Google To PPC Branding: Drop Dead

The debate on the branding value of pay-per-click search ads may be over before it was ever properly resolved. Google has spoken, at least indirectly, in a couple of news items from the Googleplex.

The first comes from a ClickZ article last week:

"Some search marketers have noticed recently that after refreshing a Google results page around five to ten times, the premium sponsored links at the top of the listings in the blue shaded area disappear or move to the page's right side text ad section.

"Google confirmed Friday it is indeed tinkering [with] its premium AdWords positioning based on user clicks--or the lack thereof. Explained Google spokesperson Michael Mayzel, 'In this instance, we are exploring changes to the way we promote ads to the top of the search page... With this improvement, users may see more prominent ads if they are currently showing interest in ads and less prominent ads otherwise.'"

This fits in with Google's ongoing quest, sometimes to advertisers' frustration, of improving the relevance of its search results, both paid and natural. If consumers are ignoring the paid ads, then those ads can disappear from a prominent position altogether, thus showing more natural results on the first page "above the fold" (without the need for scrolling).



This optimization of relevance can have its drawbacks, namely because applied too far, it could stand as an obstacle between consumers and the information they're seeking. For example, if a certain ad generates a relatively low click-through rate but a very high sales conversion rate and is highly profitable for the marketer, most marketers would consider that effective, but it doesn't fit in with Google's approach.

Additionally, this could prevent top-ranked ads that appear most prominently from providing any potential branding value. Do ads in the top three positions (when there are three top positions) contribute to branding? Do they even play a subtle role, noticeable in aggregate, on sales? Do they give consumers a sense of confidence in the search results by showing a familiar brand there? Do they introduce consumers to new brands that the consumer hadn't previously associated with that search query? Yahoo, in its collateral, reports extensively on how search marketing is one of the most effective ways of introducing consumers to new brands, with search being even more effective than word of mouth in some circumstances. There are fewer such opportunities for brand introductions through paid search if Google's trial is expanded.

The second news item comes from Inside AdWords, the official Google AdWords blog, in a post about video ad campaigns:

"When you bid on a CPC (cost-per-click) basis, our technology tries to maximize the number of click-throughs you'll receive. If your ad fully conveys your message without requiring the user to click through to your site, this could lower your overall quality score and in turn signal our system to not serve your ad. With CPM (cost-per-thousand impressions) bidding, you assign a value to a user seeing your ad--our system then optimizes delivery in order to show the ad to more people. CPM bidding helps you maximize your exposure across sites in the Google content network."

Google's drawing the lines clearly here. Pay for video ads on a cost-per-click basis, and you'll potentially lose opportunities to display those ads. Pay on a cost-per-thousand impressions basis, and your ads will run everywhere, amounting to more branding.

If a marketer is dead set on measuring the success of just one metric, such as immediate online conversions, exposure to the ad, leads generated, or awareness of a new product, then the campaign will be fairly straightforward to determine which types of media to use with which available pricing structures. It's much harder if a marketer says, on the other hand, "We'd really like 50,000 requests for the free product sample, but we'd also be thrilled if there were higher than expected sales when the product hits shelves, and we can attribute that to the campaigns we're running in various media."

Google is striving for simplicity. For branding, use video, and pay for impressions. For direct response, create the pay-per-click search campaign designed to generate as many clicks as possible.

Simplicity isn't a bad thing. Perhaps there are too many competing links on a search engine results page to begin with, and paring them down will garner higher click-through rates for every remaining ad. Perhaps video ads don't need to be as accountable, and CPM bidding will provide the campaign exposure that will best benefit the campaign as a whole. And, perhaps the whole notion of pay-per-click search marketing campaigns having branding value was a stretch to begin with.

Google seems to think that last discussion, at least as it pertains to its own search volume, has gone on long enough. Marketers may not be so convinced. Fortunately for them, while Google's whispers may drown out others' screams, Google isn't the only voice out there.

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