Google is evil, or just sick? (and stop getting shot)

Happy Monday's IT Blogwatch: in which Google foolishly makes a political point to sell advertising. Not to mention ha ha ha, you've been shot....

Lauren Turner is an Account Planner for Google, responsible for selling advertising "inventory" to the healthcare market

Lights, camera, action: the healthcare industry is back in the spotlight ... Michael Moore’s documentary film, Sicko ... is generating significant buzz and is sure to spur a lively conversation about health coverage, care, and quality in America. While legislators, litigators, and patient groups are growing excited, others among us are growing anxious. And why wouldn’t they? Moore attacks health insurers, health providers, and pharmaceutical companies by connecting them to isolated and emotional stories of the system at its worst.
Sound familiar? Of course. The healthcare industry is no stranger to negative press ... Many of our clients face these issues; companies come to us hoping we can help them better manage their reputations through “Get the Facts” or issue management campaigns ... We can place text ads, video ads, and rich media ads in paid search results or in relevant websites within our ever-expanding content network ... As for Sicko, all I can say is -- go easy on that buttered popcorn.

Duncan Riley found it curious:

In an interesting move, Google has come out against controversial documentary film maker Michael Moore’s latest documentary “Sicko” ... Apparently there is a cure to the Sicko ailment, and it involves spending money with Google.
Google targeting Michael Moore is probably not a wise move ... antagonizing Moore may well see Google become a larger target at a time the search giant is in the spotlight over its Double Click acquisition.

Danny Sullivan offers this handy backgrounder:

To understand more, you need to realize that several years ago, Google organized groups of ad reps to go after various industries. The Google Health Advertising Blog is one visible example of that; the Google Consumer Packaged Goods blog is another. Other types of vertical targeting? Just check out Google job ads -- you've got tech commerce, retail and finance to name just some. This industry research page from Google I believe is a full list of areas they target.

The goal of these ad reps is to get their various vertical areas advertising. That means coming up with advertising ideas, which can spill over into being almost like a virtual ad agency for them. To clarify, years ago Google ad reps originally started out as people who might help you with uploading your own ad copy, perhaps suggesting keywords and helping with account management issues. There's a big difference between that and people trying to guide the message a particular industry might want to get across.

In particular, the problem is that ad agencies take a positive view of their clients, while Google -- to be most effective as a trusted information resource -- really shouldn't be taking positions. It especially has to be wary of this after just two weeks ago making an unprecedented about face after one of its biggest advertisers, eBay, yanked ads. If one big advertiser can make Google jump, what happens if others.

Steven Hodson calls it, "A misuse of power":

What I read chilled me to the bone ... the fact that Google has decided to throw its weight against [Moore] by actively promoting its service and influence to the health care industry is wrong and is setting a very dangerous precedent. In my opinion this is nothing short of drive-by censorship in which Google - one of the most powerful information and advertising companies around - is using its weight and power to influence or crush a person’s right to express their opinions and thoughts.

Granted the decision in the boardroom might be more to protect their ad network cash cow and their PR blog posts might be worded to appease the industry but the fact is that Google made it obvious that anything that endangers their cash flow is fair game for its PR department and subject to attack via its ad network.
As this is all happening as Google becomes more involved with various political processes via its lobbying and gagging of state officials one has to wonder what its end-game is. I for one don’t like where it is headed.

Adina Levin has another angle:

Advertising isn't democratic, first of all because it costs money, and second because advertising messages are one way and don't allow readers to talk back ... what's worst about Lauren Turner's post -- from Google's perspective -- isn't that it expresses an opinion about a controversial topic (the health care industry really isn't that bad), or that it overestimates the democracy of online advertising. It's that advertising is presented as the way out of a PR dilemma that caused at least in part by real problems.

The classic lesson of contemporary PR -- from the Exxon Valdez to the Tylenol poisoning to John Mackey of Whole Foods taking on Michael Pollan's critique of "industrial organic" -- is that when there's bad press that has some merit, you should honestly take on the critics, and acknowledge the problems, and make changes. You can't just whitewash your way out of a scandal.
The US healthcare system has problems and it can't just advertise its way out ... As a provider of advertising services, Google is ill-advised to market their services as a way to escape a well-deserved bad reputation.

Lauren Turner wipes egg from her face:

Well, I've learned a few things since I posted on Friday ... some readers thought the opinion I expressed about the movie Sicko was actually Google's opinion. It's easy to understand why it might have seemed that way, because after all, this is a corporate blog. So that was my mistake -- I understand why it caused some confusion.

But the more important point, since I doubt that too many people care about my personal opinion, is that advertising is an effective medium for handling challenges that a company or industry might have. You could even argue that it's especially appropriate for a public policy issue like healthcare. Whether the healthcare industry wants to rebut charges in Mr. Moore's movie, or whether Mr. Moore wants to challenge the healthcare industry, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue.

That is Google's opinion, and it's unrelated to whether we support, oppose or (more likely) don't have an official position on an issue. That's the real point I was trying to make, which was less clear because I offered my personal criticism of the movie.

Michael Arrington -- Duncan Riley's boss -- adds:

I’m betting that Lauren Turner’s job duties at Google will no longer include blogging ... More than a few people ... were immediately turned off by Turner’s comments. Particularly since there was a clear profit motive to the post - getting more advertising dollars.

There is no way anyone who’s blogged or worked in PR for more than, say, a week would post something like that on a corporate blog. Millions of Americans have a serious problem with the way health care is handled in this country, and such a polarized topic is hardly one in which a company like Google wants to take a stand. And if they did take a stand, it would be with Moore.

Less than 24 hours later Turner recanted and said the post was her opinion only, and not that of Google. That’s fine, but the damage has been done and egg is all over Google’s face.

What I don’t want to see is Google start to reign in its bloggers. As a public company Google is almost certainly putting blog posts through their legal and PR departments before they go live (how this slipped through is a mystery). If too many situations like the one above occur, they’ll start to add more policies and layers of review. If that happens, we’ll all have less insight into what’s going on there. I’m hoping it doesn’t.

Google's Matt Cutts allays those fears:

Agreed. I’d rather be communicating a lot and sometimes get scalded than not be blogging. I think Google realizes the importance of communication/blogging and tries hard to get it right. Sometimes Googlers mess up, just like anyone else. But I expect more Google blogging over time, not less ... There are a few evergreen tips to consider if you’re thinking of blogging on your company’s behalf.
  • The easiest time to make a blogging gaffe is when you’re starting out ...
  • When you’re about to start blogging, ramp up slowly ...
  • Don’t criticize other companies or people ...
  • Don’t post when you’re angry ...
  • Learn which stories matter and which ones don’t ...
  • If you make a mistake, don’t clam up.

Ashkan Karbasfrooshan goes all scatological on us:

It’s nice to see that Google does not sh*t on its employees and lets them clean up their own mess.  Or, maybe it was a long weekend and no one from PR wanted to fully take over so they had a quick meeting and this was the result.  Still, not bad: sign of a good corporate culture.

Full disclosure: your humble blogwatcher's own weblog makes a piddling amount of money from Google AdWords.

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Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at

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