Google, Sicko, and Why Everyone is Wrong

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by: Roger Dooley 

Google has been getting pounded for a blog post by a Google Health account staffer, Lauren Turner, after she posted a suggestion in her blog that health care firms could use Google advertising to fight negative publicity from Michael Moore’s new movie, Sicko. Coverage includes The Google Blogger Vs. Sicko at, Google-’Sicko’ FUD at WIRED, Google Criticized Over ‘Sicko’ Ad Campaign at RealTechNews, and a whole lot more. Turner has tried to backpedal out of the controversy by stating the blog post was a personal opinion, not Google corporate policy. Search pundit Danny Sullivan, in Google, “Sicko” Opinions & Issues With Playing Ad Agency, suggests that Google should step away from playing ad agency to specific industries. Although I tend to agree with most of Danny’s well-informed opinions, on this one I come down in the opposing camp.

Google is following a time-honored tradition of dedicating sales and support staff to specific industries. These individuals become extensions of their clients, advocate for them, and help them solve problems. They aren’t there to look out for overriding corporate concerns, global warming, or anything else – their job is to help their clients be successful while at the same time ensuring that Google is successful, too. It’s likely that different industry specialists might have very different opinions and advice on the same topic. For example, in the face of a brewing controversy about a potentially dangerous drug, a Google account specialist serving trial lawyers would no doubt have recommendations diametrically opposed to one serving pharmaceutical firms. As long as Google reps don’t advocate illegal or unethical behavior, and don’t trade client confidential information internally, why should we be concerned about them providing the best possible advice for their clients?

Years ago, I was part of a company that numbered the U.S. automakers among its clients. The same reps did not call on GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Rather, a different individual handled each. The Ford rep, of course, drove a Ford, was well-versed in Ford history and tradition, cultivated relationships throughout the organization, and had nothing to do with the other auto firms. There was little opportunity to leak, even accidentally, information about what the competition was doing. It was a two-way street – not only did the rep present my company’s products to the auto firm, but also served as an advocate within our company when special needs came along or when delivery was particularly critical. Although these reps were clearly employees of my firm, their loyalty had to be shared with their clients, too – a situation that’s true of any dedicated and successful salesperson. I’d expect nothing less of Google account staff.

Google, perhaps, is unique because virtually every industry and business is a potential customer. In order to maximize its own success, Google needs to have specialized individuals working with these businesses (many of whom remain largely clueless about web marketing) to show them creative ways to promote their products and interests using Google ad programs. Perhaps the main difference between Google and my old company is that some of the advocacy and assistance is done in public via blogs, forums, and the like. Hence, it’s more subject to scrutiny and criticism by the competition as well as those who have no direct interest other than some opinion they want to flog. That’s what happened here – sensible marketing advice for one group of clients was offered in a public venue, and a boatload of reporters chose to make it appear that Google was part of a conspiracy to limit healthcare options. I don’t think that Google should abandon its efforts to assist its clients with creative suggestions – perhaps, though, only the most bland and generic ideas should be floated in public.

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