AdWords – Has the Google God Become Too Powerful?

First, a quote.

“And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902)

Over the years Google has progressively tightened its advertising guidelines, mostly for the best. It used to be that anyone could competitively bid on keywords and place an ad on AdWords, even if the keywords they bid on were irrelevant to their ad. Also, gone are the days when an advertiser could pay their way out of the $5 or $10 “Google slap” for a poor quality ad.

In 2009, one of the enhancements Google added to their overhauled AdWords interface was a numeric 10 point quality scoring system for each keyword in an ad group. The higher the score, the more in-line the keyword is to the ad and landing page content. But like all things Google, advertisers are still in the dark over what constitutes any particular score. Google gives general guidelines on how to write a good ad and how it should relate to a landing page, but there is no checklist of items that guarantees a perfect 10. How can an advertiser improve its quality scores without knowing what needs tweaking?

I’ve been using AdWords since 2003. For about 1-1/2 years I was using it to exclusively promote a fitness product. My entire site was related to a single merchant’s product.

Coveted Ad Positioning and CPC

I did not bid on the merchant’s branded name because like many merchants, they prohibit it. Rather, I bid on a handful of broad, yet closely related fitness terms. I maintained excellent positioning in the “sweet spot”, hovering around the 4th position on the first page, with ad costs at only pennies per click. My ads were always profitable and when Google introduced the numeric scoring system, I maintained quality scores in the 7/10 range.

In the summer of 2009 I modified an ad just like I had done countless times over the years. The next morning I noticed my campaign had no ad impressions. I dug into the keywords and saw that Google had given them quality scores of 0 and refused to display the ads, yet nothing on my site or keywords had changed and the modification I made to the ad was insignificant. How is it possible to go from preferential positioning and pricing for 1-1/2 years and then in the blink of an eye lose it all?

Google Burns Its Bridges

As near as I can tell, the modification triggered a quality audit. After weeks of wrangling with the AdWords team and their canned email replies, it came down to one thing. Google considered my landing page a “bridge page” and my overall site content “poor” because my content wasn’t unique enough for them.

Google wants to create a good advertising experience for its shoppers by eliminating what it believes, replicates the merchant’s site. In other words, they think that a shopper would rather / should rather (in their opinion) see only the merchant’s site and not an affiliate’s site promoting the merchant’s products.

One of my main arguments was that my customers didn’t know the product by its brand name. Instead, they were searching for a solution to fill a fitness need. That’s the sole reason for choosing the keywords I did. My sales history was solid proof that I was dead on target with them.

My site converted those visitors into paying customers. I received emails from the affiliate manager and the owner of the company telling me what a great job I was doing and to keep it up. I was even rewarded with an exclusive coupon code. I forwarded those comments to the AdWords team in my defense, but they still refused to re-approve my ads.

Google Gives Advice, Even If It May Not Work…Which It Didn’t

Google provided a few recommendations for gaining back my former glory. One caveat though, they warned that even if I did what they suggested, my campaign may never recover. That turned out to be true. I went through the entire dog and pony show and nothing I did to the site from that point on could pull it out of the abyss. Even new pages I built following all of their guidelines got a quality score of 0. It was obvious they weren’t rating the single landing page from my ad. Instead, they were looking at the entire domain and my domain now seemed to be black-balled.

1) Google doesn’t like affiliate pages. They consider them bridge pages to the merchant. So what, I say. There are times when experienced affiliates can make a better sales pitch than the merchant’s own site, can make a better visual presentation, or give testimonials from personal experience after using the product. Or, I’ll point out once again, a shopper may not know the brand name of a product, therefore will search with generic terms describing what a product does or the benefits they hope to receive from a product.

2) Google doesn’t like affiliates to promote only one product on their site. It’s their stance that such sites replicate the merchant’s site. Google told me that I had to add products to my site that the merchant doesn’t sell in order to make my site unique from the merchant’s.

I don’t like creating pages like that because they take the spotlight off of my featured product and send my visitors off shopping on another site. People get sidetracked while browsing and if they don’t come back, that’s a lost sale. I have one job as an affiliate and that’s to promote the merchant’s product to the best of my ability, not send them to another merchant’s site.

In some cases, a merchant may not like its products being compared to those of another because their own products may cost more. Consumers don’t always look at quality, they want a bargain. A year ago I struck up a deal with a web hosting company to get lower pricing on their plans for my customers. However, I was prohibited from advertising their company in any type of comparative manner, like many web hosting affiliates do, because even at the lower price, they were still two to three times more than other companies.

I’m not completely against all of Google’s advertising guidelines. I agree with them that ads should not be misleading, a landing page should provide what the ad says it will and a visitor should not have to opt-in to a mailing list to get the information promised in the ad.

The Google Monopoly

But the Google god has taken on the “gangster mentality” that Baron Dalberg-Acton referred to. Google has monopolized AdWords by excluding single-merchant affiliates, yet permitting the original merchants of the product to advertise. It drives down the competition by allowing the original merchants to corner the market on PPC. Should Google be allowed to tell affiliate advertisers that their sites must contain products not sold on the merchant’s site in order to be able to participate in AdWords? It’s an unethical, unfair business practice.

A merchant’s survival often times depends upon the sales generated by its affiliates. By denying affiliates from competing in the keyword bidding process with single-merchant websites, Google is choking off the sales force of thousands of companies and turning off the cash flow to the affiliates who, in the past, and like myself, successfully used AdWords. I instantly stopped making sales the day Google slapped me.

Yes, affiliates can use other PPC services, but none of them have the coverage that AdWords does.

Yes, affiliates can use search engine marketing to promote any product in any manner, but not everyone has the skill set and the tenacity to do it. Fortunately, in about three months’ time I’ve managed to regain about 85% of my pre-Google slap using SEM, but it’s hard, never ending work.

You see, the beauty of PPC is that it’s “instant-on” advertising. You don’t have to spend weeks or months trying to achieve top ranking in the SERPS, something that’s impossible for highly competitive niches.