Google’s Blogging Chutzpah

Written by Evan Schuman
July 6th, 2007

Are recent Google incidents with an EBay party and Sicko blog comments a pattern or anomalies?

When red-hot startups grow very quickly, lead by intelligent founders with a clear vision, they tend to grow quickly until they get into the danger zone.

This is that awkward stage where strange decisions start getting made, a stage that quite a few companies haven’t lived through. Burn rate is the ability for these companies to go through tons of money very quickly. This isn’t Burn Rate. Let’s call this Burn Up And Implode Rate.

The pattern is all too familiar. The aggressive company that was positively anal about its focus starts branching out unexpected areas, perhaps making a few ultra-high-pricetag acquisitions. As has been said many times, when these unorthodox decisions start getting made, the question shouldn’t be, “Who came up with that idea?” It should be “Who approved it?”

At this late stage of development, I would have believed Google to have grown beyond such a stage. But two recent incidents make me start to wonder if the search giant’s legendary discipline hasn’t started to soften.

First, there was the decision to stage a party last month at EBay’s huge annual convention, a party designed to get EBay’s customers to not use EBay’s services for E-Commerce and to instead use Google’s. Did I mention that EBay was?at the time?a huge Google customer?

EBay retaliated by yanking all of its ads and Google quickly canceled its party. EBay later said they would reinstate some of the ads. Maybe. If Google behaved themselves. And washed their cars. With toothbrushes.

It was an odd move, but one that could dismissed as an anomaly, probably nothing more than an unchecked bit of excessive enthusiasm.

But then this month, one of Google’s new corporate blogs posted this item about the new Michael Moore film, Sicko. The post was written by a Google insider named Lauren Turner, whom the New York Times described as “a Health Account Planner at Google.”

There’s no question that Turner tore into Moore and Moore’s film quite aggressively, saying, “Moore attacks health insurers, health providers, and pharmaceutical companies by connecting them to isolated and emotional stories of the system at its worst. Moore?s film portrays the industry as money and marketing driven, and fails to show healthcare?s interest in patient well-being and care.”

But the problem was not her position per se. It was that Google’s senior people were apparently surprised that a strongly-worded opinion on an official Google blog, bylined by someone who appears to be a Google employee and clearly written as the voice of Google could somehow?gasp!?be interpreted as Google’s position.

If you’re unsure if it was written as the voice of Google, consider the line “If you?re interested in learning more about issue management campaigns or about how we can help your company better connect its assets online, E-mail us.” It’s the “us” that is the killer phrasing.

There are ways around this problem, of course, which is to have blogs handled by outside independent bloggers. But if a company is going to have an official blog and use of its people to do it, then, yes, to be surprised that it’s the company view is to raise a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Google itself conceded that it wasn’t watching the ball on this one, with another post where Google Product Manager Missy Krasner said bluntly, “We blew it.”

I don’t want to address the substance of the initial insurance company defense, at least not while I have five claims for my family pending review.

But there was a blog sin committed here. The only thing a blog has going for it is credibility. When readers see a corporate blog on healthcare or anything else to be a good place for insight, news and analysis that is valuable and difficult to find elsewhere, they’ll come, read and participate. The corporation will get the benefit and will, over time, develop a group of its customers and prospects to talk with.

The moment readers see the blog as a commercial, they’ll abandon it and likely not return for quite some time.

The sin here was not that their blogger expressed her opinion. The sin was that she forgot that the cardinal rule of being a blogger–corporate or otherwise?is to inform and add insight. To the extent that the blog is supposed to be about health advertising, her opinions about the relative effectiveness of one form of advertising over another (for example: “text ads are ultra powerful and animation ads are a waste of money”) would be welcomed.

As a writer, I can blog about retail technology and offer my opinion about the effectiveness of various database tactics without anyone getting too upset. But if I share my opinion about abortion rights or same sex marriage, I deserve to get slammed. It’s not the opinion that is the problem. It’s whether that opinion is within the jurisdiction of that blogger. In other words, is it what the audience expects and wants?

I’m afraid that some people will take the wrong lesson from this incident and think that Turner would have escaped trouble had she taken the opposite view.

The other problem with this posting was that it sounded like the blogger was pandering to her readers, with such comments as “Or, as is often common, the media may use an isolated, heartbreaking, or sensationalist story to paint a picture of healthcare as a whole. With all the coverage, it?s a shame no one focuses on the industry?s numerous prescription programs, charity services, and philanthropy efforts.” In a documentary looking at whether Americans are getting medical treatment, the filmmaker was supposed to somehow work in the tax-deductible contributions the insurance companies made?

But I’m being pulled into the substance of the original comments. I admit it. I’m weak. The true point is not that you’re not the best buddy of the reader. You’re there to inform them and help put?in this case?advertising issues into context. The blogger failed to do that.

The reason pandering is a blog sin is that it kills credibility. The point of the post was that insurance companies should buy lots of Google ads to fight the film.

I’m not sure if I admire the honesty (blogging Chutzpah?) more than I am taken aback by the blatant sales pitch. She clearly wasn’t trying to fool anyone, but I think a blog on advertising needs to go out of its way to avoid recommending itself as the solution to anything.


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