Have Google Adwords Shot Themselves In The Foot?

Sometimes being able to see things in fine detail is unpleasant- particularly when it comes in the form of a sudden revelation.

Every now and then you get that kind of shock in PPC data, when the serene progress of an account has to be re-evaluated in an instant because of a new discovery. This is exactly what happened to me when I took a look at the affect of Google’s new Adwords transparency on some of our PPC campaigns.

As you’re probably aware, Google places ads in three places- its own results page, the results page of its search partners (Google Product Search, Google Groups, Earthlink, compuserve, shopping.com, AT&T Worldnet, and search sites such as AOL and Ask.com) and on its content network. Previously, Google bundled together its own results page with the other search sites like Ask.com, allowing you to separate out the data from the content network if you wanted to. The new tool allows you to fully break down the data from the three places Google places your ads.

I don’t often run content network campaigns so I hadn’t felt the need to delve too much into this new breakdown. I assumed that the results from Google and its search partners would be very similar– same adverts, same keywords, same delivery system and surely then similar CTR and conversion rate. This would mean that the best approach for me would be to use the summary view of my accounts.

However, when I did try separating them out the result was very surprising. The figures were astonishingly different; clickthrough was often a fraction of Google’s, conversion rates were much lower and although cost per click was less, cost per conversion was way up. Here’s some data that I think highlights the problem pretty well:


This campaign has been running on Google’s conversion optimiser with CPA set at £12 and yet it has chosen to spend a rather large amount on the Search partners’ share of the clicks when the CPA is way above the required level. At this point I am still unsure as to why there should be such a big difference. Do the lower quality search engines fail to distribute correctly by location? This could explain some high traffic volumes but low rates. Whatever the reason, judging by the clickthrough and conversion rates, the search partners produce traffic that is poorly targeted.

We can’t choose to target certain parts of the partners network, nor can we create ‘partners only’ campaigns which we could then refine the traffic from, bid in accordance with the cost per conversion and maybe use to our advantage. Even if we could separate out ‘partner’ campaigns we can’t drill down to see which of the search partners is more effective. If Google gave these options we could quickly duplicate our campaigns, distribute them to each area of the ‘partners network’ and find out if they could be improved to come into line with the other campaigns.

As it is, I am switching many of my campaigns to Google only and, unless greater data and control becomes available for the search partners, I can’t imagine returning to this area anytime soon.

Hopefully, this post will prompt someone else to take a look at their figures and maybe, with this one change in Adwords, improve their CTR and conversion rate in a stroke. To take a look at your own figures in Adwords, go to your Campaign Summary page and choose ‘Split: Google Search/search partners/content network’. I can assure you that it’s well worth your time and may make a significant difference to your campaign.

Richard Cotton

Richard Cotton

Richard Cotton joins the team at Distilled as the Paid Search Marketer. He graduated with a Philosophy degree from Southampton University and will therefore put his analytical brain to good use as our dedicated PPC marketer. Rich C-h264720-v2 //...   read more

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9 Comments

  1. Rob

    Great find, and great post Rich.

    The conversion rate differences are incredible, but the difference in impressions is surprising too. I would have imagined that Google would easily outweigh the partners for impressions - clearly not the case.

    Does this hold true for different types of business (eg: retailers, service providers etc)?

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  2. Tom

    Rob - yes so far this difference in conversion rate and impressions has been pretty much the same across all sectors and types of business!

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  3. There is one area that bucks the trend regularly and that is Branded search. Unsurprisingly, they still tend to convert well so it is almost certainly worth checking out those ad groups' performance before shutting off the search partners for them.

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  4. Thanks for this, Rich - we're seeing exactly the same, higher cpc, fewer conversions, and so we've disabled the complete search network too.

    I suspect it's only a matter of time until Google is forced (by partners) to start giving us more details, and a greater level of control over this.

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  5. This will follow a similar pattern to what happened with the content network a few years back. Most advertisers I know stopped using the search network long ago, at least from the start of a campaign. I would often build campaigns and would only introduce the search network after the campaign had established metrics. Not scientific, but if after I introduced the SN the metrics changed drastically odds are it was the SN that did it. I would then opt back out. Now I'll enable SN from the start but kill it off quickly if the numbers suck - which for the most part they do.

    I expect that sometime in 2009, after advertisers disable the SN in mass, Google will let us target it separately and set separate bids like the do the CN. Like the CN, savvy advertisers will optimize to roi in the SN and make it work. If we can't we'll just turn it off. I'm actually surprised Google didn't time the sharing of the data with allowing advertisers to set separate bids and run SN only campaigns...seems like kind of a dumb move on their part.

    Click on.

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  6. MJ

    I'm seeing this on my campaigns as well.

    If you look at the ad group level you'll see they have a field now for "Search Network Partners" which is set to 'Auto' which makes me think in the future that they'll offer the ability to bid separately for the search network.

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  7. Ruth

    I manage campaigns across a few verticals (property, health, retail) and I'm actually seeing quite disparate results. Some brands convert well on search partners, others not at all. I'd expect Google to allow advertisers more control over search partner traffic (I'd like to see custom bidding) once they're hit in the wallet by multiple advertisers switching it off. Bring it on Google!

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  8. Really great blog Rich! I will certainly check the SN more often now. Like you I had assumed that is would convert at roughly the same rate as Google search. What can you say? I don't really have much faith in people who use AOL and ASK as search engines though!

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  9. Wow.

    Im a little cross at myself for not digging into this before actually. Can be costly to miss thinsg of course.

    I have just run a split report on my own campaign and actually the partners network in our own case is a lot better than googles own.

    Will look further into it but already suggests that I should be seperating these exactly as one does for the conent network.

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