One of the seminal moments in George Orwell’s 1984 occurs when the hero – Winston Smith – is finally convinced by his torturers that 2+2=5.
The point of the scene is to show how Oceania (the totalitarian regime in which 1984 is based) has so much control over the mind of its citizens that it can even convince them to reject the fundamental rules of mathematics!
Another of my favorite moments from 1984 occurs when the ironically named “Ministry of Truth” retroactively changes an old newspaper article regarding chocolate rations so that a new change in rations looks like an increase rather than a decrease.
Again, the state’s control is so absolute that history can be changed as needed to reflect whatever current realities the state wants to project.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with SEM? I’d argue that many (perhaps most) SEMs are disproportionately influenced by data, tools, and research provided to them by Google. This influence allows Google (like Oceania) to change SEMs’ priorities, budget allocation, and yes, even math!
Don’t believe me? I’ve created a quick survey for you, the reader, to assess the level of influence Google exerts over you. Here goes:
- Do you use Google Analytics as your primary analytics platform?
- Do you rely on Google AdWords conversion tracking as your primary measurement of success on AdWords?
- Do you have a dedicated Google AdWords account representative?
- Do you subscribe to, or regularly read, the Google AdWords blog?
- Are you a certified Google AdWords professional?
- Do you give at least partial credit to view-through conversions?
- If you answered yes to #6, did you begin giving credit to view-through conversions after September, 2009?
- Do you use DoubleClick Search for your SEM campaign management platform?
- Are all of your display campaigns on the Google Display Network (no 3rd parties or DSPs used)?
- Did you launch your first mobile advertising campaigns in 2009 or later?
Add up all your answers and give yourself one point for all “yes” answers and zero points for “no” answers. Out of 10 possible points, here’s my analysis of your score (full disclosure: my personal score on the quiz is seven):
- 7-10 points: You are living in an Orwellian Google world. Google controls how you think about online marketing and can influence the metrics you use and your budget allocation.
- 4-6 points: Your marketing decisions are influenced by Google, but you retain some independent thinking skills.
- 0-3 points: You are a renegade who is trying to subvert the dominant paradigm. You use Google like a rented mule and make decisions without any regard to Google’s viewpoint (beware, the thought police are after you!).
I’m sure that this assessment is going to enrage many readers, particularly those of you who scored seven or higher (I can’t imagine many people like being accused of blind obedience).
But consider the significance of the following facts:
- Google Analytics is constantly updated to emphasize metrics that favor Google business units. Two examples: the woeful lack of social media metrics (other than Google Plus, of course. It is technically complex to set up proper Facebook tracking), and the inclusion of attribution metrics only after the DoubleClick acquisition. Like it or not, Analytics is a lens that places undo focus on Google’s products, at the expense of other channels where Google lacks dominance.
- The AdWords pixel gives 100% credit to AdWords conversions, meaning that you are likely over-valuing clicks on AdWords.
- Google Account reps are very effective at educating clients on initiatives important to Google – such as video advertising after the YouTube acquisition, or mobile advertising post-AdMob acquisition.
- The AdWords blog also emphasizes the marketing products and measurements Google is promoting.
- Being a Google Certified professional means you have completed the AdWords professional exam, which includes at least 20 questions that are nothing more than marketing pitches by Google (things like “If you want to reach customers considering a car purchase, the most targeted place to advertise would be a) the sports section of a newspaper; b) a billboard; c) a Google Display Network ad on a car review Website.” Note: I made this question up, but you get the point).
- If you give credit to view-through conversions, especially post-DoubleClick acquisition, you were probably influenced by Google’s marketing to do so.
- DoubleClick Search, like Google Analytics, allows Google to create user flows that emphasize certain metrics over others, to Google’s advantage.
- Google’s AdMob and DoubleClick acquisitions have integrated into AdWords, making it easy for advertisers to run display and mobile campaigns inside the AdWords interface. But there are dozens of other networks and services that offer advertisers display and mobile options outside of Google. Advertisers who restrict their display/mobile campaigns to AdWords are likely missing out on potentially lower-cost, more effective opportunities.
For the record, it is perfectly within Google’s rights to try to influence the marketing budgets of online marketers! And in fact, the way in which they are exerting influence is laudable – through free tools and great resources that provide marketers with reams of data and help. (Recall that prior to Google Analytics, most advertisers had little choice but to pay thousands of dollars a month for analytics software, for example.)
I also give Google a ton of credit for introducing SEMs to the world of mobile, display, and video advertising (though just imagine if Google acquired Facebook – you can be sure that a barrage of Analytics improvements, AdWords blogs, and white papers would make certain that marketers suddenly and dramatically increased their spend on and attribution of social media).
I’ve directly changed the way I think about direct marketing (to include top-of-funnel channels) thanks to the recommendations and feedback from my AdWords representatives.
The challenge for marketers is to separate the genuinely valuable Google tools and advice from selectively self-interested ones. Milton Friedman famously remarked “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and so it goes with Google. In exchange for a price tag of zero for most Google advertising products (prediction: Doubleclick Search will someday be free to use), users are unduly influenced by online advertising’s 800-pound gorilla.
Indeed, a campaign in AdWords today might show two keywords, each with two conversions, and one with an additional view-through conversion as well. Three years ago, that view-through conversion would not have been counted.
Put another way, 2+2 can now equal five in AdWords (see, Google can change the rules of math)! Has your chocolate ration increased or not? If you aren’t cross-checking your data and strategy against Google’s recommendations, you might not know the answer!
As with all forms of dependency, the first step to overcoming your addiction to Google Think is (say it with me) admitting that you have a problem.
In other words, recognize the level of influence Google has on your marketing thinking, and make sure to apply a healthy dose of skepticism going forward. Again, a lot of Google’s recommendations are awesome, just not all of them.
Next, actively seek out alternative viewpoints outside of the Googleplex. There’s plenty of bloggers who offer worldviews that are radically different than the official Google party line. A few that will definitely make you think include Scott Cleland’s Precursor Blog and Harvard Professor Ben Edelman’s website on advertising fraud and ethics. These types of blogs aren’t inherently any less biased than Google’s blogs, but they offer a valuable alternative perspective.
Finally, force yourself to (at least occasionally) test new partners beyond Google. Happy with retargeting (er, remarketing) on Google? Test companies like AdRoll and Retargeter and see if their solutions outperform Google’s.
Love Google Analytics? Try out alternatives like KISS Metrics, Omniture, or WebTrends. Seeing awesome results on Google mobile ads? Explore other mobile platforms like Millennial Media, JumpTap, or TapJoy. And let’s not forget Yahoo/Bing – there’s good traffic in them hills, often at a discount to what you’d pay on AdWords.
Google is a great company that facilitates millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity every year (and guess what: they’ve got free data on that too – they claim $80 billion of US economic activity was attributable to Google in 2011!).
But like any big company, Google has revenue targets to hit, and one way to drive revenue is to convince marketers to spend more and more on Google products. So reap the benefits of being a Google partner, but try not to drink too much Google Kool-Aid along the way!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.