The biggest news of the week — well, besides the governor-erect (hat tip to the New York Post) — was not AOL’s purchase of Bebo or Yahoo’s embrace of the semantic web (about which I remain skeptical) or certainly Lacygate. No, the biggest, most game-changing news went by without a great deal of notice and that Google’s announcement of a free ad-serving platform.
Google Ad Manager is one critical piece in creating the open network of networks where any site can take any ad and any marketer can advertise on any site. When that day arrives, we all become atoms that can attract to one molecule or another, no longer locked into one network. We start to see a truer marketplace for online advertising. We also get to see small sites gather together in large, ad hoc networks to compete with big sites — and this, I believe, will encourage and support the creation of more small sites. God’s work. Or now Google’s.
The creation of a standard ad call — which any site can use and into which any advertiser can place an ad, which in essence is what Google is doing — is the foundation of what I envisioned when I called for an open-source ad infrastructure.
There’s just one issue: It’s not open-source. And it’s Google’s.
Google’s benefits are clear: By offering free ad-serving to sites, it has an opening to be on many more sites, and when they don’t have ads of their own to serve, Google can serve AdSense and make some more money. Google also gathers incredible data about ad performance and pricing and about the sites themselves. One big problem with its program is that it doesn’t share that data with the publishers and let them use it to more efficiently serve its ads. It also doesn’t share it with advertisers and let them take advantage of a more transparent marketplace.
No, Google’s holding onto that information itself and, once again, becoming smarter than all of us. And I say that’s our own damned fault for not building our truly open ad marketplace. It’s not too late, but it soon will be.
The closest thing we have to an infrastructure for such an open marketplace is OpenX (nee Openads, nee phpAds), a free and open-source ad platform now serving ads on 30,000 sites. What’s needed — and I told CEO James Bilefeld this when I met him sometime ago — is that all those separate sites should be tied together into an open network so advertisers can pick and choose where to place their ads. The other thing it needs is standard metrics so advertisers can decide where to buy.
Now Google promises to build that cross-internet ad network with Ad Manager. And Google has the metrics — only, again, it’s not sharing. It lets sites target ads on the most basic of criteria: geography, bandwidth, browser, browser language, operating system, and domain. Whoop-dee-do. Each site can use its own information to target. But it’s the cross-site information that is exponentially richer and it’s Google that sits in the catbird seat where that is visible.
We should be able to target on so much richer information: the cross-site behavior of users (that’s the basis of Tacoda, just bought by AOL); their influence (that’s part of the sauce cooking up at 33 Across, where — full disclosure — I am an adviser and investor); their place in the timing of a conversation (meme starters, meme spreaders); their own characteristics (what do the demographics of authors tell us apart from the demographics of audience?); their authority (too bad Technorati never found a way to exploit that for bloggers’ benefit); and so on. This is about moving beyond eyeballs to brains.
But I wonder whether entrepreneurs will be able to start building some of this structure atop Google’s Ad Manager: analytics companies finding the ultimate network of soccer moms; ad agencies or media companies putting together ad hoc networks. This will create greater efficiency and thus greater value. And it will tie together a distributed community of interest into a critical mass advertisers will pay attention to: the mass of niches. And that, again, will support the creation of a new wealth of content and communication; that’s what I want to see.
On a less momentous scale, the Google move also reduces the cost of serving ads to zero and that will have benefit for sites of any size. When I worked on sites that were DoubleClick clients (which will still charge for serving as it becomes part of Google… for now) it was too expensive to serve even our own promotional ads because we had to pay DoubleClick to do it. Now sites can use their ad inventory in new and more creative ways. That, too, is a benefit of Ad Manager.
Altogether, Google is simply doing what Google does: creating a platform. That benefits all its users and it benefits Google by putting it at the center of the market. But the more closed that market is, the more it benefits Google over the users. And the more Google becomes the sole standard, the more it can successfully make it closed. So if we’re going to create an open ad marketplace, now’s the time. If it’s not already too late.