Amazon and Google Users Should Revolt Over Ad Barrage
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s an open secret: The user experience is deteriorating for many of the largest technology companies’ core products.
At fault is the steady, inexorable creep of advertising. More and more companies are allowing ads to infiltrate every facet of their services. It’s easy to see why: With tech giants’ immense size, each step toward more ads can generate the kind of money that’s almost impossible for a public company to turn down. But the result is an industry that has chosen to put bigger profits over the needs of its customers. And they shouldn’t accept it.
Consider, for example, Amazon.com Inc.’s sponsored search results. In a Forbes interview last year, Ryan Cohen, the co-founder of Chewy Inc. and now chairman of GameStop Inc., criticized the evolution of the e-commerce giant’s website. The “flood of third-party merchandise and sponsored ads [are] pushing aside organic search results,” he said. Search once showed the best-selling products, he added, “now the default search is really sponsored ads.”
Cohen is right. When I search Amazon for a popular video game like “Call of Duty,” my results are interspersed with nonsensical ads for different items and toys, including at the top.
Unfortunately, this is by design. In his book “Amazon Unbound,” my Bloomberg News colleague Brad Stone explained how Jeff Bezos himself approved the move to put the pay-to-play ads on top of the search results five years ago. It meant Bezos was fine with trading some of the company’s principle of “customer obsession” in exchange for ad revenue.
Amazon is hardly alone. Alphabet Inc.’s Google web searches suffer from a similar problem of frequently requiring users to wade through a page of ads before arriving at organic links. And swiping through Facebook Inc.’s Instagram feed is increasingly tedious when every fourth post is marketing. Apple Inc.’s App Store isn’t much better when it serves up a competitor’s ad above the app listing you’re looking for.
Some people believe the main platforms have grown so ubiquitous that they don’t have a choice about scrolling through pages of advertising. Amazon accounts for nearly half of U.S. online sales, while Facebook products dominate the personal social networking space. And Google may have the most commanding position of all, given its huge share of global search.
That’s why when there are alternatives, I recommend trying them. If enough people are willing to give upstarts a chance, the industry may feel competitive pressure to reconsider its approach.
Switching can be worth it. Following in the footsteps of Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey, I made DuckDuckGo the default search engine for my browsers this month. So far, I haven’t seen a difference in the quality of search results. And while there are some ads, they’re less obtrusive and voluminous. Plus, using DuckDuckGo has additional privacy benefits — the company says it doesn’t track search history or collect personal data. I’m happy with the switch.
Of course, the tech giants will argue that ads are often relevant and helpful. But that’s only if you already want to buy Vuori sweatpants or wear entirely Allbirds. It’s clear that deference to the bottom line is what’s truly driving companies’ actions on advertising. And the sad fact is that ad creep will continue — until one day, maybe, consumers finally revolt.
Personally, I’ve already hit the breaking point, and I bet I’m not alone.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron's, following an earlier career as an equity analyst.
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