How Relevant is Relevant? | Does Google Live Up to its Philosophy For PPC?

As we all know and as Google states as the first heading on its own company philosophy page, “Focus on the user and all else will follow”. Google has helped pioneer this expression into a popular and extremely profitable business model within the self-revolutionized, digital marketing space. Google openly expresses this and nine other core philosophies as, to borrow its own words, “Ten things we know to be true”. And while this page serves as Google’s company philosophy and delves into each of the ten points ranging from performance and speed, to the importance of mobile and being better than great, the first paragraph says something in particular that I would like to address.

“We first wrote these ‘10 things’ when Google was just a few years old. From time to time we revisit this list to see if it still holds true. We hope it does—and you can hold us to that.” 

In this article, we’ll attempt to do just that. We are going to look at how advanced search operators affect Google AdWords results in the SERPs and attempt to discern if the Google AdWords platform lives up to these philosophies.

Our approach for this post

We will only be addressing the official advanced search modifiers recognized by Google.  The full list of official advanced search operators can be found here.  These are broken down into two sections: symbols and punctuations; and search operators.  For each of our examples we will be using ‘blue shoes’ as our search query.  All searches are from the desktop with customized search disabled.

Before we begin…

We need a baseline example of a SERP that we can use for reference and comparison.

In our benchmark, there is one top of page text ad position, eight Google AdWords Shopping positions, and eight side of page text ad positions.  The organic real estate has nine organic listings and one image result carousel. 

Let’s see how this SERP evolves

We’ll do this with each of the official Google advanced search operators – site:, link:, related:, OR, info:, and cache:.  We’ll address them in their respective listed order.


The site: operator can be used to limit results to subdomains, domains, and top level domains (TLDs).  Since the subdomain and the domain operator function identically, we will be looking at the domain and TLD levels.


If does not wish to advertise on this term (which we see later is not true) then no ads should be displayed.  The search intent very clearly is to limit their results to the domain, so any impressions incurred by other advertisers are meaningless.

Top Level Domain

Similar to the domain version of the site: search operator, the top level domain site: search returns organic results that follow the rules of the search operator, while the AdWords results do not.  Because there are not many .edu domains that are looking to advertise on this search query, I feel that it would be best to show no ads at all on this SERP.


This is similar to the site: search - just with fewer side ads and, ironically, an Amazon ad appears here for the first time.  In this case, I believe Google is completely forgoing the link: search in favor of a SERP that it believes to be more relevant to the search query presented, as it did not show sites that link to  Google does state within the AdWords guidelines that it has the right to exclude operators completely if there is a more relevant SERP it can provide.


This SERP is exactly what I think all the search operator SERPs should resemble.  No ads are anywhere to be found and the organic results match that of exactly what the search operator intends to do.  That being said, the organic results do not relate very well to blue shoes (although it does highlight the terms when they do appear). However, we are not here to criticize the organic portion of these SERPs.


This search operator is much different to the rest so I understand the side ads and the Google Shopping result (appearing for the first time). However, the search operator is still not addressed in the ads that are served.  All ads appear to be targeting 'blue shoes', save the Macy’s ad in last position, instead of 'blue' or 'shoes'. That being said, dynamic keyword insertion may be the reason that the remaining ad copies do include the search term.   Since the SERP for a ‘blue’ search does not return any AdWords results, I think that this SERP should instead show results for shoes if any ads at all are to be shown.


Similar to the related: SERP addressed above, this result displays no ads and is exactly relevant to the search query.  The 'blue shoes' portion of this search query is ignored completely here.


This search operator does not return a SERP at all.  Instead, it leads you directly to Google’s cached version on the page for which you searched.  No SERP to analyze here.


Symbols & Punctuations

The official symbols and punctuations that can be used with Google search queries are +, @, $, #, -, _, , .., and *.  Let’s break these down and see how each interacts with our example search query.

+ Operator

This search operator is used for blood type and Google Plus pages.  Since we are clearly not searching for the Amazon blood type, Google knows that we are looking for Amazon’s Google Plus page, which is further supported when you remove 'blue shoes' from the search query, although the Amazon G+ doesn’t appear until the 10th position after this change.  On this SERP Amazon’s ad appears at top of page above organic result number one, which I applaud.  However, the Google Shopping result and side of page ads are still not relevant to the query.

@ Operator

Similar to the + operator, the @ operator functions to find social tags related to the term following the @ symbol.  This SERP is almost an exact copy of the + operator, with the one distinction that no Google Shopping result appears.  I will reiterate my point that I approve of the Amazon top of page ad, but disagree with the side ads as I feel they are still not relevant enough to the search query.

$ Operator

This operator is probably the closest of our symbols and punctuations examples to what a correct AdWords SERP should look like.  The query is clearly looking to buy blue shoes around the $100 price point, so a few of the Shopping ads are extremely relevant to the query.  However, while all of the organic results specifically address the $100 price point, save the Google Shopping results which are different in their own ways, not a single AdWords text ad result addresses the $100 price point.  And the Shopping ads are not as closely relevant as the organic results, many being under half the price point the searcher has placed in the search query.

# Operator

Similar to our previous examples of + and @ operators, the # operator is intended to search for popular and trending topics.  My feelings for this search echo my earlier ones – top of page ad is relevant, and the rest are not.

- Operator

In our example, we have chosen to exclude Zappos from our search results, which has worked correctly; however, the top AdWords result that is not the Shopping carousel is from  While the Google Shopping results dominate the top of the page, if the searcher instead chose to view and click-through on the AdWords text ads, they would be extremely disappointed in the relevancy of position one.

_ Operator

The _ operator is used to tie two terms together.  Google looks for the two terms together or connected via a _ and displays those results.  The AdWords results here are rather relevant.

“ Operator

This SERP is identical to the SERP of just 'blue shoes' apart from the Google Shopping results.  In this SERP, there is one fewer row of AdWords Shopping results in this SERP.  These AdWords results are extremely relevant.

* Operator

Since a search for just 'blue' does not display any AdWords results, I chose to instead do a * 'shoes' search.  Since this is a base search, all the ad copy is rather broad, but still extremely relevant to the query in question.

.. Operator

This operator is intended to show results between two price points, and for the Google Shopping campaigns it seems to adhere to these conditions very well. Understandably, the text ads are less likely to specify price points and should be excluded from this SERP.

So, do Google’s actions live up to its philosophy?

Comparing each of these examples to the benchmark SERP shows that in many of our examples, Google has recognized that there is not as much opportunity for an AdWords click-through and has instead allocated the SERP real estate to be more relevant to the actual search query.  This all makes sense.  As we addressed in the opening paragraph, Google’s first heading on its own company philosophy page is “Focus on the user and all else will follow”. That said, Google also makes a few other points on this page I would like to address.

Is Google always thinking user first?

In regards to making any service, product, or change to an existing business within the Google ecosystem, Google states: “we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.”  In our previous SERP examples, I have argued that showing any ads that are not highly relevant to the search query are not, in fact, serving the user or you, but are instead serving the internal goal and bottom line of Google. 

“Ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant…”

Let’s explore a few more points from Google’s philosophy page.  The sixth headline reads, “You can make money without doing evil” and under this headline it declares,

“To ensure that we’re ultimately serving all our users (whether they are advertisers or not), we have a set of guiding principles for our advertising programs and practices:

  • We don’t allow ads to be displayed on our results pages unless they are relevant where they are shown. And we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find–so it’s possible that certain searches won’t lead to any ads at all.”

The part I specifically want to focus on is, “if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find.”  In our first site: example, we know that the user search intent is to find blue shoes specifically on the domain and this is exemplified in the organic search results only displaying results.  My question is, “How does Google justify displaying these ad results when its own company philosophy specifically states that in these scenarios they should not be showing ads?”  This point can continuously be echoed throughout the remaining examples as well, but the question becomes, are these ads truly relevant?  My opinion on many of our examples is no, the ads are not relevant.  However, this begs the question, “What defines relevance?”

Should the advertiser shoulder some of the blame?

It is, after all, up to the advertiser to ensure that their own keywords, placements, and copy are relevant to the searcher’s intent.  We add negative targeting to an ad group to help ensure relevancy in for our search campaigns; unfortunately in our example scenarios, there is simply nothing the advertiser can do.  As Google addresses here, under the heading, ‘how symbols and search operators work with keywords’, if you add a search operator to a keyword, AdWords will strip out the operator and use only the term itself.  Unfortunately while this example is in regards to positive keywords, this applies to negative keyword targeting as well.  So there is not even an opportunity to exclude symbols and punctuations or search operators from your AdWords campaigns.  And to add insult to injury, the search query report does not show when search operators have been used as it is also stripped out in the actual search terms listed.

What can we do as digital marketers? 

How can we, as Google has stated in its own company philosophy, “hold [them] to that?” Sadly, I don’t think we can. For the time being, all we can do is be aware of these interactions and push Google to honor its own words and remind it that, “being great at something [is] a starting point, not an endpoint.”

While I think that many of our examples should not be displaying more than the few relevant ads at all, I believe there is an opportunity to make ad text more relative to price points and ranges, specifically with Google Shopping campaigns. However, since we are using Google’s products to target Google users, until AdWords puts the tools in place for us to more accurately target these, the operators in all of these searchers, we are helpless to optimize for relevancy. 

Share your thoughts below

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we, as digital marketers, can continue to push Google to provide us with more tools and weapons to allow us to perform our duties more effectively.  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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