Modern PPC advertising was pioneered in 1998 by Overture who was later bought by Yahoo. It really hit it’s stride in 2000 when Google introduced the AdWords platform. I’ve been managing PPC campaigns for myself and my clients since 2003. So while I haven’t been involved since the very beginning, I consider myself an early adopter of PPC technology.
The Early Days
In the early days PPC was great–using it to your advantage was like putting a knife through butter. Almost independent of individual product or market, it was very effective when I first started managing PPC campaigns. Things stayed that way for several years, even as Google (as the primary PPC platform) made constant changes to their platform. I remember soon after I started using AdWords Google made one particular change to their platform: for keywords you were bidding on that fell below a certain click-thru threshold, AdWords henceforth prevented you from bidding on that keyword-FOREVER! Needless to say, they fairly quickly decided that wasn’t in their best interest and changed things yet again. But mostly it was all good for quite a while–easy to start, easy to use and with an excellent ROI in most cases. One of the reasons it worked so well was that even many sophisticated Internet users didn’t realize that “Sponsored Links” were really Ads, leading to excellent click-thru rates and a steady stream of inexpensive visitors to your website.
PPC Enters the Mainstream
As Pay-Per-Click grew rapidly due to it’s outstanding value proposition, it entered the mainstream as an important marketing method for companies large and small. This of course drove Google to prominence as one of the top tech companies in the world and created a lot of millionaires and billionaires in the process. For a while AdWords worked so well it was like printing money, not only for Google but it’s customers, the users of AdWords. For some small companies PPC not only became a mainstream marketing method but consumed the MAJORITY of their marketing budgets. But as I’ve stated many other times, once a marketing method goes mainstream it begins to falter in effectiveness. There was a long slow decline over a period of years in terms of ROI, but for many years it was still effective–so the golden goose kept growing in size.
It’s more difficult today
As I write this article, however, I believe that we may be at a point of inflection. I’ve found that in many market segments it’s become very hard to extract even a positive ROI, let alone be highly profitable . Unless you’re a large company where PPC expenses are a tiny segment of your marketing budget, or are focused on brand-building (a dubious use of PPC, imo) rather than sales–this will give you serious pause. The quality of visitor traffic has deteriorated, with time spent on site by PPC-generated traffic a fraction of Social Media or other Organically-generated traffic. Cost per click is now very high in for high-traffic keywords. Cost per conversions have risen steadily. I design campaigns using a fairly labor-intensive long-tail approach–but I have a hard time getting a positive ROI in some (but not all) market segments. I’m far from alone in this analysis, as this New York Times article illustrates. While there are people who spend more time managing PPC campaigns than I, as I stated above I have been at it for a while and am far from a newbie, leaving me pretty comfortable with my viewpoint.
Unfortunately, I believe much of this is due to Google greed. AdWords has never been a transparent bidding system, but a “Black Box” that Google can manipulate as they please. In the past they have shown some understanding that their advertisers need to make money for Google’s own AdWords business to remain viable. But I think that the short-term quarterly profit pressures of being a public company, along with the lack of significant new revenue streams past PPC have come to bear. These factors combined with the inevitable maturing and slowdown in the growth of the Search marketplace have led the company to make changes to their platform and the black box which they may regret in the long run. Here are a couple of examples:
- I’ve always utilized a best practice of rotating Ads evenly, with the belief that I am the best judge of which the best Ad for my purposes. Google recommends optimizing which Ad to show based upon their automated algorithm, which quickly decides one Ad is best. Google’s interest is in maximizing clicks, which isn’t always in my client’s best interests. But after using this method for years Google eliminated it, forcing advertisers to utilize their automated algorithm and revert to a the highest click thru Ad after 3 months of even rotation. I noticed in checking recently the option to rotate Ads evenly indefinitely has returned–I’m sure it was because of Advertiser complaints.
- Another thinly-veiled, short-term money grab is the “fibbing” Google does when it provides “estimates” about what it takes to get your Ad listed on the first page. I’ve found them to be almost uniformly wildly overstated in almost all circumstances, even on very niche keywords where it appears there are no other advertisers bidding!
These are just two examples of many things I’ve seen Google do within the AdWords platform and especially in their bidding “black box” that indicate Google is acting in its own (short-term) self-interest, to the detriment of their advertiser/customers. I believe this will prove to be very short-sighted in the long run.
Combine all this with the increased competition in the PPC marketplace since it has gone mainstream as discussed above and I believe AdWords may have seen it’s best days–an ominous development for Google as a growth company. By squeezing its advertisers, the company is definitely risking killing the golden goose.
I haven’t used the Microsoft PPC platform recently so I can’t say for sure that the experience there is the same, but in the past I’ve found it to be similar.
Where does PPC fit today in the Marketing Mix
I’ve been relatively critical of PPC as a current marketing method in this article–which is a turnaround for me–I’ve always held this method in high esteem. I still believe it fits in some shape or form in most marketing budgets, but I feel the need to temper how big a role it should play. PPC retains some big advantages–there is no better way to very quickly launch a marketing campaign than PPC. You can be promoting new products, testing messaging & value propositions and exploring new market segments almost instantaneously. It’s also very measurable and therefore objective–there’s no need to throw money around with PPC, based on a measure of faith like some other marketing approaches.
But in many market segments, the ROI has degraded severely over time. As a result, it shouldn’t take up a large segment of your marketing budget unless your objective measurements indicate that it justifies such a large investment. I’ve shifted emphasis in online marketing budget recommendations to social media and behavioral/retargeting advertising (standard PPC’s close cousin). Unless you see strong ROI justification in traditional PPC investments, I’d limit my PPC exposure to two areas:
Long term: long tail keywords that may not generate big dollars but show a reasonable ROI
Short term: new products, new market segments and messaging/value/price testing which have a limited term
That’s a quick summary of how I view Pay Per Click today. What’s been your own experience with PPC lately? Is it a big part of your promotional budget? Do you also see it declining in performance in your market segment? Give us a heads up on your experience and post a comment below.