Google is continually working to improve their search results pages. But are the improvements aimed at enhancing the user’s experience or increasing the amount of money Google is making from its ad business? Since Google introduced text ads above search results, the company has continued to make ads less conspicuous. In other words, they are trying to make it harder for you to tell whether your search results are paid advertisements or unpaid search results. Google blurs the lines between paid ads and unpaid results by burying unpaid links among text boxes, news links, paid advertisements, and text snippets. Some have viewed this as a deceptive practice to get more people to click on ads, thus increasing Google’s ad revenue.
Additionally, Google announced that it would eliminate third-party cookies from its browser in 2020. Google says they are doing this to protect the user’s privacy. But the American Association of Advertisers stated in an open letter that this action could “choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive.” All of this raises the question of whether Google is moving towards a model that will eliminate competition and only allow the companies that have the most money to compete for ad space.
I don’t blame Google for trying to make more money. However, when a business controls most of the market, it can take action to squeeze out competition. Web search traffic is usually the first place many customers find businesses today.
Google controls approximately 90 percent of the web search market.
With Google blurring the lines between paid ads and unpaid search results as well as removing third-party trackers, businesses can’t tell if the traffic they are getting would have come to them through the unpaid link or not. As a result, a bidding war has broken out among the bigger businesses. The bidding war is making it harder for smaller firms to compete. The separation between the haves and have nots continues to grow as this bidding war for keywords and ad ranking continues to increase. Many small business clients that I work with complain that they have to pay higher pay-per-click prices for their advertisements on Google. As a result, they have decided to stop advertising on Google altogether. However, because they rely on Google to bring them, customers, through search results, this has limited their growth, but despite this, many say that they can’t afford to compete for ad space.
The increase in ad dollars is also creating a windfall for Google. On February 3, 2020, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported that revenue in 2019 surpassed $161 billion.
Because 80% of Google’s income comes from advertising, there is no reason to believe that the company will not continue to try and squeeze as much revenue as they can out of their ad business.
So, what can the smaller or startup companies to do to compete?
Self-advocating for the right to a fair and competitive marketplace is one of the ways small businesses can try to keep Google from tricking people into clicking on advertisements. On January 13, 2020, Google released a new look for its desktop search results page. The new-look made it so difficult to tell the difference between an advertisement and a regular link that users complained that the company had gone too far. Users accused the company of trying to trick people into clicking on ads. Google later reversed the changes made to the desktop search results page and put out a statement related to the changes. Google’s statement said that the company was testing a new look for the desktop search results, but it decided to make some changes based on user feedback. Even though Google revised the changes they made to the search results page doesn’t mean that that they will not make changes in the future.
A long-term strategy for competing for ad rankings on Google search results is to understand the rules of the game and get good at competing. Paid search is a game with Google being on offense trying to get as much of your ad dollars as they can and you being on the defense trying to spend as little of your money as you have to compete. It is an unfair game though; Google makes the rules, and they don’t tell you how the algorithms they use to calculate who is considered the winner for ad space works. So, what are the rules?
Google claims to takes great efforts to present people with the most relevant information that they are searching for on their search engine. One of the ways that they claim to achieve this is by giving advertisements a “quality score.” The quality score is Google’s way of quantifying the overall user experience that the ad and associated landing page provide when users search for keyword(s). The quality score is scored on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the lowest and ten being the highest. While Google doesn’t share what makes up the quality score algorithm, they suggest that the following factors affect an ad’s quality score: (1) expected click-through rate, (2) ad relevance (3) landing page experience.
The expected click-through rate is Google’s measure of how likely someone is to click on an ad that they are serving up to the user for the keywords they typed into the search engine. The only way to make sure that an ad doesn’t get penalized for violating this rule is by making sure the ad copy matches the targeted keywords for the advertisement.
Another way Google claims that you can improve an ads quality score is to consider ad relevance. According to Google, ad relevance refers to how well a keyword matches the message in an ad. If this sounds just like the expected click-through rate, it’s because it is the same. You might be asking yourself, how can you have an algorithm that has two variables that measure the same thing calculate a score? Please don’t ask me, and don’t ask Google either; it is proprietary.
Google mentions one other way to increase an ad’s quality score by improving the landing page experience for the advertisement. The landing page is the page that the user will be directed to when they click on an ad. Google recommends advertisers compare the copy on the landing page to the keywords used in their advertisement. Google also recommends the advertiser to consider the overall user experience of the page.
So, what can you do to improve your chances to compete for ad space on Google’s SERP? For starters, digital activism is a real thing. However, advocating for a fair and competitive marketplace isn’t easy, nor is it a quick fix. Another option is to play the game somewhere else. There are other search engines that you can advertise on, but keep in mind that Google controls approximately 90 percent of the web search market. You could also find different ways to spend your advertising dollars through other platforms or media channels.
If you chose to play the game with Google, then you will have to understand the rules of the game and figure out a way to use them to your advantage. Understand that the rules often work against you, and it usually comes down to the highest bidder getting the top ranking for keyword searches. Focus on creating relevant and quality content on your website that your customers will find useful. Make sure that your landing pages are user-friendly and engaging to improve the user’s experience. Do your homework and research the keywords you want to target with your ads before setting up your campaign. Then and only then will you have a fighting chance at competing in a marketplace designed to benefit the one who makes the rules and the one with the most money.
Hsu, T., Wakabayashi, D. (2020, February 1). Google Tries A New Look. Users Balk. New York Times. P. B1. Retrieved from http://ntimes.com