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A while back, former 3Q colleague Susan Waldes wrote a SearchEngineLand post that called out Ask.com for arbitrage. In a very circuitous fashion, she put forth the proposition that she doesn’t approve of what Google is allowing Ask to do. On that point, I don’t agree with her. Bad user experiences should be removed algorithmically, not by policy. In fact, if Quality Score really worked the way it’s supposed to, an AdWords arbitrage policy would be redundant and low-quality “vendor experiences” would be priced in such a way to make them so unprofitable that they’d go away naturally.

More fundamentally though, I strongly agree that AdWords is entitled to make business arrangements with anyone they see fit. Even though the typical advertiser can’t get away with running the same search strategy as Ask, why should they be able to? In real life, not just online, bigger and more prominent companies have more leeway in their marketing practices and the Ask.com user experience, while not good IMO, is still much better than someone else’s comparable online “homebrew”. In addition, Ask has likely committed a huge amount of resources to their PPC efforts that others aren’t likely to match, which will help keep them in Google’s good graces.

I’ve always found the Ask.com ads to be oddly comforting because of their inherent awkwardness. They remind me of the shy guy at the party who stays at the periphery of the action and waits for the main activity to die down before focusing his effort on whatever hasn’t been spoken for. Clearly Ask is devoting lots of time and resources to their AdWords efforts, and if anyone from Ask is reading this piece, I would humbly suggest that 3QDigital could do a much better job with your campaigns than whomever is currently managing them. Let’s chat :.)

As much as I defend Google’s right to give “preferred” advertisers special treatment, I do have a problem when the quality of their PPC results suck and when the overall quality of the ads are as smart and relevant as a street full of Gumbys:

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Here’s a recent result that I saw that’s particularly egregious:

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7 out of the 8 ads/user experiences here are crap. We have AOL double-serving in the classic Ask.com manner with both their AOL brand and their Wow.com Brand (I know it might be legitimate in the eyes of Google…but it’s double serving in my eyes). We have About.com, which is an Ask property. Searchall.com isn’t quite the player as the others mentioned here, but they’re definitely an up-and-coming player in this space. We have 3 affiliate sites…1 general and 2 niche. I don’t see much quality in any of them. Last, and least, we have one legitimate advertiser.

The organic results on this SERP seem quite relevant and consistent with the normally excellent quality that Google typically offers. The paid results are no better than the third-tier PPC providers. It’s mind-boggling to me that the one real sewing merchant has been pushed so far down the page.

We could have a quality search results page here. Google does an excellent job integrating content beyond the “10 Blue links”. Local Results, Video, Images, Google Plus, or all of the above can, have, and should be used to enhance a search result that’s lacking in quality ads. I’ve often seen search results where I can’t get my ad consistently on Page 1 and where Google might only be showing 1-2 ads on the page. I’m good with that. By contrast, Google is garage-sale-ing their ad space here.

In closing, let me say that if you’re an advertiser who’s able to advertise in the Ask.com manner and you can make the numbers work for you…go for it. Max out your investment. Given the quality of these ads I’m seeing, if these aforementioned advertisers are making profits on what appears to be a poorly optimized experience for both users and corporate profits, they should consider working with 3Q Digital to maximize the ROI of the most generous privileges that Google is granting them. However, from the perspective of a searcher seeking relevant information, SERPS like these totally blow.

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Todd Mintz
Todd Mintz, who has been with 3Q Digital since March 2011, has worked in search engine marketing since 2000 and has used Google AdWords since it began. He also is very visible in the SEM social media space and is a curator/contributor at MarketingLand. He was one of the founding members of SEMpdx (Portland’s Search Engine Marketing Group), is a current board member, and writes regularly on their blog.