First, Google learned to monetize its search engine by selling space for advertising; Google has for years held a virtual monopoly in search that it monetized by selling its inventory of space for digital ads responsive to user searches. But Google also recognized that, in addition, it could use the vast amounts of data it gathered about its users to make a play for profits, data, and associated power in the related market for digital display advertising, i.e., advertising that users see when they open a page on a website or app. However, the open web contained many companies that were competing to deliver ad revenue to websites and apps. Google wanted a “walled garden” within which it could monetize without fear of competition, as Facebook and Amazon now have built. So it set out to create one using its market power in search.
Google launched this strategy by allowing firms to buy simple text display ads through the same “order form” they used to buy search ads. Google acquired a number of previously independent firms that provided the “ad tech” services necessary to facilitate advertisers’ placement of ads on publishers’ websites and pushed this demand through them. Google built a dataset for its ad tech services that utilized the user data from its search engine and other customer-facing properties (Google Maps, Gmail, etc.) to give itself a superior ability to “target” ads to the right viewers. It eventually launched its Ads Data Hub, a tool that allows advertisers to upload customer data, combine it with search and other data from Google, and devise an advertising campaign, but not to take the data out—unless it is exported to one of Google’s ad tech services. The market power in search allows Google to maintain a lock on all kinds of data generated by publishers and advertisers and intermediaries and is a key part of Google’s ability to acquire and maintain its dominant position across the broader digital advertising ecosystem.
Google then deployed a number of additional anticompetitive levers such as exclusive contracts and denial of interoperability to exclude and prevent entry by ad tech competitors and/or raise their costs, cementing its place as the dominant provider of digital advertising placement in both search and display for most publishers and advertisers. Google took advantage of its unique position—through its acquisitions and denial of interoperability, it services sellers and buyers and conducts the auctions through which they transact and owns the data necessary to target ads and track ad attribution as users traverse the web—to advantage itself vis-à-vis all other participants in the market. But even this wasn’t enough. Google also acquired YouTube and then denied to rival ad tech companies full access to this critical advertising destination, thereby funneling even more commerce through its own ad tech services.
When Google places ads on YouTube, just as when it places ads on its own search results pages, Google pays no “traffic acquisition costs” because it needn’t pay any publisher for access to the “eyeballs” that will see or interact with the ads it helps place. Google keeps the entirety of the ad spend for itself. For this reason, Google has an incentive to exclude and disadvantage its rivals in the supply of display inventory, the publishers. Google uses its design of measurement of ads served as well as payment to disadvantage other publishers. Its data policies—including its collection of data about users who visit and interact with particular websites—allows Google to access and monetize the publishers’ audiences without paying those publishers. Google also developed Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, a format that permits pages to load quickly on mobile devices. Google caches the AMPs, the result being that, when an ad appears on an AMP, Google pays a smaller portion of the ad spend to the publisher, and also keeps most of the data about the web user for itself. Google has also recently announced that it will no longer support third-party cookies that allow other ad tech participants to share data about viewers. Without sharing, only a company that occupies all layers of the ad tech stack—namely, Google—will be able to target audiences and attribute payment. In other words, only Google can operate a full-service digital ad business. Moreover, because Google is vertically integrated into all aspects of the ad tech ecosystem, it can design the technical interoperability, the information, and fee structure to make any part of its business “profitable” or not. The ability to shift margins around the supply chain enables Google to harm competitors and deter entry in segments of the industry that would be threatening.
Finally, Google actively maintains secrecy over a variety of elements in the complex and fast-evolving functions it serves in this market—we call this “opacity”—which makes it difficult for market participants to understand the prices they pay and the value they receive. Opacity also suppresses entry in that potential competitors cannot demonstrate (to publishers, advertisers, or investors) that they can offer lower prices or higher quality than Google.
The end result is that, in the digital advertising market, virtually all roads lead through Google. Google now performs every function that connects advertisers to publishers. Using the insurmountable data advantage it derives from its search engine and other properties as well as contract and design choices, Google has made it nearly impossible for publishers and advertisers to do business with each other except through Google.