I’ve developed a slightly mystical belief: there is no free lunch. Or call it instead the Free Stuff Karma Syndrome. Better yet: Maybe You’ll Do Me a Favor Sometime.
To sum it up, if you’re an end user, and you cherry-pick all the best online content and services without ever paying a penny for them, and do your best to avoid engaging with the ads…well, you might be OK. There are slightly less than even odds of you being hit by a bus on your way to work at the local hospital.
If you’re a marketer, though – if you take and take and take, and then try to get out of all the paid services and whine at Google whenever it makes a tweak to its (free) organic search algorithm that slightly disadvantages your for-profit company – well, let’s just say that a “wrong turn at Albuquerque” via Google Maps’ driving directions will be the least of your worries. Unless your idea of a wrong turn is off a cliff. It’s just bad karma, man.
The interesting thing about all the free products and services Google develops for consumers – and some for the benefit of small and large businesses – is that they aren’t all tied efficiently to revenues. Google just invests heavily in products. Sometimes it does a good job of monetizing them. But generally speaking, Google derives the lion’s share of its revenues from the same old things all the time (search ads and display ads). Not all of them tie well to the investments Google has made. It’s almost like Google’s bad at monetizing (or doesn’t care enough to monetize everything, since free stuff keeps you happy and keeps engineers engaged in worthwhile projects).
Here are five free Google things we’re pretty much all using.
- Cool features in Google Maps. A co-worker was moving closer to downtown Toronto from the suburbs. Excited about his new address, he checked out the driving directions feature to find out how close he would be to the airport. Turns out that two totally different routes gave him about the same travel time in light traffic: 27 minutes and 28 minutes. And in “current” traffic, they were 34 minutes and 46 minutes. (Needless to say, both routes were mapped out flawlessly.) What? Google has integrated local real-time traffic databases seamlessly into Maps, in an actionable way? Then, my friend was further gratified by finding the fastest walking route to the subway station – seven minutes. A walking route to an old haunt – 25 minutes – was accurate because it took a diagonal route through a large park.
It’s pretty clear that Google has invested heavily in Maps, Earth, Street View, and all these related functions. Sure, it eventually hopes to recoup that investment through local advertising (Google Places, if you want to use the cute name), and why shouldn’t it? Please don’t jump up and down and hoot and holler when Google suggests your clients buy the local ads instead of hoping to get everything for free.
You know who you are. You know you’re using the services. You’ve run 52,358 driving directions on Maps and your version of Second Life is Google Street View. Karma…
- Google Search. Uh oh. Lest we forget that one…it’s free. No one else can hold a candle to it. Google has invested billions in it. It seems Microsoft has lost billions trying to figure out how this “web division” should make money. Not as easy as it looks, eh? Expensive to run a search engine, eh?
So next time you’re in a casual conversation about what you do for a living, and someone blithely says, “Oh…I had nooo idea…I mean, I never even look at the ads” (an assertion that is now proven to be 100 percent impossible, BTW), as a marketer, it’s not acceptable for you to smile and nod to maintain the peace – even if they’re your dog walker. It’s your job to punch them in the face.
- YouTube. Free. Extremely costly to build. Every day you share a video, or 20. Would it kill you to buy an ad or two on there?
- Google Analytics. Comparable SMB enterprise class software will run you $20,000 to $50,000, yet for some reason, this is free. (The pro version of Google Analytics is also well-priced, and since so many advertisers and webmasters use the free version, let’s not be under any illusions that Google is covering its costs on this product.) That’s mainly because Google figures if advertisers have the very best data, then they’ll understand how to best allocate their online marketing dollars. It would be nearly impossible to go about the business of allocating a decent-sized online ad budget without spending some of it through Google. That would take some real contortions.
So if you’re one of these wankers who uses free GA only to watch over your organic search referral traffic and the occasional Facebook “like,” you didn’t hear it from me, but a large flowerpot is falling toward you from that eighth-story window. As we speak.
- Gmail. Yep, there’s a corporate version of Google Mail you might want to look into, but most of you are rampantly using Gmail for free. So save the rant about the “intrusive” ads…especially if you’re in marketing. Consider figuring out how to buy the ads in Gmail if you haven’t already. You might even have clients who could class up the place. Is Google currently making money hand over fist on this free service? You have to wonder. After years and years of running “lucrative” Hotmail, Microsoft appears to be shutting it down. Yahoo Mail is a leading service, and that company isn’t exactly pumping out Apple-esque profits either.
There is one free Google thing that went away a few years ago, and that’s the annual Google Dance event held in connection with the Bay Area stop of the SES conference every summer. Hey Google, most of the attendees pay to attend the conferences; and they’ll wear the dickens out of the t-shirts as they smile at the camera and post the results on Google+ so they can enhance their Klout scores, or on Pinterest (for reasons unknown). Bring back the Google Dance! Karma…
This column originally appeared at ClickZ on Aug. 24, 2012. Reprinted by permission.