Google’s ads boss says trust is the biggest issue facing the web

20 Sep 2018999 Views

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Google’s Sridhar Ramaswamy pictured at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York. Image: Noam Galai/Getty Images/TechCrunch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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The head of Google’s global ads business, Sridhar Ramaswamy, believes in the open web, but warns trust is crucial. He talks to John Kennedy.

As senior vice-president of ads and commerce at Google, Sridhar Ramaswamy oversees all of Google’s advertising products. These include search, display and video advertising, analytics, shopping, payments, and travel.

Ramaswamy joined Google in 2003, the same year that the company opened its first overseas office in Dublin with the intention of creating around 100 or so jobs. He has visited the city pretty much every year since then and has seen it blossom to a workforce of more than 7,000 people and growing.

‘We believe sincerely in the open web and the role we have played in making information available to everyone on the planet’
– SRIDHAR RAMASWAMY

He has been an integral part of the growth of AdWords (now Google Ads) and is the architect behind Google’s multibillion-dollar advertising business.

He was in Dublin this week to speak at the Irish Government’s Data Summit.

As we talk in the meeting room at the top of the towering Montevetro building, just behind Ramaswamy the city of Dublin basks in the kind of bright and stark autumnal sunlight you can only experience on a September evening. The majesty of the view contrasts with his modest appraisal of what he does. “I’m a software engineer, but by training a computer scientist.”

Ramaswamy earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and his master of science and PhD in computer science from Brown University. He has published numerous papers on database systems and database theory, and holds several patents in that area.

“When I joined Google in 2003, I already thought it was a huge company with 500 people,” he laughs. In his own words, he has been an intimate part of the overall Google strategy, pioneering such things as unobtrusive text ads and the ethos of paying for performance. “It has taught us to be user-focused, and focus on the relevance of an ad.”

He said that is the same commercial ethos driving Google today. “When we started, it was about making it easier for a blog publisher to monetise. Then, we bought DoubleClick and focused on showing ads on publisher pages and how to use a user’s browsing history to show ads for things they are potentially interested in.

“Users, advertisers and publishers define my life.”

A turning point in the narrative of the internet

Ramaswamy gets directly to the point: that the internet as we know it is at a turning point and the most important value of them all is trust.

‘Trust has become a slippery point, a big issue. When it comes to data, users are unsure how their browsing data is being used’
–  SRIDHAR RAMASWAMY

He’s not kidding. 2018 has been a dramatic year so far for data privacy and information security, with scandals ranging from the Cambridge Analytica affair that embroiled Facebook, to ‘fake news’ and Russian meddling in US elections. Not only that but Google CEO Sundar Pichai is in trouble with the US Senate for not turning up to be grilled about what tech giants are doing to curb foreign interference.

For Ramaswamy, the web constituent that matters most is the user. Trust, he warns, is the biggest issue facing the web as we know it in 2018.

“In terms of the value we need to provide users, their trust matters a lot. In terms of search and everything Google does, how do we offer more transparency to what a user’s been doing? To delete what they want if they don’t want search history to be associated with [their] account and allow them to opt out.

“We believe sincerely in the open web and the role we have played in making information available to everyone on the planet.”

Ramaswamy said that what is often misunderstood is the value of internet advertising for the economies of various countries. “The IAB [Internet Advertising Bureau] estimates about half-a-trillion euros of [economic] activity is generated in the EU alone, and the industry employs over 6m people. It has made it possible for the tiniest of companies, even a company selling Aran sweaters, to be able to reach an audience of over 10m because of reach of search and Google ads.

“Similarly for publishers, Her.ie, which is owned by Maximum Media, became one of the top online publishers in just eight years by working with partners like Google to help with monetisation.”

Despite the economic impact of the internet and the rise of the digital economy, Ramaswamy feels far from comfortable and believes that the web as we know it could be at a dangerous juncture. “User trust is a significant problem. Users are worried they don’t know who to trust.

“Trust has become a slippery point, a big issue. When it comes to data, they are unsure how their browsing data is being used. They have become annoyed by experiences of ads that follow them around the internet and the content they want to see. It is a big problem and something that the advertising industry needs to think about.”

Ad blocking and unilateral actions of browsers

Even the IAB has admitted in recent years that the online advertising and publishing industry had messed up because it cared too much about revenues and not enough about user experience. This is what made the rise of ad blocker tools inevitable.

Ramaswamy said that one of the “bad consequences” of ad blocking is that “it drives down monetisation for all publishers”. Instead of working together on resolving the problem, he warned that the tech industry is, through its own unilateral actions, exacerbating the problem.

He is of course referring to the most recent versions of Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox browser, which include blockers for ad tracking tools. “This could have a profound impact on the whole ads ecosystem,” Ramaswamy warned. “Things like what Apple and Firefox are doing can also get in the way of safety. And this is all the more reason why the ad industry needs to focus on issues users are grappling with and have solutions they are happy with.

“Google can and continues to do a lot when it comes to the transparency we offer users. Everything we know about a user, we try to make it accessible under their Google account.” This includes making it easier for users to transfer their data off Google’s systems, and working with the ecosystem to ensure GDPR compliance.

“With the spirit and intention of what the law set out, we make sure we don’t use any sensitive information about users; we don’t personalise ads on race or sexual orientation or health condition. We have also worked with industry to create a better ad standard with the Coalition for Better Ads and this has had a positive effect in the US.”

Ramaswamy said that GDPR and its enforcement mechanism has set a bar for the entire digital ecosystem. “The important question the industry needs to face is how do we re-establish and increase trust in advertising.

“We also need to think about the future of journalism. It is clear the news industry is suffering. Many of the things that were excellent for advertising in newspapers – car ads, travel –  have all migrated to specialist sites.”

Ramaswamy said Google believes that enabling newspapers to thrive is important for an open democratic society and that the internet giant has been working with publishers through the Google News Initiative. A crucial aspect of this is enabling publishers to get qualified subscribers. “Subscriptions will be an important part of the future of newspapers online.”

But he said that publisher trust and advertiser trust go hand in hand. “The open web confers a lot of benefit for users but, also, it has led to a situation where there is a lack of trust on part of users; how we get to a better place. It is a very important question.”

He said that Google has been working with partners, ad agencies and publishers to create new standards to ensure that ads online are not fraudulently misrepresented – all to restore trust.

“There is progress being made,” he said, but added that this progress is being threatened by the continued rise of ad blocker tools and the unilateral actions of Apple and Mozilla. The key will be in industry cooperation.

“Done poorly, these actions have the potential to turn off monetisation for a whole slew of websites. The bigger newspapers will be fine. The Guardian is succeeding with its donation model and they expect they will be breaking even in near future. The New York Times is happy with how subscriptions are going. But, think about your favourite recipe or travel site – they don’t have the potential to set up relationships with sets of advertisers.

“Sites like that will run out of options and our lives will be less diverse for it. That is a bigger worry.”

Google’s Sridhar Ramaswamy pictured at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York. Image: Noam Galai/Getty Images/TechCrunch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com