Paid Search: The Best Native-Ad Format Ever

Native ads are all the rage these days. Lookaround; you can’t escape them.

The thing is, native advertising is not a new concept. It’s been around as long as the Internet. Well, almost that long.

The first Web ads were really just print ads stuffed on websites. The layouts were very similar to what marketers were used to from newspaper advertising. This helped drive adoption.

This trend continued as new ad formats emerged on the Web. The first video ads were simply repurposed TV commercials. The first sponsorships mimicked offline sponsorships – aka, NASCAR logos everywhere. The first commercial emails were modeled on direct mail.



The challenge for publishers looking to monetize their Web sites and audiences is striking the balance between effectiveness and scale. To succeed, you need not only to have ads that will work, but ads that people will buy. Unfortunately, these variables are not always one and the same -- but eventually correlation becomes causality.

The first attempt at native web ads sucked. Pop-ups, anyone? Homepage takeovers? Interstitials? Eyeblasters? Eyewonders?  Eyegougers?

The problem with all these formats is that they added zero value for the audience. At best, they were irrelevant. At worst, they were annoying.

Then along came a spider… a search engine spider.

GoTo (which became Overture and then Yahoo) created an ad format and pricing structure that was native for a search engine. It was a simple text link that marketers paid for only when it was clicked. For the first time, we had an ad unit that looked like the content around it without blocking it. It was an ad unit that offered real value to the audience in the form of potential answers to queries. And it was an ad unit that was relatively easy to buy. Marketers could set their own bid price per click. The higher your bid, the higher you showed up on the page.

Things got trickier but immeasurably (scratch that, it was quite measurable) better when Google AdWords introduced Quality Score as a way to determine which ads were shown for which keywords and in which positions.

Over time, as the search engine results pages changed to include images, maps, deeper links, etc., the ad formats changed with it. Today’s search ads still very closely resemble the content on the page. And, importantly, the ads still don’t cover up or otherwise interrupt the user experience. Further, paid search ads continue to add value in the form of answers to queries.

Of course, paid search has the benefit of being attached to the most powerful demand signal of all time: overtly stated intent. Each time someone searches, they are telling the engines (and marketers) exactly what it is they’re interested in at that moment. Not every Web property is lucky enough to have that kind of trigger to serve an ad.

Nonetheless, every Web property has some reason for people to visit it. The key to good native advertising is to decipher that intent and harness it to create added-value messaging from relevant brands.

Here are some specific instructions for publishers to apply the lessons learned from paid search to create native ad formats:

1. Don’t interrupt.  Respect the content and context of your property. And be mindful of the mindset of the audience. Don’t start with what works well on other sites or channels. Start with what’s unique about your site or channel. If it has to do with visuals (e.g., Pinterest, Instagram) create ad formats with rich visuals. If it has to do with text (e.g., Twitter) create text-based formats. If you’re not sure what it has to do with, you’re not ready to monetize with ads.

2. Add value. Position the ads as helpful forms of content that enhance your overall user experience. In fact, don’t just position them that way. Make them that way! Implement (and enforce) strict guidelines for which advertisers can participate and what the content of their message can include. Create your own version of Quality Score. And be sure to always label the ads as “paid.” As long as they’re adding value, they won’t be ignored or scorned.

3. Build for scale. Make the ads easy to buy. Make the creative easy to develop without being totally vanilla or templated. And make the buying process (or bidding system) easy for marketers to learn and adopt. Ideally, this would include enabling third parties like ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and bid management technologies to access the inventory. Also, to really drive adoption and improve performance, allow advanced targeting via data management platforms. You may be worried that opening up to DSPs and DMPs may commoditize your inventory, but you can set up private exchanges and implement strict controls to retain a premium offering.

Native ads, while they may seem novel, are certainly not new. Let’s just hope they don’t get restless!


2 comments about "Paid Search: The Best Native-Ad Format Ever".
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  1. Robert Payne from, November 13, 2013 at 10:27 a.m.

    Aaron, Great article. With all the hype around "Native Advertising" it is refreshing to understand where online advertising has come from and where it is going. Being the oldest PPC search engine still under the same private ownership, (older than Google AdWords), to this day still offers content marketers new opportunities to monetize traffic. Your 3 steps for creating Native content and how to monetize that content with relevant ads is great insight for publishers.

  2. Anni Paul from BoscoSystems, November 14, 2013 at 2:30 a.m.

    Interesting. I think all signs point to native ads being a breath of fresh air for mobile advertising. It's not talked about much yet, but the smartest players in this game - Airpush, Twitter, FB - are all looking toward mobile as they proceed into native ad territory. There's something cooking there, and it could be gigantic. We'll see, I guess.

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