• At Last, Google Flexes YouTube's Strategic Muscles

    In the two years since Google acquired YouTube, I've often wondered about two things: (1) was there really a strategic rationale behind the deal? and, (2) if there was indeed a strategic rationale, when might we see it borne out in actual business initiatives?

    For sure YouTube's organic growth has continued unabated during these two years and from a traffic perspective, it is more dominant now than ever. Yet the dearth of initiatives that are tangibly strategic (or meaningfully revenue-producing for that matter) to Google, or that even minimally strengthen either company's underlying value proposition, has led me to conclude that the deal had more to do with the Google guys wanting to acquire YouTube for its "coolness" factor - simply because they could - than anything else.

    I don't mean to sound unfair to the YouTubers who work diligently to make YouTube an incredible experience, which of course it truly is. Yet it is hard to deny the obvious: exactly what has YouTube done differently during the last two years that it couldn't have done had it remained independent (and saying "afforded its monthly CDN bills" doesn't count!), and how exactly have either YouTube or Google benefited from being together during this time?

    However, I think things are finally changing. In fact, with little fanfare or proactive PR, Google at last seems to be strategically flexing YouTube's muscles. While some of what they're doing is experimental, other moves have significant market potential and could be highly disruptive to other broadband oriented media and technology companies.

    At the top of my "highest potential" list is Google Content Network, especially as it's envisioned as "spokes" tied to YouTube's "hub." I wrote at length about GCN a month ago in "Google Content Network Has Lots of Potential, Implications" so I won't rehash my arguments here. But note yesterday's news about "Poptub" as the second video series to get the GCN/YouTube treatment; I expect a steady drumbeat of these types of deals in the months to come. GCN has the potential to become a key driver of the Syndicated Video Economy.

    Another high-potential activity is YouTube's plan to start streaming full episodes. The first deal with CBS is no doubt a signal of many more to come. Full episode streaming is strategic on a number of levels. It enhances YouTube's and Google's access to big brands' ad dollars. While Google has thrived in the self-service, "long tail of advertising" world, it needs more cred among big brands, especially as it pursues its Google TV initiative (see latest deal with NBCU) and other eventual broadband-to-the-TV activities. Full episodes are also a winner from a user standpoint: a unified video experience across premium, indie, long tail and UGC video is very compelling and also squeezes competitors with narrower offerings.

    Yet another high-potential activity is the implementation of search ads on YouTube. When the deal was originally done, my first reaction was to think it was a no-brainer to simply start displaying ads against every YouTube search (example - you search for "West Wing" in YouTube and the results page shows an ad to buy the DVD set). If there's one thing Google knows cold, it's the search ad business. YouTube searches represent billions of incremental opportunities each year to extend its core franchise.

    Lastly - and this is admittedly more of a "Will Richmond thing" than anything Google or YouTube are yet pursuing: I think it's practically inevitable that the company will start investing in independent broadband video companies at some point. I touched on this in yesterday's piece about NBCU-60Frames and MSN-Stage 9. As time marches on and some of the above activities bear fruit, it's going to become very tempting for Google/YouTube to lever its strengths more directly into content ownership. I know what Google's always maintained about being a technology company, committed to neutrality in way that even Switzerland would appreciate. But as Google's ad business matures and it inevitably is pressured for growth, content is going to be a very alluring opportunity.

    Regardless of what happens on this last point, YouTube now seems to have a full plate of strategic activities underway. It's great to finally see this happening.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.