Welcome to the Ad Duopoly: Google and Facebook

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s pretty obvious that the advertising marketplace in America has changed radically in the past few years.

In short order, we’ve seen the largest concentration of digital advertising converge on just two players:  Google and Facebook.  In fact, according to digital advertising research firm eMarketer, those two firms alone are attracting two-thirds of all digital ad dollars in the United States.

But this development isn’t all that surprising.  The vast bulk of Google’s ad market share results from its search engine marketing platform (paid search). As for Facebook, it dominates digital display advertising not just in America, but in many other countries all over the world as well.

And both companies are the “big kahuna” players in the mobile advertising sector, too.

What’s interesting is that, despite the shortcomings that many people recognize in both types of digital advertising – banner blindness and often ill-targeted paid search results — healthy growth in both forms of advertising continues apace.

Google’s ad revenue growth has average around 20% for more than 30 straight quarters. Its growth in the third quarter of 2017 is right on pace at 22%.

For Facebook, the growth dynamics are particularly lucrative; its year-over-year ad revenue growth is pushing 50%.

Mobile ad revenues are growing even faster; they accounted for “only” $9 billion in revenues for Facebook in just the third quarter.  And just as paid search advertising revenues represent more than 90% of Google’s total company revenues, mobile advertising accounts for nearly 90% of Facebook’s overall revenues.

With so much advertising activity, one might wonder from where it’s emanating.

One answer to that question is that the “universe” of advertisers is exponentially higher than we’ve ever encountered before. With low barriers to entry and “anyone can do it” ad development tools, “Jane and John Doe” are far more likely to be advertisers in today’s world of digital marketing than was ever contemplated just a few decades ago.

To wit: Facebook estimates that its social platform has more than 6 million active advertisers participating on it at any given moment in time.  That’s the equivalent of 2% of the entire population of America.

It’s kinda true:  “We’re all advertisers now.”

Today’s Most Expensive Keywords in Search Engine Marketing

I’ve blogged before about the most expensive keywords in search engine marketing. Back in 2009, it was “mesothelioma.”

Of course, that was eight years and a lifetime ago in the world of cyberspace. In the meantime, asbestos poisoning has become a much less lucrative target of ambulance-chasing attorneys looking for multi-million dollar court settlements.

Today, we have a different set of “super-competitive” keyword terms vying for the notoriety of being the “most expensive” ones out there.  And while none of them are flirting with the $100 per-click pricing that mesothelioma once commanded, the pricing is still pretty stratospheric.

According to recent research conducted by online advertising software services provider WordStream, the most expensive keyword categories in Google AdWords today are these:

  • “Business services”: $58.64 average cost-per-click
  • “Bail bonds”: $58.48
  • “Casino”: $55.48
  • “Lawyer”: $54.86
  • “Asset management”: $49.86

Generally, the reasons behind these terms and other terms being so expensive is the dynamic of the “immediacy” of the needs or challenges people are looking to solve.

Indeed, other terms that have high-end pricing include such ones as “plumber,” “termites,” and “emergency room near me.”

Amusingly, one of the most expensive keywords on Google AdWords is … “Google” itself.  That term ranks 25th on the list of the most expensive keywords.

[To see the complete listing of the 25 most expensive keywords found in WordStream’s research, click here.]

WordStream also conducted some interesting ancillary research during the same study. It analyzed the best-performing ads copy/content associated with the most expensive key words to determine which words were the most successful in driving clickthroughs.

Running this textual analysis found that the most lucrative calls-to-action included ad copy that contained the following terms:

    • Build
    • Buy
    • Click
    • Discover
    • Get
    • Learn
    • Show
    • Sign up
    • Try

Are there keyword terms in your own business category or industry that you feel are way overpriced in relation to their value they deliver for the promotional dollar? If so, which ones?

Search quality slips in people’s perceptions … or is it just that we’ve moved the goalpost?

Recently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that the perceived quality of Google and other search platforms is on a downward trajectory. In particular, Google’s satisfaction score has declined two percentage points to 82 out of a possible high score of 100, according to the ACS Index.

Related to this trend, search advertising ROI is also declining. According to a report published recently by Analytic Partners, the return on investment from paid search dropped by more than 25% between 2010 and 2016.

In all likelihood, a falling ROI can be linked to lower satisfaction with search results.  But let’s look at things a little more closely.

First of all, Google’s customer satisfaction score of 82 is actually better than the 77 score it had received as recently as 2015. In any case, attaining a score of 82 out of 100 isn’t too shabby in such customer satisfaction surveys.

Moreover, Google has been in the business of search for a solid two decades now – an eternity in the world of the Internet. Google has always had a laser-focus on optimizing the quality of its search results, seeing as how search is the biggest “golden egg” revenue-generating product the company has (by far).

Obviously, Google hasn’t been out there with a static product. Far from it:  Google’s search algorithms have been steadily evolving to the degree that search results stand head-and-shoulder above where they were even five years ago.  Back then, search queries typically resulted in generic results that weren’t nearly as well-matched to the actual intent of the searcher.

That sort of improvement is no accident.

But one thing has changed pretty dramatically – the types of devices consumers are using to conduct their searches. Just a few years back, chances are someone would be using a desktop or laptop computer where viewing SERPs containing 20 results was perfectly acceptable – and even desired for quick comparison purposes.

Today, a user is far more likely to be initiating a search query from a smartphone. In that environment, searchers don’t want 20 plausible results — they want one really good one.

You could say that “back then” it was a browsing environment, whereas today it’s a task environment, which creates a different mental framework within which people receive and view the results.

So, what we really have is a product – search – that has become increasingly better over the years, but the ground has shifted in terms of customer expectations.

Simply put, people are increasingly intolerant of results that are even a little off-base from the contextual intent of their search. And then it becomes easy to “blame the messenger” for coming up short – even if that messenger is actually doing a much better job than in the past.

It’s like so much else in one’s life and career: The reward for success is … a bar that’s set even higher.

Google and the multi-billion dollar pay-per-click money tree.

moneyIt’s no secret that Google has been trying to diversify its revenue stream away from clickthrough advertising, which historically has accounted for the overwhelming majority of its income.

How else to explain Google’s shopping spree over the past decade, scooping up a veritable smorgasbord of industry players like these:

  • AdMob (mobile)
  • Adometry (attribution)
  • Channel Intelligence (product feeds)
  • DoubleClick (display)
  • Invite Media (programmatic creative and media buying)
  • Teracent (programmatic creative and media buying)
  • YouTube (video)
  • Wildfire (social)

So the next question is, “How much have these acquisitions and investments done to diversify Google’s sources of revenue?”

The answer:  Hardly anything.

Consider this statistic:  In 2011, nearly all of Google’s revenue came from online pay-per-click advertising, as reported by SEO firm WordStream.

Now let’s look at 2014 figures:  WordStream reports that the percentage of Google revenues from pay-per-click advertising is actually higher than in 2011, at 97%.

So much for the “diversifying effects of diversity.”

Within PPC advertising, a number of keyword terms are continuing to haul in the big bucks for Google.  A few years back, the priciest keyword term of all was mesothelioma, at more than $100 a click.

Mesothelioma continues to attract a lot of ad dollars, but it’s no longer commanding $100 a pop as it once did.  In fact, it’s no longer on the Top 10 most expensive keywords list.

That list looks like this now (in descending order of bid pricing, starting at over $50 per click and dropping to “only” around $45 for the #10 keyword):

  • Insurance
  • Loans
  • Mortgage
  • Attorney
  • Credit
  • Lawyer
  • Donate
  • Degree
  • Hosting
  • Claim

In developing the ranking, WordStream determined which keywords reside in the stratosphere by compiling data from its own large keyword dataset and the Google Keyword Tool (over a 90-day period) to determine the 10,000 most expensive keywords.

These were then organized into categories like “credit” and “insurance” by weighting the number of keywords in each category, estimating the monthly search volume as well as the average cost-per-click for each keyword.

Notice the preponderance of financial and legal terms – both of them key to sectors that attract and manage a ton of money.

The word degree is right up there, too, underscoring how important the educational complex has become to the ad business.

It must be pretty unappealing to be active in these industries and have to pony up such big dollars to participate in the pay-per-click advertising space.  But how else do we think Google racks up annual advertising revenues that are north of $32 billion?

How does the market sort out which keywords are worthy of commanding $40 or $50 per click?  Essentially, it boils down to this:  Invariably, the most expensive niches paying for the most costly keywords are ones with very high lifetime customer value – where the customer pay-off is high.

Think about it:  The amount of money an insurance company gets from an individual signing up for coverage makes the high cost-per-click rates – even at $50 a pop — worth it.

Business observers point to long-range trends that may make search engine marketing increasingly irrelevant as the growth of multichannel, multi-device marketing picks up steam.

But don’t hold your breath; Google will likely be earning billions off of pay-per-click advertising for years to come.

Organic Search: Still King of the Hill in Generating Web Traffic

online searchingIn recent years, the focus on “content marketing” has become stronger than ever: the notion of attracting traffic via the inherent relevance of the content contained on a website rather than through other means.

It seems eminently logical.  But content marketing is also relatively labor-intensive to build and to maintain. So there’s always been an effort to drive web traffic through “quicker and easier” methods as well.

But the newest findings on web traffic really do demonstrate how fundamental good content is to meeting the challenge of generating web traffic.

An analysis by web analytics and measurement firm BrightEdge reveals that organic search (SEO) drives over half of all traffic to websites (both business-to-business and business-to-consumer).

By contrast, paid search (SEM) accounts for only one-fifth of SEO’s result, and social is lower still:

  • Organic search: Generates ~51% of all web traffic
  • Paid search: ~10%
  • Social media: ~5%
  • All other methods (e.g., display advertising, e-mail and referred): ~34%

Web traffic driversSource:  BrightEdge, 2014. 

In other words, all forms of advertising put together don’t drive as much traffic as organic search.

The BrightEdge statistics also remind us that social media, however popular it may be to millions of people, isn’t a highly effective traffic generator like search. Here are some of the key reasons why:

  • Social shares are fleeting and can get drowned out easily.
  • Most users don’t go on a social platform, only then to click on different links that take them away from social.
  • Not everyone uses social media, whereas everyone uses a search engine of some kind when they’re in “investigative” mode.

That’s the thing:  People use SEO when they’re seeking answers and solutions — often in the form of a product or a service.  Unlike in social or online display advertising, there’s no need to “disrupt” the user’s intended activity.

And if you’re in the B-to-B realm, organic search even more prevalent:  Organic search drives ~73% of all web traffic there.

Even consumer categories like retail, entertainment and hospitality find that organic search is responsible for attracting 40% or more of all web traffic.

The takeaway for companies is that any marketing strategy that doesn’t adopt “content development” as a core tactic instead of an “ornamentation” is probably destined to fall well-short of its full potential.

Optify takes the pulse of B-to-B paid search programs.

Optify logoI’ve been highlighting the key findings of Optify’s annual benchmark report charting the state of B-to-B online marketing. You can read my earlier posts on major findings from Optify’s most recent benchmarking here and here.

In this post, I focus on the paid search activities of business-to-business firms.

Interestingly, Optify finds that pay-per-click programs have been undertaken by fewer firms in 2012 compared to the previous year.

And the decline isn’t tiny, either:  Some 13% fewer companies ran paid search programs in 2012 compared to 2011, based on the aggregate data Optify studied from 600+ small and medium-sized B-to-B websites.

However, those companies who did elect to run pay-per-click advertising programs in 2012 achieved decent results for their efforts.

The median company included in the Optify evaluation attracted nearly 550 visits per month via paid search, with a conversion rate just shy of 2%, or ~45 leads per month.

[For purposes of the Optify analysis, a lead is defined as the visitor taking an action such as filling out a query form.]

Leads from paid search programs represented an important segment of all leads, too – between 10% and 15% each month.

The above figures represent the median statistics compiled by Optify. It also published results for the lower 25th percentile of B-to-B firms in its study. Among these, the results aren’t nearly so robust: only around ~60 visits per month from paid search that translated into 6 leads.

Since the Optify report covers only statistics generated from visitor and lead tracking activity, it doesn’t attempt to explain the reasons behind the decrease in the proportion of B-to-B firms that are engaged in paid search programs.

But I think one plausible explanation is the steadily rising cost of clicks. They broke the $2 barrier a long time ago and see no signs of letting up. For some companies, those kinds of costs are a bridge too far.

I’ll address one final topic from the Optify report in a subsequent blog post: B-to-B social media activities. Stay tuned to see if your preconceptions about engagement levels with social media are confirmed – or not!

Google Gone Wild: Has its AdWords pay-per-click program become too costly for businesses?

Google advertisingNo one should be surprised by the huge success of Google’s AdWords pay-per-click advertising program. Almost single-handedly, that service has vaulted the company into the top ranks of U.S. corporations.

And why not? As an advertising concept, pay-per-click has no peer. Capturing the attention of customers when they’re in the midst of searching for specific goods and services is the ultimate in effective targeting.

What’s more, Google’s pioneering advertising model, where advertisers set their own bid pricing and pay only when someone clicks on a link to their web landing pages, made the program affordable for everyone – from the biggest national brands down to the neighborhood store.

Google also offered all sorts of geographic and time-of-day filters to make it easier for businesses to target people at the right time and the right place … yet another boon to smaller businesses that otherwise couldn’t hope to compete against the big national players.

Many advertisers were able to participate in pay-per-click programs at a fraction of the cost of traditional display advertising, where advertisers pay significant fees up-front for “wait and wish for” customer engagement.

A few years back, it wasn’t unusual to be able to conduct a lucrative AdWords program bidding, with clickthrough pricing running well below $1 per click.

Because Google continues to possess the lion’s share of search activity (two-thirds or more of all search volume despite the best efforts of Bing/Yahoo and others to chip away at it), it was only natural for more and more advertisers to gravitate to Google’s AdWords program as the best venue for pay-per-click advertising.

But the temptation to get in the game has had the predictable result: pay-per-click bid rates have been climbing steadily.

Whereas before, an advertiser could expect to get good exposure on search results pages with a modest bid, it’s not possible to accomplish that anymore without bidding $5, $10, $15 or even more per click.

That’s beginning to drive some businesses away – particularly smaller ones without the deep pockets of the big firms.  For for many of them, it’s simply not sustainable to pay that much money just to get someone to visit their website.

AdGooroo, a search intelligence database firm that studies the pay-per-click market, reports that ~96% of pay-per-click advertisers spend less than $10,000 per month on such programs. That compares to millions of dollars spent by the largest companies.

Richard Stokes, AdGooroo’s founder, states this: “The only way for smaller advertisers to get an edge is to spend a lot of time improving the quality and relevance of their ads. The problem is that everyone else is doing that as well.”

So where does this leave us now? We’re beginning to get some hints that Google may have tapped out on advertiser demand. Some companies are dropping pay-per-click programs altogether, while others are scaling back while redirecting resources to other forms of promotion – traditional and social.

We have additional proof of this in the earnings report filed by Google just last week. The company reported that advertising sales continue to grow, but at a slowing rate.

And even more interestingly, average cost-per-click rates have declined by ~15%. That’s the first-ever decline since the AdWords program was launched.

Here’s another development:  heightened interest and focus on obtaining better natural search rankings by optimizing websites for content relevance.

Imagine that:  companies looking for ways to make their websites more relevant to viewers as well as search engine bots!

The heightened SEO emphasis has worked for many companies – at least up until now. Google may want to increase advertising revenues, but it also wants to ensure that its search functionality continues to deliver the most relevant and quality results so that users don’t begin to migrate to other search platforms.

But some advertisers may be wondering if the “Chinese wall” between advertising and natural search is as high or as airtight as it once was. They contend that their natural search rankings seem to perform better when they’re also actively engaged in pay-per-click advertising campaigns … and perform less well when they’re not.

Whether there’s any actual proof of this happening is mere conjecture. After all, the same company that runs AdWords is also running the search algorithms. So there’s really no way to prove this from the outside looking in.