Is Google an Advertising Company?

Reading one of John Gruber’s pieces comparing iOS and Android, which I mostly skimmed because I grow tired of reading a fanboi’s attempts at measured reasoning, I bounced to the end and caught a sentence I’ve heard at least once before:

Google is an advertising company that builds popular services that command large audiences.

I remember Justin (@oracletechnet) saying that years ago. I don’t remember why or in what context, but it stuck with me as curious.

I don’t see Google as an advertising company, even though the lion’s share of their money comes from ads. I see them as a technology company, a mix of software, hardware and over-the-air (ok fine, cloud) services. This is what they do.

But is this what they are?

I don’t disagree with the assertion that Google is an advertising company. It just feels like the answer to a totally different question. Like someone asked you what you want to eat, and you replied “I prefer a four-wheel drive super car.”


Then again, I’m too close to the problem to see clearly, so what do you think?

Incidentally, Google has had a major week, Nexus S, Gingerbread, Honeycomb tablets, Chrome OS tablets, eBook store and my Google TV review.

Borderline epic.




  1. I’d stick it in “media”, like TV and newspapers. They are a delivery mechanism, supplying enough ‘content’ to eyeballs to make the adverts acceptable. The tech stack is just there to support content delivery. But they do get revenue from enterprise sales of Google Apps, Maps etc, so it doesn’t fit cleanly into a single category.

    Now is Apple a tech company or, with iTunes, a retailer ?

  2. Gruber calls Apple a retailer.

    I may need to reevaluate my tech company definition. Something about Google as an ad company doesn’t sit right, but everyone makes good arguments for that definition.

  3. Distinguish between the “what” and the “why.” What does Google do? Technology? Why? To get all those eyeballs looking at the ads.

    Of course, if you use the same method to evaluate other companies, then the New York Times and CBS are also advertising companies (although both of them get revenue from other sources, such as cable/satellite subscribers).

  4. I don’t think people bother with that distinction, which is what makes this such an interesting question. It’s all about initial reaction.

  5. I’ve been saying it for a long time in many places too, including this:

    It’s not a totally different question. In the business game, money is the measure. You must always ask, “where does the money come from? Where does it go? How should we expect this to change in the future?” Anything else is little more than marketing fluff, like the clueless guy who wants to hire you to write “the next twitter.”

    Now, it is ok to be too close and only feel the the elephant as a tree trunk, if you make nail clipper/woodchippers.

  6. I dunno if money is always measure. Apple doesn’t strike me as a retailer, but others argue so. I suppose the big rub for me is that Google creates technology; they don’t really create ads.

    So, when asked what a company “does,” I don’t answer “makes money” or “sells ads” if they actually create something.

  7. So, you’re a lemming if you think Google’s an advertising company? Or you’re a lemming if you think they do technology? Or you don’t make a distinction?

  8. I do not see Google as an advertising company in any way shape or form. It doesn’t make it true though. I use the tools; Search, Docs, GMail, etc.

    I should know better too…I read alot, I know how they make money, but it doesn’t change how I think about them. Yes, it is eyeballs, I get it. Just doesn’t change my perception though.

  9. All that shows is you view product creation as productivity. In a sane world, you would be right.

    But that is not how productivity is defined. And the world isn’t necessarily sane.

    Think of Ford and GM (before the recent troubles). You think they are car companies, right? And yet, for quite a bit of time, they were more finance companies – even a lot of production was shoved into rental companies, owned by each, forcing both income and writeoffs. Now look at them – most of their troubles were ultimately finance based. Ford managed to come out ahead not because of product, but because of defensive financial maneuvers.

    The Emperor’s what and why distinction is very good, as is Gary’s. The definition of what a company does will vary by the audience you are writing for. And of course, anything you write will be filtered and adjusted by the audience.

    A new company needs to grow and make money, or it will die, no matter how good its product is. Angel investors or product development incubators only last for so long, the little birdie needs to get tossed from the nest and fly on its own. Even Angry Birds followed many, many losers, and will spawn many more.

  10. You guys all make sense, but my mind is trained to measure goods and services when asked what a company does or is. So, everyone one is right, but we can’t agree on a single answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *