Google: can’t live with it and … can’t live with it.
Late last week, a federal judge in New York unsealed previously redacted portions of an amended antitrust lawsuit filed by state regulators led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton poking into Google’s allegedly monopolistic ad practices.
Specifically, the suit lays bare the inner workings of what it calls “secret auction manipulation programs to coerce publishers and advertisers to transact in AdX and to coerce advertisers to use Google’s buying tools.”
Project Bernanke, for example, was (reportedly) a clandestine Google program to take advantage of information from publisher ad servers to buoy Google’s own ad-buying technologies. Dynamic Revenue Share is another that allows Google to play with auction take rates to help its own exchange win more auctions, while Reserve Price Optimization supposedly allows Google to peep “insider information” about an advertiser’s historical bids, which could result in buyers paying higher prices.
But the devil, as always with Google, lurks in the details – and for those who want to dig in, the (nearly) fully unredacted suit is available for perusal here.
It’s a tangled web. So we asked the experts: Will these revelations actually change the way publishers and advertisers spend with Google, or is Google too entrenched? And how much ammunition do these disclosures give regulators in their quest to rein in Google?
- Nicole Lesko, digital COO & head of data strategy, Dotdash Meredith
- Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder, Sparrow Advisers
- Chris Kane, president and founder, Jounce Media
- Alessandro De Zanche, audience and data strategy consultant
- Jana Meron, SVP, programmatic and data strategy, Insider
Nicole Lesko, digital COO & head of data strategy, Dotdash Meredith
Revelation implies surprise. I doubt this news will impact the way advertisers and publishers leverage Google services, as the industry lacks alternatives, particularly on the sell side.
Pressure to spin off or sell aspects of Google’s ad solutions will persist unless there is full and auditable transparency in the supply chain and ad server auction dynamics. Ostensibly, Google Ad Manager and AdX are tools designed to operate in the best interest of publishers, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Google would leverage its omniscient position to its own benefit.
The only real way to dispel this sentiment is to open the box.
Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder, Sparrow Advisers
I’m reminded of the scene in the movie “Casablanca” when Captain Renault is very shocked to learn of the existence of gambling at Rick’s Café while swiftly pocketing his own gambling proceeds with his other hand. Publishers and advertisers shouldn’t be surprised by these new unredacted revelations – but other than some hemming and hawing, most don’t realistically have other viable options away from the Google stack.
The likely outcome is status quo after a short period of some public outrage – a pattern that has proven consistent in previous platform scandals, like Facebook’s many measurement errors and various earlier YouTube boycotts.
An interesting line for regulators to explore could be around auction regulation. While most other forms of auction in the US are regulated at the state level, programmatic advertising has so far managed to avoid this type of scrutiny and regulation. What are we, chopped liver?
Chris Kane, president and founder, Jounce Media
We don’t know and likely won’t ever know if Google’s dynamic take rate helps or hurts publisher revenue. All we really know is that dynamic take rates cause more ad spend to flow through AdX and less ad spend to flow through other exchanges.
And so, of course, that sets off a wave of copycat capabilities from every other exchange. Marketers and publishers need to assume that they will be transacting more volume through variable take rate auctions in the next 12 months than they did in the last 12 months.
Alessandro De Zanche, audience and data strategy consultant
A few years have passed since it became evident that only through the full control of their assets can publishers turn their business around and become self-sustainable. Over a decade ago, media owners began to become aware of the money left behind, especially in the programmatic open marketplace.
So, no matter how outrageous the lawsuit allegations are, I’d find it laughable if someone claimed that this was an “aha” moment for them. I would interpret it more as an opportunistic attempt to shift responsibilities for their own choices. Hopefully, though, this will cause a further push toward bolder media monetization strategies and tighter control by publishers of their own assets – without forgetting that, for many publishers, this process already started months if not years ago, and without the need of a lawsuit.
Beyond whatever next steps regulators may take based on the latest findings, it will be interesting to see if Google will feel the heat and preemptively make moves of its own.
Jana Meron, SVP, programmatic and data strategy, Insider
Untangling all this will be quite a challenge for regulators. But as for publishers and advertisers, Google will continue to be viewed as a valuable monetization partner for the foreseeable future.
Responses have been lightly edited and condensed.