For all its wonder, the Web can be a dangerous place. While certain groups complain about certain content, the real danger is always found in that which is not seen, hidden in plain sight within the language that builds that which we can see. Google is the absolute master of doing business where it’s not seen, and I’ve reached the point where I think it’s time we all said “enough.”
As I’ve often written, one of the big problems with media companies regarding the Web is that business decisions are made based on what media managers can see. This ignorance will forever keep them out of the targeting business in the world of web advertising. Managers are much too busy counting industrial age terms like “inventory” and “cost per thousand” (CPM), while the real activity takes place in the world of data management and manipulation.
My first encounter with the idea of two simultaneous business realms online was in 1999 and a clever little site known as vote.com. “Vote” was created by Dick Morris, a political author and commentator who previously worked as a pollster, political campaign consultant, and general political consultant, according to Wikipedia. Morris was “the mind” behind the political success of Bill Clinton, and remains one of the more astute observers of everything politics.
Vote.com appeared to be a place where you could register and electronically lobby Congress based upon your profile and straightforward “up or down” votes on issues of the day. It worked very well, and people were happy to get in on the act and let Washington know what they were thinking.
But behind the scenes Morris was building a very smart database, which he sold to political candidates at the local, regional and national level. This was the real “business” of vote.com, although you’d never know it by looking at the site. I grew a pair of cynical antennae after that, and those who profit from back end data have grown so much more sophisticated since then.
And, of course, chief among the sophisticated is Google — that paragon of “do no harm” and make the world’s “information” easily accessible and useable for everybody. Google wants to be the source of online identification for all of us, but how far should we go with that identity? It would appear that with Google, I have two identities: the one that’s really me and the one they sell to others as a part of behavioral, demographic or psychographic “anonymous” groups. There must be a line in there somewhere that separates the two, but it’s getting narrower and narrower.
Before I continue, let me stop here and note (so that you don’t have to in the comments) that Google and everybody else gets a lot of this identification stuff wrong. In my case, not so much, but I’ve heard stories where the profile of you that they will show you can be off on just about everything. My only response there is that today’s machine, to borrow Kevin Kelly’s term, is smarter than yesterday’s, and so forth.
What has raised my eyebrow this time is Google’s latest kind of ad. Billed as “research,” it’s used heavily by media companies — including and perhaps especially the New York Daily News — as a way for media companies to get paid for articles that people might want to read past the first paragraph. The rest of the story is redacted in gray, unless you choose to answer a question or two, often specifically related to purchase intent.
Here are some examples from the Daily News:
Ray Poynter is the Director of Vision Critical University, the author of The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research, and the creator of NewMR.org. He is a highly regarded speaker on the subject of online research. He offered Street Fight these thoughts via email:
Although some people will be happy to complete these surveys, it’s likely that many people will decline them, choosing to avoid sites gated with surveys. Therefore, the people buying the results based on these surveys need to be aware that they are based on the small, and potentially biased, groups of people happy to do surveys to access sites. If you are the sort of person who would never do one of these surveys, why would you trust the results from people who do take part?
Jeffery Henning is the president of Researchscape of Boston. His LinkedIn page describes him as a serial entrepreneur dedicated to widening the audience for market research. He pioneered the web survey software industry at Perseus Development, the Enterprise Feedback Management market at Vovici and the research inquiry service at Researchscape. He told Street Fight that Google’s intent is self-preservation.
The hidden agenda — and it is not that hidden — is they don’t want publishers who make information freely available on their sites to go out of business: the rise of paywalls threatens the quality of content their search engine points people to. So with this initiative they are more interested in helping publishers (by providing an additional revenue source through their “survey wall”) than in helping advertisers.
Google Consumer Surveys provide a model of opinion on particular topics; like any other model, the results need to be treated tentatively. Does it have value for the research firms and corporate researchers that use it? Absolutely. Is it all-seeing and all-knowing? Ask my favorite hip hop star.
My problem with these — and I refuse to answer them, FWIW — is that Google also maintains rights to use this data along with everything else they have about me, rightly or wrongly. They may be selling the data for clients willing to pay, and that’s adding to the “anonymous” identity I spoke of above. But Google has more than that on me, including my real identity. I’m just not completely willing at this point to help them mix the two. I just think that handing over especially purchase intent is beyond my limit for toleration. It’s a clever trick, for sure, but given all the above, I hardly think it’s worth the ability to read somebody’s — hell, anybody’s — article online.
Of course, I could just lie…
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.