Those new to paid placement listings might assume that it's anything goes. If you pay enough, you can come up tops for the terms you wish to target and with ads that say exactly what you want.
The reality is that paid listings actually operate within a number of constraints. Indeed, as the sidebar article Paid Listings Held To Higher Standards explains, paid listings face stricter guidelines than crawler-based results. Ads must be relevant in some way to the terms they appear for, and the relevancy standard can be very high, depending on the exact term. The wording of ads must take into account a variety of style guidelines.
Such standards for paid listings can be a shock to those used to dealing with regular search engine optimization for crawlers, where no one controls your title and description, much less imposes a keyword-by-keyword relevancy review of your content. Numerous emails have crossed my desk from those who are upset, put out or even offended because they were deemed "irrelevant" by paid listing staff for a particular term.
To make matters worse, if there are few clear standards for search engine optimization on crawlers, paid listings standards are hardly universal. To better guide you, in this article we'll review what commonalities there are between the two major services in the US/global space, Overture and Google. And when I say Google, keep in mind that I'm referring to the Google AdWords program.
You Gotta Be Relevant!
Overture, Google and any other paid listing service with significant distribution will insist that you only bid on terms that are relevant to your web site. So that's easy, right? Not necessarily, as anyone who has had a dispute knows. Relevancy is a subjective decision. If you sell computers, you might believe your site is relevant for the term "computers." However, if you sell computers only to those who live in California, then your "relevancy" is suddenly narrowed to a much smaller group of people.
Both Overture and Google want those bidding on a term to be relevant to the widest variety of people possible. Why? Money is a chief reason. In a cost-per-click situation, they only get paid if people decide they like what your ad offers and click on it. If ads are off the relevancy mark, they take up space but don't generate revenue.
In addition, irrelevant ads can potentially cause people to dismiss ads altogether. If ads never offer anything helpful, users might stop looking at them. That hurts the underlying business model in the long term.
Running irrelevant ads can also hurt you. Targeting a term that you aren't really best for may get you traffic, but that traffic might not convert into sales. Google and Overture make money from you in the short term, but in the long term, you might decide that advertising with them doesn't work. It really is in their interest to have your ads as targeted as possible, because your return on investment is then more likely to be higher, and you'll stick with them for advertising in the long term.
Be Specific, Not General
"The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter discriminations." Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson
The famous passage above is where Samuel Johnson makes his claim that good literature is based on the general, rather than the specific -- that you provide enough details to appeal to as many people as possible without being so specific that you alienate some readers.
With respect to Johnson, he would have been a terrible search engine marketer. Especially when it comes to editorial guidelines for paid listings, you must be as specific as possible. The more you "number the streaks of the tulip," the less likely you are going to have your ad rejected.
The logic behind this is simple. People who search broadly, such as for "books," may want different things. It can be relevant for a site like Amazon to advertise against that term because the selection of books, as well as reviews of books, is extremely broad at Amazon. Many users will likely find the site to be useful, if they clickthrough on the ad. In contrast, allowing a site that sells only children's books to advertise against "books" may not be relevant. Yes, it sells books, but only a small selection of those who search on books will be interested in the site.
"You are very much wanting to make sure you are serving the majority," said Dana Baker, Overture's editor-in-chief.
And from Google AdWords:
"The power of advertising on search is that you can reach an audience looking for exactly what you sell. Relevancy is key to harnessing that power," said Sheryl Sandberg, Google's director of AdWords sales and operations.
If you do target a broad term, be prepared to defend yourself. Have an explanation why you might be relevant for the term to many people. If challenged, your explanation may help an editor better understand why their users would indeed consider your ad, and that can get you through.
Baker also added that in the book example I've used above, even a children's book store would be allowed to bid on the term "books." It might not be the most relevant site for the majority of people, but isn't necessarily irrelevant. The main thing, in her opinion, is that it sells more than one book.
"If you only sell 'Goodnight Moon,' you do not have the variety needed to bid on books. So you need to sell more than one book to bid on that particular term," Baker said.
Relevancy Of Landing Pages
When someone clicks on your paid listing, they leave the search engine and "land" where you direct them to. Hence the term "landing page," which is used by Google and long been terminology among search engine marketers. Both Google and Overture insist that the landing page linked to an ad be relevant for the ad's terms.
Overture calls this the "direct path" requirement, and the name makes sense. Someone who searches on a topic such as "Apple computers" probably doesn't want to end up on a home page for a store that sells only Windows-based PCs. Or, if an electronics store sells Apples among many other products, the user will probably prefer landing on a page within the store specifically about Apples, rather than having to hunt for it.
"As a user, I've already put in my search term, so I don't want to have to go to someone's home page and search again," said Baker.
Similar comments come from Google:
"The philosophy behind it is pretty simple. We want our advertisers to have the best ROI and our users to have the best possible return. The faster I can get from my search to a place where I could click and buy, the better for the user and the advertiser," Sandberg said. "We think everyone wins when those pages are as relevant as possible for the search results."
So if you are bidding on a specific product, ensure that you direct users to the page about that product within your site. Not only will this make it easier to get accepted by Overture and Google, but you may also find that your return on investment improves, as well.
"I've been impressed that we've seen many letters [from advertisers” saying this has improved their ROI," said Baker, about advertisers who've begun linking to the most specific material within their web sites.
Pointing to your most relevant page doesn't mean that you can't point to your home page. If you bid on a particular term, and a user coming to your home page can easily see how to get information about that term, then you should be OK with the guidelines in both places.
Relevancy Of Ad Copy
The quest for relevancy is also reflected in guidelines about ad copy, how you word the title and descriptions of your ads. However, there's an important difference on what the ad copy is relevant to, between Overture and Google.
Overture emphasizes that ad copy should be relevant to the terms the ad appears for, as its guidelines state: "The title and description must accurately describe why the Web site qualifies for the search term."
In contrast, Google's guidelines emphasize that the ad copy must be relevant to the landing page a user will see, rather than the search terms the ad appears for: "Your ad text must directly reflect the content on the web page to which your ad links."
Please take note of the word "emphasize" in the statements above. Overture does care about how relevant a landing page is in relation to an ad's search term, of course. Google does care about how relevant an ad's copy is in relationship to the terms it appears for. However, you do see a difference in the rules that are spelled out.
Why is this? Two major reasons. First, Overture is more term-oriented while Google is more campaign or ad-oriented. In other words, at Overture, you choose terms to bid on and then link ads to those terms. Everything revolves initially around the terms. It's a system Overture finds effective.
"Overture has found term-oriented listings are better for the end users and receive higher clickthrough rates for the advertisers," Baker said.
In contrast, at Google, you think of the ad message you want to get out, a campaign, so to speak. You then can link that ad (or a campaign of several ads) to a variety of terms, which Google says works best when the terms all used in a single campaign are highly related to each other.
The second and more important reason is that Google makes use of clickthrough measurements to determine which ads are allowed to run. For instance, an ad in the top position with Google AdWords failing to get a 0.5 percent clickthrough rate on Google alone or 1 percent if on Google and its ad partners such as AOL may be dropped from rotation (the rate is less for other positions). In this way, Google leverages its users to help determine if the ad is relevant to the terms it appears for. If not, then the ad will disappear.
"We have two filters, the human editorial filter [Google's paid listings staff” as well as the democracy of the web test, the clickthrough rate filter," said Sandberg.
"We try to get our clients to use their search terms in their title and/or description, but it is not a hard and fast rule. We certainly would not want to reject a relevant site simply because they did not use the exact term. If the site offers toner and is bidding on toner, then I of course want that site in our search listings," Baker said.
Ad Copy Formatting
A big difference between Overture and Google is how ads are formatted. Both require ads to have titles, but Google allows only 25 characters while Overture gives you 40. Both require ads to have descriptions, and the differences between them are even worse, here.
Overture allows you to have a description up to 190 characters long. Google only allows descriptions to be 70 characters long. Moreover, descriptions at Google must be manually broken by the advertiser into two lines, with no line longer than 35 characters.
Overture and Google also a variety of rules about punctuation, symbols and capitalization in ad copy, but I can sum these up easily. Punctuate for grammatical reasons, not for visual appeal. The same is true for symbols and capitalization. Use them when required by commonly accepted style guidelines, not as a way to make your ad stand out visually.
The temptation to misuse punctuation, symbols and capitalization is understandable. Everyone wants their ad to be seen. But paid listings are not banners. They are not image oriented. They are meant to be read. The more easily readable you make your ad, the more acceptable it should be to the audience viewing it.
One Search Engine Watch reader emailed me to complain that Overture had rejected this description:
"No more searching through an entire area code, one ISP at a time - go straight to the best ISP values in your city. Searchable database includes user ratings."
As issue were the words "the best" next to "ISP values." Overture changed this to "great ISP values."
What's the difference? "Great" is just as much marketing language as "best," isn't it? Not quite. "Best" is a superlative, an adjective that suggests something is superior to all others. In the example above, saying "the best ISP values" suggests that all other ISPs aren't as good.
Google and Overture aren't comfortable with advertisers unilaterally pronouncing themselves better than everyone else, like this. Instead, you just need to step your declarations down a level and use an adjective that allows the possibility that there might be others who are as good as you.
"You can't declare a victory, but you can imply that you are good," said Alana Karen, policy specialist for Google AdWords.
I know, it's not true -- you really are the best! But without a third party to independently verify this, neither company wants you to use superlatives in your ads.
What if a third party did rank you tops? Then you can declare that in your ads at Google, but not at Overture. For instance, someone might say:
Build zebra pages and see your traffic rise. Rated the best zebra page maker by PC Super Compute magazine.
Since a third party gave this recognition, Google allows it to be used. Overture, however, does not.
Google's Special Rules On Ad Copy
Google also has a number of other restrictions on copy. The editorial guidelines section below spells these out, in the "Ad Content" section of the page. I'll mainly highlight some of the "why" behind these rules as well as more specific examples.
If you say "free" in your ad at Google, you really honestly and truly have to give something away for free. The point is obvious -- Google doesn't want users to feel mislead. But even this seemingly crystal-clear rule has some nuances.
If it's a "buy one, get one free" offer, you have to note this in your ad, since something must be purchased. However, an offer by AOL to get 100 free hours wouldn't have to be qualified, because you really could have the free hours without obligation of continuing your service, Google says.
Google also wants the landing page to clearly show what's "free" when someone arrives at the page. They shouldn't have to hunt for the free offer. A big exception is on shipping. If you offer free shipping on products, you don't have to make this immediately clear on the product page. In other words, you might have an ad like this:
Vitamins & Health Supplements
Fantastic prices, service & choice
The ad would take you to a page primarily about vitamins and health supplements. You don't have to say big and bold, "Free Shipping" on that page. You don't even have to say it at all. However, you'd better honestly offer free shipping or risk having your ad pulled.
As for Overture, it doesn't spell out rules on free as it pertains to ad copy but rather as a term you might bid upon. So let's say you wanted to have an ad showing up for "free email." You need to ensure that you really do offer free email.
Google also has restrictions on "universal calls-to-action," language that tells a user to do something, such as "Click Here." Crazy, isn't it? I mean, every good ad should have a call-to-action.
Google agrees. You should have a call to action, but it shouldn't be "universal" or "generic." It should be specific. "Buy DVDs now!" or "Savings on DVDs here" would be OK.
Google also doesn't want the words "welcome to," "online," "website" or "homepage" in the title of your ads because these are considered words so common that they convey little content to users. However, you can use them if essential to describing your product, such as "website hosting" or "online training service."
Overture's Rules On Special Web Sites
Reviewing Overture's guidelines, there are a variety of rules that cover types of web sites. Adult sites, gambling sites, sites outside the United States and real estate sites are just some of these named. Why all these special rules? Actually, they aren't so much special as good advice about relevancy that has come up with these various types of sites over the years.
"Most of these guidelines, when you look at them, they are common sense. They just needed to be reiterated, because whats common sense to us may not be common sense to everyone else," said Baker.
Of special note, the rules about sites outside the United States have recently changed. Previously, English-language sites outside the US had to note this in their ads. That doesn't always make sense. If you sell products that are expensive to ship, then Overture may want you to note your location. In other situations, it won't be necessary.
Pop-Ups & Back Buttons
It's possible to "disable" the back button in someone's browser, so that when they come to your web site, they cannot use the back button to leave it. Both Overture and Google say that it is unacceptable for your web site to do this, if you want to run ads with them. Not just your landing page -- any page in your entire web site.
As for pop-ups, the two stand less shoulder-to-shoulder. Overture says that your web site may spawn one pop-up window and that this cannot appear below the current page being viewed, hidden from the user (in other words, a pop-under).
Google just says no to pop-ups. If you have them on your landing page, you cannot run ads linking to that page. You can have them on other pages in your web site -- your ads simply cannot point to those pages.
Are These Sites Exceptional?
Now that I've covered many of the guidelines out there, let me anticipate the flood of email that will come from readers, citing exceptions that they find. Hey, I see them as well!
No exclamation points at Overture? Then what about these ads that I found last week?
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Get Free E-Mail on Your Favorite Topics!
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Viagra in 24 Hours!
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No all caps, says Google. Only one exclamation mark? Then what's this?
TOP 30 ONLINE CASINOS!
WE ONLY LIST THE BEST CASINOS!!
OVER $1000 IN FREE CHIPS!!
In response, Overture said that has changed and improved its guidelines over time, which has created some legacy listings in its database. The company says there's a team of customer service folks constantly monitoring and cleaning up these legacy listings.
As for Google AdWords, it said things like the all-caps ad above can happen because ads are allowed to run instantly, then backchecked soon after by its editorial staff. If guidelines are violated, the ads are then pulled during the checking process.
Duplicates are another guideline violation you might see. Both Overture and Google say that an advertiser should be able to only appear once for a particular term, but through accidents or overt attempts, sometimes duplicate ads get through. Both try to police this, and they are aided by their own advertisers.
"They're our best tattletales. They really help us," said Baker.
In Conclusion: Guidelines, Not Laws
Both Overture and Google have guidelines for their ads, but the emphasis is on the "guide" part of that word. The requirements are meant to help guide the majority of advertisers into creating and running relevant ads, but the guidelines can be altered for the right reasons.
"The guidelines in my opinion are not rules, and we have to constantly be changing and listening to our advertisers to see if we are doing the right thing," said Baker. "With this many listings and this many advertisers, having one size fits all guidelines doesnt always work."
In particular at Overture, Baker is currently reorganizing her staff of about 100 editors to handle different categories of web sites. She hopes that by doing this, the editors will better understand particular types of web sites and business models.
Overture Listing Guidelines
Overture has a monstrous number of guidelines, compared to Google. Overture's also been doing CPC ads for far longer, and that's why these have grown and expanded. But they are guidelines, not absolute rules. Appeal appropriately, and you may justify an exception. Link is to a printer-friendly, all-in-one version of the rules for your summer reading pleasure.
Google AdWords: Editorial Guidelines
Get an overview of Google's guidelines here. While Overture tends to focus on rules over what you can bid on, Google's guidelines are more heavily geared toward what you can and cannot say in ads. Very good coverage here about the use of superlatives.
Google AdWords: FAQ
Some further guidance about Google's guidelines and making good creative can be found here.
Paid Listings Held To Higher Standards
The Search Engine Report, Aug. 5, 2002
Ironically, while paid listings are sometimes dismissed as a form of search engines selling out, the listings are actually policed far more than crawler-based results, which have grown so much over the past two years. This sidebar article explores the issue more.
SAP Design Guild: Capitalization
There is no official guide to capitalization, because every publication -- indeed every person -- may choose to have their own set of rules. However, this page from the SAP Design Guild is a nice overview of sentence and title capitalization.
EasyEnglish.com: Comparatives and Superlatives
OK, so you slept through superlatives in school. Don't feel bad -- I don't even remember being formally taught about them. So let's all get a refresher on this page. It's the best -- well, one of the better ones -- I found.
Guide To Grammar And Writing: Adjectives
Much more about adjectives. Long read but fun and informative.
21 Techniques to Maximize your Profits on Google AdWords Select
Looking to improve your listings with Google AdWords. Andrew Goodman has a well-praised report, and I've liked what I've skimmed, so far. Cost is $49.
All this paid listing stuff have you confused? Catherine Seda has put together what looks to be another excellent guide, based on what I've skimmed so far. She also provides a free monthly newsletter full of tips. Buy the $69 book or sign-up for the newsletter here.
Samuel Johnson Study Guide
Introduction to Literary Criticism, UC Irvine, Winter 1996
Hey, you sit through a year of literary criticism and you'll find yourself wanting to make a reference to Johnson. Want to know more about those tulip streaks? Here's some background from my alma mater. See point six. And zot, zot, zot!