PPC… Still Unsexy


If you’ve heard of Hugh MacLeod’s sex and cash theory, and you’ve been wondering which category your day job managing paid search accounts falls into… wonder no more. I’m here to tell you: compared with the orgiastic goings-on over on the SEO side of the search marketing game, PPC is… well…not sex.

[As it turns out SEO also merely seems sexy, but isn’t quite “sex” in the strict sense of MacLeod’s theory, where sex refers to a noble pursuit or high calling (or a longshot path to true global stardom).  But nonetheless, it’s as close to sex as we’ve got.]

In your life and career, the fact that no one cares about you just because you’ve got a few dollars — maybe even big bucks — to spend may be sinking in about now. You’ve blown a cool million this year on advertising, so where’s your entourage? The limo? The paparazzi? The closest you’ll get to groupies will typically be sales reps pitching you to spend even more.

You’re in good, sad, sorry company, friends.

Let me tell you a story about my cousin, Alvin. (It’s not his real name, but we’ll call him Alvin here because he has chipmunk cheeks, and they puff out especially when he gets worked up about something.) Alvin is my Mom’s second cousin. This barely makes him family. In any case, you run into him at family reunions. At these reunions, we marvel at the sheer volume of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and jelly salads that can be ingested by people who, in earlier generations, would have done heavy manual work as farmers. Now, machines do more of the work, of course; in other cases, the family sold out of the farm biz long ago. Alvin falls into this latter category. Like a few of his friends, he managed to sell the family farm soon after inheriting a piece of it, rolling the proceeds into a Burger King franchise, and then another. I’m not going to comment on whether Alvin “eats his own dog food,” but suffice to say that either metaphorically or literally, he’s not starving.

Alvin, I suppose, is one of those humble “millionaires next door” you keep hearing about. Wears cowboy boots, comes from a small town, and wouldn’t know a Chablis from a cherry Coke. Except for the humble part. When Alvin rents a Cadillac, or vacations at the same “4 star” resort all the rest of us vacation at in the winter, he wants everyone to know he’s got a lot of money. Alvin proudly explains at family reunions how he runs roughshod over the locals when they don’t give him VIP service.

Alvin loves to tell stories about his screaming fits in the airport, and especially, his delightful brand of pushiness while trying to explain to those pea-brained foreigners just how important he is because he paid $23 a night extra for the Mega Deluxe room.

Alvin genuinely seems amazed that when he screams at them about owning four McDonald’s franchises (OK, so he felt he had to embellish slightly), that a bulletin isn’t sent out to all corners of the resort: let Alvin win at beach volleyball; have the valet bring a selection of scooters around for Alvin’s family to choose from anytime they approach the lobby; give Alvin a choice table at the restaurant; etc.

The problem is twofold, really. (1) Alvin isn’t cool. Money isn’t cool (until it’s $1 billion or more). Rebellion is cool, especially when its parameters are simplistic and easy for anyone to follow. If the founder of Wikileaks were to drop into the resort, imagine the scene. They’d probably hug him! Make sure he had access to the “good stuff.” Light his cigar. Provide a pedicure. Money isn’t everything. (2) Alvin isn’t rich. He confused having some money with having a lot of money. The president of an insurance company, Alec Baldwin, and Donald Trump are all (probably) rich. Much richer than Alvin. If you’re going to play the “money talks” game, be sure to have a lot of money.

[It reminds me of how Steve Jobs got a pile of respect after he was ousted from Apple and bankrolled little Pixar. Jobs was sort of rich. Pixar was small. Disney (et al.) gave them no respect. Pixar raised megabucks in an IPO. Jobs was now a billionaire. Pixar now wore the big boy pants and could push for much better terms in deals. “Rich” doesn’t impress anyone much. Mega-rich, different story.]

So is PPC cool? Unless you’re mega-rich, it’s about as cool as my cousin Alvin.

Online banner ads have been running for over fifteen years now. Google AdWords has now passed its tenth anniversary. So naturally, the business world at large now warmly embraces online advertising. Or does it?

Some days you wake up and it still seems like it’s all SEO, all the time. Oh, my aching head. Why??

Take the recent SES conference in San Francisco. A flash keynote Q&A by Google’s famous head of the web spam team, Matt Cutts sent a buzz through the conference, packing the large hall on Day Two at 8:30 a.m. Barely a minute into the proceedings, fearless MC Mike Grehan (Publisher, ClickZ and Search Engine Watch, and Producer, SES Conference & Expo) invited the founders of two other prominent online marketing conference series – Danny Sullivan and Brett Tabke – to join him and Cutts onstage.

It was like having Mick Jagger, John Cleese, Che Guevara, and the Marlboro Man on stage all at once, with Julian Assange playing the fiddle nearby.

There before us (once again) were four Gods of SEO (or Godfathers, at least). Everyone in the audience on the edge of their seat, waiting with bated breath for any SEO insight that might slip out! The lanyards around our necks? From an SEO tools company, naturally.

To be sure, all four “SEO Godfathers” have many diverse pursuits beyond SEO – Mike, for example, is much more into integrated marketing these days – but arguably, SEO defines their raison-d’être in the industry. (Mike may still be best known for his books, articles, and talks that teach people about the science of organic search and the signals used by search engines.)

Googlers over on the PPC side (to say nothing of the display advertising side, Google News, Google+, etc.) really don’t enjoy such celebrity status, in two senses of the word “enjoy.” They aren’t accorded that status by the public at large or on the trade show circuit. And when it’s thrust upon them (in the form of a keynote opportunity), they don’t seem to particularly relish it.

Ex-Google ad sales maven Tim (“Don’t You Know Who I Am?”) Armstrong, tellingly, has shuffled off to that great digital retirement home, AOL. I’m sure he’ll move into something better eventually.

SEO gurus still being mobbed by their little Cuttlets after they appear onstage? What’s up with that? Where’s the buzz around publisher revenue, effective ad targeting, and ROI? Who can galvanize advertisers? Does Google – or the industry – really care? Is Wall Street the only place you can listen to people discuss average CPC’s anymore?

Why don’t most Googlers appear to care?

From Google’s standpoint, that’s not hard to figure out. It’s summed up in a telling phrase used onstage by Matt Cutts in the Q&A: “We want people to trust us.” They’d rather not be known for talking about money. And the sales side can be taken care of quietly and sometimes very little effort needs to be made. PPC really does sell itself.

I guess that’s why Google wastes so much breath mollifying its “webmaster” clientele. The fact that the money comes from somewhere else – from conscientious businesses investing in the same type of search traffic as the “webmasters” seem to feel they deserve to get for free – can be taken for granted. It certainly is by the SEO community, many of whom seem blissfully ignorant of the fact that search engines wouldn’t stay in business without advertisers.

Contrary to what some might believe, a few dollars just don’t make you very interesting to the search engine folks these days. Nor do you get the same “cool points” as you’d get if you refused to spend a cent.

Some smarty-pants once wrote that advertising is “the price you pay for being unremarkable.” See? Not only do you get to give your cash to Google (et al.), but you get insulted in the process! And here I thought advertising was the price you paid for a measurable chance to win an incremental customer you wouldn’t have got otherwise just by sitting back with hope and platitudes about “inbound marketing” and “word of mouth.”

It’s great that Geek Squad (or whoever) could grow entirely through word of mouth and PR. Imagine! A world without advertising! The power of pure, unadulterated remarkability!

It’s mind-bending to think about it. Too good to be true, actually. Here’s why. Those great “word of mouth” and “user generated content” sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor? The cool social spaces like Facebook and Twitter, where everyone goes to connect with their peers? Search engines like Google, that return billions of helpful results every month, based solely on the quality and relevancy of the listings to the queries typed in by users?


A large number of advertisers have to see real, measurable value in that advertising. Or these companies would have to fold. Online ad pricing can be “brutally frank,” as it has been with remnant display advertising inventory, which has dropped into the sub 25-cent CPM range.

Being a rank-and-file PPC marketer is potentially lucrative, but face it: you’re going to have to enjoy toiling away in relative anonymity – similar to being the 188th-ranked golfer on the PGA tour (or cousin Alvin). If you were the top amateur, people would know your name despite you not making a dime. If you were making $15 million a year like Rory McIlroy, people would know your name. But no one cares about Russell Knox, who will finish this season with $164,000 in PGA Tour earnings (and hopefully some supplementary income), barely enough to cover expenses. Russell Knox cares, though. A couple of good weeks next year, and Russell Knox makes half a million – still anonymous, but way better than working.

So what gives with the online marketing trade show circuit? Weirdly, it still seems to break down into people who view targeted web traffic sort of like a lottery, and those willing to pay a fair price for it.

Take a real estate analogy to see how ridiculous this is.

Imagine if they held an expo in the park, explaining how there would soon be a luxury brownstone next door to the sold-out development – and owning a unit would be free if you just found the right key! And by the way, here’s a cryptic map to help you find one of the keys. They’re buried somewhere here in the park. I’m betting you’d have 50,000 people in the park for that expo. People would be hanging on every word. Some would buy shovels. The organizers would clear $5,000,000 just selling hope, much more than they’d get for just selling one of the units for the market price of $800,000.

There’s plenty of money (still) to be made selling the picks and shovels to those hoping to get theirs in the proverbial gold rush. Why would someone in a full-time, steady job in marketing for a good-sized company feel the need to “recommend” tactics proffered by the last person they had a drink with, who happens to be an affiliate-marketing-through-SEO punter gainfully employed in their Mom’s basement? Maybe the industry is to blame, in part. Maybe we’re too reverent of all the talk of backlinks, rankings, “PageRank sculpting,” Matt Cutts’ latest updates on Panda/Penguin/Puffin/Popsicle, H1 tags, and now, “social media signals.”

Real companies have long succeeded in organic search with 90% fundamentals and 10% tactical tweaks. This latter stuff is — quite often — not rocket science. Yet we must sell it like it is… we’re selling shovels, right?

Maybe the conferences should have a mandatory Strategy track, with an intro session about “How NOT to attend every single SEO session, furiously taking notes, getting your shorts in a knot over things you probably can’t control, i.e. how Google will inevitably re-rank your pages over time based on real signals of quality, relevance, and true user response patterns, none of which they will ever disclose!”

Anyway… while the SEO shovel show plays on to record audiences… the buyers and sellers of the ads – the people on the business side – quietly go about their business.

A symptom of the noise differential on the two sides is a skewed perspective on just how effective or urgent PPC is as a tactic as compared with SEO.

One of the most enduring myths in online marketing is that SEO is a “core” element of traffic generation, while paid search is an “optional add-on.”

Even my super-intelligent friend Avinash Kaushik has fallen victim to “sexy SEO rhetoric.” In recent keynotes, he used the analogy that “SEO is like owning” traffic whereas PPC is “just like renting it.” I beg to differ! When it comes to organic traffic, you own nothing but a shovel. It’s a great thing, but it’s not your thing. It’s up to Google – and the rest of the world – to decide how much you get.

PPC isn’t so far off “renting,” of course, but I have argued in the past that building a predictable, tested response asset that will give you a predictable return month in and month out isn’t exactly like waking up every morning and eating only what you kill. You have tens of thousands of keywords and ads (etc.) with honed histories, to say nothing of Quality Score history.

Consider, also, the manner in which successful businesses typically operate: they are comfortable with variable expenses they can tailor to shifting conditions, and are wary of excessive fixed expenses. How many mid-sized (or even larger) firms own the building they operate out of? In order to meet investor expectations and national regulations related to capital ratios, one of North America’s largest banks – Scotiabank – decided to sell off the office building they own (for a cool $1.2 billion). They will rent space instead. This provides far more flexibility.

If a huge bank can rent a building, then why can’t you “rent” a click?

Despite its general importance, it’s possible to over-invest in SEO, or misallocate time and hope worrying about it. (Should you really have to become a content publisher just because you have the world’s largest selection of dog chew toys, and wish to sell more chew toys? What if well-tested, commercially-focused landing pages that aren’t pages of “great content” convert 5X better than landing pages with “great content”?)

Onto the more prosaic part of this conversation: I outline seven ways that PPC mops the floor (for those interested in money, not sex) with SEO, over on the Acquisio blog.

You may also like