Google commodifies everything

Google commodifies everything.

I’ve been thinking about that in relation to Google’s new program to sell advertising into print magazines. Rather than choosing and dealing directly with a print brand, advertisers can now go to Google, which buys pages in certain magazines and resells ads on those pages over a Google logo. So in the process, Google supercedes the print brand. I’m surprised that any magazines are going along with this. The big, slick publishers I’ve worked with are loath to allow anyone else to sell — or certainly undersell — their space. And they are very protective of the value of their brands because, well, that’s the only value they really have (otherwise, they’re just pages with words). Clearly, some publishers want the money.

What Google is really doing is commodifying those magazines and their brands: Their pages are just space, their audiences just eyeballs.

Google certainly has done the same thing with online advertising. It’s doing that on this very page (half the time; the other half, Yahoo’s doing it) and it’s doing that with the big guys, too. And we all take it because, yes, we want the money. With AdSense, Google has commodified the content and brands of online content. It turns our pages into opportunities to play its advertising Match Game, placing ads on pages not on the basis of brand, context, content, environment, engagement, or trust — all the things advertisers supposedly care about and pay a premium for — but on the basis of the simple and perhaps coincidental occurrence of a word.

In that sense, Google also commodifies the audience. We’re not seeing these ads on the basis of our demographics or behavior or interests or relationships — also things advertisers value and pay for — but only because we have eyes. Everybody’s like everybody else. We’re just users. Might as well be pork belllies. We are a commodity.

Advertisers, too, are commodified, all presented in the same little boxes. You’d think they’d object; they are, after all, the foremost creators and defenders of brands. But they want the money, too.

Google commodifies news now. Though without transparency into its algorithms, it’s hard to say whether the use of one news brand or another is a value judgment or a roll of the dice.

And, of course, Google commodifies the world’s content by making it all available on a level playing field in its search.

Google hopes to do the same with books, letting an obscure, out-of-print, hard-to-find tome as easy to find as a Stephen King or a Charles Dickens. I support that.

Mind you, I’m not saying any or all of that is bad. Quite the contrary: The leveling that the internet and Google enable is what makes it possible for a mere blogger to swim alongside Big Old Media.

But in that process, let’s note that the unique identities, brands, qualifications, interests, relationships, and values we have as publishers, citizens, users, or marketers — the very values the internet enables! — are lost. We’re commodified.

The real conclusion one should come to with this is that we are presented with new opportunities to find new definitions of brands and new ways to bring them to the surface and highlight them and find value in them.

I believe, for example, that there will be a need to put together trusted networks of distributed content for advertising (how to put them together, measure them, serve ads on them, and verify them, and how to define trust are the things we’ll be talking about at my ad panel at Web 2.0).

I think that people will need to use microformats, tags, and other means to better identify themselves and stand out in the endless level playing field and to find each other and stick together.

I already see new, specialized searches — e.g., Indeed and Simply Hired in jobs — that find things in a subset of the world.

I fear that we’ll all end up with flacks as we try to find ways to get noticed: In a commodified world where every pig is just another pork belly, we sometimes need Charlotte and her web to make us stand out (and survive).

And I think that things created by humans — content, connections, relationships, meantingful metadata — vs. things created by machines — Google and so much else — will come into new demand and have new value.

: On a related note: I like the level playing field. But in some cases, the levelness is an illusion; someone has an advantage of someone else and that’s based on an algorithm we can’t see but that some try to discover and manipulate (that’s what led to the new industry called search-engine optimization). And it’s another hall in the house of mirrors when the algorithim is rigged to alter our behavior.

Robert Cringely writes [via Battelle] that Google’s AdSense seems to play commercial Skinner by rewarding advertisers who increase what they’re willling to spend but punishing those who try to decrease. It’s not so level after all.

: ALSO: Tim O’Reilly writes an op-ed in today’s Times supporting Google’s Library Project and I wholeheartedly agree. I can’t imagine writing and publishing a book and then directing that it should be hidden in the bookstore so no one can find it and destroyed as soon as it’s no longer current so no one can find it. That’s in essence what the authors are trying to do. But then again, that’s what content sites also do when they hide their stuff in data bases and behind pay walls making it unsearchable. Today, if you’re not searchable, you don’t exist.

(Comments fixed, I hope.)