When Search Advertising Isn't Really Based on an Actual Search

By Tad Miller | Jul 30, 2010
More Articles by Tad


I'm almost this mad.

I’ve been on a crazy rant of late regarding Google Pay Per Click Advertising’s moves away from the very things that make it so effective:  Actual search intent of the searcher and context of page content triggering Google Content Network (now ironically rebranded as the Display Network) Advertising.  See:

While those issues are relatively new and for the most part unknown to most PPC advertisers, The Google Search Partner Network has been around for years, most people know about it, but few really understand it.  Google Adwords Help says of the Search Network:

Our global Search Network includes Google Maps, Google Product Search and Google Groups along with entities such as Virgin Media and Amazon.com.

That’s honestly kind of vague, dig a little deeper and you’ll find them saying things about the Search Network like:

Ads are targeted based on a user’s search terms. For example, if you search for “Italian coffee” on a search engine powered by Google, such as AOL.com, you’ll see related coffee ads next to the search results.

From what little they tell you in their marketing and Help Center literature you would think that the Search Network is exactly the same as Google Adwords as it runs on Google.com.  Search Engines that serve the search network ads are participants the the Google Adsense for Search Program and are supposed to follow the Adsense Program Guidelines stating:

Queries must originate from users inputting data directly into the search box and cannot be modified. This includes pre-populating the search box with terms or hard-coding direct links to search results pages. AdSense for search code may not be integrated into any software application such as a toolbar.

So it’s just the same as searches on Google.com right?  Not Quite.  A visit to the Google Adwords Ad Traffic Quality Resource Center also states that:

AdSense for search is a free solution that allows publishers to place a search box on their site and earn revenue from relevant ads on the search results page. Publishers may also highlight certain terms on their websites that trigger a search.

So a “Publisher” can essentially highlight any piece on content on its pages and turn that content into a “Search” that will trigger Google Adwords showing ads related to that highlighted content. That is significantly different from the literature given to the advertiser stating that queries must originate from users inputting data directly into the search box.

OK, well maybe it’s not such a big deal that site owners can do that, because Search Network is just what other search engines like AOL.com and Ask.com use for their PPC ads?  Right?  Not quite.

Other Google Search Network “Partners” include:  Walmart, Target, Ebay, Amazon, Hayneedle Stores and Bizrate.com.  Those aren’t search engines at all.  They are shopping sites that Google has apparently dubbed as being close enough to being search engines.

A recent presentation at SMX Advanced in Seattle and subsequent Blog post about this same subject made all of these issues amazingly clear to me.  See:

The presentation is very clear in explaining that shopping sites like Walmart.com are using Bread Crumb Navigation as their highlighted text to generate a “Search” and trigger Google ads for those highlighted terms.  The key to finding these is in the Google Search Query Reports.  You need to do a separate Search Query Report for just your Search Partner Network traffic and then look for “long tail, high impression keywords with non-human characteristics”.

Sticks Out Like a Sore Thumb

These keyword phrases will stick out like a sore thumb.  Admittedly, we have seen these weird phrases coming through in search query performance reports for years.  We knew they were somehow automated, and usually added them as negative keywords because they almost never actually converted for us.  I always imagined them as some sort of automated way to execute click fraud, I honestly never considered that they were Google sanctioned Search Partners auto generating “Searches”.

So what can an advertiser do to counteract this?

  1. You can completely opt out of Google Search Network traffic.  But you will be losing all of the “human” generated search traffic from sites like AOL.com and Ask.com.
  2. You can take the approach of Key Search Pros, identify the location of the traffic and write ad copy stating the advantages of your products versus what the Search Partner is actually selling.
  3. Do what we do.  Evaluate the conversion performance – or lack of performance in most cases and add negative keywords on those high impression, non-human looking search queries.

There are other issue I really want the answer to.  Are these highlighted words that trigger search network ads factored into search volumes of the Google Keyword Tool?  We use this tool almost exclusively for our Natural Search SEO keyword research, and honestly don’t care much about search volume that doesn’t come from actual human beings for making decisions about what keywords to optimize for.  This entire stream of automated traffic could be skewing the search volume totals of some keywords.

The reality is you need to know that their are two streams of traffic you need to contend with in Google Adwords:  1. Human Search Traffic and 2. Non-human Auto Generated Search Traffic from Google Search Partners.  They obviously are not the same.

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