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Which warrior will reign as champion in the bout between Sullivan and Clemons?

Which warrior will reign as champion in the bout between Sullivan and Clemons?

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Last week, we brought to light the debate between Wharton professor, Eric Clemons, and SearchEngineLand.com CEO, Danny Sullivan, over the future of search marketing. This week, TechCrunch provides a great wrap up of the debate where both men weigh in a final time. All in all, both Clemons and Sullivan make good points, however, I remain unconvinced about Clemons’ opinion that search marketing misdirects users. He claims that brands are forced to pay for their own listings, otherwise, competitors will be awarded the top spot.

For example: if Pepsi wants to make sure that Coke, or another competitor, doesn’t get listed ahead of Pepsi in a search for “pepsi,” Clemons contends that Pepsi is extorted by Google to pay for the listing. This would go vice versa for Coke. However, if you run a search for “pepsi,” “coke” or most other major brands, you will either see no ads at all, no banner ads at all or, at the very least, no competitor ads in the banner above the top natural result.

There are exceptions, however, whenever Google determines that users don’t want ads in their results–user click data is used to determine this–there are often fewer or no ads to be seen. Brands can also keep competitors from using their branded terms and this often has an adverse enough effect on click-through rate to force competitor ads out of the top spot. In general, Clemons’ point seems to be a straw man argument; i.e. he makes an argument denouncing a devious action in which Google doesn’t seem to be engaging.

Just to further prove this point, I did some independent research. I took a list of some of the most admired companies in the world and chose twenty-five of them at random. I searched for each of the brands on Google to see whether they were being held hostage by Google. In my estimation, if there is a competitor’s ad in the banner ad section, then this would qualify as Google doing a bit of potential misdirecting because a user would be likely to click on the competitor ad before clicking on the ad or listing that they were supposedly, obviously looking for. If there are no ads, no banner ads or if the banner ad is occupied solely by the company in question, then I would conclude that no misdirecting is occurring. If the company in question is #1 in the banner and the competition is #2 on the side, then Google is still not holding the brand hostage because the competitor ad would not be considered “banner worthy” even given an absence of the ad of the company in question. Here are the results:

Brand Keyword Are any ads present? Are banner ads present? Are competitor ads in banner?
3m yes yes no
anheuser-busch no no no
at&t yes yes yes (potential misdirection)
bank of america yes no no
basf chemicals no no no
bmw yes yes no
caterpillar yes no no
cisco yes yes no
costco no no no
fedex no no no
general electric yes no no
ibm yes no no
intel yes yes no
intuit yes yes no
marriott yes yes no
mcdonald’s no no no
nestle yes no no
nike yes no no
spectra yes no no
toyota yes yes no
visa yes yes yes (potential misdirection)
wal-mart yes no no
walt disney yes no no
washington post no no no
xerox yes yes no

To get a screenshot of the resulting search results page, simply click on the brand keyword. This way, you know that I wasn’t fibbing!**

As you can see, of the twenty-five search results, only two could be considered potentially misleading to users: Visa and AT&T. In the latter case, the competitor ad is sandwiched by two ads for AT&T, so it is a bit of a stretch to assume that a user would be easily misled. However, because the competitor ads use the company’s branded term in the ad, they could easily be stopped by Visa and AT&T using Google’s resources. This leads me to believe that both Visa and AT&T must be either unaware of the competitor moving in on their rightful territory or accepting–even encouraging–of the current setup. And if big brands like Visa and AT&T are either complacent or conciliatory to much smaller companies like CreditCards.com and Wirefly.com, then I don’t see why Google should be obligated to object to the situation.

In both scenarios, the responsibility of  making sure that the user isn’t misdirected lies with the Visa and AT&T, respectively. In six examples, Google doesn’t even show ads at all. In a couple of examples, companies like Intuit take advantage of the addition of their own advertisement to forward searchers to their main product, which they are likely to be searching for during this time of year: TurboTax. Without a search ad, Intuit would have to settle for users being directed to the corporate home page. Similarly, BMW uses Google’s IP targeting technology to show me their So Cal site in a search ad, saving me several clicks on their corporate home page. In my opinion, as a user, I appreciate these ads because they very likely saved me time an energy either trying to do my taxes or checking out some fine German automobiles.

Could this study have been more scientific? You betcha. Does that invalidate my point? I don’ t think so. I would still offer that Dr. Clemons is either too unfamiliar with search marketing or that he is giving an astounding level of priority to a problem that appears to be nearly insignificant to me.

Lastly, Dr. Clemons seems to backpedal from his original point after being confronted by Mr. Sullivan. In Clemons’ original article, the very title of it suggests that paid search is doomed to fail. He didn’t title his article, “Internet Advertising Will Constitute Less than 20% of Internet Business Revenues,” he titled it “Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet.” In his original article, he claimed that “the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it.” It’s no wonder that Sullivan was so shocked by these assertions; after all, in Clemons’ follow-up, it doesn’t even appear that he believes them!

Therefore, in my opinion, the winner is… Danny Sullivan!

Thanks for stopping by. Read up on and keep up with the online world; keep reading Tues News! Catch ya later!

**Search results are dynamic and change with rapid frequency. If one were to perform these same searches, it is possible that the results would be very different. Screenshots were provided to demonstrate what I saw when performing the searches around midday from the Los Angeles area on Monday, March 30.


One thought on “Tues News: 3/31 Clemons vs. Sullivan
  1. Sweet post Michael! very informative with exceptional detail. I think Danny would like it too!

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