We like Google.

We spend quite a bit of time defending Google to our clients and explaining how embracing Google’s quest for relevant search results is the most effective form of search engine marketing in the long term.

Every now and then we do, however, come across examples of the greed that many people despise Google for and find it hard to justify.

A recent example raises serious question marks about the search network, available to Google Adwords advertisers.

As an advertiser on Google Adwords, you can choose to display your ads on the Google content network, which will mean that Google will display your ads on sites within their content network that their algorithm determines to be relevant to the keywords that you target.

This has been enhanced (and improved) by the newer site placement option but this form of contextual advertising typically produces a far lower click through rate and vastly inferior overall performance when compared to a true search journey.

If a user is specifically looking for something, they are far more likely to be interested in your ads than if they are just reading some content on another site.

Google doesn’t specify which sites are included in their search or content networks (see http://adwords.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=6119) but you would hope that the search network would be restricted to search engines or, at the very least, sites that involve some form of active search.

We recently used the (excellent) search query performance report for some PPC activity we are managing for an online dating website.

The campaigns are structured around specific towns (e.g. Liverpool dating) and phrase match is used exclusively on a very narrow range of keywords.

The report highlighted that around 75% of the advertising spend was going on what appeared to be fairly suspect / unnatural searches, such as:

  • guys seeking girls dating friends dating sunderland
  • guys seeking girls dating friends dating sheffield
  • guys seeking girls dating friends dating oxford
  • guys seeking girls dating friends dating leeds
  • guys seeking girls dating friends dating inverness

These phrases were triggering the ads as the keywords included phrases such as ‘dating sunderland’, ‘dating sheffield’, etc. but we were concerned that these ‘searches’ looked extremely unnatural and they look suspiciously like automated searches.

We contacted the Google quality team to investigate who very promptly confirmed that these clicks were all coming from the www.gumtree.com website.

The actual process by which these impressions (and clicks) were being generated is where we have issues – the user is not required to actually search for anything.

The Gumtree homepage has a number of navigational links, as shown below (dating section has been highlighted):

gumtree homepage

Clicking on any of the links takes you through to a page that has a number of listings, including 3 sponsored links at the top, as shown below:

gumtree sponsored ads

There is no indication that these sponsored links are actually powered by Google, although that is down to individual negotiations / agreements between the site and Google, but our main issue is that these ads are being shown as part of the search network, not the content network.

Is the user journey shown above a true search journey?

We do not think so. We believe that this is akin to adsense publishers disguising ads as navigational links to encourage clicks and do not believe that it is in anyone’s interests.

Can we defend Google in this instance?

No – surely the definition of a search site is that a user must actively search for something rather than just click on a link. No doubt Google and Gumtree are doing very well from this arrangement, but it is not in the best interests of the adwords advertisers.

Unsurprisingly, this campaign has now opted out of the search network. We are missing out on traffic from the likes of ask.com but have seen a massive improvement in the quality of traffic overall.

Beware – the search network is not always what you may think it should be.