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Search Triggers: A Secret to More Powerful PPC Ads – Vitruvian Advertising
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Search Triggers: A Secret to More Powerful PPC Ads

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

An old joke that I first heard from my friend and colleague Ann Convery: Sad Dog

An elderly gentleman is rocking on the porch in the evening, next to his dog, who’s lying down beside him and howling miserably. His neighbor finally can’t stand it, so he walks over and asks, “Fred, what’s with Gideon?”

Fred replies, “Gideon’s lying on a rusty nail.”

Neighbor wonders, “Well, why don’t he git up, then?”

Fred explains, “It don’t hurt enough yet.”

Search Happens When It Hurts Enough Yet  

That joke contains a significant AdWords secret: most people search for a solution to their problem only when it Hurts Enough Yet.

Meaning, they don’t search until something triggers them to get up off the porch and do something about whatever pain or longing they’ve been passively suffering until now.

The thing about Hurts Enough Yet (for kicks, let’s make up an acronym: HEY) keywords is that the searcher has actually been hurting for quite a while. They just weren’t motivated enough to search for a solution until now.

For example, think about someone searching for “get out of debt.” What are the chances that person woke up this morning, checked their account balance, and discovered that for the first time in their life, they don’t have enough to cover all their bills?

Not real likely.

How about this scenario: person has been in debt for years, possibly decades, and that debt has been steadily increasing. Now it’s at $25,000, and they’ve maxed out their very last credit card. At the supermarket checkout lane, trying to buy a bunch of peanut butter, store-brand Saltines, and ramen.

That’s what I mean by a search trigger. Some experience, some realization, some new input has ratcheted up the stakes. And turned the deadly daily drip of denial into a massive, meaningful, motivating moment.

For fun, take a moment and think about possible search triggers that could have led to these HEY searches:

  • “lose weight”
  • “landscaping service”

Ready for my answers?

“lose weight”

  • Received an invitation to a spring wedding and class reunion
  • Planning a beach vacation
  • Stepped on the scale and reached a new milestone number (200, 250, 300, etc)
  • Found that the “fat jeans” are now uncomfortably snug
  • A friend with weight problems just had a heart attack

“Landscaping service”

  • Storm knocked down a tree that has been dead for seven years
  • Neighbor gets their yard landscaped and now that brown lawn looks even worse

Why Does This Matter?

When you understand the common search triggers, you can write much more powerful ads. Because you’re entering the specific conversation already going on in your prospects’ heads.

This is a powerful way to cut through the clutter of a bunch of ads all saying pretty much the same thing. Check out the Google search results page for “get out of debt”:


I’ve helpfully highlighted one repeated phrase to make the point that these ads are all saying pretty much the same thing. Not one ad is making the slightest effort to engage prospects where they are right now (and at a Google-estimated $16.16 per click, that’s an expensive oversight).

So what might a HEY ad look like? For “get out of debt,” let’s use the supermarket checkout trigger. The trick in adapting an ad to a specific situation is to generalize the emotions caused by the situation.

Emotions like frustration, embarrassment, helplessness, and shame.

Debt Too Big to Ignore?
Cards maxed out-Scared. Now what?”
Get breathing space now. Free call.

The other advertisers are all focused on the details of the offer. For someone in emotional turmoil, this ad will offer the biggest hit of empathy and relief.

Special Case: Seasonally Triggered Searches  

I’m writing this on April 11. Just a few days before U.S. income taxes are due. Do you think that someone searching for help with their taxes today has some urgency on their mind? And can you guess what the search trigger might be? Yup, the calendar.


You can see two spikes in 2012 search traffic for the keyword “get taxes done”: the “responsible” searchers (end of January, when they start receiving their 1099s in the mail), and the “panic” searchers who waited until the very last minute, the week before April 15.

If I were writing ads for an accounting firm, I’d write two very different appeals in February and April.

Yet here’s the Google search results page for “get taxes done” for today:


Not a word about “last minute – no worries.” No mention of urgency. No “procrastinators pardon.” Not a drop of empathy, not a smidgeon of comfort.

Why not a headline like: “Holy Cow – Taxes Due When?”

Because you want to be there, with a kind word, a band-aid, and a cure, when it finally Hurts Enough Yet.


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