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Whither DART Search?
SES San Jose 2008 is now in the books and another Google Dance — that annual bash that provides us all with so much safe, clean YouTube fodder — has come and gone. Among the various features and benefits — upscale backyard barbecue fare, free beer, modified karaoke, dancing, and light shows — is the most fascinating spectacle of all: Googlers meeting other Googlers. (Oftentimes, I ran across Googlers just sticking with their own little clique and talking among themselves, but what do you expect… it’s a “campus”.)
Google is such an enormous entity by now that it carries a real risk of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Overall, though, the company does a pretty good job of keeping its initiatives in sync.
But if Googlers are always needing to meet other Googlers for the first time, imagine the effort of digesting a large company in the digital ad space whose founding predated Google’s by two years, and which brings to the table a variety of legacy technologies and platforms along with its own corporate culture. Googlers, meet DoubleClickers!
In April 2008, Google announced that it would divest itself of a key conflict of interest that came with the deal as a DoubleClick division: Performics, the marketing agency that runs a lot of paid search campaigns. Your agency shouldn’t be Google if you’re buying Google ads, clearly. In August, Google wisely sold Performics to a large agency, Publicis, for an undisclosed sum. If my very rough estimate of $300 million is accurate, this move at least effectively reduced Google’s pricetag on the $3.1 billion DoubleClick acquisition, but only by a hair. While letting go of Performics and its headcount, Google presumably retained the mature cost-per-action exchange platform Performics built for affiliate marketing, using this to replace Google’s nascent but slow-to-emerge CPA program.
But is the streamlining effort complete? Widespread layoffs at DoubleClick (at least 500 people) have already streamlined the operation, but arguably there is still a fair bit of DoubleClick clutter that has no real role within Google’s strategy. Of particular note: DoubleClick not only owns, but is currently actively promoting, DART Search, a bid and campaign management platform for paid search. Like a few other current, aggressive players in the industry (such as Marin Software), DoubleClick sales reps are currently cold-calling agencies to ask them to consider adopting the DART Search solution.
This won’t be a product review of DART Search. Maybe another columnist would like to take a stab at it.
A few odd thoughts and questions emerge from the experience of being pitched by a Google-owned but still-distinctive third-but-now-first-party solution vendor:
- Google has never endorsed a single third-party bid management solution, and has never really recommended anyone use third-party bid management. What they have done, of course, is facilitate those vendors’ creation of sophisticated software through an AdWords API. Heavy usage of the system incurs charges to the software vendors, which are passed along to customers. Individual advertisers creating their own custom applications are more likely to receive discounts or to be able to take advantage of free API tokens. The upshot: Google has never endorsed a particular solution. Now they do, but it wasn’t developed by Google. That’s awkward. An awkward question, too: how much does DoubleClick pay for API access? The same as its competitors?
- Google already has its own rudimentary bid management automation, with advanced dayparting (Ad Scheduling) and a new Campaign Optimizer feature that tries to adjust bids to your target CPA range. This forces DART Search reps to dump on Google own current AdWords features to justify the price of the third-party solution. Given that Google engineers may be proud of their AdWords platform, that’s awkward, too.
- A good deal of the benefit of using a campaign management platform is purportedly to reduce the complexity of coordinating campaigns from Yahoo, Microsoft, and other players. But does DoubleClick’s sales pitch really make sense if a good chunk of the rationale for using the DART Search product rests on telling advertisers it’s helpful for advertising with Google competitors? The sales pitch I heard prefaced that benefit with a reminder that Google AdWords constitutes 90% of the paid search inventory sought by many advertisers. Is that really making the case that I should adopt an expensive solution so I can be sure not to get too confused by the goings-on in the accounts making up a 10% sliver of my budget? Awkward logic.
- DoubleClick sales reps intimate that their competitors won’t be apprised of changes to the Google AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing platforms in advance of rollout, whereas DoubleClick is given advance knowledge so its software can be fully updated for compatibility at all times. Anti-competitive? Not so much that as underscoring the fact that Google is the seller of this solution now, not some “third party.” But where does this leave third parties? An API environment should offer a level playing field. There should be no real or implied favoritism.
- Google seems committed to the product. Recently a Google job ad appeared for a DART Search evangelist, er, trainer. Excerpt: “The training focuses on delivering the the how-tos and best practices of the the DART Search technology’s three main value propositions: trafficking, reporting, and bid management. The Training Associate also incorporating [sic] client, sales, and services feedback into the constantly evolving training curriculum and materials.” The ad also notes that Paid Search experience is “highly desirable.” Other than the eye-opening revelation that Google is moving into the drug trade (“trafficking”?), the fact that Google’s new staffer will be teaching clients the benefits of bid management and reporting features on this platform seems a bit curious. Potential “students” at agencies and client-side operations would naturally wonder if the whole interface is likely to go away or change radically when it is rebuilt by Google (which seems likely). The thrust of my point here is: Google is a proud product company. If they inherit someone else’s mediocre or unintegrated stuff, they probably want to build something better on their own.
- The next and last point is perhaps the most significant. DART Search isn’t cheap. That’s normal for mission-critical bid management systems. Unfortunately, now that we live on Planet Google, solutions offered directly by Google tend to be sophisticated, powerful, and free. For example: yes, a few quirky folks actually pay for the premium Urchin product, but free Google Analytics goes a long way for the rest of us. Google is trying to hurt Microsoft with free office apps. Blogger is free. Gmail offers massive storage to consumers, with no premium version needed. Google can’t train the marketplace to wait for free, and then call up with an offer for expensive stuff that mainly helps you with your Google ad spend (remember, it’s 90% of the inventory you want?). It breaks the spell. It raises odd questions. Or perhaps not so odd questions, like: “Wouldn’t I feel stupid dropping $50,000 on this service over the next few months, only to find that they turn around and offer the bulk of it for free? Why wouldn’t I just wait for that day?”
Confusing, huh? So what’s the strategy?
One observer (a Googler, incidentally) close to the scene admitted to me that he’s not sure there is a strategy. But I’m guessing one will be firmed up soon. DoubleClick doesn’t resemble the type of brand (YouTube or Blogger, for example) that works best staying semi-independent of Google. Its main contribution is platforms and expertise (and business relationships) that will help Google increase its currently dismal share of online display advertising. Although there is little to compare it to, one example — Sprinks, acquired by Google from About.com in 2003 — is telling. Sprinks also had a platform, ad inventory, customers, and a sales force. Post-acquisition, Google simply folded the business assets into Google, fired the staff, and got rid of the platform, as multiple platforms and features get too confusing for users. Google won’t do all of that with DoubleClick overnight. But between the issue of redundancy and the problem of mixed messages being sent to its customers, further streamlining makes the most sense.
In the meantime, will Google continue its policy of not really recommending any bid and campaign management solutions beyond those offered directly in the Google AdWords interface, plus Google AdWords Editor, plus Google Analytics (etc.)? It strikes me that it’s going to look, er, awkward, if the only “third-party” solution Google “recommends” is one they wholly own.
DART Search: Start the bidding? Do I hear $20 million? Maybe a bad buy, though, if a lot of the functionality will soon be built into AdWords by the current Google engineering team (save for the part about making it easy to manage Microsoft campaigns).
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