This weekend, I had a coffee with a client who owns several boutique hotels in Mexico. We talked about some interesting ideas he has for a travel review site, with built-in mechanisms to verify the identity of reviewers, and weighted reviews based on the reputation of the reviewer. His motivation for thinking about this is the fact that, in his view, he has been screwed over by TripAdvisor. He described the prevalence of fake reviews on TripAdvisor, and the challenges he’s faced as a small business owner, without the resources or desire to game the system. I have heard the same complaints made by other hotel owners and marketers.
So it was with a sense of irony that I read this diatribe by Steve Kaufer, the CEO of TripAdvisor. In it he calls Google to task for unfair business practices, with the charge:
Links to Google Places appear at the top of the ‘natural’ search despite being an inferior product to sites that are dedicated to review collection and therefore more useful to the consumer.
He further cites the evidence that Google is currently under investigation by the EU Commission. On the one hand there are my client’s comments and the fact that pretty much every business above a certain size has been investigated for something, but on the other hand I sympathize with his frustration.
As I thought about his comments, I realized that, through no great achievements of my own, I have ended up directly in the path of the Google juggernaut many times over. Much like a Forrest Gump of Google disruption, I have found myself in the midst of battles, negotiations and detente with Google for the past ten years.
- [2000-2003] As one of the creators of the first (and best, for a time) pay-per-click bid management tool, I bounced between conference calls with Google and Yahoo as Google was gobbling up Yahoo’s market share in paid search.
- [2004-2006] I Then found myself working with the big advertising agencies in London, during the time when Google was contacting their clients, wooing them to work directly with Google on search marketing.*
-  That led me to a brief stint at Microsoft, and under assault by Google on almost every front.
- [2008-2010] Next up were yellow pages publishers, of all things, where I advised on online content and advertising strategy.
- [2009-2010] Then came real estate, more specifically multiple listing services (MLS). I swear I was not trying to specialize in sinking ships.
- [2010-2011] Most recently, I have been working with news media publishers a bit, but it’s too soon to tell that part of the story.
I wish I could say that I have heroically led the charge forward in each of these cases, but I haven’t. I will say that in each situation there was a choice. The choice was between taking a defensive stance against Google or thinking ahead and focusing on market needs. In every case, failure came from trying to protect existing revenue. The argument goes like this: “most of our revenue comes from X. We can’t threaten X, so we’ll put together this under-resourced team to focus on innovation. But we’ll put them in this corner over here, out of the way, so there’s no risk to X.” Every time, same argument.
Occasionally, I have had the courage to call bullshit. After making the case to a yellow pages executive that names and addresses were no longer an asset, he looked me in the eye and said, “that’s all well and good Nico, but what we need right now are quick wins, not long-term strategy.” That typifies the stance of executives at each of these industries under siege.
So, is Steve Kaufer right and does Google sometimes favor revenue over what’s best for the consumer? Probably. But on the other hand, I have been a TripAdvisor user for many years, and it hasn’t evolved much. I think I know which choice they made.
* Anyone who was in the ad business in London at that time will remember it well. Not only was Google approaching advertisers directly, they also ended a kickback program that amounted to a significant discount on AdWords for agencies. It felt very much like war, and the agencies were armed with bows and spears, while Google carried heavy artillery. This was the time when Sir Martin Sorrell famously described Google as a frenemy of WPP.