Web 2.0 is being billed as a revolutionary transformation of the
internet and investors are excited about dot-com companies again.
YouTube was bought
for US$1.65 billion. Yahoo
offered Facebook $1.6 billion
turned down. It is indisputable that the Web 2.0 movement has
opened up the internet to a wider group of people who are now
However, the purchase price of some of these companies makes one
ask how they are making money and how are they valued? Google’s stock
price skyrocketed once it went public and it now has a market
capitalization of $171
billion. Is Google really worth more than Boeing?
These companies generally only have on source of revenue and that
is advertising. Google, specifically, makes loads of money by placing
“context appropriate” ads within the body of its search
results, its services, or on webpages that share advertising revenue
with Google. Other Web2.0 projects like MySpace
and YouTube also make money
with advertising. Individual bloggers make money with Google or other
advertising services and even video producers can embed
advertisements in their videos. Notably, Ask
a Ninja embeds advertisements for Ask.com
and his own store in each video. These companies and efforts
capitalize on the large number of users they have to offer
advertisers the ability to reach a wide audience quickly.
However, there is a danger for any company that sells only one
product. If that product fails, the entire company goes with it.
Amazon.com knows this. They not
only sell books, but also publish books (through BookSurge
a company they own). They have a C2C (consumer to consumer)
marketplace, and sell far more than just books. The single-minded
approach to business operations is one of the reasons the first
dot-com bust occurred.
The dot-com era was characterized by fadishism, excess and a
failure to deliver products that sold. Rewind to 1995: if you said
the word “website” people perked up and listened. People
thought the web would change everything and that no one would shop in
person anymore. It was a time remarkable for an excess of enthusiasm
and a deficit of common sense. It should have been obvious that
people will not buy most of their food on-line, but investors spent
millions trying to make exclusively on-line grocers. It didn’t work.
Lastly, the ratification of the dot-com bust came with companies
that failed to deliver profits. Despite the influx of billions of
dollars, most of these companies simply failed. A day of reckoning
always comes. The vision of eventual profit does not counteract a
series of perpetual losses. Is that day coming for Web 2.0 and
Just recently, eBay briefly stopped using Google for advertising
— they only saw a modest
drop in their traffic. This is part of the growing awareness that
advertising on Google might not be all that is cracked up to be. Part
of this is the still under-addressed problem of click fraud (people
setting up Google ads on their website and then fraudulently clicking
ads to artificially increase their income) and part is the problem of
web advertising in general. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of
services that will artificially increase advertising revenue with
click fraud or other schemes.
However, the fact that eBay, a large internet company themselves,
have shunned Google advertising and suffered little for it indicates
the lack of value that other companies will surely realize
Web advertising needs to be somewhat discreet. For instance,
pop-up ads are generally looked on as abuse. Some websites have full
page ads that come up before you can get into the site and those
aren’t well-liked either. The ads one ends up with are discreet —
and easily ignored. Commercials on television can’t be easily skipped
or blocked (although you still can go to the bathroom). Internet
advertisement is often so discreet that tools have been developed to
suppress it entirely.
The other problem with internet advertising is that it presumes
orders can take place on-line and that people will buy the product
that way. While brand recognition is helpful, ultimately a company
wants to make money. There is a limited demographic that shops
on-line (about half of US adults) and there is a subset of products
that are purchased on-line. This means there is only a certain subset
of advertising that is likely to be effective on-line.
According to the June 11th BusinessWeek feature of “indata”,
there has been great growth in social networking and content sites,
but the numbers are still quite low (less than 5 per cent of on-line
users create content and 12 per cent use social networking). The
growth is great – but it will not continue indefinitely. There are
only so many people on-line.
Lastly, there is a growing awareness that many Web 2.0 companies
have a systemic left-wing bias. While this might not matter for
social networking sites, it is important for other sites like Google,
YouTube and even Wikipedia (which has an admitted left-wing systemic
bias problem). If another segment of the population feels alienated
from the services, they will not be watching the ads.
Without advertising, many of these services are simply not
self-sustaining. Wikipedia, which doesn’t have ads, requires an
influx of donations to keep it going. If that advertising dries up,
these companies have no other source of revenue. Google may survive
because of its size but it would have to make drastic cuts, such as
cutting non-revenue-generating services. Other companies like
MySpace, Facebook and Twitter will simply fade away.
This all adds up to a threat not only of over-valuation of these
companies, but of collapse. And because of the large amount of
investment, it is likely that a collapse will have far-reaching
economic consequences. Dumping money into unprofitable companies
based on fadishism helped bring about the dot-com bust. Haven’t we
learned from that bitter experience?