Google has been quietly ramping up its marketing-services program and in March announced a content-targeted advertising service that finally brings together the elements that had to unite for the Web's potential to be realized. It serves up ads that are both highly pertinent and unobtrusive. Even more significant, Google is partnering with media companies to serve ads directly on their sites, focusing on the excess inventory that lies behind the home page, and that is as important to segments of readers as it is difficult to sell.
In my annual "Media and Marketing Best-Worst-Most-Least Awards" in this space back in January, I named Google CEO Eric Schmidt the most powerful media executive. More than a few puzzled readers e-mailed to ask: How does Google rate inclusion in the same category as, e.g., Cosmopolitan magazine or MSNBC? How can you attribute to Schmidt the power of, say, a Murdoch or an Eisner?
Easy. Google is now the world's foremost information access provider, a primary role of the communications media. It may not match Mickey Mouse or Bill O'Reilly for entertainment value but it beats them hands-down on something at least as important to you and me: relevance.
Chances are you're familiar with advertising on Google.com. Type in the name of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in the search box. Off to the right you're offered ads for gypsy jazz guitar lessons and a U.K. Django festival scheduled for July, in an all-text format that is completely consistent both with Google's page design and with the user's desire for information.
But Google is also putting its relevancy algorithms to use on media sites as well. Go to the sports pages of Philly.com (the Web site of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper) and six simple ads crawl down the left side of the page: for Flyers hockey tickets, 76ers basketball tickets and sports jerseys. Just as the company's proprietary technology can help connect information seekers to appropriate Web pages, it can also link advertisers to relevant media. The clients pay based on a formula that factors in click-through and cost-per-click, which effectively aligns the ad fee to the effectiveness of the ad.
By moving beyond the kind of blunt, cookie-based, banner-drenched targeting that has been the norm on the Web, Google is helping to reinvent Internet advertising. Like eBay, it has found a solid way for all businesses to go national, or even global, at modest cost. It's enabling publishers to find profits in even the smallest micro-niches among their readerships. And it ties advertising closely to the mood of the consumer-important, because research has shown a user's search occasion is a more accurate predictor of buying behavior than demographics or other traditional metrics.
"Other companies are doing content targeting," Tim Armstrong, Google's VP for advertising sales, told me during a recent visit I made to Google's New York office. "The ability to search through 4 billion Web pages is what makes us different. It's very hard to scale content targeting without humans, but our technology allows us to do it."
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.