News that Google’s growth has stopped, at least in terms of paid clicks and U.S. revenue, caught many people by surprise. The thinking was that when money is tight, advertisers would switch from broad-based advertising media, such as television, to highly targeted advertising, such as Google. That’s what I thought too, until I had the experience of advertising on Google.
The truth is that Google advertising is only very loosely targeted. It does not necessarily have a higher hit rate than television. And this is by Google’s own choice, though the reasons it has made this choice are mysterious.
People think Google search advertising is highly targeted because of the timing. As an advertiser, you catch people in the moment when they are actually searching for something.
The mistake is the thought that you can advertise to someone searching for something specific. If you’re an Atlantic City belly dancer, you place your ad where people will see it if they are searching for Atlantic City belly dancer. Well, no. That’s not the way it works. Yes, you can buy those ads. But Google will not display them — at least not often enough to matter.
The Google ad system is geared toward single terms, even though most web searches are based on combinations of terms. The very first time you search for Atlantic City, to find out where it is, you might search for Atlantic City. But after that, you’re looking for something more specific, so you’re searching for Atlantic City parking or Atlantic City pizza or Atlantic City marathon, a combination of terms. Guess what ads you see then. There are tons of ads for Atlantic City, but scarcely any for anything combined with Atlantic City. Advertisers pay Google for ads on those pages, but Google does not want to display them. I can only suppose that Google does not want to cheapen the market for the Atlantic City ads, or the other ads that display for single search terms. But as a result, Google displays no ads, or very few, next to most search results.
You can get your Atlantic City pizza ad to appear if you pay Google so much for the ad placement that sometimes it will display in searches for Atlantic City. But that, of course, is not targeted advertising. The people who are trying to find out where Atlantic City is are not the people who are about to go out for a pizza.
Here’s a very specific example from my experience. If you search for the title of my book, Fear of Nothing, there is only a very slight chance that Google will display the ad that I’ve targeted for that search phrase. Google will not display the ad more than about one time per week unless I am willing to also have the ad appear on searches for fear and searches for nothing. And yet, any such ad placement would be completed untargeted. A person searching Google for fear is probably less likely to be interested in Fear of Nothing than a person chosen at random. And a person searching Google for nothing — well, I can’t imagine what they are searching for.
In the case of Fear of Nothing, the missing Google ad scarcely matters, as the book is easily found in the search results, but Google is giving up revenue by not displaying ads like this — ads targeted to phrases and combinations of search terms. I am sure that there are thousands of Google advertising professionals who know various little tricks to get around some of these limitations in the Google ads system. That’s an option for advertisers, but it won’t help Google much. These Google advertising experts are the same people who can help advertisers cut their Google spending by targeting their ads better. Anyway, for Google’s revenue to grow, they need to be collecting money from millions of businesses, not thousands.
So that’s why Google isn’t reporting the kind of growth they had in the past. The highly targeted placements that advertisers are hoping for mostly don’t exist. It’s not that advertisers aren’t trying to spend money on Google. They are trying. But Google doesn’t make it easy to do.