Revisiting The "No Banners On Google" Declaration

I wrote previously of Google promising that the terms of its deal with AOL wouldn't see a flood of banner ads flowing onto its pages nor the selling out of Google's principles. But I still felt there was some "wiggle room" in that "no banners" isn't the same as "no graphical ads." Now I've had a chance to talk with Google. Yes, banners are pretty much out. However, other graphical units might still happen. Here's a rundown from my conversation today with Google's Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products & user experience, who took time away from her vacation to talk.

"There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages."

That was Mayer's declaration last week on the Google blog. Pretty much, that's the case. There are no plans for banner ads on the Google home page that everyone who is not logged into Google sees. That's primarily because Google doesn't feel banner ads -- or other types of ads -- can be well targeted to those users.

"We don't believe in untargeted ads, so how are we possibly going to serve a targeted ad on that page?," Mayer said, explaining that someone coming to the Google home page has communicated no information of what they might be interested in.

However, the Google Personalized Home Page is another matter. That service is available to anyone who sets up an account and logs in to Google. For these people, Google does have a better idea of what they might be interested in. Because of that, ads -- including graphical ads -- makes more sense.

"On the personalized home page, we do know things about you, what weather you're looking for, what stocks, what news. So it's more plausible to me," Mayer said. However, she stressed that there are no immediate plans for ads of any type.

"We're probably a good six months to a year away from even thinking about this. The entire focus now is on building a user base," Mayer said, adding that the top priority right now is to improve the usability of the personalized home page service.

When and if graphical ads should come, there's a slight chance they could be of the banner format. But far more likely, they'd be something completely different, Mayer said. Google would be looking for a display unit that was fresh and worked well with the geometry of that page, which currently uses a more rectangular "module" format.

How about search results pages? Banner ads were ruled out for those in Mayer's declaration, but in my article about that, I'd mentioned I'd heard from another reporter that non-banner graphic units might be coming. That was Elinor Mills, who now has her own article out today about them and other issues: What the Google-AOL deal means for users.

Yes, non-banner units may be coming to Google search results pages, Mayer said.

AOL raised the idea with Google of some type of icon-like display unit that might run in conjunction with text ads and which might be helpful in building brand recognition. Google's agreed this is something that might be tested.

At the moment, the idea is to perhaps run very small 16x16 pixel icons that might be associated with an ad. To illustrated how small these are, I've taken an actual AOL text ad running on Google and inserted the AOL logo next to the ad headline. Before I show that, let me stress:


051227-aol Official AOL® Signup
Download AOL® Internet.
50 Days Free Trial!

How exactly the icons would be place may not happen as I've shown above. They might not appear at all. I just wanted to give everyone a visual representation of how big -- or really how small -- the icons being discussed are.

Mayer also stressed that there is nothing in the contracts that requires Google to carry graphic units of any sort on the search results page. It simply something that's come up in the discussions and that Google may experiment with.

Should Google decide icon treatments are successful, Mayer said they won't be exclusive to AOL. Any advertiser would be able to use them, as well.

Icons added to search listings wouldn't be new. AltaVista Listing Enhancements are a classic example of a somewhat similar program that came out in November 2001. They never really took off, in part I felt because they were only available to paid inclusion customers. I can't recall when the program formally ended.

Outside web search, banner ads sold by AOL might come to Google Video or Google Images. The contract does allow for AOL's ads to show up on "suitable" Google properties, and both of those are given as examples -- though that's not a requirement that they must carry them.

Part of the deal covers Google showcasing AOL content in Google Video search. I worried earlier that this might mean coming into the Google Video home page and finding that there's an entire area devoted to AOL on the home page.

Mayer said exactly what will happen remains to be determined, but nothing of that magnitude I worried about seems to be in the works. Instead, it's likely that AOL -- along with a number of existing content partners -- will be allowed to have small logo treatments on the bottom of the Google Video home page. There might be text saying that content in Google Video is provided in part through partnerships with AOL and the other providers, and clicking on the logos would bring users into just content from those providers. Mayer said that all providers, not just AOL, are looking for brand visibility of some type. That's why this wouldn't be exclusive just to AOL.

The last big issue in the deal was the provision where Google says it has "agreed to assist AOL and Time Warner in understanding our published and/or publicly available tools for improving the accessibility of a web site?s content to Google's web crawlers."

Some have worried this means Google will be helping AOL rank better, perhaps by giving them ubersecret insight into their technology. I worried less about that, at least in the sense that Google already has been working with a variety of companies to give them indexing advice. In the same way, Google spends plenty of time doing the same at conferences and in online forums.

The concern on my end had been that previously, providing some of this advice as part of an ad deals leaves it open for the lines between church and state to seem blurry. The same happened with the AOL deal. Including editorial support and advice as part of that meant Google had to respond that it wouldn't do anything for AOL beyond what it would do as part of its overall mission to gather content.

So why put this in the agreement at all? Why, if it's something Google would do anyway, allow it to go into a business document that caused questions to be raised of impartiality?

Ultimately, it was a pragmatic decision, Mayer said. AOL especially wanted reassurance in the contract. Since Google was going to do this type of work irregardless of the contract, including it simply was being practical.

For AOL, Google will look at doing some special work to index content that isn't in HTML format or other formats readily accessible to its crawlers, Mayer said. However, that work will ultimately benefit anyone with similar content, Mayer said. Similarly, Google already works with a variety of publishers with content it would like to access but where special needs are required.

Mayer added that the provision AOL asked for was virtually identical to one Yahoo wanted when Google became its search provider back in 2000, before Yahoo shifted to its own technology. Yahoo naturally wanted to ensure that if it was going to have a search engine powered by Google, that search engine would include its own content.

Want to discuss or comment? Visit our forum thread, Google To Hold On To AOL.

Postscript: Hey, Jen reminds me that Google's already experimented with icons in text ads before within its contextual AdSense placements. She's got more in Advertiser favicons being used in AdSense ad units and screenshots which look very similar to what I was guessing at. In fact, the logo I used for AOL was the favicon they show when you go their site -- and favicons were what AdSense seemed to be pulling from.

Postscript 2: John Battelle was talking with Marissa as well today and posts his own take over in Interview: For AOL/Google, The Devil Is In the Details.

John's focused mainly on the possible inclusion of AOL content into Google OneBox results and how deals for those are done generally. However, it pretty much comes out that Google's not been doing deals for "OneBox Providers," if you will, which was pretty much my understanding. They've always seemed to just pick people they think have useful content and link over without requiring a business arrangement. AOL is a departure in this, in that it is promised to be included in relevant OneBoxes where they have "a materially equivalent service."

Marissa stresses to John, as she did with me, that many of the details are still to be worked out. I also covered that earlier in Google's AOL Stake Rolling Into Holding Company It Can Take Public In 2008 from last week. Details are expected to be sorted out by the first quarter of next year, with binding arbitration to be used if agreements can't be reached.

John also gets into how the deal was negotiated and one. The turnabout, according to the Wall Street Journal, was because the Microsoft deal was too complicated and the search engine and ad tech too new. Google was seen as the safer choice. A commenter on John post also points to this good follow-up piece from the WSJ.