Category Archives: data

Facebook Acquisition of Atlas: Sad Day for Digital Advertisers

                                                      The Funeral of Santa Fina”, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485

Facebook just announced the other day  that it would acquire Atlas Solutions, a long-time competitor to Google’s DFA in the agency ad server business. As an adverlytics practitioner, many are asking about this and still more discussing the implications. Though the trade press will gush, investors may cheer and Atlas employees may be breathing a sigh of relief, it is truly a sad day for digital advertisers. Why? The choices available for independent third party ad serving (3PAS) just got much thinner. 

The Rationale

To be sure this is a canny move for Baby Google, just as Google’s DoubleClick acquisition engorged the dataplex with rich user-level behavioral data that spanned both both buy-side (DFA) and sell-side (DFP) – it was brilliant. And after several years, the folks at Google decided to invest in the DFA reporting interface and we now have a Google Analytics like wrapper (except it is now green). Not much improvement on core functionality like reach and frequency reporting, but hey – it is better than ReportCentral.

The fact that DFA has maintained such a large market share since the Google acquisition suggests that client’s aren’t paying close attention to ad serving details. The very notion of pushback from advertisers and agencies is so unlikely that now, Google will also tell you how many of their ads were viewable, too. The Facebook deal is banking on it. For that matter, MediaPlex was absorbed into ValueClick way back in 2001 – they also own an ad network, an affiliate platform and Dotomi.

For Facebook, this is a very smart move although it relies on digital marketers being easily distracted and not looking too closely. In this deal, it is not really about “closing the loop” for advertisers. FB could ostensibly do this now with the much heralded unicorn called the Conversion Pixel or View-Tags. What they are “closing the loop” on is their understanding and ability to datamine what many other advertisers campaigns are doing, and the targets of those ad campaigns and those behaviors across client sites via the Atlas Universal Tracking Tag infrastructure. It probably won’t be long before Facebook offers their own Analytics platform or maybe a Tag Management System. Like its hero, FB is often times ethically challenged when it comes to who’s data is it any way. Just recently, it was revealed that Facebook has manipulated their advertisers’ campaign performance reporting.

That said, Atlas as a platform has faded over the years and needs investment to compete. It’s once advanced approach to attribution Engagement Mapping and stream of research from the Atlast Institute was a favorite among the analytics-minded. Yet, under Microsoft this pioneer of ad serving suffered from functional obsolescence as more site-centric and advanced algorithmic measurement has become more available. At the same time, Pointroll and MediaMind pivoted from rich media platforms to full-bodied ad servers. Many digital ad ops people that used Atlas regularly liked it, but later complained about lack of support. The upside is that Atlas won’t be shutting down anytime soon.

However, digital advertisers and agencies should be on notice now more than ever.

Recommendations

  1. Don’t Buy Technology and Media From the Same Vendor – In a world of digital marketing and an endless stream of bright shiny objects, it should give client-side marketers and savvy agencies pause that this is a serious conflict-of-interest that work against them. Since these ad serving tools are often counting ad impressions and clicks that they themselves sold – there is an incentive for self-serving manipulation.
    • For a better idea of how campaigns are performing leverage tools like Omniture, ComScore’s DigitalAnalytix. Coremetrics and WebTrends.
    • For more advanced attribution measurement look at independent tools like Adometry, Visual IQ or C3.
  2. Don’t Share your Behavioral Data – For the pleasure of sharing your valuable behavioral data, you are probably paying $0.04 oto $0.08 CPM to Google (through your agency and this may be marked-up). In this respect, far too many digital media agencies are dropping the ball on data stewardship and going with what is expedient. Ultimately reflects on them, but it also speaks to rampant client-side advertiser ambivalence or worse ignorance. 
    • For those that insist are intentionally looking to harness their user data, at least get something in return for example by joining a data co-op like Akamai ADS (now part of MediaMath). Privacy policy implications may vary.

    Advertisers and their agencies need to understand the very high proce they are paying. Time to look away from the Google, ValueClick and now the Facebook ad stack and consider other choices toute suite. In terms of ad servers left, the remaining major independent ad servers include MediaMind and Pointroll (though it is technically owned by Gannett, a newspaper company this is not as big a data play).

    Final Thought: Where is the FTC?

    Not sure where the FTC will come down on this but they essentially rubber-stamped the Google-DoubleClick acquisition back in 2007. Arguably this deal really does limit choice for digital advertisers but don’t count on the FTC doing much to scrutinize this. That digital advertisers and their agencies don’t value independent ad serving (and free of back-door data siphoning) is their problem and eventually it will sort itself out. To be sure the digital media ecosystem is complex and constantly-changing and federal bureacrtas are more focused on other more important matters. Plus, ad-serving just doesn’t make headlines like nefarious cookie tracking and consumer privacy.

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    The "Not Provided" Search Scam

    With the recent FTC decision to not pursue Google for rigging search results in their favor, TOTSB was reminded to check in on their clever 2011 organic search scam.  If you too, have been having trouble understanding your organic search traffic with continued growth in “not provided”, you are not the only one. The global change was done under the auspices of security (sounds familiar) but had the back-handed benefit of hampering digital marketers understanding of the very organic keywords that were used to find their sites from the search engine. It is a classic algorithm: 3-for-me-and-1-for-you.

    In case, you missed it on October 11, 2011 Google decided to implement Secure Sockets Layer technology for their authenticated (Google, Gmail, YouTube, etc…) search users. In practice, this effectively meant that the referral string that is otherwise passed by Web servers to browsers indicating the referring page URL is truncated. Specifically, while the search engines domain is still included in the referral string, now the actual search queries are excluded. Of course, they certainly track on their end what their users clicked on – this is valuable insight for PageRank..

    While often mistaken as an analytics problem, this is actually the case for all site analytics systems. Moreover, this is an organic search problem only; as long as you are paying for Google’s paid search advertising you can have the full referral data inclusive of search queries.

    40% and Growing
    Back in late 2011, a drone originally calculated the impact as single-digit percentage. Sounds manageable but as more and more stories emerge about much higher percentages this lack of search results transparency becomes more troubling. For your reference, TOTSB decided to take a look at our own site (in both Google Analytics and Piwik) and were shocked to learn as much as 4x the expected amount…and it is  trending higher. Below you can see the “Not Provided” percentage volume increasing since early-2011.




    An indepdent SEO firm’s prepared a study that looked at many Web sites but the same problem persists.



    Implications
    It is pretty clear that if you are interested in optimizing your organic search presence, the hand that giveth has taketh away. With Google’s dominant position in the search market, it essentially means that about half of your organic search keyword results cannot be understood right now. Worse, this remarkably this could continue higher.

    The net effect of this move is that Google is denying site owners (the providers of free content to the search engine) their referral information. It is absolutely outrageous that otherwise discerning digital marketers allow this to happen – perhaps class action legal action will emerge. Maybe the W3C or the IAB should get involved and speak out about this perversion of data control.

    What to Do?
    It is easy enough to track your own Web site’s numbers but beyond that advertisers should start playing hardball and complain – especially those buying paid search. Some are already making noise, including:

    • The organization fairsearch.org will hopefully include “Not Provided” in the scope of their work
    • Notprovidedcount.com: a site tracking “Not Provided” results across 60 different Web sites

    A Fool and Their Data are Soon Parted

    In the post Fear & Loathing in the Ad Technology Stack (3/8/11), TOTSB opined about the latent dangers of having a tag management platform provided by the same vendor as the site analytics solution. Since then, IBM CoreMetrics joined the fray with their Digital Data Exchange solution. Earlier this week, the other and much bigger shoe dropped as Google announced their new and free Tag Manager.

    With this latest development, it seemed like a good time to take a look at digital marketers often foolish handling of their customer’s behavioral data. These days such foolishness is like leaving the safe open with money in plain view. Now, let’s take a closer look at what is being offered by Google.

    How Does It Work?

    The appeal of Google Tag Manager is understandable: “Google Tag Manager is easy, free, and reliable. It gives marketers greater flexibility, and it lets webmasters relax and focus on other important tasks.” Signing-up is easy enough and takes just a few minutes like many other Google tools. Digital marketers can even “opt-out” of anonymously sharing their data for benchmarking purposes. However, this is a faux bone being thrown out by Google that is revealed on a subsequent screen.

    Later, users learn that are actually agreeing to share their data with DoubleClick, Google’s advertising business and signing-up for AdWords, too. It is odd that users must explicitly agree to this to use a Tag Management System. On the final screen you can add then add some 3rd party tags. Conveniently this screen is pre-populated with Google’s Ad Words, DoubleClick Floodlight and Google Analytics tags. Supposedly other tracking tags will be coming soon with such drag-and-drop simplicity. Until then you can add custom code.

    Google Tag Manager is:

    • Asynchronous itself and calls 3rd party tags asynchronously which means that slow-loading tags (including itself) won’t slow down page download time.
    • Not server-server…at least that is not yet clear. Meaning tags are literally firing on all requests which is technically a worse engineered solution when simultaneously using other Google products and services. When GTM does go S2S, certainly it will be positioned as a speed benefit…just ignore the looming centralized consolidated Google master cookie.
    • Using a Data Layer. Handy, as it means that there is a way to manage standardized data elements from user behavior on a page or other integrated systems.
    • No SLA. That is what free means; as a result this makes GTM less appropriate for enterprise-sized clients. Perhaps this will be included in Google Analytics Premium.


    The Trojan Horse
    Now for the rub. Considering the success of Google’s model of free analytics, this move by Google should not be a big surprise. If you weren’t already sharing your data with the Google data-mining machine, now there is one more way for them to get even more breadth of data capture.

     

    Combined with their the search, free email, social and display media business, Google continues to steadily touch more and more of the entire digital stack. That means they also have maximum user depth, i.e. the full end-to-end view of cause and effect. It is this rich, vast global data set that Google’s engineers have trained their sights on analyzing. The reality is that most digital marketer’s already aren’t technically savvy enough to realize the free Google stack is a digital data Trojan Horse much less do anything about it. When you are used to getting the milk for free why would you want to pay for the cow? Let’s face it – it is a brilliant strategy.

    Even if digital marketers decide to forgo Google Analytics and upgrade to a pure-play enterprise analytics solution (not a fake one like Google Analytics Premium), they still have a hole in the data bucket…now thanks to Google Tag Manager. Let’s just call it Google’s little data collection hedge.
     
    At the same time, for most Tag Management System vendors this is going to be a really big problem. Google will now commence to eat many TMS’ lunch by putting tremendous price pressure on the market..kind of like dumping. Many digital marketers have already invested in what we can refer to as TMS 1.0 where its all about putting tags in containers albeit through non-server-to-server solutions. Interestingly, many of them are using their paid TMS to deliver their free Google Analytics. Arguably, these clients are the most at risk to Google’s freebies.

    Think about it: these TMS 1.0 providers cannot compete any time soon with what will soon be a cloud-based (S2S) architecture. It will be difficult, expensive and risky to change their platforms with many clients and very tedious implementations already behind them. Expect to see more consolidation as a result.

    The High Cost of “Free
    Most digital marketers have been blissfully unaware of the actual game that they have been playing with Google for years – all under the auspices of free and easy-to-use. Perpetuated by self-appointed experts, there is a popular notion that espouses that analytics technology should be cheap and that it is more valuable to have a well-funded well-paid analytics people…not an expensive tool. The above meme is so Google. It is self-serving and self-reinforcing; it works especially well for the cottage industry of certified implementers and analysts. Unfortunately, it usually also means weak display media measurement, gaping holes in data security/intellectual property control and potentially deep privacy concerns. More tangibly, it could also mean inadvertently feeding your competition through a de facto data co-op while Google makes a buck.

    The layers of Google’s conflicts of interest are deep and include:

    • Google Remarketing –  conveniently baked into Google Analytics these days; the Google advertising cookie and the Google Analytics site cookie have been one and the same for some time now
    • Google Analytics – known to overstates Paid Search performance
    • Google Search – recently changed how referral data is passed on  landing pages, thus obfuscating search performance
    • Google Analytics Premium – a thrown bone on fractional attribution and now via DoubleClick Analytics, yet their credibility as an independent arbiter of their own performance is rarely considered

    On Being Ethically Challenged About Others’ Intellectual Property
    Google’s history is riddled with questionable attitudes towards ownership of other’s data. If your IP attorneys are not paying attention to this – you might need new ones:

    Digital Marketer’s Fasutian Bargain
    The fact of the matter is that Google is really an advertising company not a technology company. The big question for today’s digital marketers that are considering Tag Manager has not changed. It is the same as the Google Analytics question, i.e. is your company’s most valuable asset (customer’s behavioral data) worth more than the cost of not sharing it with the best data-mining conglomerate in the world? For many smaller companies the answer could be no, but for many largeradvertisers the answer should be – thanks, but no thanks.

    Google’s latest self-serving, 3-for-me and 1-for-you offering should really motivate digital marketers to start to think differently about their value of their data, how much they trust others with it and what they need to do next to securely and exclusively control their data. Smart advertisers need to really start paying attention to how much data they are really sharing with a company that Sir Martin Sorrel best referred to as a “frenemy“…and that was way back in 2007. So much for do no evil.

    The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

    How to Remove Google from your Ad Stack
    Others are also noticing Google’s move and that digital marketers do have other alternatives…they are just not free. Back to using common-sense and ROI/TCO analysis to justify technology investments…or risk sharing your data with Google and the competition.

    Here are some thought-starters:

    • Tag Management. Best choice at this point: BrightTag. Yes, I am an advisor. However, the reason I am is because only BrightTag has looked beyond tags on pages to the underlying problem of the data transport layer. Unlike the other TMS 1.0 platforms, BT has already a few years into developing a powerful TMS 2.0 tool; it is based on a highly scalable cloud-based infrastructure that offers digital marketer’s a real alternative to Google’s encroaching data glom. The good news is that most everyone that matters is already server-server integrated with BT…except of course (wait for it…)…Google’s products (Google Analytics, Floodlights, AdWords).
    • Analytics: Adobe, ComScore’s Digital Analytix and if you must IBM CoreMetrics
    • Ad Server: MediaMind, Pointroll, MediaPlex and if you must Atlas……not Google Analytics
    • Search Management: Kenshoo, Adobe, Marin…anything but DART Search
    • Attribution: Adometry, Visual IQ have better methodologies…C3, Convertro, Clearsaling…not Google Analytics or DFA.
    • Demand Side Platform: MediaMath, Turn, DataXu…not Bid Manager (formerly Invite Media).

    The truth of the matter should be getting clearer to savvy digital marketers. If not, bring in independent viewpoints that are not invested in this madness. Good luck!

    For publishers this is a much more complex proposition and the subject of a future post.