- February 29, 2008

Why Google's surprising paid click data are less surprising

Earlier this week, Comscore released its January 2008 qSearch paid click report, which showed a 7% sequential decline vs. December ‘07, and a flat annual growth in paid clicks for Google. Moreover, the number of paid clicks per Google search query declined by 8% from December to January, suggesting that consumers are clicking less on search ads, possibly reflecting a weaker buying appetite. The information triggered a flurry of reactions in the media and the financial community that centered on two concerns: 1) a potentially weak first quarter outlook for Google, and 2) an indication that a soft U.S. economy is beginning to drag down the online advertising market.

While we do not claim that these concerns are unwarranted, we believe a careful analysis of our search data does not lend them direct support. More specifically, the evidence suggests that the softness in Google’s paid click metrics is primarily a result of Google’s own quality initiatives that result in a reduction in the number of paid listings and, therefore, the opportunity for paid clicks to occur. In addition, the reduction in the incidence of paid listings existed progressively throughout 2007 and was successfully offset by improved revenue per click. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the improved revenue yield will continue to deliver strong revenue growth in the first quarter. Separately, there is no evidence of a slowdown in consumers clicking on paid search ads for rest of the US search market, which comprises 40% of all searches.

The most puzzling data element is that Google’s U.S. paid clicks dropped sequentially by 7%, while, at the same time, its total number of search queries grew by 9%. At the same time, Google’s market share of all search queries grew slightly from December, and its annual query growth remains very strong. All indicators point to the company continuing to do very well as far as consumer usage and competitive position. The drop in paid clicks becomes even more puzzling when it is normalized on a per query basis: The number of paid clicks per search query drops by 16% in one month! The corresponding metric for the rest of the market drops by 4%. What accounts for this dramatic difference?

We must remember that a paid click does not happen on a search results page unless there is an ad on that page. Since not all pages have ads on them, it is important to look at an ad coverage index, defined as the percent of all queries that have at least one paid ad. This index dropped by 8% for Google, going from 52% to 48%. In addition, even when a query result page contained at least one paid ad link, the paid click rate, defined as the average number of clicks per such an ad supported query, declined by another 8%, going from .24 to .22. Figure 1 shows the trend in these two metrics over a one year period. The graph illustrates two time periods where both measures declined together: first from January ‘07 to May ‘07, and then from December ‘07 to January ‘08. The remainder of the year was essentially flat.

Evidently, January ‘08 is not the first time this decline has happened. The compounded impact on paid clicks per search query (whether or not ad supported) for the entire year, is a whopping 33% decline in 2007. The decline in the first half of 2007 clearly cannot be traced to a weak economy. And, despite this decline, Google managed to grow its worldwide search revenue by 68% in 2007. (The company does not separately report U.S. search revenues.) The revenue growth was achieved through a 21% increase in revenue per paid click.

Why and how is this happening? It is common knowledge in the industry that Google has been targeting what it deems to be low quality ads. It has introduced a ‘quality score’ that it uses to prioritize placement of ads or to decide to suppress an ad altogether. A suppressed, or ‘non active’ ad, can be reinstated by raising the bid above a quality-based minimum bid. In addition, the real estate available for ads is being reduced, squeezing the supply of available spots to bid on. The reduced supply, as well as the higher minimum bids, contributes to an increase in the price per paid click, which is what helps counteract the slowdown in the absolute number of paid clicks. Therefore, Google’s revenue will not necessarily suffer from this. In fact, Google wins by providing more relevant ads for consumers and a less cluttered ad environment for marketers.

This policy is explained by Google on their website at https://adwords.google.com/select/qbb.html.

But wait! If this improved quality is real, should we not expect an increase in the paid click rates? Not necessarily. If the ads are more relevant, consumers would need fewer clicks to get what they are looking for. Perversely, a high number of clicks means that the ads are not delivering what the user is looking for on the first try, which induces additional clicks on the second or third try. The benefits to marketers are real, but also counterintuitive. If the users get to what they want with fewer clicks, it means those clicks have a higher conversion rate, or deliver higher quality leads. Hence, a lower number of clicks will likely generate more revenues or better leads for the marketer, justifying the higher average cost per click. Naturally, the changes will not benefit everyone. Rightly or wrongly, some marketers win and some lose, venting their frustration in the blogosphere. The users, on the other hand, will mostly win with improved relevancy and user experience, which helps explain Google’s continued overall query growth and share dominance.

What about the impact of the economy? One might argue that the lower number of paid clicks per ad-supported query indicates that consumers are less interested in buying what is being advertised and lends credence to a worsened economic situation. The trouble is that the pattern does not hold for the rest of the search market. As Figure 2 shows, the paid click rate for the other search engines actually increases slightly. There is no obvious reason why the economy would negatively impact Google’s users and not those of Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Ask and others. Furthermore, we don’t need a weak economy rationale to explain the recent decline -- since a similar decline occurred earlier in 2007 when a weak economy wasn’t an issue.

Figure 2
Sequential Change in Paid Click Rates
  Dec-07 Jan-08 % Chg
Google 0.24 0.22 -8.1%
Other Engines 0.21 0.21 0.5%

In summary, the evidence points to a counterintuitive trend caused by Google’s own program for improving the quality of paid listings.

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