The revolution will be searched for through Google

18 March 2007

When the Information Revolution ads first appeared on London's tube trains, saying there was some kind of monopoly on information and 75 per cent of it goes through one company, my first thought was whether someone was having a pop at Google. Then I thought it must be some large telco trying to make it out it was in charge of the world's information because it owned a lot of pipes, largely because 75 per cent of the world's information does not come through Google, which one of the ads suggests. It was only the other day that I saw an ad online and bothered to click on it to work out what the wannabe Banksies were actually trying to say.

It turned out my first instinct was closer: it's all about the infighting between search engines. As the blog at Curverider by Ben Werdmuller points out, it's apparently paid for by Ask.com. The text tells you that 75 per cent of people in the UK use "one search engine" - oh, now you tell me what the 75 per cent is all about - carefully not naming Google. Why not? Is it a state secret?

Some people are annoyed about the underhand nature of the campaign, pretending to be some grass-roots movement rather than a plug for a non-Google search engine. For a long list of ticked-off punters, check out the comments to the site's own blog. This one stood out:

"It amuses me that you pitched your campaign at the very demographic that would be most disgusted when they (quickly) realised the site was simply a thinly-veiled marketing front."

To me, it's just a waste of money. At no point did the real-world ads make me want to go and find out more - it was clear it was a plug for some company that wanted to look cool. Those companies are best avoided.

What's most impressively stupid about the campaign is its portrayal of Google as some kind of digital soma, turning internet users into "droids" or "sleep searchers" for simply using the first name that comes up in the browser's search box. That's fine, you can call me what you like, but when you can demonstrate markedly better results I will switch. Recent uses of Ask.com suggest that it has got better, but I've never found it to be better than Google.

Now, if they had just paid for ads saying, "try out Ask.com and see how it's changed", the chances are I would have thought, OK, I'll give it a go. Running some deeply obscure ad campaign that will leave most people cold and then telling those that turn up will make most harden their reaction and even defend Google. Only a tiny minority will do what Ask.com wants: try it out.

If Ask.com really wanted to stoke up trouble, they could go easily have gone after Google's cookie policy and its storage of searches. Google has recently changed its policy but has made many of its services dependent on its ability to tie each IP address to a record of usage in the interest (presumably) of serving up ads that reflect that usage. That looks like an easy target for me. But, then again, Ask.com does not exactly skimp on the cookies. The "ForseeLoyalty_MID" cookie has intriguing connotations, not to mention "wz_uid", which expires in 2038 and contains a very long hex string. Wonder what that one's for.

However, the guerilla campaign probably sounded great in the strategy meeting. You can almost hear wonder aloud about whether they would pick up an award for it. And they probably will, even if it's only made of wood and is very spoon-like.