Lessons From Google’s Own Paid Search Campaigns: Forget The “Rules”

One should suspect that no company on Earth would be better at running a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign than Google itself. Astute observers may have noticed that Google runs ads for its services in its own results pages. So, if you search on Google for “Google,” you might see an ad like:


They even run ads on other search engines. Search for “Google” on Yahoo and you might see:


(The 3-line description is a result of the way some ads display in Yahoo’s results.)

Various blog posts have offered advice on writing “killer” ad copy, suggesting (among other things) to use the keyword in title of the ad and to also use the keyword in the ad’s description text. Others advise including a strong call-to-action, though the jury still seems to be out on the subjects of best use of capital letters and on whether or not to use an exclamation point. Google itself suggests to test multiple ads in each group.

Checklists are for the grocery store

The reason why search engine marketing can often be frustrating perhaps is already obvious: even for Google, “industry standard” practices can’t seem to be universally applied. The two ads above both use “Google” in the title and description, but one includes an exclamation mark while the other does not. One treats “Homepage” as a single capitalized word while the other treats it as two words (but strangely doesn’t capitalize the word “page”). And neither seems to be part of an ad group that has multiple ads, since these are the only creatives I have ever seen for this search query. If you use a checklist of “best practices” when writing ad creatives, at least be aware that Google’s ad writers don’t seem to do the same.

It might be that Google simply isn’t trying to optimize the performance of their ads on their own website (since they don’t change their own bottom line by charging themselves for clicks). But it seems harder for me to believe that Google isn’t trying to optimize the ads they place on Yahoo and Bing. Even if money isn’t an issue, certainly setting a good example and maintaining the appearance of competence are.

So, I decided to examine Google ads on Yahoo and Bing further to see what lessons we can learn from Google about writing good ad creatives:

Lesson #1: Put all, or most, or some of the keywords in your ad

Yahoo and Bing don’t seem to run Google ads for terms specific to Gmail (Google’s email service), Google Maps, or Chrome (their web browser), but they both run ads for Google’s new Nexus One phone. For the query “nexus one phone,” Bing and Yahoo both run the same 3 ads:


Notice that none of the ads mentions the full keyword in the title, even though there is enough space in the titles of the top two ads to say “Nexus One Phone by Google”, instead of just “Nexus One by Google.” And, none mention the keyword at all in the text description.

Lesson #2: Emphasize benefits, not features (or the other way around)

A “golden rule” of writing good PPC ads is to emphasize benefits, not features. So, for example, you should say that the machine offers “fast performance” rather than a “1 GHz processor.” But looking at the three ads above, it appears that all emphasize features (“4 GB Flash Memory,” “1 GHz Processor,” “Tech Specs”), not benefits. Perhaps this “rule” of killer PPC ads should be revamped to say: “Emphasize benefits, not features… except when you should emphasize features, not benefits.”

Lesson #3: About attention-grabbing headline

Another common piece of advice is to write an attention-grabbing headline. Bing doesn’t seem to run Google ads on terms related to finance, but for the queries “stock quotes” and “financial information,” Yahoo shows:


“About Stock Market?” “Financial information?” I don’t know if I could think of a headline less enticing than those. Maybe, “About information?” Using bland headlines like these might make sense for testing purposes if Google had similar ads in the rotation which had much more enticing headlines. However, in apparent violation of their own advice to test multiple ads in each group, these seem to be the only ads they show for “stock quotes,” “stock quote,” “stock market quotes,” “financial information” and similar queries. Notice also that few words are capitalized in these ads, not even the display URL, even though some suggest to capitalize the display URL. And as far as the advice of using words that evoke emotions goes, these ads are stone-faced. So, perhaps Google has already done their testing and discovered that these lame-looking ads get the best response—in which case, maybe writing enticing titles only attracts poor-quality visitors.

Lesson #4: Keep the ad and the landing page closely related to the keyword (unless you have a new webphone on the market)

Interestingly, the ad which appears on Google itself for “stock quote,” “stock quotes” and “stock market quotes” is:


It seems that rather than take you to their highly relevant Google Finance page, as their Yahoo ads do, they’d rather use your “stock quote” or “financial information” query to show a less-relevant ad which cross-markets their shiny new cell phone. (I wonder what the landing page quality of their phone page is compared to their finance page for this term. For that matter, I wonder what Quality Score a low-relevance ad like this one has…)

Lesson #5: Always-be-testing everything but the display URL

Stock quotes and webphones are one thing, but Google makes most of its revenue from selling pay-per-click ad space, so let’s get to the heart of the matter. On the query “pay per click advertising,” they run at least six different ad creatives on Yahoo and seven on Bing, five of which are common to both search engines. Of the five ad creatives in common two use “pay per click advertising” only in the title, one uses these words only in the description text, one uses these words in both the title and the description, and one uses them in neither the title nor the description text. Here’s how the ads appear on Bing:


These ads on Yahoo are the same, but with periods in place of the exclamation marks. So, it appears that Google might be doing full factorial testing of the titles and text on some terms that are core to its business.

Though some suggest to test multiple versions of your display URL, it seems that Google has disregarded this advice, since the display URL on all the variants of the “pay per click advertising” ads on both Yahoo and Bing are identical: www.Google.com/AdWords.

Lesson #6: Don’t sweat the small details

Surprisingly, in one of the ad variants that appears on Bing but not on Yahoo, Google’s ad has a minor formatting error that has unwittingly tripped up many search marketers:


By not realizing that when ads appear in the “promoted positions” above the natural results, the description text is presented on one line, Google’s ad writers left out a blank space between “Minutes” and “Instant.” Try to not let this happen in your ads!

Lesson #7: Sweat the small details

When testing ad variants, it appears that Google rotates ads evenly on Yahoo and Bing, but uses the “Optimize” feature (which delivers ads with higher clickthrough rates more often than those with lower CTRs) for ads which are shown on Google itself. For example, for the query “search marketing,” Google has at least seven variants on Bing (some of which use the keyword in the title, some which do not, etc. etc.), but on Google itself, they show only two ads, the first of which appears about 90% of the time and the second only about 10% of the time:


Personally, I can’t see anything that would explain the apparently large difference in CTR between these two ads which would cause the first to be shown so much more often, except perhaps that “get” comes from German (“gessen,” by way of Old Norse “geta”), while “gain” is from French, and English words of German origin are often perceived as more “visceral” than their French or Latin equivalents. So, perhaps that mere fact explains their apparently wildly differing CTR’s and very small details can cause enormous differences in behavior.

Lesson #8: Use Google’s new boldfacing algorithm to your competitor’s advantage

As a final note, Google has recently begun boldfacing text for words which are synonyms for, but not identical to, words in the query. This might expand the range of words creative editors would consider using in the title and text of their ads. But, the differences between which words Google boldfaces and which is does not can be interesting. For example, for the query “free web mail” Google seems to run at least three different ads, two of which mention Gmail (one is shown below at left). For the query “phone apps,” they seem to have at least six different ads, one of which mentions the iPhone and is shown below at right:


It’s revealing that Google’s boldfacing algorithm considers Apple’s brand term “iPhone” (a competitor to Google’s phone) to be a synonym for “phone,” but Google does not consider its own term “Gmail” to be a synonym for “mail”.

The general rule for people who write PPC ads seems to be: there are no general rules. Forget about “best practice” checklists because they don’t even seem to work for Google. Instead, just test as many ad variants as possible, even ones that you wouldn’t think might work well.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Features: Analysis | Google: AdWords | Top News


About The Author: is Manager, AdMax R&D at The Search Agency and a frequent contributor to The Search Agents blog.

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  • http://www.ioninteractive.com allenkristina

    We agree, you never know what in search is going to work until you test it!

  • Stupidscript

    “..I can’t see anything that would explain the apparently large difference in CTR between these two ads which would cause the first to be shown so much more often..”

    Don’t let it get to ya. In my experience with AdWords, I have never been able to divine whether the “Optimize” feature even works at all! Typically, I will see 95% of impressions given to whichever ad was posted first. Every other ad plays a poor second fiddle, regardless of its CTR. A second ad could be grabbing a 20% CTR and it would *still* have just a fraction of the impressions that an original 1.5% CTR ad has. IMHO, there are programming problems with many of Google’s features … this being one of them.

    That being said, I very much enjoyed your attempt to explain it.

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