In a terms of service update released last Friday and effective Nov. 11, Google announced the start of its use of shared endorsements on its advertising network. The program is similar to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, launched back in 2011. Users who reveal their endorsement may serve as pitchmen to their friends in an eventual ad.
A possible reason, and the most appealing aspect of Google’s initiative, is that it resembles the word-of-mouth effect, a powerful advertising strategy in real life. Or, possibly because Facebook had already experimented with the option, Google was more open to the idea. The search giant might have also just adopted the competitor’s approach for fear of missing online ad money’s migration to social networks.
But Google shouldn’t bother copying Facebook.
Although the ad format is relatively successful — Facebook’s Sponsored Stories made about $4 million per day by the end of September 2012 — user complaints eventually led the company to decide to drop the feature. In fact, Facebook was the subject of a class action lawsuit for using Sponsored Stories without permission.
Second, advertisers are indeed becoming more faithful to social websites. But simply adopting a social media platform’s format of selling ads is not a guarantee that it will grab attention if the website doesn’t have an appealing audience — which is still the case with Google Plus.
Third, the word-of-mouth effect is very difficult to implement. The nuances of real world influence are too complex to simulate — especially since the psychology of online interactions differs from face-to-face relationships.
The main problem with most online ads is that the websites portraying them appear to be sorry to show ad content, instead of proudly trying to connect brands with consumers. Most websites are afraid of bothering users by asking them directly about what kinds of products they would like to hear about, and instead try to guess what they want based on their online behavior — a task difficult even for a human expert.
Businesses that have ever tried to reach an audience understand the importance of ads. Moreover, consumers are eager to learn about new products. These users would probably not mind spending a few minutes telling a website what kinds of ads they’d like to see.
If a website were to show quality ads, or were willing to put business in contact with consumers, and vice versa, perhaps users would be less frightened of releasing personal information. And if Google Plus were the one to do so, perhaps people would finally consider using it. Copying Facebook’s approach certainly won’t do.
A version of this article appeared in Thursday, Oct. 17 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]