When I tried out the new Google Ad Planner recently, I had no idea my reaction would be so out of step with the reactions of various observers on the scene.

Has this ever happened to you? It’s like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone, as you pass by the horrified shouts of onlookers towards some scene that will surely turn out to be horrific carnage when you turn the corner, but all you see when you get there are gingerbread houses and bunny rabbits.

There I was, doing research using Google’s intuitive interface in order to develop a list of potential target sites broken down by demographics and relevancy, and my impression was: (i) keep up the good work, Google; and (ii) there really isn’t all that much to this, so I really hope they’ll be beefing it up. I wasn’t yawning, so much as I felt like it was a little free service that fit like a glove and made me feel like “business as usual, but with a new toy to play with.”

I think I now understand why the process seemed so familiar, somehow, and why it didn’t make me start running around in circles wondering if the sky was falling. The logic and visual impact of how you use the Google Ad Planner is essentially the same as building a Placement Targeting campaign in Google AdWords. Based on your criteria, the app shows you a list of relevant sites, with data to help you decide whether to place ads on these sites.

The key difference is that AdWords Placement Targeting of course only provides background audience information on sites that are participants in Google Content Network (put another way, Google AdSense Publishers). The Ad Planner provides information on pretty much every other significant web property out there as well. Cleverly, they provide icons and additional information for Google Content Network sites, and leave that blank for non-participating sites. You do get the distinct impression that Google is implying: “one day, you’ll all be in our network.”

Hey, what fun is it going to be to take over from Microsoft as the world’s leading technology company if you can’t pull borg-like micro-stunts like that, am I right, Googlers?

Slick and simple to use

Audience segmentation is a snap with this intuitive tool. I enjoyed the process and took to it immediately.

To take an example, let’s say I want to get my ad in front of women of a certain age and income. I checked only the snobbiest boxes (the highest incomes, education, and ages 35-64) and this whittled down the available sites in the menu. From there, I’m free to select promising sites and export them to an Excel file if I wish. Great planning tool.

(As you can see from the accompanying screen shot, from an initially massive universe of US-based websites, I am now down to a smaller universe comprising a total country reach of 2.5% – and still, a long list of sites to consider.)

Google ad planner

From there, you could ask a number of further questions about the sites, questions that are definitively not asked or answered by Google’s tool. Is this site accepting advertising? Is it easy to buy from them? What are the prices, visibility, desirability, user intents on the sites, etc.? As a planning tool it is a great starting point, but no more.

Unsurprisingly, it comes as something of a relief when you do spy the little icons and information denoting participation in Google’s content network. If you were in a hurry and didn’t have time or staff resources to move ahead quickly with the full plan, you’d probably be tempted to go ahead and run a placement-targeted campaign on AdWords. If Google has an ulterior motive or two here, that’s probably the crux of it right there. Enough said.

Demographics for entertainment purposes only, do not try this at home, etc.?

A note on the demographics: these are rough guides to the types of visitors that are seen as coming to the site. They are not accurate counts by any means. It’s merely a question of how a particular site “skews”: Ad Planner, no doubt accurately, reports that potterybarn.com skews female, affluent, etc. But there is nothing to suggest very accurately how much it skews that way, nor is it implied that you could limit impressions to just the selected demographic. All we have learned is in the event that the site in question indeed turns out to accept your type of advertising, potterybarn.com is probably a pretty decent place to show your banner ad, all else being equal.

Those who have experimented with Quantcast or Compete will be familiar with the drill: the smaller the site, the less reliable the data. There isn’t much disclosure as to how they arrive at the numbers – no doubt for competitive reasons. Google is taking a bit of heat right now for a similar level of coyness about their data sources, but it’s early days yet.

One huge caveat is that the tool only gives the illusion of providing data across many countries. For nearly every country outside the US, including relatively developed online advertising markets like the UK and Canada, the demographic information is spotty once you drill down even one level. For these countries you may be using the tool to find sites related to or similar to a site you specifically enter into the tool, but you’ll be hard pressed to do any comprehensive planning based on demographic segmentation here.

Why are folks freaking out?

So if my reaction was relatively benign, what’s with all the freak-outs?

We can discount Valleywag’s two cents to about 0.2 cents’ worth of stock sloganeering about privacy, but several others make serious points.

Several financial sites, including Seeking Alpha and Forbes, made note of the threat to audience measurement services like comScore and Hitwise. Certainly, this makes a lot of sense. As with any high-margin high-tech field entered by Google at a zero price point, Ad Planner is potentially disruptive. We shouldn’t minimize this threat: analytics software firms were initially able to fend off the assault of free Google Analytics, for example, but few observers would deny now that Google’s free offering has made a major dent in the revenues of many companies in that sector (while arguably adding millions of dollars of value to the operations of users of the product).

A more sensible concern is one about bias: should you trust the seller of ads to be your “advisor”? Well, no. But here, Google isn’t selling but a small portion of the total reach addressed by Google Ad Planner. So it looks like the situation was similar to what happened with Analytics and Conversion Optimizer, among other products. Google saw a hole in advertisers’ and marketers’ toolkits that could be filled with a superior product, and became increasingly impatient as various existing providers in the space kept advanced functionality out of the reach of all but a handful of deep-pocketed players.

In the web metrics space, I have been wondering for many years why the high level sellers of competitive intelligence data didn’t build their businesses around wider distribution of $500 reports, rather than focusing so heavily on those custom six-figure megabucks contracts with just a handful of clients. Inevitably, the industry did trend in that direction. Much as tens of thousands of people now have inexpensive personal weather stations that happily beam microclimate data about their backyards to the Weather Underground site, ordinary small marketers and affiliates hopped onto the promise of Hitwise reports when they came into the right price range below $10,000. From there, it was only a matter of time before the industry took the next hop towards inexpensive and free intelligence. With the advent of Quantcast, Keyword Spy, and many other sources of nearly-free data, the stage was set for Google to land a crushing blow to the data-hoarders. Unfortunately for those companies, “information wants to be free” is only an outdated cliche in the sense that in many actors’ minds, the operative phrase is: “information is free.”

Don’t get me wrong: I think large companies will still budget for custom data and research. But much the same as in the web analytics software sector, fewer and fewer companies will be willing to pay $50,000 or $100,000 a year for it. And tools that make it possible to “roll your own” will entice many companies to do just that, even though they may not have true in-house capability.

Life in the cloud, i.e., life under Google’s shadow

The ‘cloud computing mentality’ pervades Google’s thinking with regard to every new field the company considers breaking into these days. As Google spins it, the analogy will always be with the IT services and bandwidth costs that have plummeted in the past decade, allowing innovative businesses of all sizes to thrive in the information economy with lower costs for overhead and basic infrastructure. Instead of: “wow, that data is worth a bundle, you should charge a lot for it,” as usual, Google’s thought is “would providing this tool to businesses reduce friction in the marketplace?” That free services drastically reduce Google’s quality and customer service obligations would be a much longer discussion worth having, under the guidance of old IT pros who know a thing or two more than me.

The naked agency shudders

Over at ClickZ, Sean Carton offers another reason why agency types might be freaking out about Google Ad Planner: it’s highly quantitative and leads the advertising and media worlds one more step down the path of segmentation, accurate audience measurement, etc. It’s another nail in the coffin for outdated, inefficient advertising sales and media buying models. As Carton puts it: “Direct audience measurement has the potential of authoritatively revealing that the Emperor might really be buck-naked.”

Again, that’s not an explosive concept to you and me. If you’re like me, you’ve had a front row seat for so-called “direct measurement,” because you’ve had access to the back end analytics (or even Analytics) files of publisher sites. I’ve seen Google Analytics reports of actual traffic from a publisher site, including the breakdowns of some of the low-quality paid sources of that traffic being used to pump up aggregate numbers, and then the very next day seen comScore reports of that same site’s favorable rankings in the top five of some vertical category. I’ve even seen where the day after that, said publisher puts out a press release boasting to investors even higher traffic numbers than the pumped-up-for-comScore numbers. Google, being the elephant in this space, is starting out a bit behind but has the potential to produce the most accurate numbers in the business.

That has to be scary for some. But for the rest of us, it’s another tool in our arsenal to be added to a whole host of Google offerings we’ve come to rely on, whatever the scary, borg-like implications.

Andrew Goodman is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords. The Paid Search column appears Mondays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column

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About The Author: is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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