Why It’s Time You Started Using Google’s Content Network (Again)
“Google’s content network stinks!” That used to be my standard reply when someone asked me about contextual targeting, also referred to as content matching. It wasn’t too long ago that the first thing my company did when setting up or taking over a paid search account was to uncheck that box next to “Show my ads on: The content network.” I tried content matching with several accounts over the years, and the results were just terrible. Prior to November 2007, you had to pay on a cost per 1,000
impressions (CPM) basis instead of the standard cost per-click (CPC) pricing model that GoTo.com founded itself on — the model every major paid search marketing provider has used since.
So not only was Google’s content network not sending you much quality traffic, but the impressions
often went through the roof, sapping your budget. The smaller the account, the worse a blow it dealt. Add in that Google opted you into the network automatically, and less savvy small business owners and marketing managers faced a stacked deck.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the content network forum…
Recent Improvements to the Content Network
The nice thing about search engines is that they have to constantly increase the relevancy of their results, or else folks will start using another search engine. The same holds true on the advertiser side. While Google’s search results continued to improve, its return for many advertisers on the content network — and thus all advertising for less sophisticated advertisers due to its opt-in nature — decreased.
Google knew it had a huge cash cow on its hands with a content network that was in danger of slaughter. So they decided to do something — or rather some things — about it. Here are some of the most important of those improvements that began in summer 2007:
- Transparency: Through placement performance reporting, you can now see exactly where your ads show and how each site is performing, all the way down to the conversion level.
- Death to CPM: Maybe not death, but you’ve had the option to use CPC bidding on the content network for about a year. Both my company’s internal data and a conversation with our agency reps at Google confirm this is the more cost effective way to go.
- Targeting within websites: You can now target individual sections of many sites that are more relevant to your ideal potential client. It may not matter much where your ad shows on smaller content network sites based around one theme. For large news sites, though, various sections may perform drastically differently. A financial services advertiser may do great in, say, the NYTimes.com business pages section, but terrible in the movies pages.
- Axe underperformers: The Site and Category Exclusion tool allows you to chop out not just particular sites, but types of sites as well, like parked domains.
- Adjust bidding: Through placement targeting, you can create in effect your own personal content network and have your ads only appear on those sites. As of last August, you can now set bids for specific sites that you target. Additionally, you can utilize keyword and placement matching at the same time as part of Google’s enhanced online campaigns.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Early results with improved contextual targeting have been very encouraging. Tests resulted in cost per acquisition (CPA) costs at half or less than the overall search account. Even in a fairer comparison of short-tail search campaigns to general, open placement content network campaigns (see chart), content network conversion costs have been in the general vicinity or lower than search. Google’s internal data shows similar results for median advertisers:
- Content CPA 7% lower than search
- 25% more conversions using search and content network together
Many verticals are having even more success, including financial services (CPAs 16% lower, 30% more conversions);entertainment/media (CPAs 8% lower, 40% more conversions); and education (CPAs 15% lower, 31% more conversions).
Five Tips for Success
Even with all the improvements, success with the content network isn’t guaranteed. Implement the following and you’ll put yourself on a better path:
- Keep search and content network campaigns separate. You won’t be able to target ad groups as effectively, and combined campaigns make data tougher to analyze — especially ad effectiveness.
- Bid high early, and don’t touch the campaign for about two weeks. It takes more time for Google’s system to synthesize your campaigns than for search, so you need to have patience. Keep budgets low during this test period so that you won’t sweat early results that may not be as good as after you start refining.
- Thin out weak performers. Run performance reports regularly to see what’s working for you, and adjust accordingly. You may want to test this for yourself, but I’d also recommend blocking parked domains.
- Keep ad groups tightly defined. This is true for search as well. With the content network, you especially need to define ad groups around one particular theme and can do so sometimes with even just one keyword. My general rule of thumb is five keywords per group.
- Be careful with changes. If you have a campaign that’s working well, don’t start messing with it. Tinkering is okay, but don’t make wholesale changes. Or, when something isn’t working, you’re usually better off pausing or deleting the whole campaign (or at least ad group) and moving onto a new test. Quality scores take a lot longer to accrue and can be more unforgiving with contextual advertising than paid search.
We’re still in the early stages for effective content network advertising. Sure it’s been around for awhile, but really at a beta level. Google’s been gradually improving the service to the point that it now offers advertisers a realistic shot at great ROI.
Think of it like those early days of paid search, when early adopters could jump in and post really great numbers before all the competition jumped in and started driving up CPCs. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably still doing well with paid search — just not quite as well as in those frontier days.
Through both their search and content networks, Google today reaches more than 80% of Internet users worldwide.
Even if you’re cynical because of poor prior performance, it’s time to try contextual advertising again. Start with a small budget, create a highly defined test, and give it a shot.
Justin Seibert is the founder and president of Direct Online Marketing, an Internet marketing firm that specializes in paid search, search engine optimization, business blogging, and online reputation management. He has actively managed search campaigns for eight years and carries certifications from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Marketing Experiments, as well as a B.A. from Vanderbilt University.
This article was originally printed in the February edition of SES Magazine. You can view the original article by clicking here.
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