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Forbes.com CEO Spanfeller Attacks Google, Stumbles Into His Own Cesspool
Another publisher is complaining that Google isn’t giving them their “fair share” — this time Forbes CEO Jim Spanfeller. Google makes $60 million off the Forbes brand, he claims (with no proof), and boosting “quality publishers” like Forbes would help Eric Schmidt’s web sewage problem. This is from the publication that sells paid links that helps the sewage rise in Google?
I’ve already dissected some of the misconceptions that Spanfeller and other publishers have about Google in my Sorry, Tom Curley: Don’t Expect A Google Ranking Boost For The AP post from last week. This time, I’ll do a counterpoint to points in Spanfeller’s article over at PaidContent.org.
Spanfeller: For some time there have been murmurings about the relative value generated by Google vs. the parasitical nature of its business model. In short, is Google being disproportionally compensated for what is fundamentally other people’s work?
Counterpoint: Google sends Forbes and other publishers millions of visits for free. Usually smaller publishers complain if for some reason they lose that traffic due to a ranking change. Newspapers and magazine publishers seem unique in being upset that getting all those free visitors simply isn’t enough. Perhaps Google itself isn’t being properly compensated?
Spanfeller: There is a strong case to be made that Google is indeed getting a bigger piece of the pie than it deserves. It certainly feels that way to content-producing companies when the advertising cycle is in a trough (as it is now) and the advertising lifeblood for branded professional journalism seems to be shrinking by the day. But is there substance to this feeling beyond the pain of lower ad dollars?
Counterpoint: Print publications have had 15 years to find a business model in a world that was moving digital. They haven’t gotten there. Google didn’t even exist when they first started having these pains, but it’s their bane now? These publications also seemed more than happy to fritter away the past three years or so of rising online ad revenues without planning for the inevitable downturns in ad cycles.
Spanfeller: Let’s consider some basic issues, all of which have been discussed in the industry for some time. First off, does the last click get too much credit? Just about everyone I talk with these days agrees that it does. Google is by far the biggest winner in this ill-conceived metric, and by selling branded keywords to the highest bidder, the company is, in fact, working hard to maximize it.
Counterpoint: Somehow I suspect the vast majority of people who search for your brand, Forbes, aren’t clicking on paid ads that show up. Most of them instead are almost certainly clicking on your free listing. Isn’t Forbes by far the winner in those last clicks?
How about an illustration:
Here’s the rundown on each item I’ve numbered:
(1) This is the free listing that you have on Google for your own name. Right there at the top, which survey after survey will tell you is where the majority of people click. How much did you pay for that? Right, nothing.
(2) This is someone selling your freaking magazine. You know, the thing that if its circulation rises, you do better?
Now I can agree, this is annoying if you prefer to sell direct. You might not want to have some third-party competing with you on your own name. Usually smart publishers concerned about this ensure that their official affiliates are barred from doing so. If it’s not an official affiliate, then sorry, the law in the US still seems to allow ads to be triggered from branded terms. You just can’t use the brand name in the text (and these folks are trying to get around that with the whole “Frbs” thing.
Maybe Google should make nice with you and other brand holders by disallowing branded terms from triggering ads, despite legal cases. Might be a good PR move. But then again, you’re not the boss of the word “Forbes.” Sorry, you’re not. You have protected trademark rights relating to it. But if someone’s not passing themselves off as you — or if someone else out there has a “Forbes” brand — they have rights too.
Hey, perhaps Google should never allow the word “iPhone” to be a trigger word for ads that aren’t from Apple. Then the next time my iPhone breaks, and I want someone to fix it, Apple can be the sole advertiser listed — even if others might do the job better and cheaper.
Maybe I have an old Forbes magazine collection that I want to sell. Forbes should have the right to prevent me from advertising this fact?
Or hey, you know sometimes people don’t like companies like McDonald’s. We should prevent them from running ads that might point to content explaining their issues with those companies. Let’s make it a big huge brandfest, shall we?
By the way, you really want to poke at Google about branded terms. Pick a better target — complain that there’s an essential unfairness that Google allows brand terms as trigger words except for Google itself.
(3) Hey, you got me. No idea why these folks think running an ad against “Forbes” makes sense. But who exactly were you losing to the Forbes web site that decided instead that Atlanta real estate was for them? This is also a good time to mention that not everyone who enters “Forbes” actually wants to go to your web site (though most of them probably do — and probably do get there, as I said)
(4) That’s you! It’s your own ad, for your newsletters. Now let me understand this. Google’s sending you tons of traffic for free, but that’s not enough — so you’re buying ads at Google. If you’re buying ads on Google, then hopefully you’re making money off that traffic. And if you are, I gotta believe you’re making money off all those free people Google sends to you each day. How much, would you say? Oh, and free SEO tip. Perhaps if you spent a little time ensuring pages in your online store had even the basics of SEO applied, like unique page titles, Google probably would send you more traffic directly there for free.
Spanfeller: For the most part, a marketer’s top-producing search terms incorporate its brand name … where value chains are muddied beyond recognition—is when Google makes marketers buy their own brand name so that their competitors will not … All of the value of “brand advertising” is discounted as consumers take action on that advertising by using their search bars to navigate to the marketer’s web site. I have been told that in many cases over 90% of search spending by large-brand advertisers is targeted at keywords that are themselves (or have incorporated within them) the actual name of the brand.
Counterpoint: I’m sorry, did a horde of heavily armed Googlers break into the Forbes ivory tower and force you at gunpoint to buy your brand name? I don’t think so. And looking today, just who are your competitors showing up that you’re so concerned about?
Let’s stick with real life rather than the theoretical debate:
- How many visitors per day make it to your web site searching for “Forbes” and other terms incorporating that word? Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? You know the answer — let’s have it.
- How many people does it take until you’d feel you were getting a fair shake?
- What do your own search marketers tell you why they are buying ads for your own brand. Is it really just because they worry about competitors, or might it be that because Forbes wants to push particular revenue-generating assets in front of Google’s audience — and also because search marketers have long reported that a paid ad for your name in conjunction with that nice free link Google gives you makes for better results.
By the way, if your brand is really so big, why are all those consumers so stupid as to not simply enter your URL into the address bar of their browser?
Spanfeller: Search is not really all that great at the moment, a comment repeated time and again by much more astute folks then me. This is especially true when looking for high-quality professionally created content. This is not to say that user-generated content or ecommerce options or product specs should not be returned in search results, simply that there is clearly a better way to showcase the different paths an end user might be pursuing. The idea that everyone is forced into trying to “game” the system so that they get their “fair” (or sometimes not so fair) share is testament to how terribly wrong this entire process has become.
For all the discussion about the vaunted search algorithms, is there any consideration for paid journalism over or even separate from ecommerce options or user-generated blogs and the like?
Counterpoint: Yes, let’s go with the anecdotes. I suppose the economy is picking up now, because I’ve heard a bunch of people tell me they’re feeling better about it. Why don’t you cite that in Forbes?
The reality is that we have no dependable stats on whether search has improved or gotten worse. But I do have my suspicions when a publisher who believes he has “high-quality professional created content” tells me that it’s “especially true” that their publications aren’t being well served.
As for that separate place you want, my jaw dropped when I read that. You have it. Google has all that high-quality professionally created content in a super-secret place, but I’ll reveal its location now. It’s called Google News. Only you and about 5,000 or so other publications get in. For free. Special privileges (see Google’s Love For Newspapers & How Little They Appreciate It). Did you send Google the thank you note yet?
As for different paths to showcase different type of content, here’s a newsflash. Google has what’s called universal search, where they actually segment things into groups like news, products and user-generated content (blog). Sort of what you’re wishing for, except that wish came true back in 2007.
Spanfeller: When a colleague in the industry recently famously went to find information about the not-too-distant hostilities in the Gaza Strip, and did not get an actual professionally created journalistic result until the third page, something is wrong.
Counterpoint: Gosh, did that colleague get any searches right? Maybe most of the time? Or are they commonly having this issue?
Spanfeller: At Forbes.com, we have estimated that Google makes roughly $60 million a year directing folks to our site. And by the way, 40 percent of those dollars are derived from the search terms of Forbes, Forbes.com or Forbes Magazine—simple navigation. Seems like a very nice chunk of change for simply being there.
Seriously, $60 million? Based on what? How on earth did you estimate this? Did you examine how many ads run against any search involving “Forbes?” Did you then magically discover which ones actually got clicks? When you did that, how did you figure out the cost of those ads, when each price is calculated in real-time based on what the advertiser is willing to spend as well as their account history. You want to put a figure out there like that, make it more than a throwaway talking point. Publish it in Forbes itself, as an investigative piece. Because that’s what it would take to get a really reliable number, if such a thing could be arrived it at all from outside Google.
Oh, after you calculate that — then use the average price paid per click, multiple that by all the branded terms that send Forbes traffic for free from Google. Then tell me which is higher. My guess? The free traffic far outweighs the paid traffic you think Google has sucked from you.
Spanfeller: If this inequity of support continues along these lines, we will see a continuing destruction of our journalistic enterprises—enterprises that are one of the core building blocks of our democracy.
Counterpoint: Again, print publications where in trouble before we had Google, but now you’ve got scapegoat to blame for more than a decade of failing to grapple with your fundamental business problems. And let’s add a dash of Google undermining democracy to stoke the fires.
By the way, why is it just Google? I mean, Yahoo sends sites a lot of traffic, too. Yahoo News has a bigger audience than Google News. Yahoo operates pretty much the same as Google. And Microsoft wants to do the same. Why don’t you have an Axis Of Evil Search Engines?
Spanfeller: Last year, while addressing the magazine publishers and editors of the MPA at the Google Campus, Eric Schmidt suggested that the web was a “cesspool” and that it was up to the major journalistic brands to clean it up. Well Eric, in a great many ways, Google has helped to create that cesspool, and as such I would hope that it can be part of the solution.
Counterpoint: Let’s all help, starting with Forbes itself. Forbes has long been known in the SEO world for doing things against Google’s webmaster guidelines, which are explicitly meant to help clean that cesspool. To put it bluntly, Forbes has been pissing in the pool. Some light reading for you, documenting how Forbes has sold links or hosted less than high quality content on its web site:
- Google’s PageRank Update Goes After Paid Links?
- Shining a Light on The Dark Arts of Search Engine Optimization
- Update: Forbes Takes Down Their Paid Links
- Forbes.com Gets a Handjob?
- Forbes former “wrongful death attorney” page
But a picture’s worth a thousand words they say:
Look here on your wine page:
Did Forbes have any of its professional journalists review these “resources” before providing anchor text-rich links to them? I’m guessing not, and that’s an issue. But first, another example:
Now in the future, if you search on Google for world currencies, and you get this page full of ads from Business.com ranking tops, please don’t whine that Google should trust in the big brands to sort out the cesspool. We in the SEO space know well that some of those same big brands use the authority of their web sites to enrich themselves, rather than to save democracy.
For more, see related discussion on Techmeme.
Postscript: I’m aware that in doing the counterpoints, I probably come off as a Google fanboy. I’m not. I just like balance and accuracy, and I didn’t feel I got either in Spanfeller’s piece.
Google is far from perfect and has plenty of problems, which I’ve also covered (see today’s Why Hasn’t Google Cleared, Fired Or Suspended Accused AdWords Employee? or my Google: Master Of Closing The Loop? as just two examples of this.
Unfortunately, watching the newspaper and magazine publishers attack Google for their woes is like watching a Keystones Cops movie. They bumble about, puff themselves up with arrogance that they occupy some lofty position while simultaneously put their hands out for a Google bailout.
If they’re going to attack Google, then I want an attack that’s organized, that can’t be so easily shot full of holes and which warrants serious attention. Or I want them to stop attacking Google so it can be attacked, when it deserves it, on far more serious issues without such distraction.
More important, I love journalism and want to see the publishers waste less time looking for someone to blame for the industry’s problems and instead finding new solutions. And no, I hardly see Google as the main reason they’re having issues, though given the rhetoric over the past few weeks, it seems to be the chief boogeyman.