Why would anyone want to attack Google? I’m obviously joking. More or less everyone has a motive: rival search engines want more than the scraps Google leave them; price comparison sites likewise; media holders resent the revenue losses caused by the rise of online advertising; consumers are vigilant about perceived privacy invasion; businesses across multiple verticals feel threatened; and even I have taken swipes at Google for messing with AdWords, upon which my own business depends.
But of all Google’s haters, there are none more vehemently so than news companies, particularly some media companies that have a stake in rival programmatic platforms. Print journalism is dying, and the biggest culprit is Google. As a combined force, Google and Facebook control 60% of the global online advertising market. Between 2005-2015, Google’s ad revenue more than doubled whilst newspapers’ shrunk by over 20%.
And, despite driving the majority of traffic to publishers’ websites, Google’s aggregation of news and Facebook’s newsfeed have created an attractive alternative to traditional news consumption. The losses in revenue caused by a decline in print have generally exceeded the gains in display advertising revenue, leading to a surge in paywalled content that was recently estimated to keep only the top ten UK news providers afloat in the coming years.
In a variety of formulations, newspapers across the board have condemned Google and Facebook for killing journalism. And, in retaliation, traditional media has attacked the duopoly on every frontier possible: proliferators of fake news, pedlars of hate, funders of terrorism, endorsers of child abuse, liars, thieves, the ultimate villains of Silicon Valley.
This needs to stop.
Attacking Google is unnecessarily disruptive
Regardless of the ethics, it’s just bad for business. Every time there’s a scandal, frightened advertisers put the brakes on and pull their spend. A chain reaction occurs: a few self-interested publishers lead the charge, the rest of the media can’t say no to jumping on a news trend, and within hours there is a nationwide explosion of contempt, shame and panic.
Major advertisers are caught red-handed, with their brand encased in a display ad, appearing next to something inappropriate. Or alongside a video, in which something appalling is being shown to millions. Those who are named and shamed go into PR mode and chime in with the media frenzy; other advertisers, either for genuine concern or for the sake of pleasing their board, publicly announce their withdrawal from the badlands of Google. Even media agencies follow suit, trying to please their clients.
And then, once the dust has settled, everything goes back to normal. If there are problems with digital advertising - which there are - let’s discuss how to resolve them. The problem with scapegoating is that it distracts us from the true source of the problem; Google and Facebook aren’t solely responsible for the systemic issues of the digital era.
Let’s think beyond the scapegoats
The decline of print reflects much larger economic forces than the growth of these two companies. The way people consume news has changed, the way people advertise has changed. Google and Facebook are the forefront of this change, but frankly, it could have been anyone else holding these positions of dominance. If not them, someone else would have done it. There are big discussions to be had about whether the state should help to sustain journalism, experiments to be completed about the viability of paid news content - let’s not get distracted by vilification.
Ad fraud is a massive issue. Transparency in programmatic advertising. Brand safety. Fake news. Agreed! But these issues won’t be resolved by pretending that Google and Facebook are the ones who need to sort it out. Issues of this magnitude and complexity require a unilateral effort; they are the unfortunate side-effects of the digital era, the isolated costs amongst a plethora of benefits.
Do we not live in an era of much-heightened media pluralism, thanks to the rise of online news? And aren’t advertisers ultimately grateful for the option of hyper-targeted, measurable, and much more cost-effective advertising inventory than the traditional platforms? We are living in a period of great progress, despite the negativity of the press.
Hold people to account, demand higher standards, and call out mistakes when they are big enough to be worthy of national news. But please end this anti-Google agenda. I’m sick of it, and so should everyone else be.
Dan Gilbert is founder of Brainlabs