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May 28, 2008updated 29 May 2008 12:11am

Far from Google’s slick conference, an awkward squad of media owners and agencies starts to protest

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Was James Ashton of the Sunday Times invited to meet Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google’s high-falutin’ Zeitgeist conference in a hotel on the outskirts of Watford last week?

It doesn’t look like it.

Last weekend, Ashton chose not to focus on Google’s own version of the World Economic Forum, complete with cameos by Gordon Brown and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Instead, he latched on to something that Google would rather not see mentioned: its evident monopoly of the search market.

Ashton’s piece kicks off with Neilsen’s suggestion that Google’s market share has risen from 57% all UK-based searches in July 2005 to 81% last month.

Google, he adds, is used on average 23 times a month by every person in Britain. Ashton writes:

It has got to the point where media buyers cannot afford to exclude Google from their online campaigns by relying on the smaller search engines of Yahoo and Microsoft.

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Against this backdrop, Ashton wheels out an impressive cast of malcontents. There’s Sly Bailey asking The Lords for lighter touch regulation. (‘I am not arguing that they should be regulated more, I am arguing that we should be regulated less.”

Alongside her, there’s Sir Michael Grade of ITV who (in Ashton’s words) “regularly invokes Google’s liberty when campaigning to overhaul contract-rights renewal”.

Or how about John Smith, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, who recently wondered aloud at an industry conference whether regulators “might start to gain an interest in search engines.”

Here, too, is Jason Carter, the UK managing partner for digital at mega-agency Universal McCann, asking for relief. (‘We would like more competition in the marketplace.”)

At this point, it’s worth stepping back and looking at the anti-Google coalition stitched together by Ashton.

It’s cross media (from Trinity Mirror to ITV). It’s both public and private sector (from ITV to BBC). And it includes both advertisers and media owners (who typically agree on something — anything — with about the same frequency as our planet receives visits from Halley’s Comet).

The problem, as one of Ashton’s sources put it, is that regulators “aren’t sure” how to regulate Google.

With good reason. The challenge is international — and complex. And for all the regulators know, Google’s plans to move into other forms of advertising might not bear quite so much fruit as its ventures in search. That would leave a company dependent on rapid growth in a difficult situation.

For all of that, Ashton’s piece does point to a coalition in the making. Yes, it’s blurred round the edges and unsure of its aims — but it’s a coalition none the less.

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