Tech Check

Google And Valleywag "Fight" Over AdSense Creation

First of all, let me be clear: If you're not reading valleywag.comand think you're following Silicon Valley, you're sorely misinformed. Valleywag is a must-read for anyone trying to get the real, behind-the-scenes story of what's going on around here. They're snarky, fun, creative, connected, and can't wait to spotlight the embarassing, the unfortunate, the inaccurate, the bluster and the misguided spin. And they're usually pretty good about accuracy.

But the site is taking it on the chin for a post about Google executive Susan Wojcicki (and now Sergey Brin's sister-in-law after the Google co-founder married Ann Wojcicki.) The title of the post: "Susan Wojcicki's big lie." Valleywag takes issue with an article in USA Today which reported that Wojcicki claimed she had invented AdSense, Google's massively successful algorhythm behind the company's search monetization (English: the program that lets Google generate billions in revenue from every click on a Google search, and the system that's kicking hapless rival Yahoo's butt.)

"But Wojcicki didn't invent it," says Valleywag. "To be fair, Wojcicki might have proposed the idea of serving up Google's keyword-linked ads on other websites, targeting no search quieries but the contents of the page." The blog continues with a quote from the USA Today article: "I love taking an a prototype and then to a product that millions of people use."

Valleywag then asks: "Why would Wojcicki make such a bald-face, easily detected lie?" And then the post goes after the reporter: "And why would a Gannett report not bother to factcheck the statement?"

As you might expect, Google took instant umbrage at the post, saying Wojcicki wasn't lying at all; that Valleywag is the one fact-challenged here. "Patently false," says long-time Google spokesman David Krane who also tells me he was at the interview with USA Today. "Rarely does Valleywag draw us out of our hole, but this one was so off."

Krane concedes one point, small that it might be: While it's true that Wojcicki may not have created the "name" AdSense (which happened to be owned by a company called Applied Semantics which Google acquired four years ago) Krane is very clear that the technology behind that name--that Google ultimately unveiled and then called AdSense--was very much directed and invented by Wojcicki and her team.

"That's the spin now, four years after the fact," Valleywag's editor Owen Thomas tells me this afternoon. I should tell you that Thomas, a former Business 2.0 vet, can measure his tenure as Valleywag's leader in hours. Today's his first day on the job.

While his post takes the entire story to task, it would seem after talking with him--and Google --that he very narrowly points to the name, and name only, that he says Wojcicki had nothing to do with. Google says it acquired Applied Semantics for group of talented engineers in Santa Monica, Calif.; not necessarily for any specific product they might have been working on. Thomas says not so. That if anyone is splitting hairs, it's Google and what appears to be revisionist history.

Says Thomas to me about whether he stands by his story: "Absolutely. I stand by my story as reported."

"We weren't talking about naming," says Krane. "We were talking about the impact that technology had on publishers on the internet." Krane acknowledged this was Thomas' first day on the job, saying he "came out swinging. And did so in a way that's carefully written. This is nothing but quibbling over the name."

Is the irony lost on no one here that the company behind the name and technology in question is "Applied SEMANTICS?"

Sheesh. What's in a name? Keep going Owen! Tomorrow's another day.

UPDATE: Owen Thomas just called to let me know he was making some changes to his post, but don't mistake his "clarification" for a retraction. While he still maintains the gist of what he reported, and that Wojcicki "lied" about creating AdSense, he is changing his post to clarify the timeline of AdSense's development. He says Applied Semantics released its version of AdSense in Oct. 2002. Five months later, Google unveiled a "copycat" version of its own, very similar software. And one month after that, Google acquired Applied Semantics and then named its system AdSense. Based on that, says Owen, "she's lying to say she invented AdSense."

Somehow I don't think this story will just fade away.

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