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Google Says Don't Worry, AOL Won't Change Us - But There's Wiggle Room

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Seeking to reassure searchers that Google has not sold out to gain the AOL deal, About the AOL announcement from Google vice president of search products & user experience Marissa Mayer offers words of reassurance, as well as a flat out denial that Google will ever have banner ads on the Google home page or search results. First of all, it's nice to see Marissa's finally gotten a better title and VP status! But now let's talk wiggle room.

First, the statement on banners:

There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever.

So there you have it. Couldn't be more clear cut and hard to reverse, if they change their mind. But the key word here is "banners," which means those horizontal ads typically at the bottom of the page that many learned to ignore after they powered the early growth of the web. You know, like you'll find here on the types of image ads Google itself puts on sites across the web.

Notice there's lots of other ad formats. Why, there are big leaderboards. There are long skyscrapers. How about a medium rectangle? None of these are banners; none of these technically are ruled out by the promise today.

I'm going to follow up with Google on this. My assumption is that "banners" was probably something used quickly and in a shorthand way to mean large, graphical stuff isn't coming to Google and specifically the Google home page and web search results (other parts of Google aren't ruled out by this ban)

Having said that, I just talked with a trusted reporter who tells me that the idea of thumbnails or small graphical images associated with text ads may very well come. Again, I'm doing follow-up -- but if these do come, saying you won't do banners or "crazy, flashy, graphical doodads" probably wouldn't apply to these types of units. There's wiggle room for them.

I've already covered earlier why some small use of graphics wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. But if they should come after what seems a flat-out statement, that's going to raise some eyebrows.

It's also worth reminding that Google has already -- and for some time -- run graphic units to promote both its Google Desktop and Google Toolbar applications on its search results pages. John Battelle gives you a screen shot of the toolbar promo here from October, but that had already happened previously months before, as well. Here you'll see a similar promo for the Google Desktop from back in March -- and I could swear I've seen this or the toolbar ad come up for me last week.

As for the Google home page, it's also worth remembering that Google's put graphic units there as well. Here's an example of that toolbar ad on the Google home page from back in October, and that's hardly the first example. It's not a new thing. It's just a sporadic one.

Finally on image ads, Google's said previously that graphical ads might show up on Google Images and Google Video as part of the deal. So while "crazy, flashy, graphical" stuff may not be on the Google site, other graphical stuff deemed relevant, useful and non-intrusive probably will.

Beyond image ads, Google reassures that results themselves won't be skewed to favor AOL and that "indexing more of AOL's content" is just part of the overall mission of including "all the world's information."

Sure, I believe that. But here's the thing. If Google's doing what it does for everyone, then it should have never -- ever -- been put into the press release on the deal. It's either a business deal arrangement or not. If it's just normal stuff -- which I fully believe will be the case -- then don't let your partner talk it up to score points with investors. Don't sell out in that way, if only that you then have to backtrack to reassure your own users you're really not selling out. By this measure, someone buying AdWords for Google might as well run a release saying that they expect Google will also be working with them to improve content indexing.

The issue of ad credits AOL is getting is addressed, with reassurance that while AOL has some credit to spend, that won't let it necessarily jump ahead of anyone else. Of course, $300 million is a lot of credit to spend, and AOL may not be as concerned about ROI impact as many of Google's regular advertisers are. It'll change the marketplace at least a tiny bit, but fair to say, not in the way of giving AOL some type of favoritism.

What's not addressed is the promotion of AOL video content. Google's going to showcase AOL content in Google Video in some way. I first heard of this when Saul Hansell of the New York Times told me about the plans, when talking with him for a story he later wrote. But the video arrangement didn't show up in his story, so I assumed it was a rumor that Google discounted when he followed up with them. Then in Elinor Mills' article at News.com after the formal announcement, the mention of showcasing was there.

Go to Google Video now. There are two tabs on the home page, with the default to show you popular stuff right on the home page -- which at the moment I assume really is popular stuff based in some way on search activity.

What's the showcase arrangement going to do? Am I going to get "Featured Videos" on the home page now like over at Yahoo Video, where I'm almost certain the only thing making them "featured" is arrangements with content providers?

If so -- or if AOL gets any type of presence on the Google Video home page at all -- that's a radical departure for Google. It has never to my knowledge given a company any type of preferential treatment of that sort, other than perhaps the deal to use Answer.com as the default dictionary provider. But with Answers.com, Google can at least fall back to say that they've done a review and think they are the best provider. Why would AOL be featured? Yes, they've got great content. But not because they are the best provider. It's because a business deal was struck.

As I said, I'm doing follow up here, to the degree I can during the holiday period. It's easy to speculate and worry now, while my preference is really to see what they actually do. The reassurances from Google are good, and they've got a long history of being careful to protect the user experience and the impartial quality of dealing with content. But having said that, they are having to put out such reassurances now quite simply because they allowed doubts to be introduced when the deal was announced. A statement like this from Time Warner in the release:

A critical piece of this strategic alliance will be our content, which we will be making more accessible to Google users.

is now forcing Google to do damage control in the way we haven't seen since Google CFO declared clickfraud being a big threat a year ago. If Time Warner content is important to Google users, it should have been included already before this deal. It definitely shouldn't have been mentioned as part of it, generating doubts that other content won't be as accessible.


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