April 5, 2007
Google Launching into the TV Advertising Realm

Google has made a major step forward in moving its adverting system into the television industry this week, through a partnership with Echostar.

Daisy Whitney with TelevisionWeek reported Monday that the company unveiled "its first foray into TV advertising via a partnership to broker ads for satellite provider Echostar that will effectively bring online measurability and accountability to TV ads for the first time."

The purported claim from Google is that their advertising services are meant to coexist with traditional forms of advertising buying but wanted to move that process more toward efficiency. According to the TVWeek story, "The advertiser pays Google and Google shares the revenue with the operator. The advertiser will only pay for impressions delivered." The spots are auctioned off, with the highest bidder winning and paying one penny more than the second highest bidder. Google will then use Echostar's ability to measure commercial viewing second-by-second to show exactly how that commercial fared, focusing on the individual commercial rather than the rating for the show it airs in conjunction with.

Contrast this plan with the constant bickering over Nielsen commercial ratings.

The Google announcement emphasizes that the new process will give viewers ads more relevant to what they want to see, make advertising more accountable for its dollars, bring more advertisers to television, and create a more efficient model overall. "With Google TV ads, the entire process is automated--from planning the campaign to uploading and serving the ad to reporting on its effectiveness."

While more accountable television advertising and real second-by-second measurement certainly sounds like an improvement on the predominant system we currently have in place, there have been a lot of valid concerns raised, including from Joe at Techdirt, who writes, "While Google may be able to give good statistics on how many people have viewed an ad, unlike with its online ad sales, it won't be in a position to give advertisers a good idea of how well their ads are turning into sales, the true measure of an ad's performance."

Whitney writes, "Whether Google's entrance into TV advertising becomes a watershed moment for advertising in the way the introduction of TiVo a decade ago was remains to be seen. However, Google appears to be a shoe-in to address some of the oft-repeated concerns of TV advertisers--better measurement and more accountability."

My concerns move beyond Joe's and into what measurement means. Even if Google provides one with precise ways to understand what users do, the problem is in the assumption that user behavior is the metric that matters. For advertisers, Joe is quite right that sales, in the end, are the only metric that truly matters. But I would further argue that, disconnect to sales behind, knowing what customers do doesn't tell me much about their engagement but rather what is happening on their television screen. It is still not measuring depth of engagement with the content or the advertising, which I think tells very little of the story. Sometimes I like to have noise on in my house and leave a TV on. Other times, I'm riveted while watching TV and can't take my eyes off the screen. Behaviorist reporting of what is on the screen tells us what but now why or how, and I think those qualitative questions, the ones that are not quite as easy to come up with some cure-all metric for, are the ones that get to the heart of user engagement.

Tall order, eh? In the online world, where measurability of screen view times and all these scores of data are made available on a daily basis, the behaviors of viewers can supposedly be broken down into the hundredth of a thousandth of a second, rounded off into impressive averages, and on and on.

Do you readers use Google Analytics to measure your site traffic if you have a blog? Of course, you can see page views, where those page views come from, what links them into your page, and even see how long viewers spend on particular pages, and on and on. For the behaviorists of the world, it is a data goldmine, and you can swim in data that can be the be-all and end-all PROVABILITY of what people like. After all, if they are on a page for 20 minutes, they must be engaging with the content, right?

To return to Google Analytics, I know how long people spend on all my pages, but I don't know if that means they were actively reading that page or if the page happened to be pulled up on their screen. Google can send me tables and charts and data that I could spend the rest of my life analyzing, but the final question is, "Why does this data matter?" I think accountability is important, but we live in a culture and especially a media industry so transfixed on data that they can't see the proverbial forest for the trees. This Google system may very well eventually create a much more responsive advertising metric, but it's still just numbers and the perpetuation of an impression-based mentality, even if it's ultimately considered an improved metric for it.