Those new to paid-placement listings might assume anything goes. Pay enough and you can rank on top for terms you wish to target and with ads saying exactly what you want.
In reality, paid listings operate within constraints. They are subject to stricter guidelines than crawler-based results. Ads must be relevant to terms they appear for, and relevancy standards can be high, depending on the term. Copy is subject to a number of style guidelines.
Standards for paid listings can be a shock to those used to dealing with regular search engine optimization. Numerous emails have hit my inbox from readers who are upset, put out, or even offended because they were deemed “irrelevant” for a particular term by paid listing editors.
There are few clear standards for search engine optimization on crawlers. Paid-listings standards are hardly universal, either. To help, I’ll review commonalities and differences between the two major services in the space, Overture and Google (Google, in this case, refers to the AdWords program).
You Gotta Be Relevant!
Overture, Google, and any paid-listing service with significant distribution insist you bid on terms relevant to your site. Easy, right? Not necessarily, as anyone who has had a dispute knows. Relevancy is subjective. If you sell computers, you may believe your site is relevant for the term “computers.” If you sell computers only to California residents, your “relevancy” is narrowed to a much smaller group.
Overture and Google want advertisers’ terms to be relevant to the broadest possible audience. Cost per click pays only if users click. Irrelevant ads don’t generate revenue.
Irrelevant ads can train users to dismiss advertising. If they offer nothing helpful, users might stop looking at them. In the long term, that harms the underlying business model.
Irrelevant ads won’t help your business, either. An inappropriate term may attract traffic, but it won’t convert into sales. Long term, you may decide paid listings don’t work. It’s in the companies’ interests to have ads as targeted as possible. They’ll provide a higher return on investment (ROI), and you’ll stick with them.
Be Specific, Not General
“The business of a poet,” said Imlac, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter discriminations.”
–Samuel Johnson, “The History of Rasselas“
Johnson claims good literature is based on the general, not the specific. Provide enough details to appeal to as many people as possible without being so specific you alienate some readers.
He would have been a terrible search engine marketer. Editorial guidelines for paid listings should be as specific as possible. The more you “number the streaks of the tulip,” the less likely the ad will be rejected.
People who search for broad terms, such as “books,” want different things. It’s relevant for Amazon.com to advertise against that term. Its book selection is extremely wide, and it offers book reviews. Many users will find the site useful if they click on an ad. Allowing a children’s book site to advertise against “books” may not be relevant. It sells books, but only a small number of users will be interested.
“Make sure you are serving the majority,” said Dana Baker, Overture’s editor in chief.
“The power of advertising on search is you can reach an audience looking for exactly what you sell. Relevancy is key to harnessing that power,” said Sheryl Sandberg, director of Google AdWords sales and operations.
Targeting a broad term? Be prepared to defend it. Know why the term is relevant for your site to many users. If challenged, your explanation could help an editor understand why users would consider your ad.
In the example above, Baker said a children’s book store could bid on “books.” It might not be the most relevant site for the majority of people, but isn’t necessarily irrelevant. The main thing, in her opinion, is it sells more than one book.
“If you only sell ‘Goodnight Moon,’ you do not have the variety needed to bid on books. You need to sell more than one book to bid on that particular term,” Baker said.
Relevancy of Landing Pages
When someone clicks on your paid listing, she leaves the search engine and “lands” where your URL directs. Google and Overture insist landing pages linked to ads be relevant to the ad’s term. Overture calls this the “direct path” requirement.
Someone who searches “Apple computers” probably doesn’t want to end up on the home page of a store selling only Windows-based PCs. If an electronics store sells Apples among other products, the user prefers landing on a page specifically about Apples rather than hunting for it.
“As a user, I’ve already put in my search term, so I don’t want to have to go to someone’s home page and search again,” said Baker.
Google agrees. “We want our advertisers to have the best ROI and our users to have the best possible return. The faster I can get from my search to a place where I could click and buy, the better for the user and the advertiser,” Sandberg said. “We think everyone wins when those pages are as relevant as possible for the search results.”
If you bid on a specific product, direct users to a page on your site about that product. Not only will this make it easier to get accepted by Overture and Google, you may find your bottom line improves.
“We’ve seen many letters [from advertisers] saying this has improved their ROI,” said Baker of advertisers who’ve begun linking to the most specific material within their sites.
Pointing to your most relevant page doesn’t preclude pointing to your home page. If a user easily sees how to get information about the search term on your home page, you should be OK with the guidelines.
Next: Ad-copy revelance.
* Danny Sullivan’s premium content newsletter contains a more detailed discussion.
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