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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Numbers don’t lie. But Google continues to obfuscate

March 8, 2018 | By Jason Kint, CEO—DCN @jason_kint

People ask me why I think the “duopoly” conversation resonated so profoundly when DCN began to use the term in 2015. I think it’s because publishers had long-sensed something was wrong with the widely proliferated and utterly misleading growth stats of digital advertising. They were ready for someone to call b.s. and start open conversations about it because many weren’t seeing the purported “growth.”

I’ve been told that executives at Google and Facebook dismiss the term duopoly as a marketing gimmick invented by publishers to go after the two companies. They are dead wrong. This discussion didn’t surface in some public relations brainstorming meeting. Sure, it’s useful if you can describe an entire marketplace in one word. But at the end of the day, the duopoly label resulted from simple number crunching, the results of which challenged conventional wisdom on who was actually benefiting from the growth in digital advertising. Perhaps now is a good time to dig deeper and take a closer look at some Google math.

Google’s battle with transparency

A whopping 50% of the US Digital Advertising Market is recorded as a single line in Google’s financials, deftly titled “Google Properties Revenues.” This single line includes advertising on Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Shopping and more and will surpass $100 billion this year – a number larger than the entire US digital advertising market. Let that sink in for a moment and then consider the fact that we hardly know anything else about it.

While fledging and century-old publishers live and die in the millions of revenues, Google doesn’t even specifically disclose revenues for its flagship growth site, YouTube. Their video business, which seeks to compete with broadcast television, is widely estimated to have revenues approaching $10 billion — a number larger than more than half of the companies in the S&P 500. Last week Bloomberg reported that the SEC had taken issue with Google’s lack of transparency but was sent packing after Google made the astounding claim that YouTube revenues aren’t important enough to hit their CEO’s desk. Say what now?

There is also near zero transparency in how this revenue is shared with the ecosystem. In the case of major cable companies, we know very clearly how much they pay each year, measured in the tens of billions, to the programmers who create valued news and entertainment for their services. This is helpful information, and revenue. Transparency is a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem.  On the other hand, we have no idea how much Google spends on news and entertainment because they bury this programming expense in multiple places. In terms of YouTube, we’re left to run our own analysis and we only know the members of DCN see less than $100 million of the billions that YouTube is raking in.

Where have all the billions gone?

We also know that Google is using billions in cash to shore up its monopolies. Google invests heavily to secure the default position over any browser that competes with its “free” web browser, Chrome, including Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox. It subsidizes its lock on a majority of mobile devices through its “free” operating system, Android. We also know that billions go toward populating the long-tail of the web with Google’s AdSense text links. Once again, all of this undisclosed money is lumped together and buried in a few lines of Google’s financials. This leaves everyone in the dark while making it easy for Google to spin its way around those who question it – in Washington and in the press.

Heck, we even learned that Google pays off ad blockers to whitelist its own ads. But once again: We don’t know how much. This is a distasteful situation considering the leadership position Google has chosen in the future of solutions for ad blocking. Google is literally blocking publishers’ ads while paying an undisclosed amount to have its own ads whitelisted. Say what now?

Numbers don’t lie. The simple, irrefutable (and unacceptable) fact is that the digital advertising landscape is more lopsided in favor of two companies than we’ve seen in any previous media market. This is especially striking when you recognize that neither of these companies contributes directly to the creation of the news and entertainment they so richly capitalize upon. They profit solely by directing and mining attention across the valuable assets others create. Please note I haven’t used the term Alphabet once here. To publishers, their layered corporate structure isn’t anything more than Google fighting tooth and nail to avoid disclosures.  If Google and Facebook want to be seen as benefactors to the media world — or better yet, become honest, trustworthy partners in it — they’re going to need to provide a level of transparency that they’ve quite clearly avoided.

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