Google’s Messenger App Doesn’t Have Ads, but Marketers Are Intrigued Anyway

Agencies see data and search opportunities

Google wants in on the mobile-messaging craze. Today, the Mountain View, Calif., company launched Allo, its messaging app that layers artificial intelligence over photos, texts and stickers users send each other.

Allo is Google's first stab at artificial intelligence. It was announced at the company's annual I/O conference in May. Similar to Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Apple's iMessage, Allo is a chat app that lets consumers swap self-destructing messages with each other. But it also includes Google-powered search features.

Rachel Pasqua, head of connected life at MEC North America, said she expects Google to roll out branded emojis for marketers.

"The AI feature will recommend a sponsor based on the keyword, the message and the conversational flow," she said. "It seems pretty obvious to me that it will be a paid placement opportunity—I think most likely in the form of an emoji. Say I'm in a new city, and I'm searching Google for nearby coffee shops. Starbucks and Peaks Coffee Co. could both surface an emoji for it to be a competition to see who could surface an emoji first—I would be astonished if that didn't show up."

To differentiate itself from competitors, Pasqua said, Allo may position itself as a work-productivity tool like Slack or Skype while playing up the search angle.

"Facebook has such a big slice of the talk-to-your-friends conversational market that they would have to chip away at that to be an opportunity for the other stuff," Pasqua said. "It seems logical that if the AI experience is really that good that people might start using it quite a bit for search."

The app also includes a feature called Google Assistant that pulls in news, sports, games, weather and travel information from Allo. It can also find local restaurant and movie information and uses voice and image recognition to answer questions like "Who invented the camera?" or "How tall is the Eiffel Tower?" Google is also reportedly considering integrating companies like OpenTable and Airbnb so people can book a restaurant or make travel plans straight from the app.

Michael Gauld, vp and director of SEO at DigitasLBi, said the messaging app "is potentially a huge opportunity for brands to tap into some data-driven consumer insights that could help them paint a holistic picture of what their consumers are actively doing, especially on mobile."

He also said it will force brands to become more diligent with their SEO tactics. While searching on Google's mobile site brings up a handful of search results, Allo only pulls in the top organic result.

"I tried some searches that are relevant to the clients we have, and I imagine that if my wife got a flat tire and I search 'flat tire repair' or 'new tires' and it gave the No. 1 search result but it didn't give No. 2 or No. 3," he said. "I used to think being in Position 3 was good enough. No—I need to tell my clients that this is incredibly important that we need to get into Position 1. We need to figure out what type of content is going to get us there, what type of imagery, if it's people asking a question a certain way."

And while there aren't opportunities for search ads, Gauld said he wouldn't be surprised if paid opportunities came "very, very shortly."

Google is known for collecting troves of data on users but is also notorious for not giving advertisers data.

"If Allo picks up steam, it could be the first platform to potentially merge search insights with social insights," Gauld said. "But the biggest question for brands is: Will Google share this information?"