The Growing Divide Between Paid Search & Marketing

Like most people, I hate being wrong. Let me correct myself: I hate being wrong. There is nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you realize whatever it was you were defending so vehemently is just flat wrong.

At that point, you only have two options: 1) hold onto your point, stick your head in the sand and admit nothing, or 2) swallow your pride, take your medicine and admit you were wrong.  I like to think I am not wrong all that often, and despite what my fiancée might say, when I am, I like to think I am one who swallows my pride and admits it.

SearchWith that, I am taking a huge gulp of my pride with this month’s column. I was wrong, and I admit it.

Now, there are varying levels of being wrong. There is the “Cowboys are going to win a playoff game this year” kind of wrong (which I appear to be wrong on most of the time); then, there are the big ones that shake you to your core. In this case, I’m guilty of the latter.

A few months back, I wrote an article for Marketing Land called “Is The Art Of Paid Search Marketing Dead?” in which I foolishly suggested there was still a small bit of art left in search marketing. Art? Are you kidding me? Ugh. I haven’t been so wrong or felt so foolish in a long time. The truth is, there is no art in search and I believe we are moving to a time where there is very little marketing in search as well.

Paid Search’s Early Days

While I have always been one that longs for days gone by, I tend to do it with paid search more than other things (which makes me the nerdiest person alive). In the beginning, search was marketing. With almost no tools or automation, it was your job as the marketer to find the right keywords and phrases to match your customer with your campaign.

As the marketer, it was your job to develop and test creative that perfectly reflected your brand and distinguished it from everyone else’s ad. It was your job to comb through data to find the right position at the right time and place your perfect keyword and perfect description in front of a customer at the perfect time. You were, in fact, a marketer. You were creative and targeted, and you needed the same skills as a traditional ad person, but you had the added bonus of analytics to support your work. Needless to say, those days are long gone.

Paid Search Today

Today, the marketing aspects are all but gone from paid search. Don’t believe me? Try it. Here are the results for my recent search for [hotel near TCU campus]:

Paid search results are rarely actual "marketing" anymore.

Paid search results are rarely actual “marketing” anymore.

Keep in mind that I, the searcher, told “advertisers” the state, city, neighborhood and an interest of mine all in the search query. Of the 10 paid search ads I received (not counting the Google hotel search ads), only 3 even mentioned TCU — 2 were keyword insert, and one was an listing.

At this point, you are likely so used to seeing a bunch of auto-generated, nearly identical listings that your brain is discounting this as “no big deal,” and you probably think that I should just get over it. While you are right, and I need to get over it, I still think it’s worth comparing these generic listings to the paid search ads of years past. When you look closely at paid search listings these days, you will notice a few things:

  1. There is little to no differentiation
  2. There is little targeting
  3. There are now advertisers that are simply “marketing” their site… which is a site of ads ( amongst others)

Are any of those good things? When you consider the points above, it is clear the “marketing” aspect of paid search is all but gone. We have automated, generic, blanket listings that are quite often less creative and targeted than yellow page listings. We have brands whose entire goal has shifted from marketing their brand and product to simply trying to protect it from, who has no product and no brand, but does have a terribly designed site that simply consists of more ads for you to click on.

The idea that this is okay still bugs the hell out of me. And perhaps the worst part about all of this is that the person who suffers the most is the user. They rarely get the specific ads they need, they are left clicking nonstop, and (without knowing it) they are being exposed to fewer and fewer brands as the biggest of the big crowd the space.

Paid Search Tomorrow

With the “marketing” piece missing from search engine marketing, what’s next? Clearly, I don’t work for Google (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, probably am not smart enough to work there), but there seem to be two clear next steps in search engine marketing listings:

  1. Paid search is simply a cost of doing business. It’s like toilet paper or printer cartridges — you just have to have it to run your site. The further away from “marketing” paid search gets and the closer it gets to becoming a simple cost of doing business (e.g., we have to buy our brand terms or other people will benefit from our brand), the more secure the spend gets to be with Google et al. The engines get guaranteed dollars, brands are required to allocate funds each year, you check it off the list and move on.
  2. Automation creates a feed-based world. As if things aren’t automated enough, soon you won’t even have to run your campaigns. Give Google a product feed every day and they churn out the keywords, the creative, the positioning and you’re done. For Google, it’s a win because they control your cost of doing business, and marketers will think it’s a win because everything gets easier with completely automated “marketing.”

Neither of the above two ideas are all that much of a stretch, but both are clear steps away from the idea that paid search is marketing. Whether paid search is marketing or is simply generic listings — and whether this shift is a good thing or a bad thing — I am sure can be nerdily debated until we are blue in the face. But either way, it will certainly change the role of search agencies, the role of brands/advertisers, and the way consumers experience your brand through search for years to come.

(Stock image via Used under license.)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Google: AdWords | Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is a New York-based digital marketing and strategy consultant specializing in retail. He has worked with Nike, Neiman Marcus, Staples, Michael Kors and many others to develop fully integrated digital marketing strategies.Follow him @VicDrabicky on Twitter.

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  • jeroen maljers

    Great article and I agree, but have 2 remarks: 1. there are many businesses out there advertising on Google that do not have a feed nor ever will have one. The lawyers, consultants and other service providers still have to write compelling ads and choose keywords. 2. In the feed/PLA space there’s alway’s room for a countermovement. Maybe there are advertisers that should abandon the long tail and re-start advertising like ” we sell really good shoes” instead of the Nike xyz now for Y$.

  • Sarah

    Just because lots of people are crap at paid doesn’t meant that it’s dead or dying, nor does it mean that people who do paid campaigns should write irrelevant ads. And for the love of all things holy, can we stop playing the “seo/marketing is dead” card every time an opportunity or challenge presents itself? This right here. This surplus of auto-generated drivel is an opportunity to actually do great things for your clients in paid search.

  • David Burdon

    I sympathise with your perspective. And love the comparison with toilet paper. However, hotels presents an extreme example. The major hotel consolidators have expert based yield management systems that target the key terms with precision. Keyword automation is just a function of the scale of their operations. At least in the case the brand owner appeared first. (It would be interesting to see the organic/maps results for this search). In many case the brand owners are driven away by the lack of investment.

  • Vero Tabares

    Good point — as a marketer, you would decide which audience to target and which is worth more to you per advertising spend. If you market your service/product based on your true value proposition/differential rather than price, you’ll reach a more in-tune and possibly more profitable client at the expense of volume (in my experience). “Always be testing”

  • Pat Grady

    I wish the automatons would run out of money before they spoil the whole barrel of apples, but they won’t. Meanwhile, picking narrow areas to compete against the machines, is a great opportunity. So let me correct myself, I wish they’d all become automatons.

  • Nate Schrader

    Vic, I definitely feel where you’re coming from. It’s frustrating when you write creative, humanistic ad copy and the incentives ad wins out. But the purpose of search is to be found. The user usually has the intent to buy; they’re beyond the discovery phase, just like the yellow pages. Otherwise the searcher would click an organic content-based listing. So most searchers are looking for the best deal that they can trust, which is at times tough to differentiate yourself from the’s. BUT Sarah’s comment rings true: if the SERP is irrelevant or bland, it’s your opportunity to be that creative marketer you wish for and succeed. Paid search’s purpose isn’t flashy like top-funnel marketing, but those who don’t seize the opportunities you speak of eventually will be the ones killed off in the SERP space by the marketers who do.

  • siliconallstar

    Thanks for the comment Sarah. To be clear, I am not saying search is dead, but I am saying that because so much of paid search specifically is being automated, and thus all being made very vanilla/generic, that the true “marketing” side tends to be lacking more and more. And to your point, this does force true “marketers” to become more creative – although it will likely be in a channel other than paid search.

  • Kohki Yamaguchi

    No matter how much paid search becomes automated, it will never become an operating expense as you suggest, because it is not fixed cost. Intelligent management of paid search campaigns require dynamic budget allocation based on inventory, competition, sales capacity, economic conditions, and a myriad of other factors.

  • Chris Angus

    There will always be people that are better than others and have an “Edge”. PPC is much like stock trading, the people with the edge win. Perhaps your analogy with art is true and we won’t need to write adverts so the creative writing side of things may cease. However, being creative to gain an edge and make more money than the next guy will live for eternety.

  • cmarius

    In the 14 years our company has managed paid search campaigns I don’t think all that much has changed. Paid search ads were always akin to the Yellow Pages.

  • Keith K

    I believe the key to a paid search account in the long run comes from a quote similar to one said in Glen Garry Glen Ross.

    ABT – Always Be Testing.

    I’ve noticed that if you keep your account automated and if your not in the data everyday making changes/testing you might see good results in the short term. However, you will never maximize the potential order/revenue/spend volume in your SEM account.

  • DoNoEvil

    Refreshingly honest article, and whilst there’s always exceptions, I couldn’t agree more. The most frustrating aspect to me is updates motivated by ‘improved exp’ which are superseded by accommodating a poor exp… if it turns a profit. (as you pointed out) being a great example, which still baffles me!

  • Sue Brady

    Interesting article. I disagree though on one point. The increased used of automation in paid search will make marketers stand out more. If, as a marketer, you put strategic thought (ie, apply art and science) into your campaigns, you will do better than any automated system can. I refuse to believe the art of search marketing is dead!!

  • Vic

    I love your passion and there is still a small ember of “paid search is art” left in me somewhere too. I think my issue is everyone automates so much of everything, that everything looks the same at this point. I primarily work in travel and retail and if you search for any major destination or brand, almost all ads look identical at this point. Hopefully, somewhere, people are willing to test more engaging messaging just to keep things interesting.

  • Vic

    Always exceptions! Totally agree. Baffles me that is still even a site. Remember when you could buy paid search directly from them and it was a somewhat viable option????

  • Vic

    Agree it might not be as much of a cost of doing business as say your rent, but at this point you have no option but to buy your brand terms, pay whatever Google makes you pay, and you have little say over it (e.g. you can’t go somewhere else and get cheaper CPCs like you possibly could for rent). So agree not a traditional cost of doing business, but in many ways, it is a requirement for you and your website.

  • Vic

    I love this post and I WANT to believe what you are saying. But then again, i am constantly competing with the non-creative (et al) of the world that use no creativity, leverage my brand, and make my marketing more expensive every day. Somehow, none of these folks have been killed off yet and in reality, have it easier now due to more lax restrictions on trademark usage, what is deemed relevant content, etc.

  • Vic

    Agree hotels are tough. But try any established brand that sells both direct and wholesale. Tory Burch, Stuart Weitzman, Oscar de la Renta,..the list goes on. I am sure there are areas where this doesn’t exist, but hotels and fashion/retail seem to be overwhelmed with junk listings.

  • Peter Van Zelst

    Excellent article, Vic. A lot of advertisers/agencies have tried to automate the process so much that they’ve missed the point and lost the real value in paid search. Google are helping this as it allows them to grow their revenues, e.g. dynamic search, but the advertiser loses control.

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  • Jerry Nordstrom

    I understand where your passion on this issue comes from, but I disagree with the premise that the “Art” of PPC is gone.

    The number of inexperienced PPC marketers pushing out poorly thought out campaigns has increased dramatically over the years. This can certainly give off the image that PPC is a generic mass of automated ads. And yes there are big marketers with deep pockets that think they can automate their way to complete success.

    This all ignores the fact that a successful PPC marketer conducts the analysis of their market and develops an all encompassing, intent driven campaign that entices a finely targeted audience. The creativity needed to craft these campaigns to produce a visitor behavior that hits your goals is an art form. Its a fantastic blend of creative vision and technical prowess. Yes, there are thousands of levers to toggle off and on, and this is what has been automated to a large degree. This should not suggest that you can dismiss the art of pulling all these elements together to focus on and achieve your goals. If you take that route then you will be an orchestrator swinging your arms in the trombone section.

  • Jake Shelton

    It is true that Google is offering businesses the option to automate their advertisements but you are wrong in saying that this is killing real marketing. Google is offering this option so that small enterprises can compete in the same space as their competitors, even if they do not have the budgets to hire professional marketers. Sure Google benefits from the increased competition for search terms but their aim is to bring relevant search results to users. As a professional marketer I have seen that the need for marketing has increased, not decreased, due to this automation. The increased ease of advertising on Google has caused us to have to go above and beyond to be better than the competition. No algorithm, regardless of how advanced it is, can give perfect results across every industry or target market, so there will always be the need for “the art” of marketing. The automation of paid search is to benefit small enterprises, it’s not there for the marketers of global brands to take a back seat and let a computer do their job for them.


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