How Big is Big Tech? Nobody Really Knows.
Last month, The New York Times published the comical notion that Google makes $4.7 billion in annual revenue from news publishers. The statistic was based solely on a 10-year extrapolation from a single off-handed comment Marissa Mayer made in 2008. By the same methodology used in this study, I can now sprint 100 meters in about three seconds and drink around 200 Bud Lights in a single night.
As this “fact” was remarkably egregious, it got its day in the court of public opinion and was roundly mocked across the web. Unfortunately, when it comes to statistics haphazardly tossed out regarding the size of tech companies, scrutiny is more the exception than the rule. Across the zeitgeist, our notion of the scale of Big Tech is guided by extremely questionable metrics, adding a complex wrinkle to the antitrust discussion with no clear resolution in sight.
A litany of factors makes collecting accurate data on the scale of Big Tech difficult. For starters, while public companies are required to disclose all revenue, they are not always required to break it down in a way that shows their relative position in the market.
A microcosmic example of this phenomenon is illustrated by public coverage of Amazon’s ad business, itemized as a piece of “other” on Amazon’s SEC filings. For much of 2018, NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway and his company, L2, estimated that Amazon’s advertising revenue would exceed $10 billion. Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, and eMarketer placed it at closer to $5 billion. Both numbers were regularly cited in press with almost no additional examination. When all was said and done, Amazon reported $3.4 billion in ‘other’ revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, suggesting that Galloway was ultimately right on the money.
However, it really gets dicey when we try to place revenues reported by public companies in the context of their respective markets. The market sizings are ostensibly based on extrapolations from the best available public data. But often, these numbers seem plucked from thin air with highly opaque methodologies. They’re generally released into the world by large analyst firms or management consultancies and, once…