Dear European Commission: Please Don’t Ruin PPC

Many agencies, publishers, and advertisers across Europe have been sent documents by the European Commission (EC) recently, requesting detailed information about the online advertising marketplace — and about search marketing and AdWords in particular.

This is part of an investigation into Google and antitrust. While a response isn’t mandatory, questioning from industry bodies has elicited a response that suggests the commission can, if it wants to, make it compulsory.

I’ve been critical of Google’s market dominance in the past and still firmly believe strong competition in every area of their business is good for the industry and for consumers. But while reading and answering the overlapping questions in the two documents my agency has received, I feel a growing unease that the bureaucrats who will ultimately pass judgment on Google may do more damage than good.

The questions in the documents fall into several broad categories:

  • Define the digital services you provide and therefore the marketplace.
  • The extent to which campaigns need to differ per country and to what extent that poses barriers.
  • Scenarios around when ad spend would be switch away from horizontal PPC ads (i.e. AdWords) to other platforms or ad types.
  • A surprising number of questions around how easy it is to port data between AdWords and other platforms, how easy Google make this and if it could be done “by a programmatic tool.”
  • Questions about the AdWords API, legal agreements with Google and anyway Google tries to restrict the use of other platforms.

It’s the questions about porting campaigns and the API that worry me. This isn’t one question but a series, probing for details of current processes, in-house and external tools, and the time and money involved — all asking if Google makes this difficult.

We all know that a copy and paste of a campaign from Google into adCenter or any other ad platform won’t bring the best results — the systems have different campaign options, treat search strings and match types differently, have different consumer user bases, etc.

I wouldn’t want to use a “programmatic tool” to dump campaigns into other system from AdWords.

Do I want to download them, open them, edit them to fit each platform and then quickly upload them? Yes. We all know how to use the various search engine editors and Excel today.

This feels like a line of inquiry a competing ad platform would push hardest — we all know there’s been lobbying. I’m not accusing any one company and I trust the EC has processes in place to prevent bias. I’m just wondering aloud if this is the most useful direction for the commission to proceed in.

What worries me is this is exactly the sort of narrow-minded approach to the market that could lead to a ruling that’s bad for PPC — at an extreme, ordering Google to add a “port” button to copy campaigns to adCenter or other systems — with no reference to the poor performance that may follow. Knowing how to get the best out of different ad platforms is a skill in itself.

Hopefully the detailed answers being written by search experts will steer the commission toward more genuine areas of concern, such as Google’s practice of contacting big advertisers directly without telling their agencies (I saw an example of this the other day, unsolicited by the client) or locking-off top AdWords slots for its own products — and that’s before we talk about DoubleClick or their market share as a whole.

Martin Sorrell never said a truer word when he described Google as a “frenemy.”

This topic will be a slow burning one in Europe — and in all likelihood, by the time the bureaucratic wheels have finished turning, the marketplace will have changed again, anyway.

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