Google in Wales (and why it’s not the end of the world)

5 Mar

This week sees the launch event for Google’s “Getting Welsh Business Online” campaign, with which they’re providing free websites, domains and support for local businesses. Google plan to run a “Juice Bar” in Cardiff bay, allowing companies to visit them and get free support in using the service and setting up a site. But the campaign has attracted some criticism in some quarters.

The main worry is that Google’s offering of free sites is going to take business away from local web agencies. But I don’t see how promoting a free service that was already globally available (alongside a million and one other free website building services/platforms) is going to detract from Welsh agencies. The type of businesses that are being targeted by this offer aren’t companies that would be looking to pay for a website anyway. They’re traditional or micro-businesses (florists, plumbers, carpenters…) that haven’t considered paying for a website before. But once they outgrow the inevitable limitations of a free site, they’ll be looking to upgrade to paying for a bespoke site. This initiative will increase the market for local agencies in the long term. Here’s some similar thoughts from local designers/agencies/marketers @joel_hughes, @brandnatter & @lobsterdm.

The second complaint is that Google should be using local agencies to deliver this. Well, they are. They used local agencies when they ran this scheme in Liverpool a few months ago, and the same is happening here. I believe four local agencies have been tasked with job of helping local businesses understand the offering and helping them build the sites. Those local agencies now have the opportunity to build relationships with these businesses and hopefully will be the first port of call when a bespoke site is needed in the future.

I agree that such a campaign could have been run locally along with someone like SubHub, instead of a multinational. I believe SubHub are probably the only local company that can honestly feel aggrieved at this campaign, being a Cardiff-based website-building platform. But sometimes it takes someone with Google’s PR clout to get such businesses thinking about going online. Sadly using SubHub, great as they are, wouldn’t come with the impact and column inches that Google brings. SubHub’s criticism of the campaign is understandable, but with their business model being “freemium” (i.e. give your customers something for free in the hope that they’ll graduate to a paid plan in the future), they’ll naturally understand the potential benefits to local agencies of this campaign. The businesses are being given something for free, and will hopefully pay local agencies for better, more bespoke, sites in the future. And while Google are using the South African based Yola as the host for the free site offering instead of a local company, I’m amazed that anyone is surprised that a multinational company of Google’s size has a long-standing agreement with an overseas company. Even if they could get out of their agreement with Yola, and were willing to go through the lengthy, arduous process of renegotiating and working with a new provider for every region in which they run their Getting British Businesses Online, I’m not convinced there’s a Welsh company that has the resources to provide a platform to Google’s specifications as well as offer a free domain to anyone who wants to use it. I could be wrong about that, but it seems like a huge commitment to me.

Another concern is that companies are being run out of the Welsh Government operated digital incubator @Wales to make space for the temporary Google “Juice Bar”, where free advice will be dispensed from. This is just 100% untrue. The fate of that building was decided long ago. It’s half empty (as it has been for the majority of its life-span), the Welsh comms & marketing agency Culture Group that is running all this is based there (and also ran the campaign from Cardiff for the Liverpool leg of Google’s Getting British Businesses Online, incidentally) and there’s space there for a Juice Bar. So it makes sense for them to be in there. Why there is space, and why the building is being shut down, is another issue altogether. I think that incubator model failed, and there are better ways to encourage digital business. But that’s another discussion for another time.

While Google’s campaign could theoretically take some customers away from local agencies (although Google Sites is available for free already, so any of those small business could be using it or any other free site creator now, regardless of this campaign), surely having more businesses aware that they can showcase their business online is a good thing. Those businesses that go on to use the Google Sites platform almost certainly won’t have been using SubHub, an agency, or any other free platform anyway. There may be a minute handful who were on the verge of employing an agency, and fewer/none who will migrate away from a Cardiff agency/platform to use Google Sites, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar that almost all of them will be businesses who hadn’t considered being online before. So it’s not business lost, but a future market opened up.

Lots of people complained about the arrival of the Millennium Stadium in the early days, saying that retail takings were down on match days. And while that may be true, there’s no doubt that it’s been one of the key elements to the long-term improvement of Cardiff’s international standing as a city of note. There’s been a 50% increase in tourism visitors to the city since it was built, for example. And my international travels have certainly thrown up lots of people who are more aware of where Cardiff is in relation to London, due to a mix of the stadium and Doctor Who.

Edit: I’m not trying to suggest that Google’s presence will have the same effect on Cardiff/Wales as the Millennium Stadium. Just drawing a comparison, showing how some people were initially sceptical about the stadium but in the longterm it’s been proved to be one element contributing to a thriving, growing city.

And while I do agree that maybe the WG missed an opportunity to work closely with local web firms like SubHub instead of Google, I can’t complain about the lack of the local tech startup scene, as I have been doing for months, and then bemoan the presence of the world’s most successful web company in our city. It’s things like this that will hopefully build towards a long-term successful web and tech culture in Cardiff.

Wales is a brilliant, small country, full of exciting, talented people. Let’s take a long term view and build a culture of web and tech saviness that can drive this talent to achieve wonderful things. Rather than fear the presence of large multinationals, let’s take advantage of them being here. Ride on the coat-tails of their massive spending power and build a population that is ready and willing to engage with the web in all its forms.

Full disclosure – I’ve been asked to be a Google Local Champion, but much of this post is copied and pasted from a LinkedIn discussion (to save time!) which started before I was approached. I held these views long before I had any involvement with the campaign. I’m not being paid in any way, of course.

10 Responses to “Google in Wales (and why it’s not the end of the world)”

  1. Aristos Peters 5 March, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Excellent article Neil and I agree with your major points here i) Google’s ‘free’ offering isn’t going to have a significant impact on the web development community. They did the same thing with analytics when I was in that sector and there are still many analytics companies selling their wares. ii) The digital incubator was a dead duck in water (my words of course and not yours). I was housed there and although grateful for the facility I now know that what it was lacking was a true ‘serial’ entrepreneur in residence. Go on, write that article Mr local champion, I look forward to it.

  2. Julian Sykes 5 March, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for the post I think as a director of a design agency based in Cardiff which works in Branding, web and print work. I think it brings some very pertinent issues and questions.

    - would a potential long term relationship with Google and Cardiff be of benefit?
    - do free websites really take money away from local agencies?
    - will people who use these sites realise how advantageous it is to be online, then want to get something more bespoke in the future?
    - is there a new model needed for how designers make money?

    I think the answers for me are. Yes, unlikely, fingers crossed, possibly. In short as a company that works in the sector we need to start looking beyond the border issue and get out there. The opportunities seem to far out weigh a potential reduction. I hope we can create some kind of long term relationship with Google in a similar way to how HP did with Watershed in Bristol.

    Looking forward to the event.

    Julian

  3. David Hulston 5 March, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    Neil

    I don’t think you can equate Google’s temporary visit to the positive benefits of Millenium Stadium!

    It is a shame that the @Wales facility is not being used as a proper incubator. Aristos is correct that it was lacking in not having an ‘entrepreneur in residence’.

    I have proposed to the Minister a model that would involve Angels and Mentors selecting the companies that go in there and helping them grow. A co-working centre opportunity has been presented to them also. Subsidising these would be a far better allocation of money than any of the disconnected projects recently announced, which, this one included, all seem to be about a good headline rather than anything lasting.

    If Google will help the Cardiff Startup community in delivering a proper accelerator facility, supported by local Angels, then we could have something as lasting as the Millenium Stadium.

    David

    • Neil Cocker 5 March, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

      I’m not trying to suggest that Google’s presence will have the same effect on Cardiff/Wales as the Millennium Stadium. Just drawing a comparison, showing how some people were initially sceptical about the stadium but in the longterm it’s been proved to be one element contributing to a thriving, growing city.

  4. Huw David 5 March, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    Hi Neil,

    Good article, but I’m also unsure as to the comparison between Google’s temporary presence in Wales and the building of a hugely important stadium/attraction that really puts Wales on the world scene. Are Google looking to make a permanent footprint in Wales?

    As the owner of a design agency that is based in the locality, I would welcome Google coming and making a permanent presence in Wales to really help promote the industry that we operate in. However, having worked with plumbers, florists and carpenters and produced websites for these micro-businesses in the past, I’m uneasy with the WG/Google partnership of offering ‘free’ sites.

    Yes, free sites exist and there are a number of tools available to get people online, cheaply and easily. We regularly talk to people about how they can use these tools when no budget exists for us to work with. However, Google (in partnership with Welsh Government) promoting and offering free sites to businesses does devalue the industry we are in. Cardiff (and indeed Wales) has a rich pool of talent in the creative industry. There are big agencies, right down to small independents and freelancers looking to bring in revenue and this type of ‘promotion’ does remove that opportunity.

    Wouldn’t it be a better solution if WG and Google worked together to promote the values of having a strong online presence and then how designers/developers can best be used to help get you there? This could be created in a similar manner to explain why it’s important to have a strong brand/identity for your business and that if you’re investing in a business, sometimes ‘free’ isn’t the best route to follow. Get designers/agencies involved and help move people away from this ‘free is good’ mentality.

    As an agency, we work hard to try and remove the ‘free pitching’ culture from our industry and to demonstrate that working in partnership with a design agency brings value to a business. With that in mind, I’m uneasy with WG patterning so closely with Google.

    Cheers,

    Huw

    • Neil Cocker 5 March, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Hi Huw,

      See my reply above to David’s comments about the stadium etc.

      As for your other point – Some people will always want free. You can try to dissuade them, but that’s just the way it is. And while you’re working to encourage people to pay for good work (which I agree is important) I believe the Google campaign will have the same effect. But it will be slower and broader. A good portion of those that take up free sites will want to move to a more bespoke, paid, option in the future.

      • Gareth Rees (@_gareth) 7 March, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

        Hopefully the Google campaign will focus on “Hey, try it for free then go pay for a real one”

  5. Liam Giles 5 March, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Great article Neil.

    I think that you are right on lots of levels. Its a shame that Subhub couldn’t have been used as a local provider, but I’m sure that they are confident that their web builder has a stronger offering, in which case I am sure they will benefit from the awareness building the campaign, workshops, and juice bars will have.

    I am also confident that agencies will benefit overall.

    I also know first hand that Google aren’t here to try and sign up as many free websites as possible, they are here to raise awareness of the benefits of getting your business on-line and what properly executed only marketing can do for businesses including Email shots, and social media (not just Adwords!)

    Its very easy to see this as a threat, but if we loose out on a job because someone decides to go with a DIY free website, im not entirely sure they were right for us in the first place.

  6. Mandy 16 March, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Technology is moving so rapidly these days that, as I’m sure you’ve realized, you need a website to stay relevant no matter what industry you are in. So how do you get a website? The two most common options are to pay for a custom website or build your own website. I’m going to tell you many of the advantages of using a website builder instead of paying for a custom website i like it.thanks for sharing

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Google Getting Welsh Business Online » - 12 March, 2012

    [...] however, has been fairly well covered in a previous blog post from Neil Cocker, MD of Dizzyjam -‘Google in Wales (and why it’s not the end of the world)’, which seems to have arrived to the consensus that more businesses online in Wales is an overall [...]

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