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Running a Paid Search Campaign? Keep a close eye on Search Partners

James Connell March 15, 2010 Category Paid Search (PPC)

All the major search engines increase the number of searchers they offer an advertiser by allowing their search results to show on 3rd party websites.  The traffic for paid ads showing on these 3rd party sites is typically of a lower quality than that generated by the search engines’ own sites. However, that traffic is also usually cheaper, so some types of businesses benefit by having their ads show on search partner sites.

If you allow your ads to show on search partner sites, it’s important to constantly monitor the traffic those sites generate.  This fact was underscored one day a few weeks ago when a Path Interactive client suffered an 800% traffic spike on one particular adgroup in a Google campaign, with most of the spike coming from one keyword, with no corresponding increase in conversions.

Google Decides It Isn’t Click Fraud

Because we hadn’t made any changes that would explain the spike, we immediately suspected click fraud, and duly notified Google’s click fraud team of our suspicions.  We have seen this sort of thing before on the other engines, and they never failed to immediately issue a refund.  Google turned out to be different.  It took Google’s click fraud team a little over a week to give us an official answer, but their immediate comments and follow-up questions made it pretty clear that they were not going to declare this spike to be fraudulent, and that they would not be refunding our client’s money. The team’s reasoning was that most of the traffic spike came from different computers, so it was legitimate traffic as far as they were concerned.

This disappointed us, because an 800% traffic spike doesn’t occur without some sort of malicious cause.  Google’s reporting tools were of no help in figuring out the cause of the spike, but, luckily, we use our own tracking software.  Doing a deep dive into our logs, we found that most of the traffic spike had come from one of Google’s search partners: Publisher’s Clearing House.

Maybe Not, But It’s Just As Bad

PCH Offers Incentives For People To Search On Its Site

PCH Offers Incentives For People To Search On Its Site

It turns out that Publisher’s Clearing House (PCH) offers visitors to its site a chance to win prizes each time they conduct a search on the PCH site.  PCH’s results page pulls listings from all 4 major engines, but it makes the paid ads look very similar to the organic listings, going so far as to intersperse organic and paid on the results page.  PCH benefits from doing this because it receives a percentage of the ad’s cost when a searcher clicks on it, and Google benefits because they keep the remainder of that cost.

Advertisers, however, lose out.  The fact that PCH gives incentives for people to search on its site, and, in fact offers further incentives to people who conduct numerous searches, lowers the likelihood that the searcher actually cares about the results of the search.  That, combined with the fact that searchers probably don’t know whether they’re clicking on an ad or not, drastically reduces the value of traffic coming to an advertiser’s site.  Our client found this out the hard way: 800% traffic spike, no additional conversions.

Our Google Reps Don’t Have The Tools To Spot This

We took this information to our regular team at Google.  They stated that they were happy we had found the cause of the spike, because they don’t have access to the tools necessary to do so.  Most importantly, they immediately agreed to refund our client for all traffic coming from PCH.  While this is the outcome we were looking for, we remain disappointed in the way Google as a whole handled the situation.  We don’t think it could have been any more obvious that Google had sent our client bad traffic, and we shouldn’t have had to do the work to prove our point.  More importantly, we are dismayed that Google would be in business with a site whose main purpose seems to be to get searchers to click on ads.  We hope that this is a one-time mistake on Google’s part, and not the start of a trend.

We are even more disappointed with Publisher’s Clearing House.  If a company takes an advertiser’s money, it should offer some sort of value in exchange.  Unfortunately, PCH isn’t holding up its end of this bargain; people conducting searches only to win prizes are very unlikely to be worth an advertiser’s money, especially in competitive verticals with high clicks costs. We hope that PCH rectifies this by ceasing to offer incentives for people to search. At the very least, it should separate the ads from the organic listings. Either way, we hope that the major engines drop PCH as a search partner. Our clients just can’t afford to have their ads show on PCH’s site.

James Connell is Search Director at Path Interactive

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