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A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.


The Google Ads Shakedown

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On Tuesday, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried tweeted about some shady business involving Google Ads and search results. The tweet got a lot of attention, so we brought Jason on the show to talk about what got him so riled up over Google. No punches were pulled in the making of this episode!

The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to a bonus episode of Welcome to Rework, the podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:05] And I’m Wailin Wong. We have a special episode today featuring Basecamp CEO Jason Fried. On today’s show, Jason talks about some pot stirring he did this week. On Tuesday, he sent up a tweet about Google Ads. At the time we’re recording this on Wednesday afternoon. It’s gotten 9,000 retweets and over 27,000 likes. I think that’s what the kids call engagement.

Shaun: [00:00:31] I think that is what the kids call engagement. Either way, I sat down with Jason to talk about his tweet and more importantly, what about Google Ads got him so riled up.

Jason: [00:00:39] We haven’t been paying attention to search engines that much lately, but over the past few months we started to, and I realized that, like, to my surprise actually, that if you search for Basecamp we’re the fifth result. Now we’re the first organic result, but the distinction is so subtle now that we’re basically the fifth result and that’s just—

Shaun: [00:00:58] Because there’s four ads above us.

Jason: [00:00:59] There’s four ads. Google puts four ads ahead of us and our competitors are buying our brand and also misdirecting by saying like Base (space) Camp in their headlines. It’s like the whole thing is such a racket and it used to be that the ads looked different. They were distinctly different. They had, I think, a blue background. It was like clearly different. Now they basically look identical except for a tiny, the smallest element on the screen is this tiny little green square that says ad. Very small. Some of the ads even have like additional blocks below them. I mean they take up the whole screen. I’m on a 13-inch laptop. I can barely see the first organic result. I’m just basically seeing ads and it’s like, enough of this.

[00:01:39] We’ve filed trademark complaints before. Doesn’t seem to matter and so we decided to do something about it and have some fun. Part of what we did was we wanted to buy our brand again so we could at least be visible and be first again. But then we took out an ad that basically called out the hypocrisy of Google ads, which is like, you know, we had to—we didn’t want to buy this ad but we had to and here’s why.

Shaun: [00:02:01] So the actual—the ad reads we don’t want to run this ad. We’re the number one result, but this site lets companies advertise against us using our brand. So here we are, a small independent company forced to pay ransom to a giant tech company.

Jason: [00:02:16] And credit goes to Adam for writing that, which is wonderful. That’s a great, great ad.

Shaun: [00:02:21] That’s awesome.

Jason: [00:02:21] So we did that and then I was writing, actually I was running a long article about this and I decided like, well let me just tweet it out first just see. Like I’ll tweet out a short version of this and just kind of take the temperature. It’s funny cause I first put something up on LinkedIn about this like two hours ago and everyone on LinkedIn is supporting Google because LinkedIn is full of marketers and SEO people and they’re like, no, it’s totally cool.

[00:02:44] And then I put it up on Twitter and the world is on our side. Basically, this is about how there’s really a shakedown going on. How, if you’re a small brand specifically, you want to be found on Google, you basically have to pay now because anyone with deep pockets can come in and completely dominate the results now. The only way to possibly even show up in the first few is to pay. And that’s just completely unfair.

Shaun: [00:03:07] Yeah.

Jason: [00:03:07] Especially odd is that we, part of this ad that we took out, it says we’re the number one search result on this site. We don’t say on Google because we tried to say on Google and then Google has filed or said they rejected the ad because it’s a trademark violation. So like they’re saying you can’t use Google’s brand in your ads, but hey, we’re happy to sell your brand to the highest bidder all day long.

Shaun: [00:03:28] Yeah, yeah.

Jason: [00:03:28] Anyway, so like I tweeted it and it’s kind of blown up. I think it’s like a couple thousand likes already or something like that.

Shaun: [00:03:33] Fantastic.

Jason: [00:03:33] It’s great. So, and CNBC just called, they want to talk about it and some people are gonna write stories about it. I think this is going to have some legs because it’s one of those things where we’ve never been afraid to stand up for like what we think is right. But a lot of brands won’t stand up to Google or they’re afraid or whatever. And I think it’s like, that’s kind of what we do. So we’re very comfortable with doing that. And I think people are gonna be talking about it for quite a while.

Shaun: [00:03:56] What would the ideal change you’d like to see be?

Jason: [00:03:59] Firstly, I would ban the practice of buying trademark terms, brand names. I would say that’s not allowed.

[00:04:06] But if you do it and you get caught once you get a warning and the warning is if you get caught again, you’re banned for a year, advertising on Google. And if you’re a repeat offender after that, you’re banned for life. Like simple as that.

[00:04:16] Now I understand like they don’t have necessarily a database of brand names, although like, look, it’s Google, they should. They have a database of everything, right?

Shaun: [00:04:22] [crosstalk] do.

Jason: [00:04:23] Right, they probably do, but let’s just say they don’t for a second. There’s some words that of course are generic words that are branded, whatever, fine. If you file a complaint, they should take that seriously. Immediately stop the other ad from running and send a note. If another brand does that again, they’re gone. They’re out. Like Google does not need to be taking that kind of revenue in for this kind of thing. Like there’s plenty of other ways to advertise on Google and it just seems, it seems wrong.

Shaun: [00:04:47] I still can’t believe there’s four ads before the line.

Jason: [00:04:50] Four ads.

Shaun: [00:04:50] That’s obscene.

Jason: [00:04:52] It’s long. And if you really have like an iPad or short—

Shaun: [00:04:55] Oh, yeah, yeah.

Jason: [00:04:55] You can’t even see it.

Shaun: [00:04:56] You’ll never see the search result.

Jason: [00:04:56] No. And the thing, again, it’s like it’d be different if the ads were at least more distinctive.

Shaun: [00:05:03] Yeah. I feel like they used to be right?

Jason: [00:05:05] Totally were. But clearly like they’re not now. And it’s like you could see the whole strategy unfolding here. It’s like let’s make them more and more like results. So basically if you want to be in the results, you’ve got to pay. And it’s… Google used to be, I don’t know what their slogan is now, but it used to be about like organizing the world’s information and now it’s basically organizing the world’s advertising.

[00:05:27] And it’s really unfortunate. And the bigger problem here is that they have all the power. So basically they’re the only search engine that’s, I mean really.

Shaun: [00:05:35] Yeah.

Jason: [00:05:35] And so they have all the power and they’re abusing it and you know, governments are gonna start coming after them. There’s all sorts of things happening right now and they’re going to get hit for it, and this is kind of what happens. And, this is of course a tiny little small part of it, but it’s very real for a lot of small brands and it’s really unfair. Can I ask how much does a Google ad cost?

Jason: [00:05:55] We’re paying about a $1.40 per click.

Shaun: [00:05:58] Yep. And we have a daily budget. I don’t, maybe 200 bucks or something. So it’s like a couple hundred bucks a day all in to do something like this. So it’s not a big deal, but it is for a small brand that doesn’t have any money and it just so happens that like our keyword might be only a $1.40 but there might be other keywords that are five bucks or six bucks or whatever and you know that whole thing.

[00:06:18] Of course branded keywords are typically cheaper because there are fewer people bidding on them, but who knows? It doesn’t even matter. Point is, is like, it shouldn’t be possible, period, regardless of what it costs.

Shaun: [00:06:27] I’m assuming you wouldn’t buy the keyword.

Jason: [00:06:31] No. Like, we don’t buy competitors’ keywords. We don’t buy any keywords except for our own brand.

Shaun: [00:06:37] Right, we had to do this one.

Jason: [00:06:38] I feel like we had to do it and that’s the thing that sucks is I feel like we had to. So right now we have Monday, Asana, Wrike, Smartsheet, someone else. I forget who else. It depends on when you reload it.

Shaun: [00:06:50] Yeah.

Jason: [00:06:50] To me, these are cowardly brands. They’re cowardly. Basically what they’re saying is, is like, we can’t get our own customers so we’re going to go take yours. And I think it’s really desperate and it’s really sad.

[00:07:01] I mean we’re flattered that they need ours to survive and hopefully our customers can see right through their bullshit. But like, regardless, certainly some people are gonna get caught up and not really know what they’re clicking on and not really paying attention and it’s the misdirection that really bugs me the most, especially with Monday. They just have no soul over there clearly because they know they’re not allowed to say Basecamp. So they say base (space) camp, which is like such a misdirection. It’s such a blatant lie that you can’t have a conscience and do that. You just can’t.

Shaun: [00:07:33] The [inaudible] are really funny too. Like the one is

Jason: [00:07:39] Yeah, of course. It’s just like this is what growth hacking is. This is like, this is a company that believes in growth at all costs. They don’t care, it’s just like money. How can we just spend more money and get more customers? It doesn’t matter who we are, what we stand for. And I think if you’re a customer of a company like that, you should think twice about like who you’re giving money to and what they’re doing with it. We have a policy of not doing that, not spending money to buy other people’s keywords.

[00:08:02] If we’re going to get customers, we’re going to survive as a business, we should do it on our own merits and not try to stand in front of someone else’s door. You can think about it this way. So some people go, that’s no big deal. You’re allowed to do it, it’s fine. But if you own, let’s say you owned a small little pizza shop or grocery store on Main Street, USA, anywhere y0u want. And there’s some other pizza shop down the down the road, right? Two pizza shops in town, fine. But what if one pizza shop brought all their employees in front of the other pizza shop and essentially picketed that other pizza shop with signs like, don’t buy pizza here, get pizza from us, or their pizza’s no good, or our pizza’s better. Like at some point you’d be like, that’s just unreasonable. Like you can’t, you can’t do that. And so the pizza shop owner who’s being exploited would come out and go, can you guys get the fuck off my sidewalk? Like why are you doing this to me? And they’d probably call the police and go, you’re harassing my customers, too. Like everybody who is an observer of that would go, that is an unreasonable situation. Like this pizza of shop should not be standing in front of this other one trying to steal their customers.

[00:08:58] It’s just not what you do. Maybe it’s legal, but I don’t even think it is if it’s harassment. And that’s kind of what’s happening here on the Internet. But since you can’t see it and you don’t really feel it in the same way, people don’t think of it the same way. But it is the same thing because Google is Main Street. It’s the only way basically to be found on the Internet.

Shaun: [00:09:17] And they hold all the cards.

Jason: [00:09:17] They hold all the cards, so just like Google’s the street and you basically have people standing outside your front door with signs saying, don’t shop here. And it’s just like, what kind of a world would that be? I’d be like, terrible.

Shaun: [00:09:28] Yeah.

Jason: [00:09:28] Now it’s fun, sometimes I’ve seen examples and some people pointed this out on Twitter of like there’s a McDonald’s and on top of the McDonald’s was a big billboard and it’s like Burger King. Like advertising on top of the McDonald’s and that’s like a funny exception to the rule in a sense because they’re actually having fun with the, with the ad.

[00:09:49] They’re typically punching at their own weight like okay, it’s kind of fun. They both own the market anyway. What’s the difference? And I’ve seen BMW and Audi do this back and forth, the kind of like having fun. The thing is, is that billboards like that are very expensive. They’re very exclusive. You have to make sure one’s available. Like these are exceptions to the rule. On the Internet, you can go buy an ad right now and flood Google with your ads.

Shaun: [00:10:13] Did you ever see that Burger King thing where they, if your location and you ordered Burger King, using their online thing. If your location was inside of McDonald’s, when you order Burger King you’d get a free Whopper or something like that.

Jason: [00:10:23] That’s, that’s kinda funny, right?

Shaun: [00:10:24] That’s good, right?

Jason: [00:10:24] That’s clever. And that’s kind of funny. And like that kind of stuff to me is a different category.

Shaun: [00:10:29] Yep. It’s not misleading. You don’t like go into the Burger King app by accident because… It’s like, no, you go there because you know and you do the thing. But to have brands using your name against you on the Internet in ads that look like organic results that are clearly misleading and misdirecting people. That’s no bueno. And it’s really unfortunate.

Shaun: [00:10:29] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner.. You can find show notes for this episode at We’ll also link to Jason’s tweets so you can read it as well. You can find Jason on Twitter @JasonFried. That’s F-R-I-E-D. We are on Twitter @ReworkPodcast,, and if you’re new to the show, we release new regular episodes every Tuesday. You can find us on Apple podcasts, Google Play music, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.