Are Google's moves to expand its footprint into new areas a precursor to launching a behavioral targeting network? That's the prediction of blogger Anil Batra, a Web analytics consultant and former account manager at BT technology provider Revenue Science.
Batra points out that Google's networks of publishers and advertisers could provide a vast amount of visitor behavior data which could be used to target ads across its network. Yahoo and Microsoft have been targeting search ads with user behavior, with varying degrees of success, and AOL has been doing BT with input from searches as well.
While Google does not comment on rumors or speculation about its plans, it's worth noting that the idea is not new, and many people say it's inevitable for Google to make the move to behavioral targeting. Euro RSCG's Anna Papadopoulos summed up the state of BT in search for an October ClickZ column, "Search and Behavioral Targeting: The Coming Storm." Did-it's Kevin Lee predicted the spread of search retargeting in his ClickZ column last June.
Bill Gossman, president and CEO of Revenue Science, has understandably had his eye on Google for awhile, waiting to see when they would become his direct competitor. As Gossman wrote three years ago in a column titled "All That Googles Is Not Gold," search ads are not the highest point of online marketing.
Search ads ignore the majority of Web users that are not actively searching at any given moment, and cater to a direct response model, while big advertisers are looking for more branding opportunities, he wrote. "Search is great and it's helped drive online ad revenue, but it's only one part of the marketing mix. It is not the Holy Grail advertisers and publishers are waiting for," Gossman wrote.
I spoke with Gossman this week, and he said that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a point when he calls Google a "one-trick pony."
"Google's a one-trick pony, even though it's a really talented pony," Gossman said. "But they're limited by their focus on search. They can only monetize users when they're searching, or when they're on a site in Google's network. There's probably 90 percent of the Internet they're not able to touch."
Google's search query data could provide strong signals that could be used in behavioral targeting of text or display ads, an area that Google has not yet been able to conquer. Google's search data is already being used to inform BT at Revenue Science partners like AOL and Fox, Gossman said. And Yahoo and Microsoft are both doing some kinds of BT already.
There are technological hurdles that Google would need to overcome, Gossman said, since Google's infrastructure is all about indexing words, while BT is all about indexing behaviors of people. The difference is in the type of data, the frequency it is seen, and how it is indexed, stored and retrieved, he said.
More difficult to overcome may be the public relations and public policy issues that would likely be raised if Google were to begin widespread use of users' personal data.
One angle that could make sense for Google would be to take a consumer-centric approach to behavioral targeting, according to Omar Tawakol, Chief Advertising Officer of mobile search and advertising firm Medio, and former CMO at Revenue Science.
With companies like Revenue Science and Tacoda taking the publisher-centric approach, and aQuantive and Revenue Science offering an advertiser-centric approach with search retargeting offerings, there is an opportunity for search companies to enter the market -- and be differentiated -- by focusing on the benefits to consumers, Tawakol said.
"There's a position in the market for someone to take a consumer-centric approach to BT. They could say, 'I'm doing this for you. You're going to see ads, they might as well be relevant. And if you don't want to, we won't.' I haven't seen anybody be that proactive," Tawakol said. "I can't say whether Google would do that, but if they did, it would complement their brand. Otherwise, they might have to deal with consumer backlash." One of the benefits of operating a search engine is that you can have a direct conversation with consumers and focus on what benefits them.