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Why Don Norman is right about Google. And it’s no big deal

In Don Norman’s talk at dConstruct, he said something that I’ve been saying for a long time:

“They have lots of people, lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising’,” he said. “But in fact the advertisers are the users and you are the product.”

Norman is almost right, although he’s phrasing it wrong. Google’s customers (not users – there is a difference) are advertisers: they are the people who pay. What Google is selling is you, or rather your attention. The more it can make its ads relevant to you, by placing them in the right context at the right time, the more likely you are to click on them – and the click is the only measure of your attention that matters.

John Gruber, and many others, seem to see this as either a revelation or something shockingly bad – hence John’s snarky retort that “the truth has an anti-Google bias”. But “the truth” is that John does exactly the same thing. Like virtually every online publisher, it’s advertisers who pay his bills – so, in truth, his “customers” too are advertisers.

The idea that Google’s customers are advertisers, and what it’s selling is you (or rather: your attention) is no big deal. Every site, every publication, which carries ads is “guilty” of exactly the same thing.

What John sells isn’t content, but us, the readers, our eyeballs, our attention. Advertisers on Daring Fireball know that you, the reader, are a Mac nut, which in turn means they can pin down a lot of broad demographics because “Mac nuts” fall into quite a distinct pot. To his advertisers, John may (or may not) also disclose other aggregated information – breakdown of geographic location, any survey data he’s collected on more precise demographics, and so on.

Google is just more precise about it (at least in theory) because it knows more about us as individuals than any single site or publication can ever manage. That “individual” data isn’t usually tied to us as unique individuals, because Google doesn’t (yet) have that level of granularity. But the different is one of precision, not who and what is being sold. For Daring Fireball – and for Technovia, and Macworld, and every other site which carries ads – the customer is the advertiser, and what’s being sold is the reader’s attention.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/craiggrannell Craig Grannell

    And you (through Google ads) are apparently guilty of trying to sell me 70% off of spas in Cardiff! Totally agree with this though, and it’s odd how few people understand Google’s overall business model.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Who wouldn’t want a great deal like that? EH? EH?

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    But more seriously, yeah: Google’s model is the classic one of creating channels for ads, where you focus on the users/readers when creating the channel (because without users/readers, it’s valueless), while devising ever more cunning ways of selling ads on the back of the people using the channel.

    In trad publishing, the “channel” you create is a magazine, or newspaper. For Google, it’s services like search, Gmail, and Google Docs. In both cases, in order to make the channel effective for advertisers, you absolutely have to forget that the advertisers are the ones footing the bills, and absolutely focus on the needs of the user/reader. 

    The other thing that Google does – and they are very open and explicit about this – is view ads as potentially useful and valuable to users – if (and only if) they get the “contextual” bit right. If an ad is so well targeted that it meets your exact need at that exact moment, it’s useful, not just intrusive.

    But even this isn’t new. Think back to those huge catalogue-like magazines like Computer Shopper: The ads were one of the things that people bought the magazine for, because they were the only place you could get a big overview of prices for PCs. The ads, in Google-speak, were “useful and relevant” – just as Google wants every one of their ads to be. 

  • http://howtohacklife101.blogspot.com Lance Cawthorne

    Yeah, wouldn’t google be a lot better if they charged us for each search?


    In many fields, for consumers, free products are superior to pay products.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Lance, I’m not really sure what the point is that you’re making (or who you’re making it to). What I’m saying is pretty much what you’re saying – that Google is just following a well-trod path by providing something for free and monetising that by selling ads. They’re creating channels, and that’s nothing new. 

  • Anonymous

    Surely it should be us charging Google?