Google, Yahoo Prepare to Tighten Grip on Search Ads

Danny Sullivan on Search Marketing

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Few types of advertising can be so precisely measured as search. Yet few types of advertising also give so little control to advertisers. It's as if you are driving a car equipped with GPS, a fancy engine-computer reporting miles-per-gallon and other stats. But if you try to steer, you discover this fully-equipped car is following a track.

I exaggerate, but not much. You can alter ad copy and test for best variations, but style guides can be limiting, and you only have 25 words to work with. And where you show up on the page depends not only on how much you're willing to pay but also on the "quality" of your ad -- as defined solely by Google. Sometimes, you might not show up at all if Google decides showing no ads or fewer ads for a search might better serve its users. Don't get me wrong. There are good reasons for some of these rules. But there are a lot of them -- both written and unwritten ones that live inside the "black boxes" of the ad auction systems.

Danny Sullivan
Photo: Jason Meyer
Danny Sullivan has been covering the search-marketing industry for more than a decade and is editor in chief of
Now Google and Yahoo alike are doing things that further limit control. At Google, a "SearchWiki" system allows users to move unpaid editorial listings to the top of search results -- or remove them entirely. It's being tested with AdWords in an experiment involving a small number of users, Google says. Unlike with editorial results, the test only allows users to delete ads, not promote them higher on the page.

For individual users, this might be great. They can merrily nuke ads that displease them (it only happens for results they see; it doesn't remove ads shown to others). For advertisers, it's more loss of control.

If the experiment becomes a standard feature, it might benefit some advertisers. There are a lot of cruddy ads. If users are able to explicitly shun those, it could make life easier for quality advertisers.

Last year Yahoo issued new terms giving itself the right to alter ads or even create new ones for advertisers, without actually asking them first. When these superpowers were noted by some advertisers early this year, an outcry ensued. Yahoo responded with a blog post that basically told their "blogger friends" not to worry their pretty little heads about it. Only 2% of advertisers had been subject to such changes, and only 20% of those objected when they were informed of them after the fact.

Did Yahoo really need to seize the right to alter ad copy that was previously approved? Are there any inalienable rights left to advertisers?

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