Explaining Paid Search to Everyone’s Mom, Including Mine (Updated for 2018)

Search engine home page with search bar on a browser window, a user is entering a query, collage and paper cut composition

When I’m in mixed (non-search-geek) company, the question of work occasionally comes up. The conversation generally goes something like this.

Me: Hi Kristine, I haven’t spoken to you in so long! How have you been?

Kristine: Great – I’m just finishing up my degree in [insert tangible career choice here]

Me: How wonderful that you’re studying [something concrete and easily relatable]

Kristine: Thank you! I’m very excited! [awkward pause]. So, how are you doing?

Me: Great! Business is good – you know, busy, as usual.

Kristine: [clearly fighting an internal battle with herself about asking me what I do for a living…again] I’m sorry, what is it you do again?

At this point I have the option of making my job sound like something tangible and easily understood. For example:

Me: I’m a marketing consultant! (an attempt to sound less like the computer nerd I am)

At which point Kristine will nod politely and move away, immediately dismissing me as a failed novelist who edits dry, corporate blurbage for insurance companies and real estate conglomerates. So, I hate using that answer and try to save that response for extreme Luddites and the elderly. Here’s another approach I often take.

Me: I’m a digital marketing specialist.

The word “digital” makes ALL the difference. People LOVE digital stuff, especially the internet. They sort of get what “digital” means by now so this generally provokes one of three responses 1) [knowing smile] oh, YOU’RE responsible the reason I get all those Facebook ads!
2) It’s your fault I get so much that spam in my inbox
3) (If I’m lucky) I’m trying to promote my website – any tips for me?

But, since I generally get the first two responses rather than the third, I’ve just been stating it as it is:

Me: I’m a search marketer. [pause & search the other person’s eyes for some shred of recognition]

Kristine: [demonstrating not one shred of recognition] Oh. I don’t know what that is.

So for Kristine, my mom, your mom, and everyone else who really doesn’t get how I can possibly make a living being a search marketer (e.g., “is that even a REAL thing?”) this post is for you.

What is a Search Marketer?

Search marketing is dominated by an insulated cast of “rock stars,” cyber geeks, early adopters and industry insiders who thrive within a vast echo chamber of acronym-riddled, slightly contemptuous tweets, blog posts and proprietary conferences. Thus, it’s difficult for me to explain what it is because within this insulated world (navigated via Google-colored glasses) I don’t have to.

But for you, mom, (and Kristine) I’m going to try.

Search Marketing encompasses two very specific internet marketing tactics. The first, search engine optimization (SEO) is not actually what I do. But for the sake of those who do it, I’ll briefly define it.

SEO is the act of optimizing your web site for specific keywords so that when a user searches for something on Google, e.g., (“Ariana Grande Tickets”), your web site shows up at the top of the search results (assuming you sell Ariana Grande Tickets).

Search Marketing also includes paid search – and this is what I do. I help my clients manage ad campaigns on Google, Yahoo, and Bing so that when their customers type in a relevant search term (e.g., “tummy tuck”) their ad will show up in the search results.

When you do a search on Google, you probably don’t think about how everything works on the back end. You just see a bunch of results and you click on the most relevant or interesting one link. But the search results are actually broken down into three sections of results on the page – top, middle and bottom of the page. The the top and bottom results are are paid ads.

Image shows paid and organic search results for the term “tummy tuck” with two callout boxes to the left explaining the difference between the two.

Okay, all very interesting (or maybe not) but it still doesn’t help my mother understand what I do all day. I’ll get to that in just a second, but first I want to throw some statistics at you because you’re still probably wondering how it is I can make a living from this one tiny sliver of advertising.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not so tiny. In terms of scale, Internet search is enormous.

    • Google processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. (source)
    • There were 3.4 global Internet users in 2016, 40% of the world’s population
    • Advertisers spent 37 billion dollars on paid search in 2018

(yes “billion” with a “B”)

With numbers this big, most companies HAVE to appear on Google or one of its many properties (gmail, YouTube, AdSense) in order to reach their customers.

So, getting back to my job…

I mainly deal with Google, so I’m going to focus my explanation on this engine which seems only fitting since Google controlled about 78% of the U.S. search market as of March 2017.

Google’s advertising platform is called AdWords. It is a self-serve platform that enables web site owners to sign up, add a credit card number and begin creating ads. You can be up and running with your Google advertising campaign in a matter of minutes, but that’s really an oversimplification because – like all things Google – there are many things to consider. That’s where I come in.

I help clients develop a keyword marketing strategy specifically for Google. This includes working with them to create a list of keywords they want to bid on. Keyword advertising is a pay-per-click bidding model (“pay-per-click” means that advertisers only pay when you click on their ad).

Advertisers, quite literally, bid on keywords. The higher the bid, the higher the position of the ad – except it’s not really that straightforward (of course). Google’s system suppresses ads that are not relevant to a user’s search query even if they are the highest bidder. By suppressing ads that aren’t relevant to a user’s search query, Google prevents advertisers from bidding on terms like “shoes” when they sell “toasters.” This suppression is accomplished via a complex and dizzying formula which Google calls “quality score.” The higher the quality score (on a scale of 1 to 10), the more relevant the term.

In addition to creating keyword lists for my clients, I also categorize the keywords so that the words are grouped in a meaningful and intuitive way in the AdWords system. I also write the ad copy and assist clients with setting up tracking of their campaigns. My typical client has anywhere from 1500 to 10,000 keywords in their AdWords accounts.

Once the campaigns are created and launched, it is my job to manage all of the campaign elements – including the keywords and ad copy. I also help my clients manage their budgets by keeping track of how much they spend each day, week and month, and ensuring the stay within their planned budget.

Some clients come to me with existing campaigns that they need help with. When this happens, I provide an extensive audit of the campaign and submit a written plan of action for helping them improve it or providing training so they can improve it themselves.

What I do isn’t so different from other marketers. It involves planning, strategy, extensive client communication, performance reporting and a lot of follow-up. The main difference is that I am hyper focused on only a few vendors: Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Also, there is no down time with paid search. There are always new competitors entering the space (it is an auction model, after all). Google is always rating my clients’ ads and keywords and penalizing the poorest performing keywords and ads. It is my job to monitor this and adjust the campaign on a near constant basis so that my clients get the best return on their investment possible.

Gosh, mom, I feel like there’s so much more to say but I don’t want to overwhelm you. I also help my clients optimize their landing pages, test new copy and incentives and try  other digital marketing tactics that are only peripherally associated with paid search (like Facebook and LinkedIn ads).

If you’ve read this far, you probably understand why I’m tempted to say I’m a “marketing consultant” and be done with it. Thanks for hanging in there.