Google Eschews Editorial Intervention… Or Do They?


When Google rolled out its exciting new pay-per-click advertising system, Google AdWords Select, some pay-per-click advertisers were pleased by Google’s automated method of enforcing relevance. [“Relevancy: Online Advertising Middlemen Get Religion”]. Without editorial intervention to get in the way (instead, Google requires ads to maintain a 0.5% clickthrough rate, which it equates with user interest and thus relevance), advertisers would have the ability to test the effectiveness of keywords and ad copy rapidly without waiting for often-unfavorable editorial decisions, as is the case over at Overture, Google’s competition.

As it turns out, it isn’t quite that simple. Google does have a few editorial rules. Er, more than a few. It has already arbitrarily pulled ads from scientologists and a gun-related site, creating early controversy that is bound to simmer as long as Google is running this ad service. Judgment calls are inevitable.

We already knew they didn’t like sites with pop-ups. Good – Google has standards. But it seems they have a lot more standards than anyone would have predicted. Please don’t let these guys ever form a government!

A correspondent recently wrote to inform me that he was delighted that implementing several of my suggested targeting and copywriting tips had raised his clickthrough rate (CTR) from 0.7% to 2.3%. That’s significant, because the higher the CTR, the less, on average, you have to pay per click (that is built into Google’s auction model). In fact, all things being equal, you can cut your per-click charges down by 67% if you triple your CTR.

But this online retailer’s delight turned to bewilderment when Google editorial staff penalized him for this “success.” His ads were disapproved because he was using “promotional” sales copy. (Isn’t that what sales copy is supposed to do? Does Google not realize they are running an *advertising* service?) Google is also cracking down on ads that use repeated punctuation or other character-based design tricks. Furthermore, it reserves the right to reject ads containing exclamation points. One of my own ads was partially rejected; some of my keyphrases were deleted because there was supposedly no clear link between what I was selling and the keywords chosen. (A euphemistic way of saying Google has its own reasons for not liking the ad, and it’s using relevance as the excuse, even though the over-0.5% CTR was supposed to be the means of determining relevance.)

Several others subsequently wrote in citing similar problems. Google doesn’t like capital letters, it doesn’t like clever punctuation, it doesn’t like promotional copy that suggests something is a special offer, it doesn’t like the phrase “click for details.” Google, once everyone’s whip-smart computer-geek nephew, has suddenly become the impossible-to-please patriarch. It’s enough to give us Google Kids a complex.

“Halt! Who goes there?” One of the most baffling rules is “Identify Business.” Like the other rules, its arrival was sudden. It has resulted in the disapproval of many advertisers’ formerly-acceptable ads. Essentially, if you don’t have your company name in your ad, you are told to put it in your ad. This gives advertisers even fewer words to work with. If your company name is Vandelay Industries, or something longer than that, you’ve suddenly got to cram your ad into a smaller space.

This isn’t the only problem, though. Many businesses are getting this warning along with another that asks them to “identify affiliate status.” A couple of those who I talked to, legitimate value-added resellers of products in a country different from the head office of the company they sell for, have felt that the new warning messages from Google imply that they are lying about their identities, or that they are just small-potatoes affiliates and thus not valued advertisers.

Let me explain what I think is going on here. Not everyone is going to like it, but it makes sense when you think about it. Not unlike eBay, Google is running a complicated auction system that pits advertisers against one another in a battle for consumer spending. Advertisers will be motivated to try all kinds of tricks to improve their ROI. Generally speaking, those tricks will be to the detriment of other advertisers. It is, to some extent, a zero-sum game once the system gets competitive enough. What Google is saying is basically that some tricks fall into the acceptable range of good targeting, appealing copy, and relevant key phrase choice, and that other tricks fall outside of this acceptable range. They are attempting to set a level playing field. Those advertisers who break the rules hurt the integrity of the auction.

So what is “promotional” copy? It’s a matter of discretion, but anything that offers more than any of your competitors could legitimately offer puts you at risk of editorial intervention. If you’re using an offer that is too good to be true, consumers are going to get misled, and your clickthrough rate will be artificially high. This does you no favors if consumers find out that the deal isn’t as good as you let on. You’ll pay for lots of clicks and make few sales. Better you learn more legitimate targeting techniques to raise your CTR as high as possible, and then actually work on *weeding out* unqualified buyers by figuring out ways of discouraging them from clicking.

But there is more to it than Google trying to make a better auction. The painstaking detail of all these new editorial rules, and the suddenness and rigor of their enforcement, suggests to me that Google is in hot and heavy negotiations with a major portal like AOL to syndicate AdWords results to the big guys. It’s the “big guys” who just may be calling the shots. Time will tell. (Remember, time is running out on Overture’s partnership with AOL. They’ve just announced a one-week extension to expire May 1.)

In hindsight, there was really no way around this editorial role at Google, but it certainly makes one uncomfortable given that Google is not known for its competence in this area. The bad news is that this constant intervention makes Google’s model less scalable than they’d like, puts advertisers once again at the mercy of editorial overseers, and will create distracting and often public arguments over freedom of speech.

The good news is that Google really doesn’t single people out. If you ask politely for more elaboration on the reasons for being rejected, and what slight changes might help you get your ad reinstated, they’re likely to help out. If you make some changes and re-enable your ad, more often than not it will run unimpeded. The system is rules-based.

One thing that’s clear is that there remains a huge incentive for advertisers to experiment with their ad copy and keyword selection to achieve high CTR’s and thus lower average costs over time. Now more than ever, it’s vital to gain a solid grounding in legitimate techniques for improving ROI on Google AdWords Select. Tricks and gimmicks won’t work. They might even get disapproved by Google’s staff.

I’ve had people emailing me to ask about gimmicky stuff like putting long URL’s in the last line of your ad to trick Google into giving the ad more space; one notable colleague was putting promo copy instead of a URL in the URL field (quickly quashed by Google). People think these are the kinds of tricks that will help them beat the system. Sure, sure, and the prof will give you a higher grade on your psych exam if you use black ink instead of blue. Come on, snap out of it! Success rarely depends on flimsy gimmicks. Study hard, implement, and succeed.

If you plan to do any online advertising this year, pick up a copy of my report, “21 Ways to Maximize ROI on Google Adwords Select.” It’s a highly practical, easy-to-follow 70-page guide to profitable pay-per-click advertising techniques (but don’t let me convince you, read the testimonials from the reviewers and early users of the techniques). It will help you do better on Google AdWords Select, but there are principles in here that are more far-reaching than that. Your advertising will never be the same again!

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