Google’s Project Poirot
The DOJ claimed Google executives plotted to “dry out” header bidding, because if more publishers deployed it, then more advertisers would gravitate toward those auctions. Google has a strong hold on publishers through Google Ad Manager services and a lock on advertising demand through Google Ads and Display and Video 360.
At one point, Google even considered preventing advertisers from using its buying tools to bid on inventory made available in header bidding, the DOJ claimed. Instead of shutting down access to header bidding-based inventory on rival exchanges, Google launched what it called Project Poirot. The program was a ploy to manipulate bids coming from Display and Video 360 advertisers, which represents demand from large brands and ad agencies, so that Google AdX would win most of the ad auctions, beating rival exchanges, according to the DOJ.
“Google would shift transactions away from ad exchanges using header bidding and to Google’s AdX by artificially manipulating the bids sent to rival ad exchanges so that Google’s AdX could win those transactions more often (even if that meant harming Google’s own advertisers),” the lawsuit states.
Google’s Taylor told Ad Age that the DOJ is “completely wrong” about how Google bidding and auction dynamics work. “What Project Poirot was about was a bid optimization tool that’s optional for advertisers to use,” Taylor said. “It helped drive better advertiser outcomes and make sure advertisers aren’t overpaying.”
“We’re not tilting the scales toward Google Ad Manager or applying a rate-lowering feature on third-party exchanges and leaving Google Ad Manager alone. That’s just where they’ve got it wrong.”
Why Amazon went its own way
Amazon made a surprise appearance in the lawsuit, as Google approached the company for a business deal on Open Bidding, too. Google hoped to lock in Amazon’s advertising demand, as it had with Facebook. “Google sought to head off Amazon’s investment in header bidding technology with a similar offer, albeit without the same success,” the lawsuit said.
Google has declared some vindication over its partnership deals, however. Since 2020, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has led an antitrust suit against Google, too, and that case greatly focused on alleged “collusion” between Google and Facebook, citing the Open Bidding arrangement. Last year, Google claimed a victory when a U.S. district court rejected parts of Paxton’s claims, especially regarding the Facebook deal and Open Bidding. The court did not strike the whole case, however, and it is still ongoing.
“Of course, we approached Amazon as a large demand source for advertising inventory and wanted to offer them our services and be able to make them a business partner in that way,” Taylor said. “And they chose to go a different direction and do some direct integrations on the publisher side.”
Amazon has emerged as a prominent rival to Google and Meta, formerly Facebook, in internet advertising.
How ad tech rivals were affected
Rival publisher ad servers were squeezed by Google’s Project Poirot and another variety of the program, dubbed Poirot 2.0, the DOJ claimed. The rival exchanges, including OpenX, PubMatic, Xandr and Rubicon (now Magnite) were losing more ad auctions to Google. “For Google’s ad exchange, on the other hand, Poirot increased revenue, publisher payouts, and win rates, through a sleight of hand forcing a shift in advertiser spend,” the DOJ said.
Google’s tactics put publishers and advertisers in difficult positions, according to a public policy expert at a prominent ad tech firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Certain competitors have just given up—they folded—in this impossible anticompetitive environment.”
The antitrust case mostly addresses how Google used its dominance on the publisher side to push out rival exchanges, but the case references points where Google used its power on the demand side, as well. Google has enticed advertisers to adopt its ad buying tools by making some of its ad inventory, such as YouTube, exclusively available through Display and Video 360.
“Their whole contractual process, as well, is very much take it or leave it,” said the ad tech policy executive. “So, if you’re going to have any access to Google products there is no other way around it. There are no negotiations, and they can only do that because they dominate the market.”
What is the likely outcome?
Google is fighting the case, but the DOJ is calling on Google to divest from Google Ad Manager and AdX, the ad exchange. Short of that, Google already said it continues to innovate on its products and is giving more flexibility to publishers and advertisers.
“To address the concerns in the suit, it would be to do the things that we already do,” Taylor said, “which is enable our buying tools to buy on multiple sources of inventory, enable our publishers to take multiple sources of demand, be transparent with our rates and our fees. And, so, these are all things that we actively have built into our products.”