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What's Going On With PPC? - Part 1

What's Going On With PPC? - Part 1

I regularly dive into "big data" to try and better understand what is happening with the performance of a client’s account and to determine whether action needs to be taken. It was at this point in time that I was faced with some very puzzling numbers to muse over.

It was always assumed that the click through rate (CTR) was an indication of user intent. The goal of any optimisation strategy was to maximise the CTR by making the advertisements more relevant to the domain so that the user then clicked. This seems to make logical sense but it’s clear from the recent round of data that something else is at play.

Likewise, the Earnings Per Click (EPC) was a measurement of advertiser competitiveness. The greater the demand for the keyword the higher the price paid by advertisers….it’s essentially a reflection of the Google auction process.

In the past, domainers would select higher paying relevant keywords to maximise both the CTR and EPC. For example, I may set “Mortgage” as the keyword rather than “House Auctions” for a real estate domain because “Mortgage” had a higher EPC and around the same CTR as “House Auctions”.

This whole context sensitive mapping of the domain to the keyword was effectively thrown out when Google migrated to psychographic user based targeting. In other words, Google is now trying to match advertisements to the user and not necessarily the domain.

For example, if you’ve been searching for vacations in Bali recently then when you can go to parked golf related domain you will often see vacation advertisements. This seems to make sense until I pulled out the stats for a couple of accounts…..and this got me questioning what is really happening.

Both samples have thousands of domains and lots of traffic and are not being distorted by a single domain. The lines are a level 4 polynomial trend line for both CTR (blue) and EPC (red). Incredibly, both charts have a similar profile where the CTR and EPC effectively mirror each other and create an inverse impact. So what does this all mean?

Around two years ago Google migrated all of their parking partners to using what is now known as Custom Ad Frame (CAF). Essentially this means that all parking pages are now largely served by Google and not the parking companies themselves. The goal of this change was to open up Google’s premium advertisers to the domain channel….which is good news for domain investors.

The problem I have is that the CTR component of the graphs suggest that Google is playing a really strange game. They appear to be constantly moving from accurately targeting users with advertising to doing it really badly. Although some variations are expected, the wild swings from May to Sept are a bit perplexing. This seems to fly in the face of the Google ethos to always provide the user with better and more accurate results.

In both cases the overall CTR since May has dropped significantly while the EPC has risen! What this suggests is that during the summer people click less often but advertisers pay more. This is the reverse of what I would expect. During the summer period I would expect users to click less (distracted by the sunshine) and since advertisers are on vacation many of them would exit the auction process. This reduces demand and you would expect EPC rates to decrease and the traditional summer downturn would result.

What the data suggests is that as better quality advertisements (ie. higher paying) are displayed then people click on them less. This seems unlikely and combined with the shapes of the graphs it suggests a level of manipulation of the data behind the scenes.

So the question really needs to be asked, "What is CTR and EPC?" Unless we now live in a world where users can discriminate their clicking behaviour by magically known the EPC rates then there has to be something else at play.

I plan on unpacking this further in the next articles in this series as I explore what is actually going with domain traffic.


Michael Gilmour has been in business for over 32 years and has both a BSC in Electronics and Computer Science and an MBA. He was the former vice-chairman of the Internet Industry Association in Australia and is in demand as a speaker at Internet conferences the world over. He has also recently published his first science fiction book, Battleframe.

Michael is passionate about working with online entrepreneurs to help them navigate their new ventures around the many pitfalls that all businesses face. Due to demands on his time, Michael may be contacted by clicking here for limited consulting assignments.

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