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.)

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  • just testing again.

  • HI Jeff;

    Great post as usual.

    I agree with the gist of your article and would expand by saying that technology commoditizes everything. Google leveraged IT extremely well.

    Starting with the commoditization of information, Google’s stated mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

    Perhaps next we will see the commoditization of the world’s knowledge, followed by our collective intelligence.

    I don’t know if Google will be the entity to do that, but the trajectory seems clear to me.

  • The folks at Boingboing — published authors themselves — not only agree with you on the value of having Google Print scan your work and make it searchable, but have some of the best refutations to people who have raised reasonable objections concerning copyright. They were also less than pleased to find themselves named as co-litigants in the Author’s Guild class action suit.

    As a librarian, I can attest to the usefulness of Google Print. Ever since discovering this resource over the summer I’ve made it my first stop in solving a research problem. Why? Commercial academic databases are great, but there’s often a time lag of as much as a year before the latest publications are indexed therein. Not only will Google Print turn up monographs published in 2004 and 2005, but those in turn will provide me with bibliographic references to get back at recent references to scholarly journals and periodicals as well. Even in the humanities these days a year old is a year and a half too late! And Google gets that.

    The other thing that Google Print is excellent at is offering an alternative way of searching a library’s online catalog. Typically in order to find a book via subject search you’d have to navigate the annoyingly arbitrary Library of Congress Subject Headings and pretty much assume that you weren’t going to find everything in the nested hierarchy. Nowadays however you can start with Google Print and use those titles to reverse-engineer and refine your search in the card catalog. Google Print also adds a level of granularity when searching by subject by revealing chapters in larger tomes that deal with the topic you’re interested in, whereas most library catalogs only concerned themselves with the subject classfication of the overall book.

    For example, I had a patron who came to the desk one day asking about the “theater of the oppressed” in Ireland. After spending about five or ten minutes in vain looking for something close in the LCSH subject index, I went to Google Print and did a keyword search for the above terms and got 23 pages of potential hits — several of which appeared to be exactly the sort of thing the patron was looking for.

    Mind you, Google Print has merely facilitated the process here, not pre-empted it entirely. We still needed to own the books in question, or else the patron would have to buy them or get them through interlibrary loan. Copyrighted works are protected so that you can only read about three pages forward or backward from the matching page — enough to figure out if the book merits a closer look, that’s all.

    But what a powerful tool that is! Ever since the dawn of the electronic age scholars have had mixed feelings about the new technology, lauding its ability to take the drudgery out of basic research tasks but lamenting the loss of that serendipitous feeling of browsing the stacks and stumbling into something you didn’t even realize you were looking for that ends up changing your research entirely for the better.

    Google Print brings a lot to the table, but I think the most wonderful thing about it is that it brings back the ability to browse the pages of actual books that very well may have been on the shelf next to the book that you thought you needed but didn’t. Authors should be overjoyed by the development, and not instinctively attempting to shut it down.

    At least some of them get it.

  • I think that this post by Joel Spolsky might illuminate and explain Google’s strategy a bit.

  • C DeSantis

    I am so done with Google. Do a search there now on something and the first page is all ads. Please explain how you can “google” info on osteosarcoma [bone cancer] and see a “buy it now on e-bay” ad. I’m done.

    I really like the dogpile search engine now. Combining google, msn, yahoo, and ask Jeeves [I think those are all]. It has been the most comprehensive search tool lately…for me anyway.

    Love your blog Jeff


  • I don’t know, Jeff; any clicked-through Google ad is still as unique a site as it would otherwise be. Any clicked-through result still has its own flavor. In fact, by providing wide access to high- and low-volume publishers, through heavy filters, Google accentuates the unique aspects of each publisher. A site is no longer just a site — it’s a site about keywords A, B, and C. It tells you a bit about itself before you click through. It paid more for its adwords than some other site.

    I don’t see commodification in any material way. Google still can’t trump word of mouth, as demonstrated by Gawker Media. It can’t trump good writing, as demonstrated by the New York Times (which, granted, now hides its writers, but that’s another issue). And by sorting books through searches, Google Print helps a reader find what he already wanted to read — a specific item, the exact opposite of a commodity.

  • Marina Architect

    Brand erosion is a good thing. Here’s why: as brands become commodified, brands actually have to differentiate with utility and quality rather than image driven branding.

    Word of mouth via Web 2.0 is a better arbiter of quality than commercials and brand. Who do you trust more? Some celebrity actor or 5-6 of your friends, family and colleagues direct experience. In summary, let the commodified by Google begin: we are better off.

    Online advertising is going to change dramatically when everyone is “LinkedIn.” Imagine how easily you can critique products and services through trusted friends and not just trolls and company plants. Products and services are going to improve and prices will drop in my view in the future due to this transparency. We will wipe the floor with you if you put out a shit product or service. Brand elitism will be eroded via Web 2.0.

    People don’t talk about this much because it is an unpopular perspective, but as an example: Apple doesn’t have the smallest and highest quality Portable Music Player on the market even though they lead in sales. Apple is definitely capitalizing on its brand and industrial design. If brands were commodities, we would have a market where higher quality products raise the bar and marketing budgets would be re-allocated to research and/or a lower price point. Look at big Pharma, sales and marketing is double research costs. Do we need or are served by having Pharma brands? No. Would we be better off if big Pharma were not allowed to advertise or offer gifts/incentives to physicians? Yes.

  • It’s not just Google… technological change itself tends to lower the price of goods and turn them into commodities. Things get cheaper.

    How to retain value in the future, and resist commodification? One advantage is time-to-market… it takes awhile for a good or service to become commodified. Another is a unique connection to the customer, which resists the mass-market angle of the commodification curve.

    Google just illustrates this general principle, oui?

  • Marina Architect

    What is Web 2.0? This is my take on what Web 2.0 stands for:

    Web 2.0 is Natural Intelligence

    Aggregation of individual insight and experience realized via communication networks: natural intelligence (as opposed to artificial intelligence) defines Web 2.0. Conversely, Web 1.0 was the communication network while Web 2.0 is the “sur” above layer of connected individuals via any device or any wire/wireless. It’s both a market and non-market social, business and action exchange. This is my unpolished fluid take on Web 2.0.

    Web 2.0 is not a VC myth with a hidden self-serving hype to exit agenda. It’s still in the nascent early stages, as adoption and daily use propogate, you will have a natural intelligence search and communication engine available to you: that’s something!

    Call to developers: improve comment sorting and display. Add data mining capabilities to comments. We need some innovation in this area. It’s too flat as it is. Creating API’s that link the Community platforms of like Friendster, LinkedIn and Tribe, etc. distinguished by layer: Social, Business or Purpose(non-profit). This is one big party my friends. Use it. Spread it. Download Firefox while you are at it. Cheers.

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