June 13, 2004
How Google Took the Work Out of Selling Advertising
HEN the computer age began, some people warned that the rise of word-processing systems would mean the decline of skillful writing. The idea was that computers would make writing so automatic and easy - yeah, sure -that fine points of thought and language would be buffed away, leaving depersonalized, machinelike prose.
In retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. Books, articles and lectures are now as good, and bad, as they have ever been. One area that technology has obviously changed is personal communication, through e-mail and instant messaging. But there, its main effect has been positive, in reviving what had been the moribund idea that people, even teenagers, could stay in touch through written as well as spoken words.
The broader ways in which computers will change our modes of thought and interaction are hard to predict, so any early indicator is interesting. Electronic calculators, for instance, have already eliminated one ingredient from the traditional concept of being "smart." From the invention of arithmetic until about 1970, speed and accuracy in handling numbers were a mark of intellectual distinction. Now computational skill is a parlor trick because the most gifted human prodigy cannot keep up with the cheapest hand-held device.
A "sticky" mind, one that retains names and ideas and retrieves them on demand, has traditionally been a proxy for one kind of intelligence. But how long will that matter, as search engines grow faster and more precise? We'll know the change has come when a schoolchild with Google can knock off any "Jeopardy" champ.
Long before that happens, another change driven by Google could have a cultural, and perhaps even political, impact. This is the place to note, however, that Google is not necessarily synonymous with "the future of search technology." Bill Gates of Microsoft has given more and more pointed warnings that his company is preparing a frontal challenge for dominance in computerized searches. No one in the technology world doubts that Microsoft has the talent, the money and the power to pose a formidable threat to Google. Even now, in some circumstances, small, specialized search tools can improve on Google's results. My recent favorite is Vivísimo, founded by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, which clusters search results into useful categories rather than putting them in one big list.
But Google is the clear leader, among competitors like Overture and Kanoodle, in a modest-seeming innovation with potentially broad implications. For Google, it is another way to sell ads - and a fast-growing source of revenue. For people who rely on the Internet for information and expression, it may open an opportunity.
The innovation in question is Google's AdSense program, unveiled last summer. Google's original way of making money, and still its largest source of revenue, was search-driven ads. You enter, say, "vacation homes in France," and with its usual list of sites Google shows a list of "sponsored links" from advertisers, who have paid to be associated with those terms.
"AdSense was really a very natural outgrowth" of this search-dependent system, said Gary Stein, a senior analyst at Jupiter Media in San Francisco. (No one from Google would comment about its products because the company is in the "quiet period'' before its initial public offering.) "Google had this great database of advertisers, and the keywords they were interested in," he said. "But they had to wait for the searches to happen."
AdSense allows Google and the advertisers to avoid the waiting. Google's great technical strength - the "sun in its solar system," as Mr. Stein put it - is the way it automatically grasps the themes and emphases of each Web page. With AdSense, anyone who operates a Web site - a blogger, a community activist, a retailer - installs a bit of code that transfers control of part of each page to Google. Then users who visit the page will see a short list of ads that, according to Google's analysis, represent the most likely match between the subjects discussed there and the advertisers' products - ads for veterinary supplies on a cat fanciers' site, for example. Each time someone clicks on an advertiser's link, the advertiser pays a fee to Google, and Google passes some of that on to the Web site operator.
This sounds like nothing more sophisticated than a car magazine that runs car ads - but then, eBay at first looked like nothing more than a big garage sale. In each case, scale and automation give a familiar idea new effects. Just as eBay connects each seller to a universe of potential buyers, AdSense connects each blogger and local Webmaster to 150,000 potential advertisers. The crucial point is that the blogger reaches those potential advertisers without having to hire a sales staff, prepare media kits or invest scarce time and money.
Why does that matter? It completes the publishing revolution brought on by the Internet. The first stage was the liberation of the reader, who, thanks to browsers, could look at publications in any part of the world. Next was the liberation of would-be publishers. Thanks to blogging tools, anyone can present his or her views online. And now, thanks to automated ad sales, small publishers have a more viable hope of creating a business, and keeping independent voices, than they did even a year ago. A. J. Liebling's wisecrack that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" takes on new meaning when technical and financial barriers to creating a Web-based press drop so low.
GOOGLE strongly discourages the Web sites using AdSense from revealing how much money they are taking in. (It even refuses to tell those Web sites how large a cut they are getting of the advertiser's fee, one of several ways Google has pushed its just-trust-us principle to the limit. There are other controversies about the program, but that's a discussion for another day.) I have talked to a site operator who says he gets "extra beer money," to another who gets several hundred dollars a month and to another who receives many thousands. None wanted to be identified because of Google's strictures, but all emphasized that this was money that they would not have generated otherwise, because they could not have hired a staff to sell ads.
The highest returns seem to go to sites devoted to very specific tasks - like SeatGuru.com, which rates best and worst seats on airplanes. Though he was not specific, Matthew Daimler, 26, the founder of SeatGuru, said the program brought him thousands of dollars a month. This new revenue, he said, let him "change from a hobby site to a business, and the best part is that I don't have to have an ad sales force but am still exposed to hundreds of thousands of advertisers."
The operators of PVRBlog, which covers TiVo and related devices, have told a similar story. Even blogs dealing with political and social themes have received modest new revenue streams.
"Free expression" has always been freest when it has rested on a solid business base. Technology's latest unexpected effect on culture may be to help revive a diverse exchange of views.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. E-mail: email@example.com.