A Serf on Google’s Farm

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
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An unintended effect of Google’s heavy-handed attempt to silence Barry Lynn and his Open Markets program at New America has been to shine a really bright light both on Google’s monopoly power and the unrestrained and unlovely ways it use it. Happily, Lynn’s group has landed on its feet, seemingly with plenty of new funding or maybe even more than it had. I got a press release from them this evening. This seems to be their new site. I’ve already seen other stories of Google bullying come out of the woodwork. Here’s one.

It’s great that all this stuff is coming out. But what is more interesting to me than the instances of bullying are the more workaday and seemingly benign mechanisms of Google’s power. If you have extreme power, when things get dicey, you will tend to abuse that power. That’s not surprising. It’s human nature. What’s interesting and important is the nature of the power itself and what undergirds it. Don’t get me wrong. The abuses are very important. But extreme concentrations of power will almost always be abused. The temptations are too great. But what is the nature of the power itself?

Many people who know more than I do can describe different aspects of this story. But how Google affects and dominates the publishing industry is something I know very, very well because I’ve lived with it for more than a decade. To say I’ve “lived with it” makes it sound like a chronic disease or some huge burden. That would be a very incomplete, misleading picture. Google has directly or indirectly driven millions of dollars of revenue to TPM over more than a decade. Not only that, it’s provided services that are core parts of how we run TPM. So Google isn’t some kind of thralldom we’ve lived under. It’s ubiquitous. In many ways, it makes what we do possible.

What I’ve known for some time – but which became even more clear to me in my talk with Barry Lynn on Monday – is that few publishers really want to talk about the depths or mechanics of Google’s role in news publishing. Some of this is secrecy about proprietary information; most of it is that Google could destroy or profoundly damage most publications if it wanted to. So why rock the boat?

I’m not worried about that for a few reasons: 1: We’ve refocused TPM toward much greater reliance on subscriptions. So we’re less vulnerable. 2: Most people who know these mechanics don’t write. I do. 3: We’re small and I don’t think Google cares enough to do anything to TPM. (If your subscription to Prime suddenly doubles in cost, you’ll know I was wrong about this.) What I hope I can capture is that Google is in many ways a great thing for publishers. At least it’s not a purely negative picture. If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll understand the analogy. It’s a bit like being assimilated by the Borg. You get cool new powers. But having been assimilated, if your implants were ever removed, you’d certainly die. That basically captures our relationship to Google.

Let’s discuss the various ways we’re in business with Google.

It all starts with “DFP”, a flavor of Doubleclick called DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP). DoubleClick was one of the early “ad-serving companies” that Google purchased years ago. DFP actually started as GAM – Google Ad Manager. We were chosen to be one of its beta-users. This was I think back in 2006 or 2007. What’s DFP? DFP is the application (or software, or system – you could define it in different ways) that serves ads on TPM. I don’t know the exact market penetration. But it’s the hugely dominant player in ad serving across the web. So on TPM, Google software manages the serving of ads. Our ads all drive on Google’s roads.

Then there’s AdExchange. That’s the part of Google that buys ad inventory. A huge amount of our ads come through ad networks. AdExchange is far and away the largest of those for us – often accounting for around 15% of total revenues every month – sometimes higher. So our largest single source of ad revenue is usually Google. To be clear that’s not Google advertising itself but advertisers purchasing our ad space through Google. But every other ad we ever run runs over Google’s ad serving system too. So Google software/service (DFP) runs the ad ecosystem on TPM. And the main buyer within that ecosystem is another Google service (Adexchange).

Then there’s Google Analytics. That’s the benchmark audience and traffic data service. How many unique visitors do we have? How many page views do we serve each month? What’s the geographical distribution of our audience? That is all collected through Google Analytics. Now, that’s not our only source of audience data. We have several services we use for that in addition to our own internal systems. But we do use it for the big aggregate numbers and longterm record keeping. In many ways it’s the canonical data people on the outside look at to see how big our audience is. Do we have to share that data? No. Unless we want potential advertisers to see we have an audience.

Next there’s search. Heard of that? There’s general search and then there’s Google News, a separate bucket of search. Search tends not to be that important for us in part because we’ve never prioritized it and in part because as a site focused on iterative news coverage what we produce tends to be highly ephemeral – at least in search terms. We don’t publish a lot of evergreen stories. Still, search is important. For other publishers it’s the whole game.

One additional Google implant is Gmail, which we use to provision our corporate email. The backbone of the @talkingpointsmemo.com email addresses is gmail. Lots of companies now do this.

So let’s go down the list: 1) The system for running ads, 2) the top purchaser of ads, 3) the most pervasive audience data service, 4) all search, 5) our email.

But wait, there’s more! Google also owns Chrome, the most used browser for visiting TPM. Chrome is responsible for 41% of our page views. Safari comes in second at 36%. But the Safari number is heavily driven by people using iOS devices. On desktop Chrome is overwhelmingly dominant.

Now, Google would rightly say now: Okay smart-alec, and how much do you pay for all of this? Well, good point. We pay for the email service but we don’t pay for the ad serving or the data. Indeed, using Gmail for our corporate email is the only thing we pay for. (These services all have paid layers. But in most cases we don’t need those. And we’re small. So we make do.) This is all true. But as the adage puts it, if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. Google isn’t doing us any favors. We get these services for free because Google’s empire and the vast amounts of money it brings in every year is built on the unimaginable amounts of data that come from, among other places, DoubleClick for Publishers and Analytics. We’re just one of a kabillion sites allowing Google to harvest our data.

What all of this comes down to is that we at TPM – and some version of this is the case for the vast majority of publishers – are connected to Google at almost every turn. (I’ve only mentioned the big ones. Some are too minor to mention. Other very important ones we’ve chosen not to participate in.) Running TPM absent Google’s various services is almost unthinkable. Like I literally would need to give it a lot of thought how we’d do without all of them. Some of them are critical and I wouldn’t know where to start for replacing them. In many cases, alternatives don’t exist because no business can get a footing with a product Google lets people use for free.

But here’s where the rubber really meets the road. The publishers use DoubleClick. The big advertisers use DoubleClick. The big global advertising holding companies use Doubleclick. Everybody at every point in the industry is wired into DoubleClick. Here’s how they all play together. The adserving (Doubleclick) is like the road. (Adexchange) is the biggest car on the road. But only AdExchange gets full visibility into what’s available. (There’s lot of details here and argument about just what Google does and doesn’t know. But trust me on this. They keep the key information to themselves. This isn’t a suspicion. It’s the model.) So Google owns the road and gets first look at what’s on the road. Not only does Google own the road and makes the rules for the road, it has special privileges on the road. One of the ways it has special privileges is that it has all the data it gets from search, Google Analytics and Gmail. It also gets to make the first bid on every bit of inventory. Of course that’s critical. First dibs with more information than anyone else has access to. (Some exceptions to this. But that’s the big picture.) It’s good to be the king. It’s good to be a Google.

There’s more I’ll get to in a moment but the interplay between DoubleClick and Adexchange is so vastly important to the entirety of the web, digital publishing and the entire ad industry that it is almost impossible to overstate. Again. They own the road. They make the rules for the road. They get special privileges on the road with every new iteration of rules.

In recent years, the big new things are various kinds of private deals and private markets you can set up to do business in different ways with advertisers. That uses Google architecture and they take a percentage. How much of a percentage does Google take on what I was referring to above – the so-called open auction? No one knows.

Now Google can say – and they are absolutely right – that every month they send checks for thousands and millions of dollars to countless publishers that make their journalism possible. And in general Google tends to be a relatively benign overlord. But as someone who a) knows the industry inside and out – down to the most nuts and bolts mechanics – b) someone who understands at least the rudiments of anti-trust law and monopoly economics and c) can write for a sizable audience, I can tell you this.: Google’s monopoly control is almost comically great. It’s a monopoly at every conceivable turn and consistently uses that market power to deepen its hold and increase its profits. Just the interplay between DoubleClick and Adexchange is textbook anti-competitive practices.

There’s one way that Google is better than Facebook. When Facebook is getting a bigger and bigger share of the advertising pie, that money is almost all going to Facebook. There are some small exceptions but that’s basically the case. When Google is making insane amounts of money on advertising, it’s not really the same since a huge amount of that advertising is running on websites which are getting a cut. Still, the big story is that Google and Facebook now have a dominant position in the entirety of the advertising ecosystem and are using their monopoly power to take more and more of the money for themselves.

We’re basically too small for Google to care about. So I wouldn’t say we’ve had any bad experiences with Google in the sense of Google trying to injure us or use its power against us. What we’ve experienced is a little different. Google is so big and so powerful that even when it’s trying to do something good, it can be dangerous and frightening.

Here’s an example.

With the events of recent months and years, Google is apparently now trying to weed out publishers that are using its money streams and architecture to publish hate speech. Certainly you’d probably be unhappy to hear that Stormfront was funded by ads run through Google. I’m not saying that’s happening. I’m just giving you a sense of what they are apparently trying to combat. Over the last several months we’ve gotten a few notifications from Google telling us that certain pages of ours were penalized for ‘violations’ of their ban for hate speech. When we looked at the pages they were talking about they were articles about white supremacist incidents. Most were tied to Dylann Roof’s mass murder in Charleston.

Now in practice all this meant was that two or three old stories about Dylann Roof could no longer run ads purchased through Google. I’d say it’s unlikely that loss to TPM amounted to even a cent a month. Totally meaningless. But here’s the catch. The way these warnings work and the way these particular warnings were worded, you get penalized enough times and then you’re blacklisted.

Now, certainly you’re figuring we could contact someone at Google and explain that we’re not publishing hate speech and racist violence. We’re reporting on it. Not really. We tried that. We got back a message from our rep not really understanding the distinction and cheerily telling us to try to operate within the no hate speech rules. And how many warnings until we’re blacklisted? Who knows?

If we were cut off, would that be Adexchange (the ads) or DoubleClick for Publishers (the road) or both? Who knows?

If the first stopped we’d lose a big chunk of money that wouldn’t put us out of business but would likely force us to retrench. If we were kicked off the road more than half of our total revenue would disappear instantly and would stay disappeared until we found a new road – i.e., a new ad serving service or technology. At a minimum that would be a devastating blow that would require us to find a totally different ad serving system, make major technical changes to the site to accommodate the new system and likely not be able to make as much from ads ever again. That’s not including some unknown period of time – certainly weeks at least – in which we went with literally no ad revenue.

Needless to say, the impact of this would be cataclysmic and could easily drive us out of business.

Now, that’s never happened. And this whole scenario stems from what is at least a well-intentioned effort not to subsidize hate speech and racist groups. Again, it hasn’t happened. So in some sense the cataclysmic scenario I’m describing is as much a product of my paranoia as something Google could or might do. But when an outside player has that much power, often acts arbitrarily (even when well-intentioned) and is almost impossible to communicate with, a significant amount of paranoia is healthy and inevitable.

I give this example only to illustrate the way that Google is so powerful and so all-encompassing that it can actually do great damage unintentionally. As a general matter, I’d say our worst experiences with Google – and to be fair, none have been that bad – have been cases like these where Google is so big and its customers and products (people are products) are so distant from its concerns that we’ve gotten caught up in or whiplashed by rules or systems that simply don’t make any sense or are affirmatively absurd in how they affect us. One thing I’ve observed with Google over the years is that it is institutionally so used to its ‘customers’ actually being its products that when it gets into businesses where it actually has customers it really has little sense of how to deal with them.

Here’s another comical example. One day couple years or so ago we noticed that we weren’t getting any of our TPM emails. This is needless to say a pretty big deal. We didn’t get the over the transom emails from you, the readers, and we weren’t getting the individual emails that we all get at our personal TPM email addresses. Reporters have sources. We have business partners who need to contact us. It’s really, really bad.

This provoked a mad rush to find out what was going on. Remember, we use Gmail for our email service. We’re not the product. We pay for it. I’ll spare you the ins and outs we had to go to to find out what was happening and just tell you what happened. Many of you know that we have one company email address here at TPM. It’s the one linked at the top of the site. It’s the lifeblood of the whole operation. Those emails go to everyone on the editorial team. It’s a key part of what we do. We want every member of the team to be seeing that mix of comments, tips, criticism, links you’re sending into us. It’s a key part of our management that we make clear that we want everyone to immerse themselves in those emails, look what’s coming in. As many current and former TPMers will attest, it can be overwhelming. But it’s a core part of what we do. Those emails don’t sit in an inbox no one reads. We live in them.

Now the mechanics of how that works is that that email is actually a distribution list that forwards the incoming emails from that one address to everyone on staff. And here’s the catch. Over the years, a lot of spam has started coming into the address. Mostly it’s weeded out by filters so we don’t even see it. But some we do. It’s sort of a pain but it is what it is. But …. in Google’s algorithm, the fact that we take a lot of spam that comes to us and forward it to our staff means that TPM is a major spammer. Again, let me repeat that. Because we were forwarding to ourselves spam that other people sent to us, Google decided that the owner of the TPM url was a major spammer and blocked emails from TPM from being sent to anyone. When we were notified of this … okay, I’m sorry. That was a joke. We were never notified! We just disappeared from email. Fun, right?

So let’s review. We are paying customers of Google. We were forwarding emails from the site’s main address to all staffers. But because we receive a lot of spam, the spam that we were forwarding to ourselves marked us as a major spammer and led to Google banning all our emails with no notice in advance or notification after the fact.

You might imagine that once we got through to someone at Google and explained this ridiculous situation they’d fix it. Well, no. Once we got through to someone they explained what happened. They told us a few remedial actions we could take. Once we did that, over time the algorithm would cease to think we were spammers.

Now, in practice I think we were back to normal in a couple days. Obviously we survived. And everyone’s life – personal and professional – is filled with various inanities that make life frustrating and yet somehow also entertaining. I share this story in part because it was so surreal and absurd but more because it’s an illustration of how Google is so vast and all pervasive that it can be dangerous even when it’s not trying to be.

Of course, the real issue is the monopoly and how it applies to money. Is your favorite website laying off staff or ‘pivoting to video’. In most cases, the root cause is not entirely but to a significant degree driven by the platform monopolies – in this case, Google and Facebook – taking a bigger and bigger slice of the advertising dollars. It’s going to their profits and being taken away from publishers who of course are also trying to maximize their profits but do it through paying for journalism.

When I discussed a few of these issues on Twitter a couple days ago, some people said: Well, the publishers brought it on themselves. They went for the cheap clicks or gaming Facebook’s or Google’s algorithms. So they brought it on themselves.

This is true to an extent but I think misses the point. It’s not about anyone’s individual morality. Not the publishers or the platform monopolies. It’s a structural issue. Monopolies are bad for the economy and they’re bad politically. They also have perverse consequences across the board. The money that used to fund your favorite website is now going to Google and Facebook, which doesn’t produce any news at all.

We could see this coming a few years ago. And we made a decisive and longterm push to restructure our business around subscriptions. So I’m confident we will be fine. But journalism is not fine right now. And journalism is only one industry the platform monopolies affect. Monopolies are bad for all the reasons people used to think they were bad. They raise costs. They stifle innovation. They lower wages. And they have perverse political effects too. Huge and entrenched concentrations of wealth create entrenched and dangerous locuses of political power.

So we will keep using all of Google’s gizmos and services and keep cashing their checks. Hopefully, they won’t see this post and get mad. In the microcosm, it works for us. It’s good money. But big picture … Google is a big, big problem. So is Facebook. So is Amazon. Monopolies are a big, lumbering cause of many of our current afflictions. And we’re only now, slowly, beginning to realize it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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