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Flatten, Expand, Mine: The three pillars of Google’s strategy
[Google's strategy is all about ads, not selling services. Business Analyst Stijn Schuermans examines Google's three-pronged strategy for making money and the key drivers for the company's success]
Is Google a technology company? Well, sort of. Despite its geeky, engineering-driven reputation, Google is in the first place an advertisement business, as an overwhelming 96% of its revenues come from digital ads. Sure, Google produces some amazing high-tech stuff, spending $3.7 billion in R&D in 2010, but it’s all in the name of crude commerce; of connecting eyeballs to ads.
Let’s explore the three pillars of Google’s strategy that enable the company to sell more ads for more money. Google increases its reach by flattening any obstacle that stands between its ads and eyeballs. Then, Google expands its visibility to the user by providing services, creating more opportunities to show ads. Finally, the company squeezes the maximum out of those opportunities by mining user data, which allows them to understand and target users very efficiently.
This strategy works pretty well for the company, to say the least. Google ranked 92nd in the 2011 Fortune 500. The company is worth almost 200 billion USD. Last year, it reaped over $29B in revenue. If Google were a country, it would be bigger than Cyprus or Bahrain, based on GDP. Since its business is digital, it collected a net profit in 2010 of $8.5B (a healthy profit margin of 27%), despite providing almost all of its user-oriented services for free.
Let’s discuss Google’s three-pronged strategy in more detail.
Pillar 1. Flatten
The first pillar of Google’s strategy is to crush down anything that stands between consumer eyeballs and Google’s inventory, i.e. the ads that Google’s advertiser customers are providing. That is, any friction for users to be exposed to the ads should be removed.
For example, Google provides two operating systems, both immensely complex technologies, at low or zero cost to the world: Android (for smartphones and tablets) and Chrome OS (for netbooks and set-top boxes). Of both operating systems, open source versions are available for anyone to access, develop and build derivatives from.
Google provides OS’s like Android for free, because its goal is to commoditize the devices they will run on. They allow OEMs to make high-quality, low cost devices, which can then be delivered at a very affordable price to the mass market. If more people own and use smartphones and tablets, the reasoning goes, this gives Google more opportunities to reach those users and serve them ads.
In the same context, Google took a very active stance in the net neutrality debate. There the intention was to ensure optimal access of users to the network. It would not be good for Google’s business if operators would impose restrictions of artificially increase the cost of network access.
The theoretical basis for this pillar is the economics of complements. A good analogy is cars and fuel. If the price of fuel goes down, the demand for cars will increase. The services that Google provides are the complements in this case (the fuel) to the core advertisement business. The value of the advertisement inventory increases with the amount of people that Google can reach. Services are subsidized to drive more eyeballs to Google: the price of the service is reduced (in most cases to zero) to indirectly push up the demand for the core product, being ads.
Pillar 2. Expand
Once lots of people have access to the Internet through connected devices, Google’s second goal is to expand its footprint across the user journey. Put simply, Google wants to be part of as many use cases as possible, since that’s where they can present users with advertisements.
Google provides dozens of different services, targeting as many tasks as possible that a user might consider when communicating or looking for information. If a user wants to send email, there’s GMail. For chatting, Google Talk and Google Voice. Want to find directions? Use Google Maps or Google Earth. YouTube allows you to publish your own videos and Picasa to share pictures. In a business setting, Google Apps (like Google Docs) allow you to collaborate with co-workers. If you want to keep up to date with your friends, there’s Google+. The list goes on.
In most of these services, Google ads are displayed. Unobtrusively, but always there for people to see.
Google doesn’t do all the work of reaching users itself. Google provides infrastructure for others to display ads, deriving about 30% of its advertisement revenue this way. Third parties can display ads on their websites (and share in the profits) using the AdSense platform. A similar system is in place to include ads in mobile apps. Despite some competition, Google is still the main advertisement provider on the Android Market. In fact, most developers on Android use advertisement as a source of income, rather than direct payment. The Android market has the lowest amount of paid apps of any app store.
Pillar 3. Mine
Finally, after flattening and expanding, Google squeezes the maximum out of the eyeballs it reaches. The company increasing the value of its ads by data-mining the user’s behavior. By understanding what the user is trying to achieve at the moment that an advertisement is displayed, the ad can be micro-targeted to be incredibly relevant to that user. This increases the probability that the user will click on the ad, measured by the combination of fill rate and click-through rate (CTR), and therefore the probability that she will eventually buy the advertised product. This is what makes the ad valuable to the advertiser.
In its early days, Google revolutionized the advertisement industry this way. Before, an ad was broadcast to a very large audience (think billboards or TV ads) in the hope that someone might find it interesting. Any targeting was crude at best, for example an advertiser could choose to print in magazines with very specific audiences. When Google Search came along (still its flagship product), all of a sudden you could target users almost perfectly, as they conveniently typed in what they were looking for. This made the return on an advertisement spend several factors higher.
A typed search query is only one way that Google can find out what a user is interested in. Scanning the content of emails is another, pretty controversial one. More recently, Google has tried to launch several social networks like Facebook-competitor Google+, hoping to learn something about the user through his social interactions. In fact, social networks are major competitors to Google for online advertisement dollars. With Google Latitude, the company can understand where you are and select advertisements that are relevant to your location. Many industry sources also confirm that the Android OS is used to collect user information.
Google doesn’t give away all its consumer services for free out of the goodness of its heart. Its purpose is to make profit. If services are provided for free, they are meant to flatten, expand and mine in order to sell advertisements.
Google uses complements everywhere. Where other products might have a single or a just a few complements (think fuel for a car), Google works hard to create as many as possible. Because the core business is to reach people, Google throws its nets as wide as it can. Once it has the user’s attention, it can then use its technology to monetize the opportunity to its maximum extent.
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[Want a more detailed analysis of Google's strategy and how it fits into the ecosystem puzzle? Check out our Software Economics seminars].