An unintended effect of Google’s heavy-handed attempt to silence Barry Lynn and his Open Markets program at New America has been to shine a really bright light both on Google’s monopoly power and the unrestrained and unlovely ways they use it. Happily, Lynn’s group has landed on its feet, seemingly with plenty of new funding or maybe even more than it had. I got a press release from them this evening. This seems to be their new site. I’ve already seen other stories of Google bullying come out of the woodwork. Here’s one.
I think it’s great that all this stuff is coming out. But what is more interesting to me than the instances of bullying are the more workaday and seemingly benign mechanisms of Google’s power. If you have extreme power, when things get dicey, you will tend to abuse that power. It’s not surprising. It’s human nature. What’s interesting and important is the nature of the power itself and what undergirds it. Don’t get me wrong. The abuses are very important. But extreme concentrations of power will almost always be abused. The temptations are too great. But what is the nature of the power itself?
Many people who know more than I do can describe different aspects of this story. But how Google affects and dominates the publishing industry is something I know very, very well because I’ve lived with it for more than a decade. To say I’ve “lived with it” makes it sound like a chronic disease or some huge burden. That would be a very incomplete, misleading picture. Google has directly or indirectly driven millions of dollars of revenue to TPM over more than a decade. Not only that, it’s provided services that are core parts of how we run TPM. So Google isn’t some kind of thralldom we’ve lived under. It’s ubiquitous. In many ways, it makes what we do possible.
What I’ve known for some time – but which became even more clear to me in my talk with Barry Lynn on Monday – is that few publishers really want to talk about the depths or mechanics of Google’s role in news publishing. Some of this is secrecy about proprietary information; most of it is that Google could destroy or profoundly damage most publications if it wanted to. So why rock the boat?
I’m not worried about that for a few reasons: 1: We’ve refocused TPM toward much greater reliance on subscriptions. So we’re less vulnerable. 2: Most people who know these mechanics don’t write. I do. 3: We’re small and I don’t think Google cares enough to do anything to TPM. (If your subscription to Prime suddenly doubles in cost, you’ll know I was wrong about this.) What I hope I can capture is that Google is in many ways a great thing for publishers. At least it’s not a purely negative picture. If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll understand the analogy. It’s a bit like being assimilated by the Borg. You get cool new powers. But having been assimilated, if your implants were ever removed, you’d certainly die. That basically captures our relationship to Google.
It all starts with “DFP”, a flavor of Doubleclick called DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP), one of the early “ad-serving companies” that Google purchased years ago. DFP actually started as GAM – Google Ad Manager. We were chosen to be one of the beta-users. This was I think back in 2006 or 2007. What’s DFP? DFP is the application (or software, or system – you could define it in different ways) that serves ads on TPM. I don’t know the exact market penetration. But it’s the hugely dominant player in ad serving across the web. So on TPM, Google software manages the serving of ads. Our ads all drive on Google’s roads.
Then there’s AdExchange. That’s the part of Google that buys ad inventory. A huge amount of our ads come through ad networks. AdExchange is far and away the largest of those for us – often accounting for around 15% of total revenues every month – sometimes higher. So our largest single source of ad revenue is usually Google. To be clear that’s not Google advertising itself but advertisers purchasing our ad space through Google. But every other ad we ever run runs over Google’s ad serving system too. So Google software/service (DFP) runs the ad ecosystem on TPM. And the main buyer within that ecosystem is another Google service (Adexchange).
Then there’s Google Analytics. That’s the benchmark audience and traffic data service. How many unique visitors do we have? How many page views do we serve each month? What’s the geographical distribution of our audience? That is all collected through Google Analytics. Now, that’s not our only source of audience data. We have several services we use for that in addition to our own internal systems. But we do use it for the big aggregate numbers and longterm record keeping. In many ways it’s the canonical data people on the outside look at to see how big our audience is. Do we have to share that data? No. Unless we want potential advertisers to see we have an audience.
Next there’s search. Heard of that? There’s general search and then there’s Google News, a separate bucket of search. Search tends not to be that important for us in part because we’ve never prioritized it and in part because as a site focused on iterative news coverage what we produce tends to be highly ephemeral – at least in search terms. We don’t publish a lot of evergreen stories. Still, search is important. For other publishers it’s the whole game.
One additional Google implant is Gmail, which we use to provision our corporate email. The backbone of the @talkingpointsmemo.com email addresses is gmail. Lots of companies now do this.
So let’s go down the list: 1) The system for running ads, 2) the top purchaser of ads, 3) the most pervasive audience data service, 4) all search, 5) our email.
But wait, there’s more! Google also owns Chrome, the most used browser for visiting TPM. Chrome is responsible for 41% of our page views. Safari comes in second at 36%. But the Safari number is heavily driven by people using iOS devices. On desktop Chrome is overwhelmingly dominant.