Clash of the search engines: Which pay per click provider offers the best value?

You've got your SEO strategy in place, and now you want to launch a pay per click (PPC) campaign. But which of the three main PPC platforms is right for your business? Will Google give you the best bang for your buck? Does Yahoo! have enough reach? Before you start bidding for key words and blowing the budget, swot up on whether Google, Yahoo!, or Bing is the right platform for you.

The market

Google is still the king of search: over 65% of all internet searches are hosted by the Google platform. That's over one billion searches every day. This is followed by Yahoo! with around 15% of the market and Bing with the smallest slice at 10%. For pure PPC, the market is even more dominated by the "Don't be evil" brand. Google is way out in front with an 81.22% market share. Yahoo! has the world's largest market share in online display advertising, but can't quite crack the PPC crowd with less than 10% of the pie. Bing brings up the rear with a tiny 5.31%. The question is, with Google dominating the industry, is it really worth using the other two?

It all depends on your target market. Google tends to reach a younger audience, with ages ranging from 13-34, whereas Bing and Yahoo! typically draw in the 25-54's. If your products or services are aimed at the older generation, it might be worth giving Yahoo! and Bing a whirl. Bing and Yahoo! are also dominated by consumers, whereas Google is commonly frequented by businesses: a useful consideration for business-to-business firms.

It's also worth thinking about foreign markets. If you're selling into Japan, for example, Yahoo! is inexplicably more popular than Google. For customers in Russia, forget all the incumbents and go direct to the national engine Yandex. The Chinese government has been at loggerheads with Google for the best part of this year. To target the Chinese market, save your PPC spend for local search engine Baidu, creepily nicknamed 'The Google killer'.

A question of cost

Google's popularity is, ironically, its biggest downfall: more customers mean more competition. As such, it typically charges more per click than Yahoo! and Bing, especially for the most popular key words.

Another downside of using Google is that you can't see what your competitors are bidding, so you're never quite sure that you're paying the best rate. Yahoo!'s Search Marketing, on the other hand, works more like eBay: you can see rival bids and Yahoo! places your bid at around a penny over your lowest competitor. If they pay £1.60 per click, and you bid £2.00, you'll only be charged £1.61. This makes Yahoo! a great place to try out new key words.

For Kirsty Jolly, who launched her online baby backpack business B2Boutique in 2009, cost hasn't been an issue with Google Adwords. Her products appeal to a very niche market, which whittles down the competition: "It doesn't cost too much because I don't have to compete for words with any big players," she says. "If I was competing with larger companies then price might become a problem".

The amount you pay when using Adwords, however, doesn't actually affect where your ad will be ranked on the results page. This is determined by the ratio of clicks on your ad to the number of times it's shown, known as the click through (CT) rate. In simple terms, you could end up ranking higher than your competitor even if they bid more than you. Great for those with a small budget!

The cost of activating your account is relatively low with Google: just a one-time payment of £5, and there's no minimum spend per month. The minimum cost per click is just one penny. Yahoo! demands a higher investment: the engine requires a minimum spend of £20 per month with Search Marketing and a non-refundable deposit of £30 when you create an account. The minimum cost per click with Yahoo! is also higher at between five and ten pence. Bing offers the best of both worlds, with a £5 set up fee, no minimum charges, and an average click cost much lower than Yahoo!'s. But then Bing is the little guy, trying desperately to lure customers away from the big boys.

Rankings and CT rate

There are a few drawbacks to using PPC. For one, there's a chance your key phrase could be dropped if the CT rate is deemed 'too low'. The different engines vary on the criteria for removing a phrase.

Google has been known to drop key words with potentially low CT rates. If your word has done poorly with other advertisers, you might not get the chance to use it. There are also stories of the dreaded 'Google slap'.  Supposedly, if Google believes your ad and the associated landing pages are of poor quality, it may significantly lower the ad's position on search engine results, or even disable the account completely.  For more information on the Google Slap, click here.

Blowfish Digital's Pavel Romanov reckons Google slap might be a bit of an urban myth: "I've never heard of it. If the site's poor it'll deliver no traffic, but it won't be shut down."

Yahoo! gives advertisers a bit more leeway. It will only drop a key word if the CT rate is low for a significant period of time, which rarely happens. Of course, unlike Google, your ranking is much more dependent on what you can afford to pay.

Bing has really stepped up its advertising campaigns recently, and while it may be currently be less popular than Yahoo! and Google: it's a new platform. With some serious investment from Microsoft, it could become a big player over the next few years.

Which platform is right for me?

To play devil's advocate here, there is a world beyond Google. Yahoo!'s system definitely allows more control over your money: you can see how much competitors are bidding, and usually pay less per click. Not only are key words generally cheaper on Yahoo! and Bing, but you also have the advantage of using whichever words you want, not just the ones Google deem 'successful'.

Google, though, has the bonus of rewarding you with a higher ranking for ads with good CT rates. Google also has the added benefit of an 80 per cent claim to the market. That's a big plus when you consider the increased traffic potential.  Jolly from B2Boutique believes Google is the obvious choice for most businesses: "I use Google Adwords. It's the most used engine, feeds into a lot of other search sites and syncs nicely with Google analytics". Romanov agrees, stating: "Google has the most advanced tools of all three. Bing and Yahoo! can work, but just don't have the volume".

Jonathan Elliott, MD at MakeItCheaper.com says: "The question should be, 'Is it worth investing time into Yahoo! and Bing?' All three engines can work depending on what vertical you are operating in and what your business model is. More advertisers will use Google and therefore the clicks will be fought over more aggressively leading to click prices becoming higher. So, yes, you could potentially see more 'value' from Bing and Yahoo! but how valued is your time relative to actual sales volume?"

Of course, if your budget allows, you could consider covering all your bases: use two or even three platforms.  Anna Wilkinson of aclickahead.com agrees that there's no escaping Google's reach, but argues that you shouldn't limit yourself to a single provider: "Generally what works on one engine also works on the others, so it is good to import the campaigns that are working well for you from one engine to another."

Google may still rule the market, but Yahoo! and Bing have their benefits. It all depends on your business, budget, and target market. It's also worth noting here that there are plans to combine Bing and Yahoo!'s PPC services in 2011. Will this prove real competition for Google? Romanov believes it will up the numbers for Bing but is unlikely to level the playing field. "Even after they join, they still won't be able to compete."

Quite simply, you may get more clicks for your money with Yahoo! or Bing, but you can't argue with Google's numbers.

 

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