Search Ad Policies: A Public Service

When a colleague asked me whether Google and Overture allowed certain kinds of search ads, I thought it would take a minute or two to find the answer, get back to her, and be done with it. What surprised me was that en route to clarifying what types of ads aren't kosher, I found a rarely-cited gem that shows how the two search giants have a far more ambitious mission than censoring charlatans and vice-pushers.

They're trying to help marketers do their jobs better.

There's always fuss over the copy Google won't allow in AdWords, or what sites aren't allowed to join its ad network. John Battell's search blog at is a must-read for search marketers and is one of many to air his personal frustrations. When you're dealing with a network as large as Google's or Overture's, there's bound to be an occasional bit of confusion, and sometimes the response from customer service is underwhelming.

Digging deeper though, beyond the lists that say online gambling ads aren't allowed and online pharmacies must be certified, the policies from both companies advise best practices that are relevant to far more than just search.



Consider this excerpt from Overture's Precision Match Listing Guidelines: "Ever have to go through this? You walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles... You make your best guess as to where to queue up, then begin your wait. After 20 minutes of shifting from one foot to the other, you finally reach the friendly worker behind the counter, who promptly informs you that 'You need to go to Window 10,' pointing toward a line of customers that's double the size of the one you just conquered. "Clicking on a listing only to have to navigate multiple pages to find the specific product or service you searched for is a maddening experience very similar to the one described above." Perhaps, as a writer, I'm particularly sensitive to this, but the above should be admired as a brilliant piece of prose. It eloquently captures the pain from the customer's point of view while begging the marketer not to make a cardinal mistake. Google is much more concise. Its Editorial Guidelines state: "Your ad text and keywords must directly relate to the content on the landing page for your ad." Okay, there's something to be said for brevity too. Google offers a page full of tables for speed-readers, and Overture presents a Dickensian three-part serial.

Sample some of the advice from each party. Google writes, "The limited text space should be used for concise, informative language that sets you apart from your competition." Isn't that true for almost all advertising? Make every inch and second count. And listen to Overture: "It's natural to think that your Web site can offer something for everyone, but to generate bottom-line results it's more important to hone in on your target audience." Words to live by - though somewhat humorous given Overture's parent company is a portal. Both Google and Overture stress local search in their guidelines, with very similar language. Google: "When a geographic location is relevant to the search term, it should be included in the listing." Overture: "Use keywords that reflect your location if you offer a location-specific product or service."

Some of the best advice, applicable to any ad copy, is concise. Google: "Avoid superlatives." Overture: "No superlatives are permitted." That's the greatest, best idea I ever heard!

Also of interest is the role of the user in the sets of guidelines. Google starts off strong, saying, "Our ultimate goal is your success, and we believe that providing a great user experience is the best way to ensure it." However, after that, the user experience is only referred to directly one other time (though it's implied several others).

Overture, meanwhile, ranks users third among its four constituencies, which also include advertisers, affiliate partners, and Overture itself. Despite the strong advertiser focus up front, Overture constantly takes the user's perspective throughout the documentation.

Overall, the guidelines encourage good grammar, honesty, differentiation, strong selling propositions, brevity, clear calls to action, and loads of other tips often sermonized by authors and consultants such as Jack Trout and Al Ries. Even for marketers not engaging in search, consider the postings a public service by Google and Overture.

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