Does Search Advertising Actually Work?

Updated on | By | Under the Category Traffic Generation

You probably have your jaw on the ground after you read the title to this article. I’m not trying to shock you. I’m not trying to blow your mind. I’m not trying you to get you to click a controversial title. There is real controversy in this blog post, I’m happy to say. There is a real substantive issue we need to chew on. This is not like your typical clickbait article that you would find at an SEO blog round up or an SEO Twitter feed. This is real stuff.

One of the sacred cows in online marketing is that search advertising is one of the most effective forms of online marketing. On the surface, it sounds like it has a lot going for it. If you are just going to use your logic and reason, it makes a lot of sense. However, we have to always square stuff that makes sense on paper with what actually happens in the real world. You have to understand, the social and public policy departments of many universities in the United States are staffed with very brilliant people. However, their policies are not exactly doing quite well in the lives of ordinary Americans. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Things that may look good on paper, might not translate to what really counts, which is return on investment. That’s what advertisers are looking for. If they invest one dollar, they expect at least two dollars back or dollar fifty back. They want something in return. Unfortunately, when it comes to search advertising effectiveness, there’s been a lot more heat than light. There’s been a lot more smoke, than substance. I’m going to clear that up. I’m going to cut through the BS and get down to the fact of the matter.

The Promise of Search Advertising

The promise of search advertising is very easy. It’s actually quite logical. When people go to a search engine, they’re looking for stuff, they’re looking to learn. They’re looking for information. In other words, the intent is there. This person is looking for something, when your ad shows up, because it’s related to the keyword the person typed-in, it makes sense that there is a logical connection between what they are looking for, and what you have to offer. To quote many people who promote this type of advertising, you are putting your ad in front of the eyeballs of other people, when they are looking for whatever it is you are offering, when their interest, in whatever it is you are offering, is at its highest point. This is almost irresistible logic. It all fits. It follows.

But the problem is, is it true? Does it work all the time? As we can tell from the many disappointing stories offered by advertisers. There is a lot to be desired with search advertising. This ideal scenario of your ad showing up just at the time the particular person is looking for whatever it is you are offering seems too perfect. The reality is that, it’s murkier than that. The reality is that, it’s not a slam dunk. The following discussion pinpoints why.

The Power of Intent

The biggest selling point of search advertising is that, the intent of the searcher is supposed to be very clear. When the person is typing in a key word, and related ad show up, the intent transfers over to the ads. In other words, this person is looking for something, and ads that are related to that thing show up, so that his or her intent for thing A translates to ad A. Clear? Well, this is not exactly the case.

The problem is, if you are going to base your advertising platform strategy on human intent, you might as well try to write on water. What is clear intent to one person, might not be clear intent to another person. The reality is that, different people process the world differently. Different people think in different ways. This is the big weakness of targeting intent. As powerful as intent-based marketing is, as implemented on search engine advertising technology, it is by no means perfect. It is by no means a slam dunk. There are serious holes in that logic. One of the biggest holes is the reality of mixed intent.

The Reality of Mixed Intent

When people type in a key word on Google, it might seem like day and night. It might seem to you that this person is looking for topic A. However, if you interview that person, it turns out that that person is looking for topic A, topic B, topic C. If you are going to show an ad advertising something related to topic A, you are going to run into trouble if the person has mixed intent. Among search engine marketing professionals, they’d like to write this off, they’d like to say that mixed intent can really be fixed if you choose the right key words. To a certain extent they are right, certain searches are right on the money.

For example, somebody types in buy Viagra, they are out to buy Viagra. Somebody types in buy Honda Civic 2010, they are out to buy a 2010 Honda Civic. However, commercial intent searches like that are the minority. The vast majority of searches are informational in nature. People would type in Viagra, who knows what that means? Is this person just doing research on Viagra? Does this person have a term paper on Viagra? Is this person looking to buy those blue diamond shaped pills? See the problem with this situation? The reality of mixed intent turns search advertising on its head because mixed intent is not just a question of trying to constrict intent or trying to narrow it.

Mixed intent tends to explode and overflow because many different people look at the world in different ways, and we like to think in very reasonable or logical terms, we are going to lose day in day out. Seriously. Why? People are often illogical. People are often unreasonable. In many cases, people are flat out irrational, but that’s the advertising world you chose to play in. That’s the rules of the game. Unfortunately, many advertising companies, and most importantly, the search engines themselves like to gloss over this fact.

The Buying Cycle isn’t Exactly Set in Stone

If you thought that the power of intent has enough logical holes, and the reality of mixed intent is so bad that both these factors pretty much made search advertising worthless, wait, there’s more. Assuming you get a click, you still have to feed that person into a buying cycle. There is a buying cycle that people go through before they buy stuff online. For somebody to buy from you, they have to first know you, then they have to like you, then they have to trust you, for them to buy from you. That’s how it works.

Unfortunately, the buying cycle isn’t exactly set in stone. As comforting as those stages, that I have laid out, may be. The reality is, people tend to jump from one extreme to the other. There are many cases of people liking something so much that they are ready to buy, but they would change their mind and then they would move on to trust, and then they would go back to the know stage. That’s a fact of life. It’s more open ended rather than compartmentalized. Unfortunately, search advertising doesn’t really work with this. This is why for every one advertiser on Google Adwords that makes money, there are maybe two or three that break even, and some that lose money. That’s the reality. So, does search advertising really work?

Yes, and no. That’s the best answer. Yes, if you know what you’re doing, and you paid the price of heavy experimentation. This can be a quite steep price. However, if the answer is a resounding no, if you want sound advertising system that solves the problems listed above. These are serious issues. Unfortunately, you are not going to get a clear understanding of these real issues from the online search advertising industry. Why? It’s not in their interest to tell you the inside story. It’s not in their interest to tell you the complete unvarnished truth. The truth is, in many cases, search advertising doesn’t make any sense. You’d be better off doing other kinds of advertising. You’d be better off blogging. You’d be better off marketing on social media.

In other cases, search advertising is dead on. It’s a slam dunk. The problem is not in those earlier situations. In those situations it’s very easy to see where you fit. The problem that most search advertisers have to grapple with, is they often fall in the middle. It’s in the gray area where you basically die a death by a thousand cuts. You have a chance of just waking up one day, after years of trying to make online search advertising work for you, and realizing that you’re basically slamming your own head against the wall.

About the Author: Lewis Crutch

As the administrator of Marketing Bees, Lewis Crutch manages all of the free advice and tips available here on the Marketing Bees blog as well as spending time putting together in-depth marketing related courses covering a wide range of topics including email, content and social media marketing.

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