s Knowledge Graph, its encyclopedia of 570 million concepts and relationships among them, according to Amit Singhal, Google’s senior VP of search. (For example, there’s a Knowledge Graph “card,” or information box, for the Eiffel Tower, and Knowledge Graph knows it’s a tower, that it has a height, that it’s in Paris, etc., so Google can anticipate you might want to know some of those facts.) Caffeine was more focused on better indexing and crawling of sites to speed results.

After the event, Scott Huffman, a key engineering director at Google currently working on natural language, told me that part of the impetus for the change was that as more people speak searches into phones, they’re doing so in a more natural way than they type in queries–which is to say more complicated. So Google’s search formulas needed to be able to respond to them.

Partly that is through even great use of the Knowledge Graph, so obvious discrete terms can be identified quickly. But it’s also interesting that although queries are getting more complex, that doesn’t always mean it’s harder to find the right answers. The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine. So those extra words, even if they’re in a more complex query, can give Google better information–but only if the algorithms are adjusted to be able to recognize the relationship among those terms.

Ultimately, he says, “we want to get to a natural conversation” between people and Google search on whatever devices they’re using. …

Read the rest of the story.

13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. This year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers:

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

Check out more questions at the full post.

Why Do Programmers Hate Internet Advertising So Much?

Facebook ad question (Photo credit: renaissancechambara)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Another week, another pontificating programmer slamming online advertising. What is it with these guys?

The latest example is a steaming heap of linkbait from software developer and entrepreneur Patrick Dobson entitled Facebook Should Fire Sheryl Sandberg. That would be the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose purported crime is that she steered Facebook toward being an ad-supported company.

In Dobson’s telling, while Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was off at an ashram in India, onetime Google ad exec Sandberg mandated that Facebook would henceforth be an advertising company. Proof of her folly? Facebook’s now worth half of what it was at its IPO three months ago as it “continues to flounder in advertising hell.”

This, despite the fact that Facebook will gross about $5 billion in ad revenues this year, despite the fact that its current market cap is still more than $40 billion less than eight years after the company’s founding in a Harvard dorm.

Thousands of Web developers would love to flounder this badly.

Dobson’s preferred alternative is that Facebook should gradually phase out advertising in favor of–and I have to get technical here, because the bigger picture he provides is fuzzy–selling access to its application programming interface. That way, developers can build businesses like Zynga did on top of the social network in the way personal computer software developers built applications atop Microsoft’s Windows. From his post:

… There is massive value in the social graph and the ability to build applications on top of it. I believe the value is greater than all of the advertising revenue generated on the web to date. … What is the best way to monetize the social graph? To sell access to the social graph! … Developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.

I’m not really sure what “selling access to the social graph” would be, though it sounds like the result could make Facebook’s many privacy gaffes to date look tame.

But the bigger problem is the persistent implication by tech folks like Dobson that advertising is beneath them, and beneath any intelligent human being. Now, I’m no huge fan of most advertising, and all too often it is indeed lame. But there’s no doubt it can be useful at the right place and time, and even when it misses the mark, advertising is a small, remarkably frictionless price to pay for a whole lot of free Web services.

The notion that advertising is evil, to use a favorite term of Google critics, or at least useless is a longstanding meme in Silicon Valley. It goes at least as far back as Google’s founding, before it became–right–the biggest online ad company on the planet. Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously wrote in their Stanford doctoral thesis describing Google that advertising could pollute search results.

Why this antipathy to advertising? A lot of tech folks seem to believe they’re immune to the influence of advertising. More than that, they assume that no one else is much influenced by it either (despite ample evidence over many decades that ads do influence people’s attitudes and behavior). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ads are nothing more than an annoyance, an inefficient allocation of capital. Dobson accuses Sandberg of a “rampant lack of business creativity” that has “no place in centers of innovation,” later saying she should start an ad agency in Miami. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Here’s How Badly Google Wants To Make Nexus 7 Tablet A Hit

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Only a couple of times has Google deigned to clutter its famously spartan home page with advertising. This is one of those times.

Today, Google is running an ad below its search box for the Nexus 7, the seven-inch tablet that it hopes will steal a march on Apple’s enormously popular iPads. Why now? Google hasn’t said, but it seems likely the ad push is looking ahead to Apple’s expected October release of the seven- to eight-inch iPad Mini, as well as to the expected announcement of Amazon.com’s new Kindle Fire next week.

As tablets take the computing market by storm, Google clearly views them as a critical device on which to make sure its search and other services, and the advertising that rides atop them, continue to be front and center. I remain doubtful about whether Google itself really wants to become a full-on maker of hardware, Motorola Mobility acquisition aside. But at the very least, a successful Nexus 7 could spark other manufacturers to pick up the pace of innovation in tablets.

That’s all the more critical in the wake of Apple’s big win in court last week, when Samsung was found to be infringing multiple Apple patents. Although Google’s underlying Android software was not directly involved, the jury’s ruling cast a pall on Android’s potential for further gains vs. the iPhone and the iPad.

The Nexus 7 spot marks a rare appearance of a Google ad on its home page, though not the first one. The company also ran ads for Motorola’s and Verizon’s Droid phone in 2009, followed by one for Google’s own Nexus One phone a few months later. It also has promoted other Google products, including the T-Mobile G1 phone in 2008. And just a few days ago, if you hovered over the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, you got alternative messages that sent you to other Google services.

Still, don’t expect to see Google start splattering ads all over its home page. After all, then we’d all stop writing about how unusual it is and Google won’t get the free publicity it’s getting right now.

How YouTube Turned Into a Real Business By Making Ads Optional

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

In 2008, when Shishir Mehrotra joined YouTube to take charge of advertising, the booming video-sharing service was getting hundreds of millions of views a day. ­YouTube, which had been acquired by Google in 2006, was also spending as much as $700 million on Internet bandwidth, content licensing, and other costs. With revenue of only $200 million, YouTube was widely viewed as Google’s folly.

Mehrotra, an MIT math and computer science alum who had never worked in advertising, thought he had a solution: skippable ads that advertisers would pay for only when people watched them. That would be a radical change from the conventional media model of paying for ad “impressions” regardless of whether the ads are actually viewed, and even from Google’s own pay-per-click model. He reckoned his plan would provide an incentive to create better advertising and increase the value for advertisers of those ads people chose to watch. But the risk was huge: people might not watch the ads at all.

Mehrotra’s gamble paid off. YouTube will gross $3.6 billion this year, estimates Citi analyst Mark Mahaney. The $2.4 billion that YouTube will keep after sharing ad revenue with video content partners is nearly six times the revenue the streaming video service Hulu raked in last year from ads and subscriptions. And that suggests Mehrotra has helped Google solve a problem many fast-growing Web companies continue to struggle with: how to make money off the huge audience that uses its service free.

In 2008, Mehrotra was working for Microsoft and hankered to have his own startup, but he agreed to talk to a Google executive he knew about working there instead. He decided against it—but that evening he kept thinking about how the exec was frustrated that most ad dollars go to TV, even though nobody watches TV ads. Yet at his Super Bowl party two weeks earlier, Mehrotra recalled, guests kept asking him to replay the ads. Was there a way, he wondered, to make TV ads as captivating as Super Bowl ads, every day?

The answer came to him in a flash. …

Read the complete story in MIT Technology Review.

Stung By Click Fraud Allegations, Facebook Reveals How It’s Fighting Back

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It’s a question that has haunted online advertisers since soon after Google perfected pay-per-click search ads a decade ago: Are those clicks from real potential customers, or are they from scammers draining my ad budget?

Now the issue of “click fraud” has hit Facebook full-force. On July 30, Limited Run, which provides software to enable bands and music labels sell physical products like records, said it was closing its Facebook account after finding that some 80% of the clicks it got during a recent ad campaign on Facebook were likely generated not by real people but by bots. Those are coordinated groups of computers hijacked by scammers or spammers, so any clicks they generate cost advertisers money for no benefit. (In a separate issue, in fact the main reason Limited Run said it’s leaving Facebook, the company also said Facebook asked it to spend $2,000 on ads in order to change its Facebook page name, something Facebook has said is not its policy.)

Limited Run said it came to the conclusion that the clicks were fraudulent after running its own analysis. It  determined that most of the clicks for which Facebook was charging it came from computers that weren’t loading Javascript, a programming language that allows Web pages to be interactive. Almost all Web browsers load Javascript by default, so the assumption is that if a click comes from one that isn’t, it’s probably not a real person but a bot.

To be clear, Limited Run isn’t charging that Facebook itself is responsible for those apparently fraudulent clicks. Often the culprits in click fraud are small-time ad networks and other outfits that pay people to click on Google and other ads they run on their sites, though that’s unlikely to be an issue for Facebook, which does not yet run its ads outside its own site as Google and others do. Perhaps, Limited Run has suggested, rivals could be using the bots to cost the company money by forcing it to pay for useless clicks.

The click fraud issue has at times loomed large for Google and other companies because of the potential impact on advertiser trust, and Google continues to fight click fraud–as does Facebook. Indeed, the issue isn’t new for Facebook either, with complaints, including lawsuits, bubbling up since at least 2009.

But while click fraud doesn’t seem to have driven away a large number of Google advertisers, whether because the company has minimized it or because advertisers simply factor it in as a cost of doing business online, the issue is a particular concern for Facebook now. It’s trying to prove to skeptical advertisers and investors that its ads work, and claims that there’s rampant click fraud don’t help. At the same time, Facebook has said recently that some 1.5% of its nearly 1 billion accounts are “undesirable,” meaning “user profiles that we determine are intended to be used for purposes that violate our terms of service, such as spamming.

Facebook has declined to say much about the Limited Run situation, though the company says it believes it catches and filters out the vast majority of “invalid clicks” before they’re even charged to advertisers. Its own page on “click and impression quality” doesn’t reveal much detail about how it deals with click fraud, however, so I asked the company for more insight on what it’s doing about the problem.

Mark Rabkin, an engineering director on Facebook’s ads team, responded to questions by email. While at times he’s repeating what Facebook has said before, he also reveals that the company has a growing staff of 300 people working on security and safety and explains in more detail the various ways the company tries to catch bad clicks. Here are his answers. …

Read the complete interview at The New Persuaders.