Have you ever opened a ValPak direct mailer? Have you ever clicked on a text ad? I pose these questions to my students regularly. Typically, the answer to the first question is "yes" and the answer to the second question is "never." The results are even worse if I inquire about banner ads or rich media.
How can this be? Search advertising has risen to become a behemoth; yet why is it that so few customers seem to engage with the advertising? My students are, after all, more tech-savvy than the average Joe Schmoe (I teach 11 miles from Redmond, WA, and eight miles from the Google Kirkland office). How is it that despite extended use of search engines on a daily basis, so few savvy individuals have clicked on an ad? Why is it that everybody is in love with Google's stock price and yet so few people love the ads that it displays?
Could it be that the ads really don't work the way they are supposed to? Could it be that we are in the midst of a search advertising bubble driven by overconfidence in the abilities of overrated services and an abundance of small, undiscriminating advertisers eager for any bump in traffic?
There are really two things driving this: a superclicking class that is artificially boosting ad prices, and an overworked and under-appreciated blogging community whose free labor is providing the content where ads might be placed.
If you are an advertiser, you should take this seriously.
A recent study shows that there is a category of people they call Natural Born Clickers. The study, which premiered at the iMedia Brand Summit in February, shows that a segment of the online population accounts for six percent of the online populace, and yet it is directly responsible for 50 percent of all ad clicks. This is a stunning number. What do we know about these superclickers? They tend to be young (mostly between the ages of 25 and 44) and poor (income less than $40,000). They have their own distinct behavioral pattern -- they tend to spend dramatically more time online than regular humans, and they are disproportionately more likely to visit auctions, gambling and career services sites.
If this is indeed an unbiased study of the online population (and it might not be -- Starcom Media, which conducted the study may have its own agenda), the implications are paradigm-shifting.
For the longest time, Google, Yahoo, Ad Center and other online ad services have focused on the click rather than the attitude change. This is problematic in two ways. First, this tends to work well for small businesses, which do not really have strong brands and do not have an interest in branding. As a result, it is likely to work for Ma and Pa Inc. rather than Big Enterprise Inc. Second, we know that it is common for consumers to act on an advertising message well after seeing an ad. By only counting clicks, the online advertising universe underestimates brand impact -- something that large advertisers care about.
Online advertising services have never provided information about who is clicking the ad. Therefore, many small businesses today have the illusion that they are measuring all sorts of details about their ads, but they do not realize that they don't know the profile of those who clicked on an ad. For instance, the profile of superclickers in the Starcom study points directly to an intern in a back office who has been ordered to go click on ads. How is a small business to know that?
This brings up the old bugaboo -- click fraud. Even search engines such as Google have long argued that by mitigating the impact of click fraud by advanced detection and discounting suspicious clicks, it has never gone away. The reality is that the system in place right now does not provide a reliable way of tracking click fraud.
Recently, a blogger at ShapingYouth.org wrote to Target complaining about a racy image with the target logo in an awkward spot. Rather than interacting with the blogger, Target sent the blogger a note that said, "Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.''
Even the egalitarian-sounding Craigslist recently went after a blog titled Craigslistblog.org. The letter to the blogger said, "We need you to stop using the infringing domain CRAIGSLISTBLOG.ORG immediately and arrange for transfer of it to us asap -- using/selling/transferring infringing domains is illegal, and penalties up to $100,000 per domain can be applied."
Blogging is one of the big content engines driving the current price of text ads. And yet bloggers are among the most under-appreciated, utterly exploited and overworked content workers who rarely see the fruits of their labor. Bloggers simply have to deal with a lot. They put up with snippy PR folks who constantly see bloggers as illegitimate actors whose voices need to be quashed, and IP lawyers who would be glad to shut them down on the pretense of IP infringement. On top of that, services such as Google's AdSense do not pay bloggers their ad revenue money until it exceeds $100. Unless you are on the top 100 list of blogs, you are making very little money. The result might very well be that the current blogging movement is simply unsustainable.
The sky is falling.
Search-based advertising is simply not sustainable. Why?
First, traffic to search engines has been pretty flat over the last year and will continue to be. See this chart from Compete.com that confirms this pretty clearly.
The trend is even more diagnostic if one looks at the number of page views per visit.
In its most recent 10-K statement, Google claims that its increased revenue is "primarily from an increase in the total number of paid clicks." If the number of monthly unique visitors and number of pages/visits have been pretty flat for a year, the total number of paid clicks must have come from greater clicks from existing visitors.
Second, growth in blogs has slowed down and will continue this trend. See the growth in the number of unique monthly visitors to technorati.com, wordpress.com and digg.com below.
Even though wordpress.com has really grown cumulatively, the rate has slowed considerably since November 2007. This might be the beginning of a great slowdown that will drive down the number of people visiting blogs.
This pessimistic summation is because I see a slowdown in the number of visits to search engines and growth in content (especially blogs).
What does all this mean if you are an advertiser?
1. Higher rates. The math is simple. If the supply of content and visitors slow down, as competition among advertisers for keywords goes up, rates are likely to trend higher. This means more money for search engines and lower effectiveness for advertisers.
2. Poor targeting. Pay attention to the superclickers. They are the folks who are easy to target. But, they cannot be everybody's customer! So it is going to prove difficult to target people that you want to go after (e.g., women 18-45, working professionals).
Pay heed! The sky is falling!