Google not very Googly

If it wasn’t official before, it is now.  Google self-advertises:

In the latest shot fired in Google Inc.’s ongoing battle with Microsoft Corp., Google announced today that it’s taking this fight to the streets.


Google is kicking off a month-long ad campaign for its online suite of enterprise office applications. The campaign will have the search giant leasing billboard space in four major U.S. cities — New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. Each work day will have a different message for commuters to take in.

Each day there will be a different message.  Each day!  This is no small self-advertising undertaking.

Does anyone remember when the lack of self-advertisement was one of the primary points of pride for the company?  We’re not talking 10 years ago.  Even as recently as SIGIR 2008, Kai Fu Lee stated in front of an audience of 500+ people that Google categorically does not self-advertise.  Just a few months before that, Google’s VP of Marketing was interviewed by Business Week:

Essentially, [Google Marketing VP David Lawee] says, Google subscribes to a philosophy of branding by doing: creating products that many people love rather than shouting about them in ads. In a recent conversation with BusinessWeek‘s Silicon Valley bureau chief Robert Hof, Lawee talked about some of the unusual methods Google uses to promote its brand: How does Google think about its brand? The honest answer is that the first thing we think about is our products. First and foremost, we’re always thinking about what’s best for the user. We have a true north that’s always easy to touch back to

So by shouting about the product in billboards, does that mean people don’t love Google Office?  Or does it mean that Google is no longer thinking first and foremost about what is best for the user, but first and foremost about brand?  What’s the next long-held, deeply-felt core company philosophical principle to be let go? User privacy?

Google is not acting very Googly.

Update: See a humorous take on the campaign.

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11 Responses to Google not very Googly

  1. jeremy says:

    What matters to you, then, FD? What do you get passionate about?

  2. jeremy says:

    I see all these things as wrapped up together. Search. Advertising. Attention. Relevance. Branding. When a company makes strong, public statements about one of these aspects, it affects the perception of the other aspects. And when a company then changes its hitherto self-declared immutable stance on one of these aspects, it also affects the other aspects.

    Moreover, perception about what sort of research is interesting research, what sort of problems are interesting and worthwhile problems, is also all tied up in the ever-shifting ebb-and-flow between search, advertising, attention, relevance, and branding. Changes in one area alter the marketplace, not only of commerce but also of ideas, in the other areas. Witness the rise of computational advertising. That’s only become a research topic because the rise in popularity of a particular kind of relevance (known-item, lookup) combined with branding and shifts in attention have made it interesting.

    I don’t want to do my research in a vacuum. I want to do it with an eye toward that ever-shifting landscape. And this new branding push is a significant shift, imho, and will have ramifications for what sort of research gets done. So I think it’s important.

  3. You don’t get it. This directly a counteroffensive against Microsoft and Bing. THEY ARE NOT ADVERTISING TO USERS. They are advertising to the CEOs or CFOs who don’t use technology, and don’t know any more than “nobody got fired by buying Microsoft.” These are the dopes who actually notice and care about ads. That way when the CIO comes and says “why don’t we use gmail instead of Exchange” they can look at each other and say “Right… Gmail!” instead of trying to pretend like they know what it is.

    This is what economists call “signalling.” Buying advertising on that scale basically advertises that you are a big boy playing in the big leagues which is important to corner-office types even if it looks creepy to us in the trenches.

  4. jeremy says:

    There are a couple of threads that are weaving together here. And maybe I don’t get it. But let me paint the picture I see, and then I can work on being corrected.

    Thread #1: Over the past few years, I’ve gone to a couple of the “Office 2.0” conferences (, and heard Google make the case (there and at other venues) that their office suite would succeed because it was a very grassroots, bottom up approach. Workers didn’t need to have the approval of IT Managers, CEOs, CFOs, or CIOs in order to start using web based office apps. Everything ran in a web browser, and therefore with a quality offering, adoption would bubble up from techies-in-the-know into the company as a whole. The same way Google web search bubbled up. There was no need, Google claimed for many years, to make a push from the top down.

    Thread #2: Google founded its company on an anti-banner platform. They created their ad platform, their whole revenue stream, with that explicit idea that if an ad is non-relevant it is not useful. Out of that arose a whole new line of academic and industrial research.

    So now, with this counteroffensive against Microsoft, they may indeed be doing you say, going after the technologically-unsavvy CEOs. But this sends two messages to me, from these two threads: First, it says that Google is no longer confident that their office suite will succeed in the same way that their web search succeeded, bottom up. Second, it says that they no longer believe that relevance-driven ads are capable enough to propagate information to those who need to know it, of getting the right signals out.

    I get that it’s a counteroffensive. What makes it interesting is the type and manner of that counteroffensive. The revolution was supposed to have occurred bottom up. The “signalling” was supposed to have followed this brave new Web 2.0-driven model. It didn’t. Bottom up, user-driven didn’t work, so they went with a traditional, non-relevance, top down, status quo, old school signal. Here we have a practical, real-world case study in what it takes to get your information out to, and adopted by, the people that matter. And it didn’t happen the way that it was supposed to, in a way that a lot of research is trying to study (bottom up, social propagation).

    That is fascinating to me. That shifts my perception about what I think are interesting research paths. It sends strong signal to me, obviously unintentionally on Google’s part, about the value of certain avenues of research. That’s why I find this information so interesting.

    Am I still missing the point? Not the explicit point, the explicit message or signal that Google was trying to send. But the unintentional consequences of that point. That’s what I see here.

  5. jeremy says:

    By the way, Jon, how are ya? 🙂

  6. I think even Jeff Jarvis would agree that billboard ads aren’t very “googly”. That said, Google is indeed trying to make an offensive play (I’d disagree with calling it a “counteroffensive”) against Microsoft Office in the enterprise.

    That said, I suspect Jonathan is right that they are targeting IT decision makers rather than individual users. I certainly don’t decide whether my employers using Microsoft or Google office tools.

    Still, I think Google has to overcome a widespread impression (justified or not) that, in this domain, it isn’t as good as Microsoft. My feelings about advertising notwithstanding, I’m curious if Google’s campaign will make headway on this front.

  7. jeremy says:

    I think Google has to overcome a widespread impression (justified or not) that, in this domain, it isn’t as good as Microsoft.

    I am also quite curious if the campaign will make headway. And my feelings about advertising also notwithstanding, I honestly wish ’em well in the attempt. But whether or not it succeeds, it’s still true that Google feels it needs big billboard ads targeting CEO-types in order to overcome that (justified or not) impression that it isn’t as good as Microsoft in this domain.

    That’s a big deal.

    Did Google need big billboard ads targeting CEO-types in order to convince people that its search engine was better than any and all the market leaders at the time? No. Google just made a great product, a fantastic search engine, and let the marketing do itself. Ask any CEO out there, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that (justified or not) Google is the search engine to use. Google Search is big boy search. No billboard told them this. No billboard had to.

    So what does this say, what does this “signal” to the rest of us, if Google feels that building a “great product that people love” doesn’t work anymore, that they need to resort to old school Madison Avenue tactics to spread the information? And, more importantly, what does that tell me, as a researcher, and the type of problems that are interesting to study? I think it says a lot, and it’s worth thinking about.

  8. There was a good op-ed in the NYT by Bob Cringley on this subject a few weeks back – see


  9. jeremy says:

    It sounds like what Cringley is saying echos what Foote says above, and then some. If I am interpreting Cringley correctly, he would say that not only are the billboards a type of signal, but that the very existence of Google Office is another signal of the same nature. And the purpose of both signals is not really to end users, but not really to CEOs, either. No. The purpose of both signals is simply to keep Microsoft in check.

    If it’s true that the ultimate purpose of Google Office is not to serve Google Office users, but to be a playing chip in the game against MS, then I have to take back everything I said above. If Google really doesn’t care about Office, then the billboards don’t matter one way or the other. The billboards are just a game, because Google Office is just a game.

    However, if Google does believe in Google Office, and does ultimately care about it over the long term as a product in and of itself, then I stick by my existing interpretation: Billboard ads are a 180-degree turnaround in Google’s explicitly stated bottom-up, user-driven approach to everything “web”. It’s a signal to the rest of us that if we really want a quality product, service, web-site, etc. to succeed, we ourselves cannot rely on user-driven, relevance-based marketing. And computational research into that sort of marketing might no longer be (perceived) as important as it once was. For the reasons mentioned above.

  10. My money is on both sides playing games – a form of sabre rattling. Both companies have boat loads of cash and a few billboards are chump change.


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