The Democratization of Advertising

27 Jan ’06

As the world’s media moves online, advertising has of course followed in its wake – it seems that every new day sees a fresh attempt to penetrate the consciousness of another online audience with one commercial message or another. I’m not complaining – advertising is an essential ingredient in the diet of many online business models, and much of the innovation we’ve seen since the Yahoo! IPO, for example, simply wouldn’t have happened without it. But the growth of the blogosphere has me wondering whether the role of targeted advertising is about to change.

I’ve been noticing lately that over and over again the advice and information provided on the blogs of real people who share my interests and experiences are providing much more compelling information than any advertising that reaches me. Putting aside for now the question of branding, I’m finding that I’m repeatedly turning to blogs to find authentic and trusted buying advice from people who share my interests.

Which raises some interesting questions. With the world moving online and exponentially turning to blogs and other forms of personal publishing – podcasting, vidcasting, and whatever comes next – surely we are going to become less impressionable to the targeted pitch. Within seconds of being exposed to advertising I can now go online and find corroborating or contradictory first-hand evidence from an independent source. What hope does an Adsense ad have when I can quickly find real-world opinions about that seller or product, or a competitor? And in the blogosphere I don’t need to worry about sniffing out shill reviews planted in the Epinions of the world – a blog provides me with a blogger’s entire body of work, which I can explore to determine whether or not the source is to be trusted. And ultimately, if its search results provide information that competes for the users’ attention with its advertising, doesn’t Google’s search business suffer from an irreconcilable conflict of interest?

I see this as a democratization of advertising – the blogger’s influence over the process of search becoming more significant at the expense of the larger advertiser. Faced with two alternatives – my search results or the targeted ads and banners that surround them on the page – the choice for me is obvious – I’ll find what I’m looking for, or an unbiased opinion about it, in the search results and I’ll walk right by the ads.

So – I can quickly search, authenticate, and then investigate. This is vastly different than the world we lived in even ten years ago – an advertiser’s wonderland – a world that provided only a few trusted mainstream media sources of reviews, but otherwise left us to assess advertising on our own. Surely this is not good news for Google, which ultimately is about advertising, not search. Ironically enough, by helping their users quickly find relevant sites published by bloggers, aren’t they ensuring the demise of their own paid search model? And what about the other advertisers of the world – online and offline – what hope do they have of converting my buying impulse into their opportunity when I can quickly find real world experiences about whatever they’re offering?

Update: Mathew makes the very interesting point that this has Google self-destructively eating its own tail.

Update (2005-01-29): I’ve written a related post titled “The Democratization of PR“.

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