It’s Not Just the Message in Your Ad, It’s the Meta-Message

When Google first made qualifying advertisers eligible to display a distinctive blue “Google Checkout” icon with their AdWords ads, it led many to a significant discovery. This notation, not technically part of the ad’s message, often led to a small but tangible increase in both CTR and conversion rate. In the tight battle for better quality scores and better ROI, we take everything we can get.

This should have taught us a subtle lesson with wider application. It isn’t always literally what your ad says, but what elements of it – including format, positioning, and higher-order “slotting” in the user’s mind – convey.

In other words, it’s not only the message that affects response, it’s the meta-message.

In a recent column, I asserted that it was easy to fall into a default interpretation of the user response to the Sitelinks ad unit: “the user is scanning the additional links, picking one that is really relevant to them, and clicking on it.” As I attempted to show, that isn’t really happening. A more credible account of the scenario would be “the user sees a premium-position ad from what they now confirm to be a leading vendor, who has extra screen real estate and extra merit conveyed by Google’s willingness to display a richer listing, and they also have a website you can navigate for yourself, rather than a shouty ‘offer page,’ so I’m eager to click the unit in general, and once I arrive on the site, I’ll be slightly more predisposed to buy.”

Even before we had such a multiplicity of search results page layouts and ad formats – which makes this point a little more obvious – some advertisers did have conjectures and working theories about what was going on in terms of the “message behind the message” in search ads.

One client – a professional with a relatively small budget – looked on approvingly whenever his ads appeared in “premium” position. This was not because he was into wasteful ego-bidding. His insightful remark: “It looks expensive.” For a law firm, looking expensive may be important – even more important than optimizing your cost per lead down to the penny.

In addition to that, because premium ads appear at the top of the page, there appears to be some blending in the user’s mind about the relative merits of paid and organic (sponsored and non-paid) listings. Despite being paid for, there will be a lingering belief in many users’ minds that the one or two ads at the very top – or those qualifying for certain formats – have more “merit, according to the search engine.”

Imagine typing “best jacksonville tax attorney” if you were an unsophisticated searcher. How would it look to you if one of the attorneys was in premium position, and another was in seventh?

So far, I’ve only scratched the surface of obvious meta-messages like prestige formats and positioning on the page. There are meta-messages (things users don’t read and consider, but rather quickly parse and use to “slot” or “sort” you before clicking or not clicking, and before considering a purchase) right in your ad copy, too. A full list of meta-message elements to test would include:

  • Signals that you’re actually in e-commerce, and not just providing information
  • Navigational-looking destination URLs and plain copy
  • A well-known, trusted domain name and brand
  • Reseller or retailer vs. parent company
  • Geographic signals
  • Cues to size or market segment
  • Cues to freshness that make the ad “speak”
  • Second-best trust signals that are good, but might waste space in comparison with more powerful sorting mechanisms that have a stronger impact on response

I’ll examine these in more detail next time.

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