Search is Not Advertising

Thanks to Greg Linden (who in turn thanks John Battelle) for calling my attention to a post by Google VP of Product Management Susan Wojcicki entitled “Ad Perfect“.

We can distill Wojcicki’s post to three principles, each a direct quote:

  1. “advertising should deliver the right information to the right person at the right time”
  2. “help you learn about something you didn’t know you wanted”
  3. “it needs to be very easy and quick for anyone to create good ads, to show them only to people for whom they are useful, and to measure how effective they are”

While Wojcicki does call out the similarity between Google’s mission in advertising and its mission in search, she fails to see a key difference–a difference exposes a fundamental problem with web search today.

Search is all about the user. If you can help me, the user, find what I’m looking for, or to find something I didn’t know I wanted, then I’m all ears (or eyes). Of course, I’d like to understand your motives if you’re offering to help me make decisions, especially if they involve my money or even my health.

Advertising is about selling the user’s attention to the highest bidder. Google has done more than anyone to make that bidding process economically efficient. But any utility that advertising proves to users is a means to an end. Advertising is all about the advertisers, and the advertisers only care about providing value to users in so far as their interests are aligned. Absent alignment, advertisers naturally look out for themselves.

This dynamic is hardly unique to search; it applies to any situation where we allow someone or something to influence our decisions. Indeed, persuasion and critical thinking have been locked in an arms race for millenia. The use of advertising to subsidize content dates back to the early 1800s. Wikipedia offers a nice history of the subject.

But supporting search through advertising is a tricky business. Google insists that it maintains a wall between its search and advertising businesses. But Wojcicki’s post–which is on Google’s official blog–suggests otherwise, at least in spirit. If Google believes that both search and advertising aim to “offer relevant content” and “deliver the right information to the right person at the right time”, then why put up a wall at all?

In any case, it is at best misguided and at worst intellectually dishonest to claim that the main goal of advertising is to inform or help the user. The goal of advertising is to influence the user, a goal whose achievement requires delivering a message to which the user is receptive. But influencing is not the same as informing. I hope we all have the critical thinking skills to appreciate the difference.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

11 replies on “Search is Not Advertising”

I’m not saying that users’ and advertisers’ don’t overlap at all. But I am saying that, when they do diverse, you have to pick sides. And, if you are selling users’ attention to advertisers, your allegiance is ultimately to the latter.


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