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

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: On Google Search

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, 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, 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:

But a picture’s worth a thousand words they say:

Look here on your wine page:

Paid Links On

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:

Paid Links On

I assume these links are sold, since they’re labeled “Advertisement.” These are “straight links,” as are the ones in the first example. This means they aren’t delivered in JavaScript or in some other way that would prevent them from passing along credit from your quality site to theirs. Effectively, they are a way someone has bought a vote on your site that these two links are relevant for the words “World Currencies” and “Forex.”

Now in the future, if you search on Google for world currencies, and you get this page full of ads from 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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: AdWords | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: News | Google: Web Search | Legal: Crawling & Indexing | Legal: Trademarks | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • youfoundjake

    Excellent post, the screenshot you have of forbes is exactly what i was referring to..

    15 years to find a business plan that deals with the digital world, nah, let’s just blame everyone else for our lack of planning and adaption.

  • shijualex

    Very good arguments. Nice post.

    But in the end, it still look likes a ‘Google fanboy’s’ post

    I particularly liked the analysis of ads on the ‘forbes’ search

  • brucekeener

    Glad you took the time to really lay out the unsubstantiated whines of Forbes. Just another magazine that “doesn’t get it” and looks to blame someone else for its shortcomings.

  • andreas-ramos

    Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of Forbes, has concerns that are widespread among CEOs of large companies. Their brands are under attack by domain name squatters, advertisers in search engines, SEOers, and so on.

    Regrettably, Google does very little to explain to these companies how Google’s search engine works. Google is not being helpful because they make a great deal of money from the advertising by third-party vendors. It is in Google’s interests for the current situation to continue.

    Danny Sullivan’s sarcastic rebuttal is not helpful. He ridicules Forbes, but doesn’t explain what Forbes (or any of the Fortune 500) can do. There is a solution, but Google won’t explain it, and from Danny’s article, he may not understand it either.

    I’ll give one example. Danny questions the value of Forbes’ brand. Corporate brands indeed have value; that’s precisely why the squatters and affiliates hijack the brands in order to sell copycat products. It is fairly easy to calculate the value of a brand on the web, but Danny doesn’t explain that.

    Forbes and CEOs need to understand how these search engines work so they can counter Google on equal footing.


  • srichardson

    Awesome article. I love the format of going back and forth with his point and yours, almost like a virtual debate!

    My first question was also if Forbes knows they dont have to advertise on their own brand. I like the visual of a horde of heavily armed Googlers coming to stake their claim.

    Keep ‘em coming…

  • Matt McGee

    Andreas, for a couple years now, this site has been telling business owners big and small how to succeed online, how Google works, etc. It’s all here in the archives — knowledge and wisdom from dozens of the smartest online marketers (SEOers, PPCers, B2Bers, SMBers, you name it). Maybe Forbes should take out a membership…

    Forbes et al have had years to figure this out. They failed. And now instead of doing what any normal business owner would do — play catch up, learn, join the competition, etc. — they blame others for their problems and expect a free pass on the web?

    Not gonna happen. Entitlement doesn’t play well online.

  • EdShull

    I have met Jim Spanfeller a few times. So this type of ignorance from him doesn’t surprise me. If Spanfeller woke up tomorrow with no Google ranking, he would be calling his lawyer. He is one of the worst people in our industry.

    Very good counterpoints Danny. Each of them entirely accurate. You don’t have to be a Google fanboy to understand that Google earns their money, and many of us do quite well on their coat tails, including Spanfeller. If he were a better CEO, they would be flourishing right now, instead of spurting sour grapes at those who are.

  • Winooski

    That sound you hear is search engine marketers around the world standing up and applauding this righteous refutation of Spanfeller’s desperate and, frankly, hypocritical claims. Danny: Job well done.

    Oh, and re Forbes’ infamous paid links, I don’t know about you, but I’m fixin’ to call that CEO by his real name: SPAMfeller.

  • Aaron Wall

    – Regrettably, Google does very little to explain to these companies how Google’s search engine works. –

    Gotta disagree 100%. If they know enough about SEO to hire 3 SEO companies and be one of the biggest link sellers on the web then they should know enough to know how to get their fair share of search traffic. And Google does help these big brands out a lot of ways…but it is never enough unless the brand has 100% share of voice, even while they aggressively violate the webmaster guidelines.

    Great article Danny!

  • Danny Sullivan

    Andreas, I agree, brand owners do have some serious concerns. But this article was purposely written in a sarcastic tone because the CEO of — a long-standing online site — shouldn’t be needing a search marketing 101 course at this point.

    I’d have had far more respect for his piece if he wanted to detail actual problems Google should solve rather than made-up ones in his mishmash of an article. His three recommendations?

    1) Better showcase professional content — which as I explained, Google already does (and he should know this already, which makes me distrust his article)

    2) Allow marketers to “own” their brand names in search results — he doesn’t get into further detail here. I’ve outlined just some of the difficulties in a brand owner thinking no one should be allowed to have an ad appear for their name. But Google could do more, perhaps a closer review of some brand-related ads to ensure relevancy. At the very least, as I pointed out, he missed the biggest gripe he could have put out there. If Google’s going to allow bids against branded terms, it shouldn’t prevent people from bidding on Google’s own name.

    3) Cease stepping over the line of fair use — he hardly documented how Google has done this, nor outside of a case in Belgium, has anyone shown that Google has violated fair use. Nor did he spend time really explaining how he presumes Google should operate in a way that wouldn’t violate his own definition of fair use, whatever that is.

    Google does a great deal to explain how they work to companies, most especially big brands. I believe they even have a corporate employee exchange program in place with Proctor & Gamble. Google’s long catered to the large brand holders with special attention and client reps that small businesses could only look upon with envy.

    No, I don’t explain how to calculate a brand value on the web. Please feel free to provide your own methodology. I’d be curious. What I do know is that Spanfeller himself put out a figure, but he gave nothing to back it up.

    In summary, Spanfeller made an ill-informed, poorly documented attack against Google. I expect a lot more from the CEO of a company than that, because whatever they say is going to be automatically highly regarded. I certainly don’t expect, with its history of earning money from those trying to game Google, to be getting on a high horse about web sewage. That pretty much influenced my tone.

  • Dale Harrison

    Absolutely brilliant piece !

    A lesson worth remembering is that at the turn of the 20th century, people had a transportation problem…and the solution turned out not to be a “faster horse”…but a Ford.

    And one should note that the Ford didn’t arise out of the “horse industry’s” R&D efforts, nor the “Horse Industry Revitalization Act” nor the horse industry’s attempts to experiment with new Business Models.

    I think the future of the media business will look as different as Ford and Toyota’s operations look from horse traders and blacksmiths.

    What’s historically given value to editorial content is the relative scarcity of distribution versus readers (not the Kindle kind). Newspapers have historically enjoyed natural localized economic monopolies that allowed each of them to exercise monopoly control over the amount of content (and advertising) they allowed into their local marketplace.

    Monopoly constraint of distribution and supply will always lead to prices (and profits) significantly above open market rates. Newspapers then built costly organizational structures commensurate with that stream of monopoly profits (think AT&T in the 1970′s).

    Unfortunately the Internet came along and changed all the rules!

    The dynamics of content replication and distribution on the Internet destroys this artificial constraint of distribution and re-aligns advertising (and subscription) prices back down to competitive open market rates. The often heard complaint of Internet ad rates being “too low” is inverted…the real issue is that traditional ad rates have been artificially boosted for enough decades for participants to assume this represents the long-term norm.

    An individual reader now has access to essentially an infinite amount of content on any given topic or story. All those silos of isolated editorial content have been dumped into the giant Internet bucket. Once there, any given piece of content can be infinitely replicated and re-distributed to thousands of sites at zero marginal costs. This breaks the back of old media’s monopoly control of distribution and supply.

    To paraphrase Nietzsche, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him with the Internet…”

    The core problem for the newspapers is that in a world of infinite supply, the ability to monetize the value in any piece of editorial content will be driven to zero…infinite supply pushes price levels to zero!

    What this implies is that no one can marshal enough market power to monetize the value of content in the face of such an infinite supply and such massively fragmented distribution. Pay-walls, lawsuits and ill conceived legislation won’t allow the monopoly conditions to be re-constructed because only ONE VERSION each story has to leak out to start the cycle all over again.

    Another way to think about this is that once data becomes publicly visible on the Internet, its monetizable value rapidly dissipates to zero.

    This is at the core of why Google can extract $25B a year from the economy without creating ANY content…what they create is meta-data about content (which CAN be monetized)…and all that meta-data remains non-visible. Only the results of decisions based on that meta-data by their search and advertising platforms is made publicly visible.

    The lesson is that Google DOES NOT monetize other people’s content…it monetizes its OWN meta-data. This is certainly one path to making the news profitable…not search per se…but various other approaches to the monetization of meta-data that’s within the reach of publishers.

    So the exquisite irony is this:
    In the future, the only content that will have monetizable value is content that no one is ever allowed to read! (i.e. the meta-data)

    There are certainly ways to make online news profitable…and many of us are working to develop such approaches…but I can assure you they don’t involve inventing a “faster horse”…

    Dale Harrison

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