The Adwords House of Cards

It is well known that the advertising industry has a high Beta compared to the general economy. In short, the industry does very well during good times and very bad during bad times. There are several reasons to this, when the economy does well 1) companies forgo ROI for marketshare 2) companies believes advertising is a capital expenditure to build brand equity 3) keeping up with the jones, as advertising effectiveness is extremely sensitive to competitive spend. It is not to say these reasons are not rational, they are somewhat. But that the industry tends to go in boom and bust cycles because of them.

Google’s is in this very cyclical industry ... so much so that the offline equivalent of ad brokers (agencies) are mostly private shops or loose but public cooperatives/roll ups to even out the cyclicality. Furthermore, Google has one large issue... that like the Real Estate bubble in Hong Kong in the mid 90’s, much of the spending on Adwords has been done by speculators trying to arbitrage traffic/eyeballs rather than companies productively selling a service or product.

For the past months, I’ve been tracking (unscientifically) the percent of adword advertisers with the main business model of advertising. In short, instead of selling shoes or providing a service (like translation or loan brokerage), these sites are simply trying to pay for eyeball on Google and hoping to make more than they spend on getting that visit (or visitor if the site is sticky enough). Even worse, some of these companies are venture funded so they are simply looking at whether the cost of that visit will get them an equivalent increase in VALUATION. They dont mind losing money, as long as they can flip the company to someone else in the short term.

In decemenber I tracked about 200 queries and found that about 20% of adword advertisers are arbitragers. Early this week, that # has gone up to about 35%. Again this is about unscientific as it gets and I hope some research analyst will start tracking this metric sytematically.

But I think the point is made that increasingly the revenue growth google is able to capture are significantly more risky than before. Google’s revenue beta is becoming higher and Wall Street has yet to take that into consideration. Remember back in the dot com days, all the venture money raised was poured into buying Sun hardware. when the bubble collapsed, so did Sun. Today, because the lower cost of infrastructure, this money has been poured into advertising and marketing instead (specifically into Google with a disproportionate share). If (when?) the battle for traffic is over and the casualties emerge, a significant portion of Google’s advertiers (and corresponding revenue) will also go the way of a server spending on Solaris machines...

But like a game of chicken, advertising spend usually drop off the cliff rather than decelerate, so there will be little to no warning when it does happen.