Google: the critical marketing company

It is funny how things turn out – a point made movingly by Steve Job’s before his death. This is why I’m always skeptical of people who say business research has to support and congratulate business to be productive. And believe it or not there are plenty of people (often highly paid in top universities) who do say this. It is one of the reasons any academic research label “critical” gets marginalised.

But wait.

Google is an incredibly successful company. As is made clear in its recent corporate re-structuring, it is also predominantly an advertising company. Perhaps it is the most successful advertising company ever. Yet, ironically, it began as a critical marketing project.

In their paper which introduced the Google search engine, Brin and Page were highly critical of the influence of advertising on the web. In fact, this is listed as one of the key motivations for developing a new search engine. The very first paragraph of the paper tells us that they set out to overcome: ‘some advertisers attempt[s] to gain people’s attention by taking measures meant to mislead automated search engines’. They go on to critique the effects of an ‘advertising business model’ on the quality of web searches. They even stated that ‘advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results’. And concluded that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers … In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want’.

In this case, the freedom to critique and question the advertising business model allowed Brin and Page the ability to understand it better and to exploit their understanding. Why do we not see similar arguments in top marketing journals?