30 Days of WWGD: What Google does to brands

Mike Masnick at TechDirt (via @mattcutts) is spot-on as he dissects Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thompson’s complaint on that sad Charlie Rose Flintstones show that Google devalues everything. Masnick argues – and I agree – that Google does precisely the opposite: It adds value.

Links are value. Content without links is valueless because it is unseen and cannot be monetized. Content with links gains value both because it has an audience that can be monetized and because it gains credence in Google PageRank, which equates links with value. That is the basic precept of the link economy.

I wonder whether what Thompson was trying to say instead was that Google devalues brands. I’ve argued lately that media thought their brands were magnets because we readers had to go to them, to find and buy their products. But now, those brands have to come to us. They must think distributed. This is how I lead off that chapter in the book:

Most companies think centralized, and they have since the decline of the Sears catalog and the dawn of the mass market. Companies make us, the customers, come to them. They spend a fortune in marketing to attract us. We are expected to answer the siren call of advertising and trudge to their store, dealership, newsstand, or now, web site. They even think we want to come to them, that we are drawn to them, moths to the brand.

Not Google. Google thinks distributed. It comes to us whenever and however it can.

When we discover a brand’s content – through search or links – the value of the brand is no longer that it drew us there but instead that it helps identify the content once we find it – as in, ‘Oh, yes, The New York Times has reporters and editors and so I know how to judge its content.’ Brands used to be magnets; now they are labels.

So Thompson’s subconscious complaint may instead be that Google devalues his brand as an independent determinant of value: ‘It’s in the Journal, therefore it will attract readers and advertisers.’ Now, instead, a brand’s content has to succeed in more of a meritocracy: the content has to be good enough to attract links and audience.

But sometimes – often – when people land on content through search, they find out what they want to find out and answer their questions and don’t notice what it was that gave them that. They got what they wanted via Google. That is the problem for media brands.

So here’s today’s What Would Google Do? snippet, from a chapter called, Google commodifies everything:

* * *

In the earliest days of the web, I watched focus groups where users thought there was this amazing new company that had acquired all the content you could imagine about every subject possible, as if from the merger of a library, a newspaper, a magazine, and a weather service. That company was Netscape. It merely made the first commercial browser that took readers to those other companies’ sites. But Netscape got the credit.

Today, that amazing brand is Google. People go online looking for something, find the answer, and often don’t know where they found it. Google found it. They’re savvier today and know that Google doesn’t own all the content it links to. But that doesn’t matter, so long as they find what they want—and Google is damned good at that. That’s great for users but bad for brands. Here you work your buns off creating a brand online; you build technology and staff to maintain your site; you spend a fortune on marketing and search-engine optimization to get people to find it; you tell advertisers how many users come to your page and like your brand. But in the end, huge numbers of users don’t recall coming to your site and don’t credit your brand. When I worked on newspaper sites, we knew we had more users than the research said. The problem was, when users were asked where they had seen a piece of information that could have come only from us, they often couldn’t remember. Google found it for them. Google diluted our brands.

Google has turned commodification into a business strategy. Content is commodified: Google makes it just about as easy for you to find what I’ve written on a topic as what Newsweek has written. Once was, brands organized information but now Google does. Media are commodified: Google places marketers’ ads on sites without telling them where the ads will appear. It places those ads not as an ad agency would—on the basis of the audience size, demographics, trust, or value of a media brand—but on the coincidence of words on a page. The value of the ad depends only on how many people click on it. Thus the media brand behind the content where the ad appears becomes less critical and less valuable. Even the audience is commodified: There’s little that distinguishes one of us from another—not age, income, gender, education, interest, all the things advertisers historically paid for. Everybody’s like everybody else. We’re just users. We might as well be pork bellies. And advertisers are commodified: Their text ads look alike, without their expensive logos and brand messages. You’d think they’d object, but they don’t mind because they pay only for clicks. Google has cleverly reduced the risk in advertising, so advertisers let Google drive.

It isn’t all bad. The leveling of the playing field the internet and Google engineered also made it possible for a tiny store selling a niche product to find its ideal customer or for a mere blogger to swim alongside big, old media. But in that process, it’s ironic that our unique identities, personalities, brands, qualifications, interests, relationships, and reputations as publishers—the values the internet enables—can be lost even as we can be found via Google.

What do we do about the threat of commodification? One smart response is to play by Google’s rules and take Google’s money as About.com has done. Or you can join networks with other specialized niches to reach critical mass, as Glam.com has done. Or get people to link to you and talk about you because you’re just so damned good, as Apple does. Or place your ads on highly targeted sites where you know your customers are, sponsoring that mommy blog with free baby food for loyal readers. Develop a deep relationship with your constituents so they come back to you directly, not just through Google search but by using social services such as Facebook. Serve the niche well rather than the mass badly.

  • I love it. Google has destroyed everyone else’s brand by essentially re-branding *all* online content as Google. When people need information, they “google” it and give Google credit for finding information that content creators are desperately working to make findable on Google (with the help of a well-paid army of SEO consultants).

    It’s a brilliant strategy, perhaps even more evil than what Microsoft did to the desktop! Google has acquired the lion’s share of content creators’ brand equity for pennies on the dollar, and the victims protesting now were only too willing to sell themselves cheap when they didn’t realize the enormity of their error.

    WWGD indeed–more like What Would Wal-Mart do! In any case, sheer brilliance.


    • A bit strongly put. And only one side of the coin: You’re looking at this only from the perspective of legacy brands.

      Google (/Youtube/blogs/the internet) also enables new brands to emerge out of nowhere without having to run the gauntlet of the old holders of scarcity attention. So what a mere blogger says can have as much sway as a big brand – if it gets links, which means if it has merit or at least relevance as determined by the public. In that sense, Google is uncorking the brand equity the public holds and determines and bestows it properly in a more open market of branding.

      Thus Perez Hilton can challenge People. Gawker Media has twice the traffic of the LA Times. Dell Hell rises to the first page of search results for the brand Dell. And so on. Who determines those rises? The public.

      • I love how anything older than Google is “legacy”. :-)

        I don’t dispute the value of the link economy–that’s an area where I mostly agree with you (http://thenoisychannel.com/?s=jarvis+link+economy).

        But giving Google credit for the fact that some new brands emerge feels like giving a coin credit for flipping heads. Every zero-sum game has winners and losers, and brand longevity has never been infinite, even in the media industry. These days, the brand-name bloggers look a lot like an online version of the legacy brands you decry. The main difference is that their only means of generating income from their brand equity is advertising or self-promotion.

        I’m intrigued by your assertion that getting a high PageRank (which is a bit more specific than just getting links) means a page “has merit or at least relevance as determined by the public.” Isn’t it possible that, as with the electoral process, the link economy is largely a winner-take-all economy (in the Robert Frank sense) and that it simply helps the rich get richer?

  • “Once was, brands organized information but now Google does.”

    I’m going to take this sentence and go in a slightly different direction. I think brands once organized information but now impatient readers/audiences want to organize things themselves. They want to do it at the pace they want and at the depth they want. Some people want to watch an entire season of TV over a weekend, and they can do that via TiVo or iTunes or Hulu. Other people want to play a game like Portal with the developer’s commentary on and explore the game more deeply than anyone else in their city. Google can help with that, but I think we just act on behalf of what our users want in that regard and represent a trend toward user control.

    How many of us have waited impatiently at the beginning of a DVD, trying to fast-forward through cross-promotions, advertisements, legal warnings, or way-too-slow DVD menus with built-in cut scenes? That’s an area where a brand has forced their experience on viewers. Guess what? Many viewers hate the “brand experience,” because they want to be active users, not passive, trapped viewers. So I think there is a trend from brand control to user control, and that’s a larger trend than any direct Google-related trend.

    P.S. I’m partway through WWGD and I’m enjoying comparing my intuition against the book. :)

    • Matt:
      Hope I see you at Google on the 18th (1p book event). It’s with fear and anticipation that I contemplate being in a room with a thousands Cutts, all many times smarter than I am, all able to tell me how I’m wrong.

    • Matt, I was with you until you said that Google represents a trend toward user control. Is a big part of your job playing referee among the numerous sites that are competing for users’ attention? That sounds a lot more like Google in control than users in control, If you want to offer users control, why not let users specify their own sorting criteria?


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  • Just got the book, and ‘friended’ you at Facebook, Jeff. (How are sales BTW? If you’ve mentioned it here I missed it.)
    Anyway, as I tried to say in my FB note you (why in heck do they put a word limit on that?) I checked the start and finish of the book – something I like doing – and was struck by the familiar reference to a shift from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance.
    Then, as I thought of our potential economic turn to scarcity – and wondered if the recent downturn made it into the book – I saw you mentioned it in talking about the plunge in the value of your Google stock.
    I’m curious – do you/others believe the tenets of your Google thesis will withstand the economic turbulence? I personally believe Cluetrain Manifesto,which you point to, claimed in 2000 that the Net changed everything and profit didn’t matter – just as the bubble burst.
    Not saying something similar will happen to Google, but I must believe it’s not immune to the severe downturn, and while that won’t affect all of the principles/rules you lay out – surely it will affect many, to varying degrees.
    If you’ve blogged on this topic of late, sorry if I’ve missed it. If not, I’d be interested in it, and of course your take on how the new round of woes for the media, financially, might hasten, delay or otherwise impact the move you predict/discuss about citizen journalism, news as conversation, etc.
    Thanks, Jeff.

  • Mike Manitoba

    What did poor Charlie Rose do to earn the sobriquet “Flintstone”?

    • Charlie Rose didn’t; the discussion did.

  • I agree and put a different perspective on this for my audience in the newspaper business. (http://locoforlocal.blogspot.com/2009/02/newspapers-should-learn-to-push-like.html).

    I maintain that newspaper brands compete with Google, as well as Yahoo and others, for local advertisers. I believe that newspapers should forget contextual ads and work to provide better local advertising, because they are better situated to capture that market.

    This article also reminds newspapers what they can learn from Google. You mention that “Google thinks distributed, it comes to us whenever and however it can”. It is my hope that newspapers can do the same in their local markets, by finding ways to reach their local communities with whenever and however it can with better local content and local advertising.

  • It’s too easy to blame Google for what is a phenomenon of the network. The branding problem we’re discussing may be nothing more than the way that brands are viewed differently from inside and outside.

    The Wall Street Journal has a view of its brand. They know what it “should” be. But people on the net make their own judgment. They always have, but now they can have a much broader view of what others are saying.

  • Eric Gauvin


    When you say, “monetize,” what do you mean really? To make money from google ads? Or are there other ways to make money directly from a website (not including the other indirect benefits such as marketing or customer service)?

    • Advertising is the obvious one. Google also gains value from data and learning; I think that is too often unmined. Newspapers are making direct sales of merchandise (I pointed out a few weeks ago that the Telegraph last year earned half its profits from merchandise sales). And marketing does count: building yourself up in Googlejuice is building an asset.

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