Stop Wasting Your Money on Google AdWords: Invest in Some Good Content

Lately, I’ve engaged in the exact same conversation about buying search terms. The conversation goes something like this:

Them: “We spent $1MM buying keywords last year and Google’s our top referrer. We’re planning on spending the same amount of money this year buying keywords.”

Me: “Why?”

Them:“Well… ummm… because Google’s our number one referrer.”

Me: “If you don’t buy any keywords, who’s your number one referrer?”

Them:“Well… Google.”

Me: “Exactly.”

The more and more people I talk to, the more often I find myself taking a militant stance against gigantic search engine marketing (SEM) spending. My position is simple: if you create relevant, frequently generated content that’s high-quality and of a significant volume, you don’t need AdWords. That’s it.

My friend Bernie, who runs a successful Search Engine Optimization firm, might actually agree with me on this one. Let’s take a look at a quick example.

(If you haven’t heard of it, SpyFu is a great resource for search engine marketing insight.) Let’s look at SpyFu’s Top 100 SEM Spenders.

SpyFus Top 100 SEM Spenders (Snapshot)

SpyFu's Top 100 SEM Spenders (Snapshot)

The largest spender? Geico. I relied on SpyFu’s keyword search to show me what AdWords Geico is investing in. Their list shows “auto insurance” and “auto insurance quotes” as two of the top AdWords in their arsenal. Now, let’s do a quick search for the term “auto insurance” or “auto insurance quotes” on Google. Here’s a few screen shots of the results:

Search for: Auto Insurance

Search for: "Auto Insurance"

Search for: Auto Insurance Quotes

Search for: "Auto Insurance Quotes"

Geico spends $90MM (average) a year purchasing search engine marketing terms. I’d imagine they’re not spending it all at Google, but let’s just stick with the world’s most popular search engine. Based on these results alone, I’d say Geico is wasting their money. In both searches Geico appears on the first page of the organic search results. They appear above the fold (on most screens) and they’re ‘ranked’ second in both organic searches. Stop buying those two keyword phrases!

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “Geico” I immediately think of the Geico Caveman commercials. It’s been reported that Geico spent more than $483MM on their advertising budget for the gecko and caveman spots in 2007. They also created a Flash-driven microsite for the Caveman character and he became so well known ABC created a pilot for a television series. That’s great brand marketing (even if the show got panned.)

What Geico failed to do was capitalize on the campaign online. They should OWN the caveman search results. So do they?

Search results: Caveman

Search results: Caveman

Let’s review these results: there’s a nice image of the Geico Caveman in the image results (but there’s only one,) the first three search result entries seem to have NOTHING to do with the Geico Caveman, as is the case with all of the organic results on the first page, there are NO Geico paid advertisements for the keyword. I’d say that, in and of itself is a huge FAIL!

Of course, if you know anything about their campaign the second search result, Caveman’s Crib,  is actually the microsite for the Geico Caveman. Maybe that’s where they connect the dots between auto insurance and the caveman? Nope. There’s nothing useful about the content at Caveman’s Crib.

Let’s take a look at Caveman’s crib traffic, courtesy of Google Trends: Traffic Source: Google Trends Traffic Source: Google Trends

There you have it. A huge spike and then nothing after it’s initial hit. Microsites like this are a waste of money. Now, let’s compare the organic search results for the phrases “caveman” and “auto insurance quotes.”

Google Trends analysis: caveman vs. auto insurance quotes

Google Trends analysis: "caveman" vs. "auto insurance quotes"

Take a minute to digest this chart. The HUGE blue spikes (caveman searches) in the last two quarters of 2007 are a direct result of the Geico Caveman advertising spots. In those quarters five times as many people were searching for “caveman” than “auto insurance quotes.” The search queries for “auto insurance quotes” are almost exactly the same every single day. That means Geico better OWN those search results every single day.

Remember my SEM friend Bernie? Now, Bernie will immediately be able to tell you that Geico never capitalized on the Caveman brand because they chose the wrong technology (Flash) for their microsite. Traditionaly, Flash has not been ‘search-friendly’ and it’s still difficult to index. I completely agree. However, they also chose the wrong type of content.

Takeaway Message

If you want to win the SEM battle: stop over-spending on AdWords and start creating valuable content. Valuable content found through an organic search or a social sharing opportunity out-perform AdWords consistently. Stop working with ‘dabblers’ like Advertising agencies and PR firms that claim to understand the online world and start trusting expert story-tellers, who completely understand online content marketing.

Keep in mind, that if you’re sending your potential customers to a ‘landing-page’ that has irrelevant, low-quality, ineffective content using your AdWord buy you’re just pissing money away. (That’s right I said ‘pissing.’)

AdWords is a brilliant business model: pit marketer’s against eachother in a bidding word for the words THEY believe are the most valuable and drive up the cost for everyone. That’s genius. However, search is becoming more and more irrelevant. If you don’t start investing in quality content today, you’ll quickly lose the battle.

The Geico Challenge

I know what you’re saying: “If you’re so confident, prove it.” Alright, I will. I believe I can cut Geico’s SEM budget in half (to 45MM a year) with great ease. The team here at Tippingpoint Labs is so good, that with 1/10th of their current SEM budget, and a year’s worth of perpetual content creation, Geico can own the organic search for the keywords they are currently invested in. That’s right: “Own It.” Geico, I’m waiting by the phone for your call. But I won’t hold my breath.

My Questions to You

What do you spend on SEM? What are you really getting for your money? How does your content perform?