Will $15 shills really help Google overtake Microsoft Office?

Google's program to pay $15 referral fees to those who get others to sign up for Google Apps could bring in a bit of revenue for those always on the lookout for extra money. But will it really help Google in the fight against Microsoft Office, or is it bound to fail?

Google's plan was announced on the company's enterprise blog. It's fairly straightforward. For every new Google Apps user you refer, you get $15. Google Apps is targeted at businesses, so typical Google Apps customers have multiple user accounts, all under the same domain. So if you refer a business, and that business then has nine users, you get $150 -- $15 for the initial referral, and then $15 for each individual user in the domain.

Users save as well -- $10 in their first year. Users normally pay either $5 per month, or $50 if they sign up for an entire year.

The plan sounds like a good one all around. A $15-per-user acquisition fee on Google's part isn't particularly expensive for the company when you compare it against the cost of traditional marketing. And everyone likes making a little bit of extra cash. So what's not to like?

There's a potential problem here, though. Normally, you expect someone to make a recommendation based on what they truly believe about a product. But when someone makes a recommendation because they're getting paid for it, that turns them into something else -- a salesperson. There's nothing wrong with salespeople; they're an important part of a well-functioning economy. But there is something wrong when someone is a salesperson and doesn't tell you about it. Then they're a shill.

Under some circumstances, shilling is illegal. The FTC even has rules about paid endorsements that don't disclose they're being paid for. The Google Apps plan doesn't run afoul of that, and Google is certainly not doing anything illegal. But it may make people trust Google less, knowing that the company may be turning people into walking advertisements. That's not the best way to drum up business.

Ultimately, plans like this won't make a difference in whether Google Apps or Microsoft Office becomes the office suite winner among corporations. The company with the best product will win. For now, that's Microsoft Office. Google Apps is a serious contender, though. It doesn't need plans like this to show off its virtues.

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