The Antitrust Case Against Google’s Adtech Business, Explained
This week the Senate will hold a hearing into potential anticompetitive conduct by Google in its display advertising business—the “stack” of products that it offers to advertisers seeking to place display ads on third-party websites. It is also widely reported that the Department of Justice is preparing a lawsuit against Google that will likely include allegations of anticompetitive behavior in this market, and is likely to be joined by a number of state attorneys general in that lawsuit. Meanwhile, several papers have been published detailing these allegations.
This aspect of digital advertising can be incredibly complex and difficult to understand. Here we explain how display advertising fits in the broader digital advertising market, describe how display advertising works, consider the main allegations against Google, and explain why Google’s critics are misguided to focus on antitrust as a solution to alleged problems in the market (even if those allegations turn out to be correct).
Display advertising in context
Over the past decade, the price of advertising has fallen steadily while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the US grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period the Producer Price Index for Internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. The rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year. Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of GDP, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost, and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market.
Display advertising on third-party websites is only a small subsection of the digital advertising market, comprising approximately 15-20% of digital advertising spending in the US. The rest of the digital advertising market is made up of ads on search results pages on sites like Google, Amazon and Kayak, on people’s Instagram and Facebook feeds, listings on sites like Zillow (for houses) or Craigslist, referral fees paid to price comparison websites for things like health insurance, audio and visual ads on services like Spotify and Hulu, and sponsored content from influencers and bloggers who will promote products to their fans.
And digital advertising itself is only one of many channels through which companies can market their products. About 53% of total advertising spending in the United States goes on digital channels, with 30% going on TV advertising and the rest on things like radio ads, billboards and other more traditional forms of advertising. A few people still even read physical newspapers and the ads they contain, although physical newspapers’ bigger money makers have traditionally been classified ads, which have been replaced by less costly and more effective internet classifieds, such as those offered by Craigslist, or targeted ads on Google Maps or Facebook.
Indeed, it should be noted that advertising itself is only part of the larger marketing market of which non-advertising marketing communication—e.g., events, sales promotion, direct marketing, telemarketing, product placement—is as big a part as is advertising (each is roughly $500bn globally); it just hasn’t been as thoroughly disrupted by the Internet yet. But it is a mistake to assume that digital advertising is not a part of this broader market. And of that $1tr global market, Internet advertising in total occupies only about 18%—and thus display advertising only about 3%.
Ad placement is only one part of the cost of digital advertising. An advertiser trying to persuade people to buy its product must also do market research and analytics to find out who its target market is and what they want. Moreover, there are the costs of designing and managing a marketing campaign and additional costs to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign.
Nevertheless, one of the most straightforward ways to earn money from a website is to show ads to readers alongside the publisher’s content. To satisfy publishers’ demand for advertising revenues, many services have arisen to automate and simplify the placement of and payment for ad space on publishers’ websites. Google plays a large role in providing these services—what is referred to as “open display” advertising. And it is Google’s substantial role in this space that has sparked speculation and concern among antitrust watchdogs and enforcement authorities.
Before delving into the open display advertising market, a quick note about terms. In these discussions, “advertisers” are businesses that are trying to sell people stuff. Advertisers include large firms such as Best Buy and Disney and small businesses like the local plumber or financial adviser. “Publishers” are websites that carry those ads, and publish content that users want to read. Note that the term “publisher” refers to all websites regardless of the things they’re carrying: a blog about the best way to clean stains out of household appliances is a “publisher” just as much as the New York Times is.
Under this broad definition, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are also considered publishers. In their role as publishers, they have a common goal: to provide content that attracts users to their pages who will act on the advertising displayed. “Users” are you and me—the people who want to read publishers’ content, and to whom advertisers want to show ads. Finally, “intermediaries” are the digital businesses, like Google, that sit in between the advertisers and the publishers, allowing them to do business with each other without ever meeting or speaking.
The display advertising market
If you’re an advertiser, display advertising works like this: your company—one that sells shoes, let’s say—wants to reach a certain kind of person and tell her about the company’s shoes. These shoes are comfortable, stylish, and inexpensive. You use a tool like Google Ads (or, if it’s a big company and you want a more expansive campaign over which you have more control, Google Marketing Platform) to design and upload an ad, and tell Google about the people you want to read—their age and location, say, and/or characterizations of their past browsing and searching habits (“interested in sports”).
Using that information, Google finds ad space on websites whose audiences match the people you want to target. This ad space is auctioned off to the highest bidder among the range of companies vying, with your shoe company, to reach users matching the characteristics of the website’s users. Thanks to tracking data, it doesn’t just have to be sports-relevant websites: as a user browses sports-related sites on the web, her browser picks up files (cookies) that will tag her as someone potentially interested in sports apparel for targeting later.
So a user might look at a sports website and then later go to a recipe blog, and there receive the shoes ad on the basis of her earlier browsing. You, the shoe seller, hope that she will either click through and buy (or at least consider buying) the shoes when she sees those ads, but one of the benefits of display advertising over search advertising is that—as with TV ads or billboard ads—just seeing the ad will make her aware of the product and potentially more likely to buy it later. Advertisers thus sometimes pay on the basis of clicks, sometimes on the basis of views, and sometimes on the basis of conversion (when a consumer takes an action of some sort, such as making a purchase or filling out a form).
That’s the advertiser’s perspective. From the publisher’s perspective—the owner of that recipe blog, let’s say—you want to auction ad space off to advertisers like that shoe company. In that case, you go to an ad server—Google’s product is called AdSense—give them a little bit of information about your site, and add some html code to your website. These ad servers gather information about your content (e.g., by looking at keywords you use) and your readers (e.g., by looking at what websites they’ve used in the past to make guesses about what they’ll be interested in) and places relevant ads next to and among your content. If they click, lucky you—you’ll get paid a few cents or dollars.
Apart from privacy concerns about the tracking of users, the really tricky and controversial part here concerns the way scarce advertising space is allocated. Most of the time, it’s done through auctions that happen in real time: each time a user loads a website, an auction is held in a fraction of a second to decide which advertiser gets to display an ad. The longer this process takes, the slower pages load and the more likely users are to get frustrated and go somewhere else.
As well as the service hosting the auction, there are lots of little functions that different companies perform that make the auction and placement process smoother. Some fear that by offering a very popular product integrated end to end, Google’s “stack” of advertising products can bias auctions in favour of its own products. There’s also speculation that Google’s product is so tightly integrated and so effective at using data to match users and advertisers that it is not viable for smaller rivals to compete.
We’ll discuss this speculation and fear in more detail below. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this kind of real-time bidding for ad placement was not always the norm, and is not the only way that websites display ads to their users even today. Big advertisers and websites often deal with each other directly. As with, say, TV advertising, large companies advertising often have a good idea about the people they want to reach. And big publishers (like popular news websites) often have a good idea about who their readers are. For example, big brands often want to push a message to a large number of people across different customer types as part of a broader ad campaign.
Of these kinds of direct sales, sometimes the space is bought outright, in advance, and reserved for those advertisers. In most cases, direct sales are run through limited, intermediated auction services that are not open to the general market. Put together, these kinds of direct ad buys account for close to 70% of total US display advertising spending. The remainder—the stuff that’s left over after these kinds of sales have been done—is typically sold through the real-time, open display auctions described above.
Different adtech products compete on their ability to target customers effectively, to serve ads quickly (since any delay in the auction and ad placement process slows down page load times for users), and to do so inexpensively. All else equal (including the effectiveness of the ad placement), advertisers want to pay the lowest possible price to place an ad. Similarly, publishers want to receive the highest possible price to display an ad. As a result, both advertisers and publishers have a keen interest in reducing the intermediary’s “take” of the ad spending.
This is all a simplification of how the market works. There is not one single auction house for ad space—in practice, many advertisers and publishers end up having to use lots of different auctions to find the best price. As the market evolved to reach this state from the early days of direct ad buys, new functions that added efficiency to the market emerged.
In the early years of ad display auctions, individual processes in the stack were performed by numerous competing companies. Through a process of “vertical integration” some companies, such as Google, brought these different processes under the same roof, with the expectation that integration would streamline the stack and make the selling and placement of ads more efficient and effective. The process of vertical integration in pursuit of efficiency has led to a more consolidated market in which Google is the largest player, offering simple, integrated ad buying products to advertisers and ad selling products to publishers.
Google is by no means the only integrated adtech service provider, however: Facebook, Amazon, Verizon, AT&T/Xandr, theTradeDesk, LumenAd, Taboola and others also provide end-to-end adtech services. But, in the market for open auction placement on third-party websites, Google is the biggest.
The cases against Google
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) carried out a formal study into the digital advertising market between 2019 and 2020, issuing its final report in July of this year. Although also encompassing Google’s Search advertising business and Facebook’s display advertising business (both of which relate to ads on those companies “owned and operated” websites and apps), the CMA study involved the most detailed independent review of Google’s open display advertising business to date.
That study did not lead to any competition enforcement proceedings against Google—the CMA concluded, in other words, that Google had not broken UK competition law—but it did conclude that Google’s vertically integrated products led to conflicts of interest that could lead it to behaving in ways that did not benefit the advertisers and publishers that use it. One example was Google’s withholding of certain data from publishers that would make it easier for them to use other ad selling products; another was the practice of setting price floors that allegedly led advertisers to pay more than they would otherwise.
Instead the CMA recommended the setting up of a “Digital Markets Unit” (DMU) that could regulate digital markets in general, and a code of conduct for Google and Facebook (and perhaps other large tech platforms) intended to govern their dealings with smaller customers.
The CMA’s analysis is flawed, however. For instance, it makes big assumptions about the dependency of advertisers on display advertising, largely assuming that they would not switch to other forms of advertising if prices rose, and it is light on economics. But factually it is the most comprehensively researched investigation into digital advertising yet published.
Piggybacking on the CMA’s research, and mounting perhaps the strongest attack on Google’s adtech offerings to date, was a paper released just prior to the CMA’s final report called “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”, by Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton and Omidyar Network lawyer David Dinielli. Dinielli will testify before the Senate committee.
While the Scott Morton and Dinielli paper is extremely broad, it also suffers from a number of problems.
One, because it was released before the CMA’s final report, it is largely based on the interim report released months earlier by the CMA, halfway through the market study in December 2019. This means that several of its claims are out of date. For example, it makes much of the possibility raised by the CMA in its interim report that Google may take a larger cut of advertising spending than its competitors, and claims made in another report that Google introduces “hidden” fees that increases the overall cut it takes from ad auctions.
But in the final report, after further investigation, the CMA concludes that this is not the case. In the final report, the CMA describes its analysis of all Google Ad Manager open auctions related to UK web traffic during the period between 8–14 March 2020 (involving billions of auctions). This, according to the CMA, allowed it to observe any possible “hidden” fees as well. The CMA concludes:
Our analysis found that, in transactions where both Google Ads and Ad Manager (AdX) are used, Google’s overall take rate is approximately 30% of advertisers’ spend. This is broadly in line with (or slightly lower than) our aggregate market-wide fee estimate outlined above. We also calculated the margin between the winning bid and the second highest bid in AdX for Google and non-Google DSPs, to test whether Google was systematically able to win with a lower margin over the second highest bid (which might have indicated that they were able to use their data advantage to extract additional hidden fees). We found that Google’s average winning margin was similar to that of non-Google DSPs. Overall, this evidence does not indicate that Google is currently extracting significant hidden fees. As noted below, however, it retains the ability and incentive to do so. (p. 275, emphasis added)
Scott Morton and Dinielli also misquote and/or misunderstand important sections of the CMA interim report as relating to display advertising when, in fact, they relate to search. For example, Scott Morton and Dinielli write that the “CMA concluded that Google has nearly insurmountable advantages in access to location data, due to the location information [uniquely available to it from other sources].” (p. 15). The CMA never makes any claim of “insurmountable advantage,” however. Rather, to support the claim, Scott Morton and Dinielli cite to a portion of the CMA interim report recounting a suggestion made by Microsoft regarding the “critical” value of location data in providing relevant advertising.
But that portion of the report, as well as the suggestion made by Microsoft, is about search advertising. While location data may also be valuable for display advertising, it is not clear that the GPS-level data that is so valuable in providing mobile search ad listings (for a nearby cafe or restaurant, say) is particularly useful for display advertising, which may be just as well-targeted by less granular, city- or county-level location data, which is readily available from a number of sources. In any case, Scott Morton and Dinielli are simply wrong to use a suggestion offered by Microsoft relating to search advertising to demonstrate the veracity of an assertion about a conclusion drawn by the CMA regarding display advertising.
Scott Morton and Dinielli also confusingly word their own judgements about Google’s conduct in ways that could be misinterpreted as conclusions by the CMA:
The CMA reports that Google has implemented an anticompetitive sales strategy on the publisher ad server end of the intermediation chain. Specifically, after purchasing DoubleClick, which became its publisher ad server, Google apparently lowered its prices to publishers by a factor of ten, at least according to one publisher’s account related to the CMA. (p. 20)
In fact, the CMA does not conclude that Google lowering its prices was an “anticompetitive sales strategy”—it does not use these words at all—and what Scott Morton and Dinielli are referring to is a claim by a rival ad server business, Smart, that Google cutting its prices after acquiring Doubleclick led to Google expanding its market share. Apart from the misleading wording, it is unclear why a competition authority should consider it to be “anticompetitive” when prices are falling and kept low, and—as Smart reported to the CMA—its competitor’s response is to enhance its own offering.
The case that remains
Stripping away the elements of Scott Morton and Dinielli’s case that seem unsubstantiated by a more careful reading of the CMA reports, and with the benefit of the findings in the CMA’s final report, we are left with a case that argues that Google self-preferences to an unreasonable extent, giving itself a product that is as successful as it is in display advertising only because of Google’s unique ability to gain advantage from its other products that have little to do with display advertising. Because of this self-preferencing, they might argue, innovative new entrants cannot compete on an equal footing, so the market loses out on incremental competition because of the advantages Google gets from being the world’s biggest search company, owning YouTube, running Google Maps and Google Cloud, and so on.
The most significant examples of this are Google’s use of data from other products—like location data from Maps or viewing history from YouTube—to target ads more effectively; its ability to enable advertisers placing search ads to easily place display ads through the same interface; its introduction of faster and more efficient auction processes that sidestep the existing tools developed by other third-party ad exchanges; and its design of its own tool (“open bidding”) for aggregating auction bids for advertising space to compete with (rather than incorporate) an alternative tool (“header bidding”) that is arguably faster, but costs more money to use.
These allegations require detailed consideration, and in a future paper we will attempt to assess them in detail. But in thinking about them now it may be useful to consider the remedies that could be imposed to address them, assuming they do diminish the ability of rivals to compete with Google: what possible interventions we could make in order to make the market work better for advertisers, publishers, and users.
We can think of remedies as falling into two broad buckets: remedies that stop Google from doing things that improve the quality of its own offerings, thus making it harder for others to keep up; and remedies that require it to help rivals improve their products in ways otherwise accessible only to Google (e.g., by making Google’s products interoperable with third-party services) without inherently diminishing the quality of Google’s own products.
The first camp of these, what we might call “status quo minus,” includes rules banning Google from using data from its other products or offering single order forms for advertisers, or, in the extreme, a structural remedy that “breaks up” Google by either forcing it to sell off its display ad business altogether or to sell off elements of it.
What is striking about these kinds of interventions is that all of them “work” by making Google worse for those that use it. Restrictions on Google’s ability to use data from other products, for example, will make its service more expensive and less effective for those who use it. Ads will be less well-targeted and therefore less effective. This will lead to lower bids from advertisers. Lower ad prices will be transmitted through the auction process to produce lower payments for publishers. Reduced publisher revenues will mean some content providers exit. Users will thus be confronted with less available content and ads that are less relevant to them and thus, presumably, more annoying. In other words: No one will be better off, and most likely everyone will be worse off.
The reason a “single order form” helps Google is that it is useful to advertisers, the same way it’s useful to be able to buy all your groceries at one store instead of lots of different ones. Similarly, vertical integration in the “ad stack” allows for a faster, cheaper, and simpler product for users on all sides of the market. A different kind of integration that has been criticized by others, where third-party intermediaries can bid more quickly if they host on Google Cloud, benefits publishers and users because it speeds up auction time, allowing websites to load faster. So does Google’s unified alternative to “header bidding,” giving a speed boost that is apparently valuable enough to publishers that they will pay for it.
So who would benefit from stopping Google from doing these things, or even forcing Google to sell its operations in this area? Not advertisers or publishers. Maybe Google’s rival ad intermediaries would; presumably, artificially hamstringing Google’s products would make it easier for them to compete with Google. But if so, it’s difficult to see how this would be an overall improvement. It is even harder to see how this would improve the competitive process—the very goal of antitrust. Rather, any increase in the competitiveness of rivals would result not from making their products better, but from making Google’s product worse. That is a weakening of competition, not its promotion.
On the other hand, interventions that aim to make Google’s products more interoperable at least do not fall prey to this problem. Such “status quo plus” interventions would aim to take the benefits of Google’s products and innovations and allow more companies to use them to improve their own competing products. Not surprisingly, such interventions would be more in line with the conclusions the CMA came to than the divestitures and operating restrictions proposed by Scott Morton and Dinielli, as well as (reportedly) state attorneys general considering a case against Google.
But mandated interoperability raises a host of different concerns: extensive and uncertain rulemaking, ongoing regulatory oversight, and, likely, price controls, all of which would limit Google’s ability to experiment with and improve its products. The history of such mandated duties to deal or compulsory licenses is a troubled one, at best. But even if, for the sake of argument, we concluded that these kinds of remedies were desirable, they are difficult to impose via an antitrust lawsuit of the kind that the Department of Justice is expected to launch. Most importantly, if the conclusion of Google’s critics is that Google’s main offense is offering a product that is just too good to compete with without regulating it like a utility, with all the costs to innovation that that would entail, maybe we ought to think twice about whether an antitrust intervention is really worth it at all.