The Real Reason Why Google Is Dropping The Tablet vs. Desktop Distinction? It’s The User Context, Stupid!

There’s been some grumbling among PPC marketers over the last few weeks about a few specific changes in Enhanced Campaigns – in particular, the loss of tablet vs. desktop segmentation, which was previously a best practice for mobile advertising strategy. One of my well-respected colleagues put it bluntly:


Now, if you’ll forgive my attention-grabbing headline (based on ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid‘), I’m definitely not actually calling anyone stupid – and, you can certainly see by the volume of re-tweets and favorites, it’s clearly a widely-shared view.

However, I recently had the opportunity to chat with Surojit Chatterjee, the Group Product Manager of Global Mobile Search Ads at Google, and he explained to me some interesting facts and information about the direction that Google is going with their mobile products, and how this changes mobile advertising best practices for advertisers.

Device Doesn’t Matter As Much As User Context Does

Looking at the huge amount of search query data that they have access to, Google picked up on a pattern in the way people use their devices. What they noticed is that user context trumps everything else.

“User context” refers to the time, location and device from which a search is conducted, and as Surojit put it: “User context drives what people search for, and the actions they take. So for example, say I am at home in the evening, and I’m doing a search. The actions that I will take will be largely the same if I’m using a smartphone, tablet or notebook, because the context is the same. Particularly between notebook and tablet, the query patterns are very similar.”

Similarly, the types of searches that we typically think of as “mobile” searches are the ones that people make when they’re out and about, away from home or work – and that user context is actually far more important than the physical device they are using.

As an example of the predictive power of user context, consider that Google Now — Google’s latest app for getting you just the right information at just the right time — is made possible, in part, by your user context data, such as time and location, which gives Google a decent enough idea of what you’ll likely be searching for, and then seemingly, magically provides that information at your fingertips.

New AdWords “Bid Vectors” Target User Contexts, Not Just Devices

In the new system – the enhanced campaigns announcement we’ve been hearing so much about for a couple of weeks – advertisers can now easily target different user contexts – time, location and devices – in the same campaigns you have been using to target desktop search, instead of having to break out new campaigns for each possible permutation.

As a more concrete example of how to target specific user contexts, consider my own search marketing software company, WordStream, which spends tens of thousands of dollars each month on paid search advertising to drive valuable leads and sales through PPC.

We’re optimizing the various “bid vectors” (my terminology, not an official AdWords term) in our own AdWords account to more aggressively target English speaking markets, using different bid multipliers for USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc. We’re leveraging call extensions for searches executed from mobile, and scheduled them to run while our call center is open between 8-6PM EST.

Because so many of our customers are businesses, we’re bidding down our ads slightly during nights and weekends when the office is closed. Thus, you can say that our bidding and ad copy strategy has evolved to become much more about targeting the specific user contexts that tend to convert into the best leads, rather than a strategy based on specific devices.

Here’s an example of how easy it is to add location-based “bid vectors” in AdWords:

Bid Vectors in AdWords


Overall, I think it’s a powerful shift in SEM strategy – bidding for different types of user context rather than bidding for specific devices, which was sort of just a limited proxy for user context to begin with.

Tablets vs. Desktop vs. Phones: What’s The Difference?

Less and less these days. Google has aligned tablets (like the iPad) and desktop searches in AdWords. But why, especially if when we log into AdWords, we can see that there are differences in performance between devices? Or why does it appear that there are differences?

Again, the differences have more to do with user context than device. In a recent Google AdWords webinar on enhanced campaigns, Jason Spero, the Head of Global Mobile Sales & Strategy at Google said (at roughly 45:30): “When we look at search data in a controlled time of day and location … the patterns of search are almost identical … there’s a lot of similarity in how people are searching for things whether they’re searching on a tablet vs. a desktop vs. a smartphone, in that context.”

Additionally, Jason points out that “tablets used to be aligned, because of the price point, with a certain demographic” – higher net-worth individuals who could afford them when they first came out. But now, as prices decline, the tablet demographic is looking more and more mainstream demographic-wise, and so, they expect to see fewer differences over time.

Currently, 80% of tablet traffic occurs in the home, in the evening, and Google is much more interested in user context vs. user hardware.

Google attributes these changes to the mobile revolution we’re experiencing – not only are mobile searches growing rapidly, expected to overtake desktop search sometime next year, but people move seamlessly from one device to another, without treating those experiences very differently.

So What? Why Should Search Marketers Care About User Context?

In summary, user context matters because it helps determine what kinds of things people search for and what actions they take immediately after conducting a search.

No longer an afterthought, search marketers must now think more critically about time, location and device from the get-go, and try to reflect those modalities into their ad copy and bid strategies to harness and capture user intent, thereby ensuring the best possible results. The great news is that with enhanced campaigns, it’s far easier to do this than ever before.

For more information on user context, check out my interview with Surojit Chatterjee, the Group Product Manager of Global Mobile Search Ads at Google, on this and related mobile ad strategy topics, as well as my deep dive on enhanced campaigns.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Enterprise SEM | Google: AdWords | Google: AdWords: Enhanced Campaigns | Search Ads | Search Ads: Behavioral Targeting | Search Ads: Mobile Search


About The Author: is founder and CTO of WordStream, provider of the AdWords Grader and 20 Minute PPC Work Week.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Takeshi Young

    Thanks, that actually makes a lot of sense.

  • Durant Imboden

    In the interests of consistency, will Google Analytics stop listing tablets under “mobile devices” one of these days?

  • Jerry Nordstrom

    I’m glad you are discussing user context. I fully agree with you, it is and always has been about user context. I believe that where many PPC marketers like myself are concerned is that we would like to be the ones to determine the user context. From what I understand at this point It seems as though Google is determining for us what the user context will be.

    If Adwords is making a significant shift from campaign targeting to user context they needed to wage a far stronger educational campaign to help advertisers adjust in a timely manner.

    By default mobile is opt out.
    By default mobile is going to be “auto bidding”.
    Switching to a % based bidding model may be prudent in the long run, but will certainly require bidding automation for all client accounts, where it has not always needed for simple accounts.

    On one hand user context is important to Google, yet on the other they remove targeting features that allow us to pin point that context according to OUR interpretation of the user context.

    A simple example: I have an iPad IOS only app that enables TV viewers to interact with a TV program. I’m running TV ads during a specific program at 8-9 PM PT and thus will create a PPC campaign that targets that exact device/OS and time frame . Do I want desktop users to see this ad? NO. Do I want Andriod users to see this ad,? NO. Yet with enhanced features they will be lumped together and I will pay for less qualified click.

    Enterprise CRM systems work under context models. You create campaigns that follow and interact with an individual through all of their potential touch points with your company. In a similar way I think this is where Google is going and I am open to that change. This model only works when all of the areas are covered, which is why enterprise CRM is so difficult to implement. Google is rolling this out little piece by piece. My main concern is that advertisers could be paying a hefty price in inefficiency until Google has rolled out all of the features that comprise a complete system.

  • George Michie

    Well said, Larry. It is about context, but I agree with Jerry also that there are usability differences that make smart advertisers yearn for all the controls, not just some of them. The distinction between a phone and a tablet is certainly more context than anything and between context and screen size (a square cm slider?) is where the distinction there will lie. More thoughts on this evolution over at RKG Blog:

  • Sam Owen

    I guess you already know that I disagree on this Larry! :)

    I mean it makes sense to bid by context, but honestly, the context IS different between tablet and desktop. Just as using a mobile on the go is different to using a computer at home, using a tablet on the couch is different to using a desktop in an office.

    We looked into the data at Hanapin and found the results to be pretty different. Why would I want to have less control, when I’m pretty convinced I can optimize my bids nicely at the moment?

  • Elizabeth Marsten

    Yes, user experience/context, I get that, it’s great timely stuff. What I don’t get is the bottom line of the cost efficiency for advertisers. It’s early, but we are definitely seeing CPA/CPCs on tablets increase with EC over Legacy and not just a little. PPC Hero did a study: as did Portent

    Anyone else seeing a drop or staying flat? Or increases?

  • Adrian

    So what? We have been doing this already by breaking campaigns out and segmenting to the best “user context” strategy for the client. Why take away controls is something you advocate or gloss over is completely beyond my comprehension. Repeat after me…Google taking away my ability to segment by tablet device or bid only on mobile users by keyword is NOT improving user context. I’ve seriously had it with this fanboy Google PR baloney trying to color this as some kind of improvement like our leaders 6 years ago spun new interrogation methods as enhanced.

  • Kevin Lee

    Actually, I called them “Bid Vectors” a couple weeks back. ;-) and it was my idea because a Google product manager used that term when I was out at an event. Vectors also accurately describe the “compound interest” layering of the bid multipliers. It’s unfortunate that a different landing page can’t be specified for the tablet clicks. We’ve built a routing system that preserves a one to many relationship between a listing and multiple landing pages routed based on a variety of parameters.

  • Larry Kim

    ok cool! the point was more just to say that it’s not the official google terminology. I think they call it something engineering-ish like “mobile bid adjustment factor” or whatever.

  • Larry Kim

    thanks for sharing Elizabeth!

  • Larry Kim

    haha great analogy! :)

  • Larry Kim

    Thanks Takeshi!

  • Larry Kim

    great question for the Google Analytics team. My guess: probably not. why? In adwords you can still view your data between tablets with full browsers vs. desktops vs. Mobile devices with full browsers.

  • Larry Kim

    ha ha – hi Sam. thanks for this note. You know i have the highest respect for u and the ppc hero team! :) Overall i thought your post was very detailed and thank you for publishing that – just read it right now. the largest performance difference by far that you pointed out was between tablet vs. desktop on the Google Display Network. I think it’s worth pointing out that device targeting is still available on GDN. I believe that the relatively smaller deltas in performance metrics between tablet and desktop that you find will converge over time as our websites, and possibly even google ads become more tablet friendly!

  • Robert E Ashford

    Thanks for an interesting read, Larry. I don’t know jack about PPC but I found your article enlightening regardless.

  • Tamsin Mehew

    It’s all very well saying that people browse the same way when at home independant of device, but even with Enhanced Campaigns you can’t actually target people at home separately to people elsewhere. You can only target by absolute location, and not finely enough to distinguish residential areas from non-residential. (Or maybe you can with zip-code level targeting in the US, but that doesn’t help us everywhere else in the world.)

    Having location based bid adjustments is definitely an improvement, but it doesn’t help at all with user context in this sense.

  • Lucas Fürstenberg

    Completely agree. User context is what it is about, but as long as we have the feeling we can identify this better, we should be able to do it for ourselves.

    Every post about the pros of EC uses examples of multichannel businesses or offline players. For online only retailers I still can’t see why we should look forward to this change. With the exception of the sitelink improvements, but those are merely a nice treat to give us a little “It’s not all bad” and could have just as well been introduced without the EC stuff.

  • Clare O’Brien

    There are too many 2-dimensional assumptions going on in this business right now. Yes context can be about location (eg home vs work) and so device becomes a 2ndary consideration. But I really do disagree that device is a 2ndary or even non-existent criteria.It also depends on the relationship you have with the device – don’t we all know this? Many of us now ‘multi-device’… because we do one thing on one (eg watch programming / research) and another on another (eg manage budgets) – as many here have pointed out. This influences mood and behaviour in subtle ways. I work with one major Lead Gen specialist that’s identified higher conversion rates via a tablet-generated lead than desktop. Not volume of leads generated note! Is this because people using their tablets are more relaxed or more purposeful? Where’s the research into this critically important data? So we shouldn’t be too swift to define something as complex as Context and it annoys me that decisions, such as those by Google, ignore subtlety and are made so swiftly. This is a great period of experimentation… let’s stop trying to be prescriptive and / or definitive.

  • Aasma

    I’ve run few PPC campaign earlier this year and last year. But didn’t run after the new Adwords updates. Though I still believe that Desktop and tablet distinction is crucial plus ensures less spending while targeting right audience.

  • Justin Sous

    Hit it right on the head, Adrian. I get it, user context makes sense. BUT, for those of us who have taken the time and rolled up our sleeves for the past few years to do this manually, it’s a slap in the face from the big G to take away this functionality and “level” the playing field.

  • Sam Owen

    Thanks Larry,

    Good to hear about GDN still allowing separation – I actually didn’t know that. I still think user context is an interesting debate for Tablet vs Desktop, especially as I don’t believe the context is the same. Google has divided the context into at home vs on the go, which makes sense, but for me the context is browsing while on the couch (Tablet) vs buying (on my desktop upstairs). I know I’m not 100% representative of the total population, but it’s still different enough to want to bid separately. I know it will change over time, but I never buy anything on my phone or tablet, I always go to my desktop as I hate typing my details in without a keyboard.

    Good article though, nice to get an insight into what Google is thinking at least!

  • sharithurow

    Hey…I loved the title. Nice work!

    Good link about user context:

  • MichaelB@tastyplacement

    I think where most people are going wrong, is in assuming Google is trying to help marketers advertise more effectively. This certainly ins’t the first time Google has made changes that benefit it monetarily at the user/marketer’s expense. Furthermore, how is the device NOT part of context? This is like trying to give the “context” of a story while refusing to give the setting of the narrative, much less the historical context/geographic location it was written in.

  • Larry Kim

    haha this is funny. thanks for your note!

  • Larry Kim

    thanks shari – and thanks for sharing the article!

  • Larry Kim

    i can agree that there are differences between the user contexts of being on the couch (tablet) vs. in your upstairs office (desktop). but what happens if we isolate for couch vs. office here – you have 2 different locations and two different devices in your example. Lets eliminate some variables.

    Like say you have both a notebook on your couch vs. a tablet on your couch. or say you have a desktop in your office vs. a tablet in your office – do you still do still do very different things with your tablet/computer in the same location? Now what if we isolate TIME. So on your couch, in the evening, with either a tablet or desktop. are the things that you’re going to be searching for and the actions that you take going to be completely different depending on your device?

    anyway, i think that the differences between tablet and desktop are more subtle than desktop vs. being out and about on a mobile device.

  • Christa Joe

    I guess it was somewhat logical as well. Quantifying the quality of a website irrespective of the context or relevance for the user makes no sense. The psyche of a user remains the same even he searches either from a tablet device or from desktop device.

  • Prad Ray

    Taking away our ability to dictate how we wish to message and target by device is short-sighted and has limited our ability to spend our clients budget efficiently. I have campaigns were conversion rates and cost per aquisitions are significanly different. My client will be wasted thousands of dollars a month and we now have no way to help them. I hate it.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide