What is Google Thinking?
As Google continues to expand its reach into new product lines (e.g. Google Glass, Chrome Books. Google TV, Chromium, Etc), search marketers may be feeling a bit slighted when it comes to Google’s search offering – especially the paid search offering. Now that many of the Google products that were originally free to use are showing up when you log into Adwords (local, feeds, etc), search marketing professionals are not seeing the customer service level grow in proportion with the service line growth. With all this new opportunity for revenue, one would think that Google would really ramp up the customer (and especially agency) support to drive the most revenue possible for not only the new products, but PPC in general. The verdict: Not so much…
Ever since the launch of Google AdWords in October of 2000, the program has gone through many changes and upgrades, such as the availability of CPC pricing in 2002, the launch of AdSense and content-targeted advertising in 2003, the launch of Google Analytics in 2005, and the introduction of Quality Score in 2008. While these and other changes have increased the potential reach of advertisers while increasing the relevancy of their ads to consumers’ searches and/or interests, not all of the changes that have occurred over the years have been positive.
The concept of assigning a Quality Score in determining Ad Rank was probably the biggest change of all since it allows searchers to decide what is or isn’t relevant to their queries given how Quality Score is heavily impacted by click-through rate, all while also directly impacting what is paid for each click. It removed the possibility of an advertiser bidding high enough to be in the desired ad position without also being relevant to a searcher’s query. It has also resulted in many marketing agencies claiming to have their own proprietary ways to increase clients’ Quality Scores, and it’s been treated by some as the most important metric for measuring improvement within an AdWords account.
Ultimately, an advertiser’s ROI or CPL (and overall amount of revenue or leads) is the most important metric to be optimizing against, and this can be done by focusing on the basics: keywords relevant to the queries your target audience is using, ad copy that is compelling enough to bring someone to your site, and landing pages designed to convert. All the other ways AdWords can help attract customers, whether via the use of ad extensions, Product Listing Ads, Promoted Videos on YouTube, the variety of ways to target and re-target to customers on the Display Network, and so on, have made Google AdWords an even more powerful advertising program, but these have all added to the complexity of using AdWords and have steered some away from maintaining their focus on the basics. They have made AdWords more technically complex as well, requiring more knowledge of how it interacts with Google Analytics, how to set up Google Shopping feeds, how to implement remarketing, all the ways traffic and results can or should be tracked, etc.
Google hasn’t done much to help marketers learn how to excel at any of these features, and in fact has never tried hard to help anyone become efficient at using AdWords. They do have a help section, have had different types of learning guides and videos available online, offer a series of exams that allow people to become “certified” in the program, maintain a blog for agencies to get tips and info on new tools (which also exists to promote DoubleClick Search), and an AdWords community help forum as well. But none of these come in the form of direct help from Google. You have to find the information on your own, not knowing if the information is even accurate (in the help forum), and it’s caused almost the entire knowledge base of paid search marketing to exist on blogs written by people who are suggesting what they think is the best way to handle any situation, but no one really knows for sure. And Google isn’t saying.
One thing to notice is the way Google has created all of its educational resources. Becoming an AdWords Qualified Individual means passing exams that test your knowledge of AdWords, not your knowledge of paid search marketing. And this is the premier certification paid search marketers can get to exhibit their expertise to clients, prospects, and colleagues. Passing these exams, however, does not mean that a person knows how to help a company achieve its goals via paid search marketing. It’s like testing a plumber based on his ability to use a wrench and not on his ability to fix a pipe.
Another thing to notice is the direct help that is available. It isn’t really help. Google reps are made available to advertisers and agencies above a certain spend threshold, and by “rep”, that really means salesperson who can set you up with free campaign building and ad writing. However, free help getting campaigns that may or may not contain the right keywords, all set to broad match, and ads that may or may not attract qualified site visitors, isn’t really help. In business, you always get what you pay for, and Google wouldn’t offer this service if it wasn’t done to benefit Google first and advertisers second.
What about technical assistance, help with billing options beyond the use of a credit card or bank transfer, or looking into why ads haven’t been approved? You have to call an 866-number for those questions, or request help within the AdWords interface, which leads to an email being sent to a customer service center halfway across the globe. If you do get a team of reps because your clients’ combined spend is above an even bigger threshold, it’ll be because companies that large have advertising budgets that are more like municipal budgets where it’s all meant to be spent once it’s been approved. The agency’s Google reps primary job in this situation is to ensure that all of that money is spent and none of it is returned. None of this “help” is focused on spending a client’s money efficiently; it’s focused on making sure as much money as possible is spent, period. Again, this is to benefit Google first and an advertiser second, if at all.
The biggest thing to notice is that in the 12+ years since Google AdWords launched, the level of confusion about how it can help companies reach their customers is still high. In January of 2012, when P&G CEO Robert McDonald referenced the 1.2 billion free impressions received as part of an Old Spice campaign, how was he allowed to ever believe that those impressions were actually free given that P&G has a large CPG team dedicated to Procter & Gamble? (True, impressions are free in a CPC model, but get too many impressions without any clicks and the impressions will stop.) P&G spends millions on CPM campaigns anyway, which means non-free impressions, and the creation of the ads themselves as well as the management of those campaigns isn’t free either. Did someone internally tell him those impressions are free? Did Google tell him this, which made him confident enough to make this errant claim?
If the business community at all scales is still hesitant to advertise online because it seems too confusing or too dissimilar to offline channels, only one company can be blamed at this point since only one company has a monopolistic grasp of the revenues generated by online marketing, and that’s Google. They offer just enough “assistance” to get small businesses to dabble in AdWords, dedicate entire teams to the massive corporations that advertise online, but at neither level is expertise or efficiency considered. And to everyone else in between, namely the agencies or in-house marketers dedicated to paid search, Google has provided enough resources to get people started, but experience alone is the only way to improve. Given that having access to actual budgets is the only way to get experience, and that there’s no single right way to manage an account (but plenty of wrong ways), Google is making way too much money from people having no idea what they are doing and way too little money from those who are professional marketers.
Some of the changes Google has made to AdWords have been to intentionally make the job of the professional marketer harder. The Search Terms report has undergone improvements over time, with the Auction Insights feature that was added not long ago, and the ability to see the actual keyword that each query matched to. But this report used to be a very useful source of finding negative keywords in order to prevent unwanted impressions that drive down click-through rates and eventually increase clicks costs once Quality Scores are negatively impacted by this. But Google has decided that many of the impressions dragging down your CTRs aren’t worth telling you about and has lumped these under “Other search terms”. Google’s take on it this is: “Hey, impressions don’t cost you money, but clicks do, so don’t worry about queries that trigger your ads but don’t lead to clicks.” The problem with this is impressions do cost money because when they lead to lower CTRs, which lead to lower Quality Scores, higher CPCs are the result. So this is an intentional move to blind marketers to ways to keep their Quality Scores higher (and ultimately keep their click costs lower).
Google has also made a change to how data is displayed in a graph within the AdWords interface. The highest and lowest values used to be the highest and lowest numbers on the vertical axis of the graph, and the legend used to be to the side of the graph instead of above, and that allowed the graph to be taller and display more detail in terms of any trends that can be seen and learned from. Is this a big deal? Maybe not to most people, but it’s still another change that makes things harder for professional marketers who do rely on these graphs to look for trends that may impact future decisions.
So how should Google be helping those who fall in between the businesses too small to hire help and the advertisers who spend millions?
- First, requiring that their own reps understand paid search marketing and be AdWords certified would help give them credibility beyond being salespeople, and more importantly make them truly helpful to others who actually Google AdWords (i.e., those who generate Google’s revenue).
- Second, giving agencies access to such knowledgeable reps that can actually assist on matters from technical issues to following best practices would allow those agencies to prove the true value of paid search marketing to more clients, which would generate more revenue for Google instead of today’s attitude of nickel and diming advertisers indirectly by counting on continued inefficiencies.
- Third, the exams should not only be more about paid search and less about Google, but the Google-specific parts of the exam should be updated and not include questions about AdWords functionality that doesn’t even exist anymore (such as Position Preference). And one more thing about these exams, anyone working at an agency should be eligible for exam vouchers at any time instead of paying $50 per exam annually (or semi-annually for the Fundamentals exam). These are currently handed out rarely and treated as if they are top secret codes that need to protected as much as Google’s organic ranking formula.
- Fourth, Google should restore all functionality to any tools within AdWords that marketers found to be effective in the past for helping to make accounts as effective and efficient as possible. Any future changes should be done with the goal in mind as well.
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Google needs to play a more active role in teaching business leaders the value of paid search marketing. Be more involved in MBA programs. Sponsor conferences for C-level executives. Stop trying to be so mysterious and making the anticipated confusion such an important source of revenue.
No one was surprised when Erno Rubik wasn’t the fastest at solving his cube, so it’s also not a surprise that the employees of Google aren’t the best at using AdWords. But making them all sales reps first and knowledgeable account reps a distant second, while tasking engineers to constantly develop ways to mask a marketer’s ability to bring the best possible return for a client, only prevents this form of advertising from reaching its full potential. It also negatively impacts those who do the work in addition to undercutting Google’s bottom line.
“How to make AdWords better” is one phrase Google isn’t ready for you to Google.