What Google Can Do To Make The Web Less Of A ‘Cesspool’


imageJim Spanfeller is president and CEO of Forbes.com. He is also treasurer of the Online Publishers Association and chairman emeritus of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

After years of debate about the value of the near monopoly owned by the folks in Redmond, it would appear that this particular discussion is quickly moving south to the Googleplex. And from where I sit, appropriately so.

For some time there have been murmurings about the relative value generated by Google (NSDQ: GOOG) vs. the parasitical nature of its business model. In short, is Google being disproportionally compensated for what is fundamentally other people




Okay look…when you sell your product at, let's say walmart…who takes a big chunk of the profit?is it you or walmart…something tells me it would be you…so if google puts its product on your website (ad links) why would you want them to give you a bigger chunk of the profit?this does not make any sense!

now as far as auctioning trademarked words goes — consider the case where you enter the word sony as a search term, does this necessarily mean you only looking for sony products?well i dont think so…now a search engine would offer up links to other companies that offer similar products…so that being the case why cant this search term be incorporated into algorithms that serve up ads?but the truth of the matter is when you search for sony the first link (not an ad link) that's offered is a link to the sony's official website and guess what…if you click on it google doesn't get paid!

and to re-iterate the theme of most comments above…




This is a great article. The people who are complaining have probably never run a website that runs Google ads. Try to find out what Google pays–you can't. Their model is that they'll tell you after you're already signed up because you are too stupid to understand their complicated pricing which only Google people can handle.

Google's profit margins are something like 75%. That's 75% of the money going to Internet advertising that is NOT going to content creators. This figure is completely Google's choosing. The rules of a market economy let them charge whatever the market will bear, but if you believe in market economics, you also have to accept that the less money flowing to content creators, the lower the quality of the web because content creators have lower margins and less money to work with.

In other words, instead of going to content like it did in the heyday of newspapers, money is now going to fund nutty Google engineering projects that never make any money.

Even worse, these half-finished beta projects are given away for free, so not only are we not getting good journalism, we are also getting crappy software because competitors can't make any money selling a product or service at a reasonable price. While it is arguable whether Google has a monopoly, it is a principle of anti-trust law that when one player gives away products lower than cost (called dumping in other industries), it is destructive to the market and innovation.

For those of you who think Google is so great, think of the kinds of websites Google's ads have spawned: pages of nothing but keyword spam, with either no content, or content taken from Open Directory and other random RSS feeds. Completely useless. If Google were treating content providers fairly, we should be able to name a slew of great websites thriving with its products.

Compare this to the innovation unleashed by the iPhone, and the increased music sales generated by MP3 players and iTunes. Apple doesn't do everything right, but they understand that content creators have to be rewarded. The 30% they take for iPhone apps seems more reasonable compared to Google.


I fully agree with this article, Google is horrendously leaching off magnificent companies such as Forbes.com.

Along with this, I have noticed several local 'convenince stores' are also selling copies of Forbes magazines, by displaying the Forbes brand no less.

Appalingly these companies, despite producing no content are taking a significant cut from the sale of these magazines. All these companies are providing is a convenient means of accessing content, the same pitifully useless service as Google. Some of these stores will even sell spots traditionally housing Forbes to other magazines, which should certainly be illegal.

Damn Google and damn covenience.


The points in the article are indeed accurate.
1. At the moment, companies bid large advertising budget allocations to Google to simply conquest their own trademarks on Google's AdWords. If companies fail to do so as a defensive measure – their branded trademark is instead auctioned off by Google to the highest bidder. eBay should not be empowered to buy the trademarked "Elvis" keyword on Google – nor should Acura be able to buy "Audi" keyword (nor visa-versa). I anticipate this broken paradigm will end soon as I believe we'll see a precedent setting ruling as a result of this case here:

2. Online publishers/bloggers (off all types) win far less traffic value from Google than Google wins ad $ from crawling and posting publisher/blogger content on the Google Search Results pages. The traffic value is now relatively inconsequential. The reciprocity is simply broken. The value exchange used to be more balanced – what changed (summer 2006) was that Google discontinued their 'content on the left and ads on the right' model. Google started including their ads on the top-left above the content results – which resulted in less traffic.to.publishers and more ad.click$.for.google. Google basically changed the terms of their implicit deal with all of their publisher content suppliers.

I'd suggest two changes for Google:
a) import the PTO database of trademarked names/terms – and program the Google AdWords algorithm to not offer these words (which are someone's intellectual property) in the auction, and
b) discontinue running ads on the left side of the results page. go back to 'left-side = content and right-side = ads'.


"I can say with full confidence that we have a very workable model that is fully certified (and in fact has always been held to a higher set of metrics when it comes to audience counting then our competitve(sic) set) and well received."

After reading your claims, I decided to visit your web site.
After seeing the html abomination that is forbes.com, I can see your complaints.

Like many other media companies, you focus is on flashy presentation rather than content delivery. Google is a content spider. I see little content to crawl, just a bunch of 1998 web design littered with frames and javascript.

As suggested above, I recommend an SEO specialist. I also recommend a complete redesign of your site, using no frames, less JS, and perhaps even w3c standards.


Why are "professional content producers" better than so-called "amateurs"?
Why is "professionally created content" better than "non-professionally created content"?

Do users actually care if the website they're reading is "professionally created", or do they care that it's _relevant_?

Google (and other search engines) return (arguably) _relevant_ results. The Google search engine is dumb. It's an algorithm. It says "Tell me what you're looking for and I'll try and give you a link to it". It does this without human bias, using mathematical formulae. If a "professional" article is so much better than an amateur one, why does Google's algorithm not pick it up? Perhaps "professional" does not equal "best".

What media producers have to realise is that the old ways of 'produce lots of content and distribute as one lump' is gone. *FOREVER*. Quality trumps quantity – especially when people can dive in to specific strands or articles.

Consumers no longer have to read/buy a whole newspaper or magazine to find the news/information they want, they can pick and choose from the different articles on that vendor's website. Consumers no longer have to buy an entire album to listen to the songs they want, they can go to a digital distributor and download the individual tracks. Consumers no longer have to buy or subscribe to an entire encyclopaedia to view a single topic, they can go to Wikipedia and look for the specific article they want.

Search engines like Google's look at the content, and see if it's what the user is searching for. If they're not searching for terms related to what you're producing, are you surprised they're not finding your content?! if you are, you should consider retiring because you're going mad.



Unlike my fellow commenters, I think most of your points are valid and important.

But could you please substantiate how Forbes.com arrived at the estimate that Google makes $60 million directing folks to forbes.com? That sounds a bit far-fetched.


To better understand what Jim (and many other digital content providers) mean, imagine this:

You have a product, say, new line of clothing. You want to sell it to the local super store carrying thousands or in fact millions and millions of similar items — it is a huge world wide store. The store says, "Fine. Welcome on board! We are so great, that we will display info about your product and direct our customers to your shelf, if you agree to carry a few third party's ads for us. You might even earn a few bucks in return. And BTW, if you offer your product for free, we can guarantee that even more customer will find you using our in-store directory. You know: free is always better."

But you do not want to be an advertisement board for others, including your competition, especially that it is mostly the Store not you who gets the ad revenues. You cannot offer your product for free.

Then the Store say, "Then, sorry, but we cannot help you. You can of course place your product somewhere in this huge huge store — we are open to anyone; the more of you out there the better — but, look, who is going to find you there without our help? It is a cesspool, a maze of tags and key words. You MUST use our assistance or else…."

Don't you see anything evil in this seemingly free and helpful Store, really evil?

David Steinberger

The ad economy is broken. The middle man model that is media is broken. It's not Google's fault. It's not anyone's fault. But it's your fault if you don't see it.

What Google has done, is begin to apply the laws of supply and demand to advertising and it's shining a bright light on how much inefficiency we've been living with.

It sounds like Mr. Spanfeller, like others clinging to an outdated model, wants to go back to a world where a small cartel like group of media companies sell a scarce supply of eyeballs to advertisers who have little to no alternatives.

Quit fighting the laws of economics. Media companies no longer have a stranglehold on supply of consumer time and attention and therefore must lose their control as middle men. More on my blog…www.OurSeatAtTheTable.com



All this article shows is that Google is smarter more aggressive and more powerful. Is it a surprise they are going to profit off your work, of course not. Google is on a mission to organize all the worlds information and make it accessible. No company person or government is unaffected. Welcome to a world of Google.

And do you know why Google will succeed, because people of all walks of life including very important people want access to this information and they have found a friend in Google.


No, seriously Jim, your article makes no sense. It's filled with gaps in logic, unsupported assertions, and, well, whining. I have no idea what you're trying to say except that you feel wronged by Google, and I really have no idea how.

Take that $60 million figure. I call bull$%!#. So feel free to offer some hard numbers for that figure anytime you like…

Andreas Ramos

Jim Spanfeller's concerns are widespread among corporate CEOs. Their brands are under attack.

Regrettably, Google does very little to explain how Google’s search engine works. Google makes a great deal of money from advertising by third-party vendors. It is in Google’s interests for the current situation to continue.

Corporate brands indeed have value; that’s why domain name squatters, third-party advertisers, and affiliates hijack the brands to sell their copycat products. It is fairly easy to calculate the value of a brand on the web.

Forbes and CEOs need to understand how search engines work so they can counter Google on equal footing. They can not negotiate if Google holds all the cards.




Tell you what. Put your money where your mouth is: put up a robots.txt file and block googlebot. That'll show'em!

Then spend some time trying to clean up that mess called forbes.com. At the very least I think Malcolm would have found it to be profoundly embarassing.

Jim Spanfeller

Thanks to all for your comments. Some interesting, some kind and others…well…not so much. But all nonetheless appreciated. It would appear that some folks have mis construed some of my comments but regardless the debate is good. On the Forbes.com front, I did want to note that our traffic numbers and ad effectiveness are measured in a vast variety of ways, from Brand Studies to lower funnel review on the back end and via the only MRC certified ad serving system in our category on the front end. So while everyone is very welcome to their individual perceptions of our site, I can say with full confidence that we have a very workable model that is fully certified (and in fact has always been held to a higher set of metrics when it comes to audience counting then our competitve set) and well received. We are also the only site that I know of (still to this day) that offers a money back guarentee on brand advertising effectiveness. We have been offering this guarentee for over 5 years so at this point I have to believe that others must have followed suit but if so, I am not aware of who they are. For those of you that expressed displeasure with our offerings all I can say is, sorry. I do hope you will keep checking back to see if we have developed content that you find value in. We will certainly take your comments to heart as we continue to work to make our offerings better. That said I would be remiss if I did not say to the 20 million of you that come to Forbes.com on any given month…THANKS!


Spanfeller might be correct. It is high time for the regulators to deconstruct Google's "business model," which to me is highly questionable: first, it supported the creation of an enormous maze of "free" and often spurious or phishing websites (or Mr. Schmidt's "cesspool"), then, it started to insert "paid" traffic & navigation signs to get you through or out of the maze.

But Google's model would not work without another key component, that is, the (false) theory of "free is always better," popularized by Clay Shirky and other paid consultants to the Web 2.0 industry. That the theory is false was proved by the famous Radioheads experiment and then the successes of the online gaming industry, Second Life, iTunes, WSJ and many other paid sites and services.

dan stiehr

How ironic – someone representing a magazine built to celebrate free enterprise and capitalism is criticizing Google for building a popular, successful business model. As for the $60 mil Google is supposedly making from sending people to Forbes.com, how are they making that money? It doesn't appear that Forbes is running paid search ads, so Google wouldn't be making any money off of sending people to Forbes.com. Are you aware how search works Jim? You must not be, or else you wouldn't say that Google forces you to buy your brand name so competitors cannot. This is wholly inaccurate – competitors can buy your brand name regardless of whether you are, and if someone doesn't want a consumer to click on a competitor's ad instead of their own, then strengthen your own brand messaging so as to make the difference between yourself and your competitors clear and compelling. If anything, Google driving traffic to your site should allow you to make MORE online advertising revenue. Google is helping people get to your site, and as your traffic numbers and usage metrics increase, your site becomes more valuable as an advertising vehicle.

Brian Ratzker

I think Jim Spanfeller is finally feeling the effects of over advertising on Forbes.com. Nobody wants to read a website that is filled with Ads. Furthermore, Jim should never be criticizing anyone, Forbes has the least respect for their advertisers than any publisher I have ever seen. They have done some horrific things to drive up their monthly impressions in the past and I am sure they are still willing step over that line today as well.


The people crying noindex are using faulty logic. I should not have to deadbolt my door to expect not to be robbed. You are implying google has a right to my content unless I tell them otherwise. I'm not so sure.


cesspool of the web = slideshows on forbes.com
the one I saw today was America's most popular dogs.
come on, jim, you guys are trying to trick the web just like google. your problem is that google's tricks trump yours in spades.

Michael K Pate

"At Forbes.com, we have estimated that Google makes roughly $60 million a year directing folks to our site. And by the way, 40 percent of those dollars are derived from the search terms of Forbes, Forbes.com or Forbes Magazine—simple navigation. Seems like a very nice chunk of change for simply being there."

If you don't want to be included in Google search results, a couple of lines in a robots.txt will make that happen. Of course, chances are, that will impact Forbes revenues a bit more than it does Google.


Forbes.com is a joke. It's gotten slightly better over the past year and it's STILL the ugliest, least readable, least user-friendly content site in the western hemisphere.

This comment from jenkins nailed it: "[Jim] might want to take a harder look at Forbes.com if he wants to clean up the online cesspools."


Amazing that such a lack of insight and logic can come from a guy of such position


Jim makes a good point, perhaps if he got his wish then Forbes will STOP publishing those ridiculous wealth-porn content packages/slideshows of " executive bikini beaches etc, these simply over inflate Forbes traffic numbers so Forbes can continue believing they are in the same league as WSJ.

Interesting to see WSJ & FT legitimate traffic numbers continue to increase and Forbes "holding steady".


it's just amazing how many businesses
want to grab a chunk of google's money.



I see where you are coming from, Jim. I run a company that helps content publishers earn money from their content because normal advertising isn't enough anymore, and although my business relies on commercialisation of content, I value and respect quality independent journalism, and am saddened (perhaps nostalgically) that the way the web has developed is making it difficult for this to continue without drastic change.
I love the innovation Google has brought to the web, but sometimes I think that teaching us all that everything should be free and financed by (their) advertising is prohibitively challenging for many companies. But, this is the way technology has always evolved, and the only way to combat what you don't like is to innovate rather than to prohibit.


There's no online advertising without google. Maybe many of forbes.com visitor dropping to the website first because of google search, then become a loyal visitor and straightly bookmarks the website, to directly visit forbes.com regularly. So, Google is our internet saviour. They work hard to make internet as a huge market for online advertising. Say thanks to google. What I didn't like much about google is PageRank. I wish PageRank is deleted from internet dictionary :P



"But, no, Google is a greedy corporation (note: they recently removed the “Do not be evil” provision from their company charter—probably because they already violated that tenet with this kind of behavior)"

Are you referring to the 3rd result on http://www.google.com/search?q=Google+don't+be+evil ?

You DO realize that article was an April Fool's joke, right?

"Don't be evil" is still prominently displayed at http://investor.google.com/conduct.html

Mike Tellman

Hey Jim,

This is the most ridiculous article I've ever read here. A complete NONSENSE!

Just face it: all you parasites from traditional media are slowly dying and now you're trying to save your jobs. But guess what: that ain't gonna work!

Hey Jim, I don't think you'll need a resume for digging ditches once you get fired from PC…. and I'm sure you'll be more productive at digging crap than writing crap.


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