Google’s SEM Platform Is Mediocre, Which Is Fine … for Google

In case you missed it before Thanksgiving, Forrester research ranked Google’s DoubleClick Search last in its Wave Report of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) providers. The research firm dubbed Google’s DoubleClick search a “risky bet” for advertisers and agencies, citing shortcomings from “no keyword list expansion tools” to “limited support for campaign testing and error management.” (Standalone solution Kenshoo ranked No. 1.)

Google could be forgiven for fumbling tech that’s further away from its search business — if, say, its Wildfire acquisition goes sour. But if anyone should have figured out SEM, it should be Google. What’s going wrong?

To answer that question, you need to start with Google’s peculiar relationship with SEM — and with marketing software generally.

For advertisers and agencies, SEM software exists to make search buying more efficient. But from Google’s standpoint, SEM tools serve a different purpose entirely. They’re automated pipes that drive advertiser spend into search engines — including into Google search. Additionally, they’re ways to offer upsell off of Google’s existing ad network.

So while standalone SEM platforms such as Kenshoo or Adobe’s Efficient Frontier have to work very hard to make advertisers happy, Google doesn’t really need to work too hard to achieve its own goals in SEM (namely, increased revenue and higher share of spend). Google’s mammoth share of search queries fairly guarantees it a lion’s share of search budgets, with or without good marketing tools. Plus, a bevy of other search marketing providers already provide great automation to help advertisers spend more money in search, including within Google search itself. Google’s chief goals for SEM are already largely achieved by the rest of the market. Doing beyond the bare minimum amounts to duplicating efforts — which means wasting Google resources.

The goal of providing a pipe into Google search even creates a disincentive for Google to help advertisers spend money outside of Google ad networks. It’s no surprise that Forrester notes how DoubleClick Search “supports biddable buys on fewer media outlets than its competitors.” Kenshoo, by comparison, goes so far as to provide integration into Facebook, while IgnitionOne “supports 11 display networks and can programmatically create mobile-device-specific ad versions.” As channel-agnostic and network-agnostic buys become increasingly critical to marketers, failure to provide good cross-outlet support can really hinder advertisers using Google products. But from Google’s perspective, effectively supporting channel-agnostic buys means helping advertisers take ad spend away from Google — which is bad business.

Forrester does “hope that [Google’s] plan to integrate DoubleClick Search into a comprehensive Google online advertising suite will solve this platform’s shortfalls.” I’m less optimistic, because mediocrity runs across a lot of Google’s tech stack beyond search. Michael Greene, a senior analyst at Forrester, has rightly pointed to Google as a prime example of “media and technology behemoths … making credible runs at the end-to-end ad tech stack, even if some of their stacks suffer from a mix of ‘best-in-class’ and ‘just good enough.’” But that’s not a surprise. If Google’s aims for the tech stack are just to provide a system of pipes that support Google Advertising, then building a tech stack out of cheap parts is really all that’s required in most instances. Going above and beyond that is, again, counterintuitive.

Which is why the marketing community really needs to ask if Google is the best business to provide the end-to-end tech stack that marketers want. For Google’s tech stack competitors which don’t have ad inventory to sell (Adobe, for example), the chief reason to create a tech stack is to provide marketers with a suite of useful, integrated products, and to make money in the process. That’s a setup for a win-win (pending good execution, of course). But Google has its own agenda. And if that agenda gets in the way of creating good products so close to Google’s core business, how can we expect Google to provide better than ho-hum technology across the entire marketing spectrum? If Google wants the marketing world’s technology business — and not just its ad dollars — then it’s a question the company needs to answer, soon.

Bill Wise is CEO of marketing systems provider Mediaocean.

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