Your Hidden PPC Prospect: Google

This article by Howie Jacobson was originally posted on Search Engine Watch.

google-search-engine-marketingWhen using AdWords or any advertising medium, you always create ads with the prospect in mind. But unlike most other media that will run your ad as long as your checks clear and you don’t violate editorial policy, Google cares very much that your ad is relevant and appealing to its users.

Google began with a couple of guys and an idea. Two Stanford graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were thinking about how to make a better search engine.

At the time, this seemed about as good as an idea as trying to come up with another fast food restaurant that was going to dominate America. It certainly seemed like there were enough search engines already, and a powerful few maintained a stranglehold on the market.

But the search landscape was far from perfect. Searchers weren’t getting consistently relevant results, and those results typically took a long time to load.

Yet most people didn’t notice or mind these problems since online search seemed to be such a miraculous improvement over what had existed before: calling the theater and spending ten minutes listening to a recording of movies listings and show times; or lugging out the Yellow Pages and phoning 12 bicycle shops to see if they had a 24-inch unicycle tire in stock.

Online search, with useful information at your fingertips from the privacy and convenience of your computer, seemed like a miracle. Page and Brin assumed there were better ways to serve it up.

From Keyword Stuffing to Off-Page Factors

The big problem with search engines, prior to Google, were the rules those engines used to decide what page to show the searcher. The search engines would look at the pages, read the words on the page and say, “OK, so that’s what this is about.” The more times the keyword appeared on the page, the more relevant the search engine assumed that word was for the searcher.

Website owners quickly figured out that getting a top ranking on the search engines for important keywords was crucial to their success. Rather than thinking about the experience of the end user (their customer), they lured prospects to their pages by manipulating the search engines.

A search for “24 inch unicycle tire” would return the pages that contained that phrase the most. Search engine optimization (SEO) became an arms race to stuff as many keywords into the web page as possible.

As you can imagine (or perhaps remember), search engines rewarding “keyword stuffing” meant that searchers were landing on pretty dismal web pages.

In this face of this less-than-optimal search experience, Larry and Sergey asked a crucial question: in other settings, how do people decide if a source is relevant?

They applied their question to the world of academia: How do researchers know when a particular paper, book or study is really important?

How Scholars Vote

Scholars vote for important works by citing them in their own work. The value of a study can be determined by how many times it’s referenced in subsequent work.

If a work is published and never gets referenced, it probably isn’t of great value. In contrast, a book or paper that appeared in the notes and bibliographies of other academic publications – that must be an influential work.

Google was built on this insight and analogy. Page and Brin devised what they called “off page factors” to determine whether a web site or a web page was relevant for a particular search term. A web page would be deemed important and relevant by Google and would rank highly for a keyword if a lot of other web pages linked to that page using the keyword as the visible part of the link.

For example, a post on a blog read by many unicycle enthusiasts that links to as follows:

“… I got a great deal on a 24” Panaracer unicycle tire, so I was able to refurbish my unicycle…”

…would help that page rank highly in Google for the keyword [24” Panaracer unicycle tire].

The more “popular” those linking web pages are, the more popularity they confer upon a page they link to. Like how you can identify the popular kids in high school because they hang out with the other popular kids.

For the first time, the top positions on search results pages were assigned based on merit as determined by a broader community.

In a matter of few months with no advertising, Google eclipsed the other search engines and become name brand of search. We don’t Lycos, we don’t Webcrawl, we don’t AltaVista; we Google. The improved search experience made Google the overwhelming winner.

What does that fun history lesson mean?

Moral 1: Your Ads and Website Must Support Google’s Prime Directive

Google understands that its prime directive is to quickly give searchers relevant results. When they launched AdWords in 2002, they applied the same principles to advertising that they did to their “real” content. Ads that aren’t relevant, or annoy searchers, threaten Google’s dominance by diminishing the search experience.

Google discovered that search is different from newspapers or television. People don’t pick up newspapers or flip through channels on their television hoping to find an ad for unicycle tires.

When people search online, on the other hand, they are almost as likely to be looking for a sponsored listing as a free one. Whatever scratches their itch, whether it be organic or paid.

Unlike typical advertising media, Google allows and rewards ads that provide a high quality experience for searchers. Google measures this in two ways:

  • Does the ad match the search intent, as represented by the search query?
  • If someone clicks that ad, do they get a high quality experience on the website?

Only when the answer to those two questions is yes will they pay attention to the auction that determines placement.

Google cares about the experience of the searcher much more than they care about you giving them a dollar in exchange for a click. A click today means a dollar today, while a satisfied searcher means many more dollars tomorrow and beyond.

Even though you pay Google when you use AdWords, you aren’t their customer. The satisfaction of the searchers who never give Google a dime is the cornerstone of their vast empire.

Moral 2: Stay Ahead of Changes by Understanding Google’s Motivation

The second relevant aspect of Google psychology is this: Google understands it rose to prominence out of nowhere really quickly, based on a slight edge. They had made, initially, a slight improvement to the search experience.

Therefore, everyone at Google has profound paranoia drilled into their DNA: they think of Google as being one tweak away from being out of business completely.

Just as their rose to dominance based on a slight edge, lots of people are out there trying to create better search engines, aiming to eat Google’s lunch.

Page and Brin ran the company from a friend’s garage for six months, so they know that a good idea is more powerful than lots of funding and huge a staff.

Google has never stopped experimenting to improve the search experience. That’s why thousands of Google advertisers woke up one morning in summer 2006 to discover that all their five cent keywords now cost them $10. Google had determined that their ads represented a poor quality experience for searchers, so it penalized the advertisers until they improved that quality.

And pretty much every month over the past 7 years, Google advertisers have been surprised and shaken by “Google Slaps”: changes in policy and algorithm that kick them off the first page of search results.

If you don’t understand the direction in which they are moving, which is ever increasing relevance and quality of search experience, you’re likely to wake up one morning sputtering in indignation at what they did to your account.

Once you grok the basic Google concept (a win for the searcher is a win for Google), AdWords becomes not easy, but simple. Write ads and create landing pages and websites that serve your prospects’ first and your business second.

The best way to “game” Google is to pretend that Google doesn’t exist and treat your prospects the way you’d like to be treated.

Image Credit: Danard Vincente/Flickr