Thinking Outside the (Google) Box: Worthy AdWords Alternatives

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Advertising on Google may singlehandedly build your online business, but it can also be exceedingly expensive, frustrating, and unpredictable. As many advertisers have discovered the hard way, the competition on Google is fierce and the always-present chance of a Quality Score smackdown make putting all your eggs in the Google basket a risky strategy.

Fortunately, the impressive success of cost-per-click (CPC) advertising on Google has spawned a slew of CPC alternatives waiting to take some of your marketing budget. The variety of CPC opportunities today is staggering – from mobile phones, to local newspaper websites, to industry magazines. For almost any advertiser, there are at least a few CPC sites out there that you should consider testing.

In some cases, a non-Google CPC campaign can turn into your single biggest profit driver. Because most advertisers focus their efforts on Google (and to a lesser extent, the other big search engines), it is possible to find highly effective inventory at rock-bottom prices on some CPC sites. On the other hand, there is also an increased risk of click fraud, limited user interfaces, and increased complexity when you add lesser-known CPC programs into your search engine marketing mix.

What exactly are the alternatives to AdWords? The following are the major categories of other CPC options online, along with some information on the pros and cons of each.

Other Big Search Engines

Every major search engine now has its own in-house CPC advertising program. All include both search and contextual targeting opportunities, similar to Google’s AdWords and AdSense programs. The major players in this category are Yahoo! Search Marketing, MSN adCenter, and Ask Sponsored Listings.

The advantages include pricing that is often cheaper than Google, with less competition and slightly different user demographics. As an added bonus, you will tend to get more hand-holding from account representatives. Collectively, Yahoo!, MSN, and Ask make up about 25% of the search engine market, so there is significant inventory available on these sites. A substantial number of people out there are fiercely loyal to one of these engines and never use Google, so avoiding these traffic sources means you are missing some potential clients.

Disadvantages include difficult-to-use interfaces and greater chances of low-quality traffic, particularly from their content networks. If you are comfortable with the AdWords interface, you may get frustrated trying to execute similar processes on these engines.

Content Networks

With the content networks, rather than buying keywords, you simply buy placement on a particular website or specific pages within a website. Google’s version of this is Placement Targeting on the AdSense network. Major players include AdBrite.com, Quigo.com, and ADSDAQ by ContextWeb.

A big plus is there being no need to worry about keywords – just find out which sites or pages work for you. Some networks offer display advertising, which can perform better than text ads, especially for B2B advertisers. In particular, if you are selling a product or service that has latent demand, you may find that traditional search engines can’t provide you with significant volume. For example, if you were marketing TiVo in 2001, how would you market it on AdWords? At that time, no one typed in searches like “TiVo,” “digital video recorder,” or “alternative to VCR.” But putting a banner ad on a consumer electronics site could attract new users to your cool technology.

There is less control than keyword buying. Some placements are buried at the bottom of a content page and get little-to-no traffic, despite the high volume of the overall page. Contextual advertising runs the greatest risk of click fraud (since site owners sometimes click on ads to make more money).

Vertical Search

Vertical search engines specialize in a specific business category (law, health, IT, etc.) or power websites focused on specific verticals. Major players include Business.com, IndustryBrains (now a part of the Marchex Adhere network), and ThomasNet.

Vertical search is highly targeted to a narrowly defined set of users, and are especially useful for B2B and enterprise sales. Few people type in “enterprise class relational database” into a Google search query, but people who may be interested in buying such a product may frequent an online trade journal. Getting your ad in front of them – even when they aren’t specifically searching for your product – can be very successful.

On the minus side, volume can be low, and CPCs can actually be significantly more expensive than Google. In some cases, you’ll find that the CPC ads are buried at the bottom of the page, so if you really want to get meaningful traffic, you may need to buy a banner ad on such sites.

Social Media

Social networks such as Facebook are currently rolling out CPC programs. Google’s AdSense network covers MySpace and some Facebook applications. SocialMedia.com is another player in this arena.

These can be a great way to reach the highly coveted 18-35 demographic. There are also outstanding demographic and psychographic targeting opportunities based on user-provided registration information on social networks.

However, the jury is still out on the quality of traffic from social networks. Anecdotal evidence from several ad buyers suggests that the conversion rate on Facebook is much lower than on AdWords. Advertising programs are still evolving and may require increased attention until they stabilize.

Local

CPC advertising is also available down to the city or even zip-code level. Companies offering local CPC include CitySearch, Local.com, SuperPages, and YellowPages.com.

This type of advertising is perfect for online businesses who don’t have a national presence. Local advertising is fast gaining popularity with local service providers like contractors, lawyers, or dentists.

Depending on your business and geographic reach, however, traffic volume can be low to non-existent. The granularity of the geo-targeting can also sometimes be problematic. For many local advertisers, buying an entire metro area is too large a geographic slice, and not all local programs currently offer zip-code-level targeting.

Mobile

Advertisers can also target those who use their mobile phone to surf the Internet, via properties such as 4INFO.net or AdMob.

This is a great way to connect with early tech adopters, teens, and college students. As an emerging medium, you can find CPC bargains while your competitors get their act together with respect to mobile advertising.

A potentially problem for mobile advertisers is a difficulty converting users without a website designed for mobile. Cell phone functionality is still improving, which means that any business that requires a lot of user-to-website interaction may have problems closing sales from mobile surfers.

If you are interested in more information on the opportunities available in mobile marketing, check out the feature series of articles on mobile search marketing in this issue on pages 32 to 40.

Paid Inclusion

Yahoo! Search Submit offers placement of sponsored listings directly within the organic search results on their search engine.

This gives you the ability to buy your way to the top of the organic results for pennies on the dollar compared to the top paid search listings. Often a paid inclusion keyword can cost 30 cents while the same keyword in paid search costs 10 dollars.

The down side is there is less control over where you show up. As a result, the conversion rate is typically consistent with the conversion rate for SEO listings (lower than a paid search campaign). Plus, to buy paid inclusion on a CPC basis requires a spend of $10,000 or more a month with Yahoo! This program is undergoing changes at Yahoo!, so it is in flux.

Second-Tier Search Engines

Second-tier search engines are pretty much any search engine that isn’t Google, Yahoo!, MSN, or Ask. These search engines often get their traffic by embedding their search tool on other websites, from parked domains, or from toolbars. Some of the players include 7Search, ABCSearch, AdHere, BlowSearch, Findology, Looksmart, Mamma, and MIVA.

These search engines are usually 50% to 70% cheaper on a CPC basis than Google. In some cases, you can get “head term” keywords for 5 or 10 cents a click.

However, there is a much higher chance of lower-converting traffic with second-tier. As the old adage goes – “you get what you pay for.” I recently tested a second-tier engine and got 500 clicks in one day from sites with names like “forest-rage.info.” Looking at my analytics, I saw that all of these referrers had sent people to my site for an average of zero seconds (in other words, complete fraud)! You need to monitor these sites closely until you have established their effectiveness.

Email

With providers like AdKnowledge and WebJuice, you can buy placement within an email on a CPC basis. Most emails target a specific category such as “hair restoration” or “diamond rings.”

Since you only pay on the click and you don’t send out the email, you don’t have to worry about spam filters. Conversion rates can be very high.

However, many advertisers are concerned about email marketing due to the negative connotation associated with email spam. Some companies explicitly prohibit their agencies from using email marketing.

Conclusion

As with every new CPC program, it is important to weigh the added benefit of search campaign diversification (away from just Google) versus increased management complexity. Few advertisers have the time or the testing budget to try every CPC opportunity mentioned above. For most marketers, spending 10% to 20% of your budget outside of Google and the other big search engines is a reasonable means of testing other CPC options for possible success.

About the Author

David Rodnitzky is CEO of PPC Associates, a leading SEM agency based in Silicon Valley. PPC Associates provides search, social, and display advertising management to growing, savvy companies. To learn more, visit ppcassociates.com, or contact David at david@ppcassociates.com.

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