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The Limits of Google's Data Liberation

Google says it supports data portability. But how far should it go to help advertisers bring their campaigns to the competition?

With the launch of its Data Liberation Front Web site on Monday, Google has positioned itself as a champion of data portability and user rights. Given the tech industry's abiding love of lock-in, whereby users of a product or service face friction to move to a competing product or service, Google's stance is a welcome one.

But Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that Google's openness has limits. As he observed in a report published last year, Google's AdWords API Terms & Conditions impose restrictions which hamper advertisers' ability to copy their AdWords campaigns to competing ad platforms.

Edelman says that although Google has changed some of the language in its API Terms & Conditions, making the document "more complicated and more convoluted," the document remains "unchanged in substance."

Among the many clients Edelman has represented, Microsoft is the one that Google representatives will mention.

Google does provide a way to export AdWords campaign data: As documented on the Data Liberation Front Web site, AdWords users can generate a CSV file that can be imported into other advertising systems.

Edelman's complaint is that this particular manual process is cumbersome and inconsistent with the company's emphasis on ease of use. "Using the Adwords Editor to copy data between ad platforms is a real pain...", he said in an e-mail. "There is zero reason whatsoever why this should be so hard. Using the API, this process could be super easy -- one click, just like copying contacts from Outlook to your iPhone, or converting a doc from WordPerfect to Word."

Because this is a process that advertisers may need to do frequently, Edelman contends, it's a burden and a potential source of errors, a consequence of the repeated actions required.

Mark Simon, VP of industry relations at search marketing firm DidIt, acknowledges that the road from Google to other ad platforms isn't without obstacles, in a politic way.

"In many areas, Google is really leading the way in data portability -- something their 'Data Liberation Front' project earlier this week really highlights," he said in an e-mail. "But there will always be challenges for marketers who want to run advertising across multiple marketing channels (including multiple search engines). The key is to find a partner who can be as flexible and channel-agnostic as possible, given the hurdles."

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