Google, the Media Network, Part 2

In part one of this series, I introduced display advertising options on Google’s Content Network. Google’s Site Targeting advertising is anything but traditional, to say the least.

For starters, site-targeted display advertising is no sure thing. There’s no guarantee your ad will be served because there’s no insertion order, virtually no minimum commitment, no special placements, and no makegoods if ads don’t appear. That’s because there’s no real front-end buy. The purchase only occurs in real time after your bid wins a live, constant auction (in which your display ads also compete against text ads). Then, your ad is served. Only upon each served ad impression do you accrue any obligation to Google.

Google sees this platform as a positive: no ad placement is ever truly locked up. Every ad spot is always up for grabs, pricing is never negotiated, an advertiser might be able to buy display ads on sites with no other advertising opportunities, and Google claims this kind of buy is “less work” for the agency. This last point is particularly disputable, not only because in a traditional buy the media rep and publisher bear the heavy lifting of campaign launching, but also because there are more decisions required at the Site Targeting campaign setup level. In a traditional campaign, by the time the agency’s at the campaign setup, all the upfront strategic decisions have already been made.

Initial decisions and setup may be for naught, however, if the buyer must go back into the interface and tinker around with the bid price just to get the ad to appear. That higher bid price still doesn’t ensure the ad will be displayed, since it competes in the same fluid auction as the text-based Site Targeting and keyword-targeted ads. Moreover, Site Targeting still takes into account Google’s Quality Score, which helps determine each ad’s position on the page.

Google believes its auction environment levels the playing field for small and large advertisers alike to have a shot at display ad visibility. After all, anyone can use Google AdWords’ self-serve interface.

This may be fine for the small, independent advertiser, but for agencies in many instances, the media buyer wants — even needs — a media rep. It’s not always about price. We count on knowledgeable media reps to help us develop campaigns; present new ideas; and suggest placements, targeting, frequency caps, and creative that may have worked in the past for similar advertisers. They can also work with us to develop unique placements.

Agencies large enough to qualify for a dedicated Google service rep can get assistance with a Site Targeting campaign, but this assistance is less about strategy than about facilitating execution. “Besides,” says Google, “most agencies use the self-service AdWords interface to set up their campaigns.”

There are other shortcomings that must be addressed. Google display ad campaigns currently can’t accommodate third-party ad servers. Campaign optimization is therefore an entirely manual process. Google can’t provide proof of delivery, which is particularly disadvantageous given one never knows if a bid won the auction or when the ad will display. Nor can an agency independently track and audit a served ad impression. Google recognizes these issues and is working to “improve the experience” with more tools, data, and interface refinement.

So how does display advertising through Google’s Content Network, particularly Site Targeting ad buys, play a role in the media plan? There are two influencing factors: campaign objectives, and agency ROI (define). Right now, Site Targeting campaigns require a lot of manual work, time that’s difficult for an agency to justify against the potentially meager ad spend a campaign may generate. For agencies, this is one strike against Site Targeting.

For the advertiser, Site Targeting may be a way to generate unique, low-cost (though not guaranteed) visibility. This may be acceptable, even desirable, to some advertisers. But for direct response advertisers, advertisers who must go to market quickly and aggressively, and those who have to spend down budget in a fixed period, Site Targeting is probably not the right choice.

What do you think? Send me your feedback.

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