I think it was George Carlin who once did a bit about the Pentagon spending billions on an invisible airplane project where he noted that since the airplane was invisible, the bureaucrats in charge of the purse strings could be shown an empty hanger and then receive a bill for the 2 billion dollars and would have no way to verify they got their money’s worth from the plane’s manufacturer.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days in the age of Internet ads and digital books. One of the reasons I’m thinking about it today is because of an interesting little project I took on for the library. The library here owns the rights to all of the Fred Waring radio recordings and they asked us if we could help them market them. So as a test case, I put one collection of Christmas recordings on Amazon and they’re being offered there as mp3s. The page to buy that music just went up at the end of November and I was delighted to see that it received a review already. The reviewer loved being able to listen to this music from her youth again, and gave the collection a very enthusiastic thumbs up. I should be delighted by this, right? Well I am, sort of. What bothers me about it is the reviewer’s review is tagged as a Verified Amazon Purchase. But when I go to Amazon’s vendor reporting page and look at the title I find that it has sold zero copies. How can this be?
Now I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, perhaps a technical glitch, for why that sale hasn’t been reported. But my concern is actually much larger than just a couple of mp3 files. What I find most interesting is how much this new digital marketplace really depends on non-verifiable reporting. If I sell a physical book, I ship a thing to a place. There is all that paperwork involved, leaving a useful trail, and then there’s the thing itself. But when I sell a virtual book, how do I know it? I get a report from the retailer, but is it in any way verifiable? Same’s true for Internet advertising. I’m trusting the Web site on its reporting of impressions, clickthroughs, even the price as in the case of Google AdWord’s generalized second-price auction. But how do I know there were other bidders on the words “Psalter of Saint Louis”, and enough of them to raise the price of my clickthroughs by a nickel? And how do I know that ad was actually on that Web site for 10,000 visitors? I really don’t. But I also don’t see how I have any choice in the matter. Sure, I could limit my advertising to only print, or I could chose to only sell physical books, but in the current environment, we wouldn’t stay in business much longer if we did that.
I suppose I have to trust these companies, but I sure wish I didn’t. Or, in the words of an ex-president (who you won’t hear me quote very often), I wish I could at least “trust but verify.”