Search Ads & Contextual Ads Are Different! You Need To Treat Them Separately

The major PPC engines offer the ability for advertisers to show their ads on both search and content networks. However, those networks are very different from a consumer engagement process, and they should be treated very differently.

To provide a quick recap, with the search network, an advertiser bids on a keyword, and if the search uses that keyword in the query, then an ad will show. This engagement process is based upon someone actively looking for information related to a keyword that the advertiser has chosen to show an ad.

Although similar in many respects, the content network is very different, and must be approached with a completely different mindset.

On the content network, a user is usually engaged in reading an article on the web and ads based upon the content of that article are shown. To appropriately match articles and the keywords that advertisers are bidding upon, the search engines scan the article to determine the theme of the article. They then scan the ad groups of advertisers’ accounts to decide what theme the ad groups are about. When the two match, then the advertisers ads are shown on the content page with the appropriate article.

With the search network, the user is actively engaged in the search process. In the content network, the user is engaged in reading and article and ads are shown based upon the theme of the article. This is a much more reactive advertising process than search.

Because these networks are so different, there are certain statistics which should be treated differently within your PPC accounts.

Conversion Rates

Before we can examine how important conversion rates are to the search and content networks, we first need to examine the sales cycle.

The sales cycle is pretty straightforward: Awareness > Research > Buy

In some industries, such as used books, the sales cycle can be as short as 5 minutes. In others, like b2b, it could be months.

On the search network, since you are explicitly bidding on keywords, an advertiser has a higher awareness of where in the sale cycle a search is and the best place to direct them on the website.

On the content network, since the matching is done upon themes, the sales cycle is a bit unknown. This is where it gets tricky. Some of the search engines (such as Yahoo and Google) examine the content of a page to see how relevant the page is to the sales cycle. There is quite a difference between a blog talking about how one used their digital camera to take pictures while on vacation versus a page about a digital camera product review. Because of the difference in these two pages, the search engines will actually charge the advertisers different amounts. While one might only pay a fraction of their bid for a click from a blog, they may pay their full bid price from a click on a product review page.

Therefore, do conversion rates matter for both networks? The answer is decidedly no. On the search network, conversion rates matter a lot. On the content network, since you might pay significantly different amounts for two clicks, the cost per conversion is a much more important number.

When doing testing to determine your conversion rates and creating pages to increase conversion rates – you should be focusing on conversion rates from search only. When determining the profitability of each network, then you should be using ROI or CPA calculations.

Conversion rates are very straightforward; the number of conversions you receive divided by the number of visitors. On the search network, conversion rates matter as a user searched for a keyword you were bidding upon, saw your ad, came to your web page, and then hopefully converted.

Ad Copy

It’s quite easy in the engines to use the exact same keywords and ads for both the content and the search network. And for many advertisers, this is an acceptable practice based upon feasibility. In many engines, you can create content only campaigns or search only campaigns; however, this will double your workload managing bids and ads. If you find success on the content network, then you might wish to take the step and use different ads for search vs. content.

On the search network, ad copy is triggered based off of keywords you choose. Since you choose these keywords for a reason, and the searcher intent is somewhat known, the ad copy should directly reflect that keyword and that search intent. The idea is to create ads that are as closely related to the search query which connect with the searcher in explaining that you can answer their search query.

On the content network, you ad is triggered from the theme of the ad group and the theme of the content page a user is reading. Since the user is not actively seeking information, these ads have a much different user engagement process.

The search engines commonly give the advice that more general ads lead to more clicks on the content network. That is good advice is your goal is traffic regardless of quality. However, if your goal is conversions, then you need to make ads with a more general appeal than search ads while still letting consumers know what you wish them to do on your site. Often, you might wish to send this traffic to more category pages than specific products so that consumers can understand the full breath of your offerings based around the ad group’s theme.

Click Through Rate

Click through rate is a major part of the quality score for the three major PPC engines. The higher the click through rate, the more relevant the ad copy; hence, the higher the quality score will become.

The above notion is very true for search. Every time a search is done, there is a chance for a click. The fact the advertiser choose to have an ad displayed for a keyword, and the fact that someone is actively searching on that keyword creates the opportunity for a click on every search.

This notion is not true for the content network. An advertiser might not know if the ad is ‘below the fold’, if the article and ads were mismatched (which goes directly back to ad group organization), or other factors were going on which inhibited the chance for a click. Therefore, click through rate on the content network is not a meaningful statistic.

Therefore, it’s also worth noting in the quality score formulas, the click through rate on search is used in determining quality score, but the click through rate on the content network is not used in the quality score formulas.

Bidding the Network Separately

The majority of PPC networks give advertisers the ability to set different bids on content and search. Take advantage of this ability. Once you understand your CPA (or ROI, whatever your advertising goals are) by network, then you can set appropriate bids.

In general, search bids can be set at the keyword or ad group level. This level of control is possible because keywords are triggered by individual user queries.

In contrast, content bids are set at the ad group level. This is due to the ad group being examined as a whole to determine the theme of the ad group in order to best serve the ads on content based sites. 

Search and contextual advertising are very different. The user engagement process is different. The targeting is different. Therefore, they should be treated separately by advertisers. When running reports for the various engines, segment the data you are analyzing into search or content and judge each network differently.

Neither content nor search is necessarily better than the other one. They are distinct forms of advertising. Once advertisers treat the networks as unique from each other, and then optimize based upon the characteristics of each network, your return on investment will increase accordingly.

Brad Geddes is the Director of Search for LocalLaunch, a blogger at, and a frequent conference speaker. The Paid Search column appears Tuesdays at Search Engine Land.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column | Search Ads: Contextual | Search Ads: General


About The Author: is the Founder of Certified Knowledge, a company dedicated to PPC education & training; fficial Google AdWords Seminar Leader, and author of Advanced Google AdWords.

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