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Evan Schuman: Is Google forgetting that interactivity pays its bills?

Evan Schuman | May 28, 2014
As Google gears up for the Internet of Things, its vision seems a bit off. Thermostats as billboards?

A few months ago, I did a column about the Internet of Things and how Google would likely use the data that will be collected from thermostats, refrigerators and cars. Well, it turns out that Google -- in a letter to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (written Jan. 29 but disclosed only in the last few days) -- is envisioning even more direct pitches.

"For example, a few years from now, we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches, to name just a few possibilities," wrote Google Finance Director Amie Thuener in the letter to Stephen Krikorian, an SEC accounting branch chief.

First off, I don't want to over-interpret this utterance. It is clearly speculative, guessing that "a few years from now" Google and others "could" be doing this, adding that it's merely one of many "possibilities." That said, this wasn't a casual email. Finance directors of Fortune 100 companies (at more than $52 billion in annual revenue, Google in 2013 was Fortune 55) don't send formal letters to the SEC without legal and the executive team reviewing and approving every comma. Hence, it's not reckless to assume that when Google spent several sentences discussing this scenario in an SEC document, it's a serious strategy element with senior management backing.

But it's also wacky. The true marketing magic of the Internet is interactivity, and few know that better than Google. Let's say someone is conducting Google searches involving political campaigns of Chicago in the 1920s. An ad pops up about a book called The Political Campaigns of 1920s Chicago. The searcher clicks and she is on an Amazon page that lets her look inside the book. She reads a review and then uses one-click to have it paid for and sent to her house. Total time from the ad popping up to her purchase? Maybe three minutes. Total effort? Maybe three or four clicks.

Now let's move it to a thermostat. At best, we are going back to the world of the freeway billboard. It gets a message out there: "Miller Beer is refreshing." It stops there. It hopes that you'll remember that hours from now when you will be in a position to make that purchase.

The business issue is that advertisers today expect lots of ROI metrics about clicks and actions and registration forms. In that Chicago book example, how many clicked to Amazon? How many read a page? How many read a review? How many put the book in their cart? How many bought it?

Google's world is all about the metrics. It seems unlikely that thermostats and refrigerators will have screens and keyboards sufficient to support interactive sessions, and certainly not convenient ones.


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