Jun. 29th, 2006

Are Microsoft adCenter conversions really 57% better than Google?

In ads out this week, Microsoft claims conversions from its  new adCenter search advertising system are 57% higher than Google.

MSN pulled the stat from this January press release from online analytics company WebSideStory. Further review of the release reveals:

  • For the month of January, AOL Search generated the best conversion rate
    at business-to consumer e-commerce sites (6.17 %), followed by
    MSN (6.03 %), Yahoo (4.07 %) and Google (3.83 %).
  • The study includes traffic from
    both organic and paid keywords.

Frequent readers of Mortablog will have noted that we criticized Google last week (See The Google Touch).

So, in the interests of evenhandness, let’s review the merits of Microsoft’s pitch for your search business:

MSN is talking  ratios not absolute numbers. MSN is not measuring the number or propensity of visitor’s clicking through to a site from organic (so-called natural) or paid links: they are calling our attention to visitors likelihood to buy once they land on the site. MSN claims that visitors from paid listings are more likely to buy if they came from MSN than if they originated at Google.

AOL Search took top honors, not MSN. What are we to make of the fact that despite MSN’s proud boast, WebSideStory gives the conversion crown to AOL Search and not Microsoft? Unsurprisingly, MSN is positioning itself against market leaders Google (who incidentally have the lowest conversion rate) and Yahoo! (the second worst converter). Savvy advertisers will remember that AOL Search draws its listings from Google and AOL itself. One wonders if we’ll see a riposte from AOL Time Warner?

Much has changed at MSN since January
. WebSide’s research was conducted in January 2006 before the official launch of adCenter in May and subsequent recent changes to MSN Search. Back then, Yahoo! was still providing some of the paid search listings on MSN Search. The study also predates MSN’s planned summer test of contextual advertising (see here). These developments have the potential to impact the reaction of visitors to listings.

Mixing conversion rates from Paid and Organic search does my head in. Look, advertisers can’t purchase a Page One rank in Google or Yahoo! or MSN for that matter. Organic links are organized and displayed according to algorithm and bots. Placement is not influenced by ad spending. Armies of SEO consultants optimize organic search by manipulating page code and encouraging visits and links from other sites. 

On the other hand, Paid listings are actively managed by automated advertising systems on each search engine and by advertisers themselves. Poorly performing ads are dynamically pruned and adjusted; top performers are pushed to the limits of effectiveness.

ComScore studied conversions across paid and organic keywords in April 2004 and concluded that paid search was ten times more effective at driving conversions than organic. (Read more here).  But, then again, advertisers pay for each click on paid search–whereas organic clicks are free.

Consider that for the VAST MAJORITY of webmasters organic traffic will exceed paid by a significant margin. The bottom line: sites with ten times more organic traffic than paid will register the same number of sales even if the conversion percentage is lower: rendering the whole issue of conversion percentage kind of moot.

MSN searchers like to shop. A better study for MSN might have been iProspect’s May 2004 review of search engine traffic. It indicates that MSN visitors are more likely to click on paid links than organic listings. The broader implications of iProspects’s work is that MSN is more Shopping than Search–and that would harm Microsoft’s long term vision for MSN as a contender to Google. (It may also say a little something about how much users trust products from Redmond). 

The WebSideStory participants were using HITBOX optimization technology (from WebSideStory): The WebSideStory release continues "One other important consideration to note in this study… is that the conversion rates are likely higher than
industry averages because the sample sites are using best-of-class web
analytics to improve their search engine marketing and optimization
". So, advertisers have to use WebSideStory’s HitBox system to get these numbers.

Microsoft’s ad certainly caught my eye. But it hardly stands up to serious scrutiny. Let’s hope that adCenter is not similarly flawed.


The opinions expressed in MortaBlog are not necessarily those of the author or anyone else at the Mortar
for that matter.  Just who owns them is kind of unclear really.  If you
do find someone who will own up to them for sure, let us know.


Update: Paul A. sent me this email:

Mark.  Sites with 10x more organic than paid ?   Sure.  There may be one or two in the universe.

But that’s not an argument against paying when you are not happy with your organic traffic.  In fact, why are you saying that conversion rate is a moot point.

I would gladly pay up to x % of sale for the sale itself.  ( x% being my acceptable cost-of-sale through digital marketing–different for every product and markeing plan).  The only way that x% becomes 0 –which would make it moot –is if I am already at my production capacity through organic, non stimulated sales.

Remember, conversion % relates to gross payout for clicks divided by gross sales.  It definitely matters and it matters most to the marketers with low organic traffic.

I think I have to concede this point to Paul. Paid conversion rates certainly matter to Webmasters of small or unindexed sites who received low levels of organic traffic — Mortarmark.


  • Jul. 7th, 2006

    Thanks much for pointing this out, and for adding the clarification to the ClickZ blog.
    Rebecca Lieb

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