Google's recent decision to introduce advertising options not tied to keywords is a watershed event for the company. In one fell swoop, it is moving beyond the formula that made it unique and exciting -- relevancy coupled with pay-for-performance pricing -- and crossing over into the traditional world of cost-per-thousand advertising. What's driving this move? On quick inspection, it can be dismissed as nothing more than a quick grab for cash. But to me, it's a sign that Google is poised to lose its direction. Indeed the New York Times reports that some stock analysts are now suggesting that Google's advertising network will become more important to its business than its search engine.
This belies Google's origins. Its early success was driven by a pure focus on doing search better than anyone else, and keeping far, far away from the dot-com gold rush. You may recall that in its early years, it was a point of honor with Google that it accepted no advertising at all. When it finally introduced advertising, it was in discrete ads set off to the side of search results to avoid any chance of intrusion or confusion. Now, Google plans to enter the bazaar, offering graphics, animation and other elements that will let advertisers more aggressively clamor for your attention. In short, Google plans to become just like everyone else. Relevancy, the cornerstone of all its advertising programs, is now optional. After decrying the inefficiency of cost per thousand advertising for years, Google is now embracing it.
What's perhaps most worrisome in Google’s decision to even more intensely focus on advertising is that this may well lead to a reduced emphasis on its search engine. This is the mistake Yahoo! made a few years ago when it decided its Web index was nothing more than a "site feature," and actually started licensing its index in part from Google, and in doing so, fueling Google's growth. Users (a/k/a those valuable eyeballs Google wants to expose to advertising) go to Google because it is perceived to produce more relevant results than anyone else. If Google fails to deliver on this promise, or if people even start to believe Google is no longer delivering, its users will start to move to the next, new hot thing in search engines (and there are no shortage of them out there), and Google's distinction -- and traffic -- will decline.
If Google decides that its primary business is distributing advertising to its network of publisher sites, then it becomes nothing more than one of dozens of online advertising networks, focused on delivering the highest number of impressions with only a passing nod to relevance or quality. That's a huge departure for a company that built itself on being different and better.
There have been more than a few companies that found initial fame and fortune as search engines, then repudiated their roots in the race for even bigger dollars only to find themselves in much more competitive markets with little to distinguish them. Google is now at risk of repeating history. Search will remain a good and profitable business, but only for those search engines that remain committed to it. Those that treat search as a means to an end often arrive at a dead end.