Critiquing Google’s Customer Support

    January 8, 2007

In my last column, I scoured the web, drumming up angry AdWords users from the depths of blogs and message boards and consolidating their suffering into a plaintive against Google’s customer service.

Supporting the notion that Google could do more in this area was a CNN article citing the fact that Google’s score for providing “responsiveness and accessibility” was much poorer than Yahoo’s.

While agreeing that Google could certainly improve the customer support side of its business, it’s important to note that the auction-based marketplace which Google has built is inherently complex. Yahoo’s auction platform (inherited from Goto) was easier to understand, and provided more disclosure for marketers in terms of telling them exactly what they would pay for any given search term. With the advent of Panama, Yahoo’s marketplace becomes a lot more like Google’s, which will likely mean that Yahoo will have to do much more hand-holding.

As Google begins to extend its self-serve ad platform into non-search media, it will find that customer support is more vital than ever. Traditional media buyers want to find people, not algorithms, at the other end of the telephone line. Pointing users to online help areas and automated fill-out forms might have worked for Google’s first generation of advertisers (who tended to boast a higher geek factor than the rest of the population) won’t cut it with these old school Madison Avenue types. Providing real, live, responsive help desk people might not be the most efficient way of supporting a product, but if Google really wants Madison Avenue’s business, it’s a cost that it must be willing to bear.

Automation can go a long way toward making marketplaces work more efficiently, but there are many forms of media buying that don’t lend themselves easily to an automation-only framework. What many of auctioned media’s loudest trumpeters fail to realize is that some of the current TV and radio inventory is already sold in a marketplace fashion, although not in an automated auction marketplace. In many cases, the best spots go to the highest payers in what is a “de facto” auction process. The difference is that the highest payers are just determined one on one, face to face, and ahead of time.

It’s not clear whether Google intends to take a piece of this kind of business, or simply focus on undervalued, remnant inventory. There’s a lot of this kind of inventory out there now, and there will be more, as Satellite radio, podcasting, mobile, and other non-traditional media channels open up. Auction marketplaces that aggregate this kind of inventory, which would have little or no value without some kind of intelligence to recognize it and match it to willing advertisers, are right up Google’s alley. This inventory represents a significant market opportunity, but short-term, I don’t see Google, or anyone for that matter, coming up with an advanced enough technology to automate the process of auctioning off unique, premium inventory in a discrete auction.

If Google wants to succeed in offline media, and it’s made it clear that it does, improving its “human side” of the equation will be just as important a job as developing offline inventory whose inherent value to attract high demand at auction. Google’s marketplace is a work in progress, and while it only partially delivers on its vaunted promise to deliver completely accountable advertising to marketers, the potential it offers to marketers remains unparalleled. Unfortunately, the almost Olympian viewpoint of its management and the evangelical zeal of its exponents has the potential of alienating marketers. If Google wants to extend its self-serve ad platform to the masses, it will have to pay as much attention to the customer-support side of the equation as they do crunching code. Automation, even the best automation in the world, can never substitute for the humanity of a person at the other end of the phone. However good Google’s technology is, there will have to be a knowledgable, responsive human in the loop somewhere: that’s just the way media buying works.


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Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.