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Content Advertising Explained

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Little-understood, content advertising consumes a big portion of many advertisers' Google AdWords, Yahoo Search Marketing, and Microsoft adCenter budgets. The problem: For many advertisers, content advertising performs far worse than their search campaigns. This column will explore the reasons why marketers and advertisers face myriad problems with content advertising, and how they can solve those problems.

The offender is content advertising, also known as contextual advertising, or advertising on the search engines' content networks. Content ad campaigns are "baked into" the PPC management consoles of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. But the methods and best practices for controlling and optimizing content ad campaigns are very different than those required to get the most out of search advertising. Misunderstanding these differences is often the main reason advertisers get bad results from PPC campaigns in terms of CTRs, conversion rates, and cost.

Let's look at how content advertising really works, and how to control content campaigns to achieve the same high-quality results and ROI you can achieve with search campaigns.

First, let's talk about the fundamental differences between search and content campaigns. Search campaigns display ads on the search results pages when a potential customer searches on a keyword (or search phrase) that's bid on by the advertiser. Searchers actively seek Web sites that satisfy a need, and they frequently click on ads that seem to match their search intent.

How Content Campaigns Differ

Content campaigns display ads on the Web pages of site owners who participate in a search engine's ad serving program. Google has AdSense, while Yahoo has Yahoo Publisher Network. Microsoft is working on a similar program. These programs allow site owners to "monetize their content" (i.e., earn money by displaying ads). The site owner puts a chunk of JavaScript code onto their site pages, and the search engine automatically serves ads displayed on those pages. When a site visitor clicks on one of the ads, the advertiser pays the search engine, and the search engine pays a portion to the site owner.

How search engines serve ads

How does the search engine "decide" which ads should be served? It's commonly believed the search engine's software examines the words (content) on the Web site's pages, and then examines its ad inventory -- PPC ads and associated keywords -- and displays ads that best match the content of the site pages. It's a beautiful system: advertiser gets matched with site visitors who are interested in the pertinent ads; site visitor sees ads that relate to the interests that drew them to the site; and site owners earn revenue that supports their ability to continue to publish valuable content.

Why content ads underperform

Then why does content advertising perform so badly for advertisers? In the best of cases, advertisers have traditionally had to settle for the fact ad response rates -- the number of CTRs -- have typically been much lower than the CTRs they get from Search advertising. Even worse, conversion rates for content advertising, the percentage of content ad generated site visitors who buy or submit an inquiry form, are traditionally also very low. There are three main reasons for this kind of poor performance:

  1. Since content ads are ancillary to Web site content, the ads are not actively read as frequently as search ads. At worst, they're considered to be annoying distractions.

  2. The software that matches keyword/ad group combinations to Web site page content is inefficient -- meaning it does a fairly poor job of putting together ads with related content.

  3. By default, search and content campaigns are "lumped together" in the Web interface advertisers use to control and manage ad campaigns. Advertisers must take extra steps to turn off or separate the two. So, the default campaign settings force advertisers to use a common interface to manage and report on the two very different campaign types, making it difficult to see and control what's working and what's not.

The net result: Many companies pour money into advertising that, in aggregate, results in relatively poor results -- especially in terms of ROI. Some advertisers even conclude PPC simply can't work for them -- never realizing search advertising may work well for them, but their campaign advertising is bleeding so much in click charges the whole effort is unprofitable.

The truth: properly understood and managed, content advertising can deliver excellent results -- close or equal to the clickthrough and conversion rates obtainable via search advertising. How? We'll focus on all the right moves in each installment of this column. Next week's installment is guaranteed to save some advertisers wads of money. See you then.


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