by Nathaniel Taylor on December 12, 2018 | Google Ads

Click blinkers and getting the whole picture

AT&T have the dubious honour of being the creators of the first banner ad; a simple landscape image with the words “Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE?” and then an arrow to “You will”. It was the digital extension to their “You will” campaign, which featured a series of TV ads which were surprisingly accurate in predicting some future scenes of connectivity – think early visions of Skype, Netflix and GPS navigation systems. That banner ad achieved a Click Through Rate (CTR) of 44%, making it probably the most successful display ad of all time.

Display ads have come such a long way since then, getting smarter, prettier and (theoretically) more engaging. So why, after almost 25 years, are we still looking to CTR’s and last click conversions as the measuring stick for display ads? The emergence of search ads has a massive role to play in this, despite display preceding it. Search ads have consistently been at the forefront of digital ad spend ever since, and it’s only with the emergence of Facebook as a display medium that display has managed to overtake it in the past couple of years. We look at CTR’s and last click conversions as a measure of search ad success, but even the tide is turning on that, with search behaviour changing, and attribution discussions questioning how we divide credit.

And this makes sense, at least for search ads. When you think of the main purpose of a search engine like Google, it acts like a stepping stone to your final destination. Your purpose on Google is to enter in a search query for something, find it, and then click through to the website you really need to go to. This isn’t the case with display ads. Users come across them when they’re actively doing something else – they’re reading the news, looking up flights, watching a video on YouTube. Your purpose there is to focus on the material at hand, and you’re already at your final destination for the time being. Clicking away from that page just doesn’t happen as often, it doesn’t matter how compelling your ad is. This is backed up due to the fact that the top 3 reasons people use adblockers is because they find ads annoying or intrusive (64%), disruptive (54%) or for security concerns (39%). Another study has the top reason why people don’t click on banner ads as they don’t want to be distracted (61%).

If the above speaks to annoying, intrusive or disruptive ads, the aspect of security is also worth unpacking. The pop-up era has left a pretty indelible impression on the internet community – those who are old enough to remember the scourge of pop-up ads carry that with them – but also people are just inherently suspicious of ads. We’re more aware than ever when we’re being marketed to, and although we understand that it’s an unavoidable aspect of our modern digital lives, this also counts against people’s tendencies to click on ads. People are much more likely to open a new tab and search directly for the business they just saw on a banner than they are to click on their ad, even if it involves more steps. There’s less of a chance that they’ll end up somewhere that they don’t want to, and it feeds into the notion of having more control over our behaviour and having an organic shopping experience, even if the reality is far from that.

“Fat finger syndrome”

Or simple user errors – is just as bad, with mobile location firm Retale reporting that 60% of respondents said that when clicking on banner ads it’s “usually by accident”. It’s something that we can all relate to, scrolling through a news article and trying to flick past the display banner only to accidentally click on it and be faced with a new tab opening (double the annoyance), taking you to the advertiser’s page. This undoubtedly skews click data and is a further nail in the CTR centric coffin. It’s such a notable issue that Ikea even ran a very clever (and engaging) campaign revolving around this phenomenon.

User behaviour aside, there are other factors to consider that should encourage us to look beyond the click. The biggest one is undoubtedly click fraud, where low/no value clicks are incurred against display ads. This is something that Google warned back in 2015 was responsible for around 50% of clicks, and whilst they are now taking a more proactive stance these days, a look at the invalid clicks in your Google dashboard shows that it’s still an issue. Ad fraud, which looks at the wider ecosystem, is an expensive business and could cost $66 billion in 2018.  There are a few different sources from which these fake clicks come from; bots which are programmed to run around the net and click on ads, click farms where people are paid usually a very low wage to physically click on ads, and ghost websites, where a fake website is created with the purpose of having ads displayed on them so that the bots inside the website can impersonate real clicks. It’s not hard to see why this is a relatively prevalent issue –these sources can increase the perceived viability of a certain website, making the inventory valuable and continuing the cashflow from ad revenue.

But let’s assume that clicks aren’t the case of fraudulent behaviour, nor is it the outcome of an accidental tap or click, surely these are still worth celebrating, right? Sure, everyone likes to see direct action on campaigns – you would think that it’s the easiest way to measure the intent of your users. However, this isn’t necessarily true, as exposed by various sources over the years. Comscore has long been an advocate of breaking the “addiction to clicks and instead look to more meaningful metrics for evaluating campaign performance” and has backed this standpoint up with multiple reports looking at this topic.

Their “Natural Born Clickers” (2009) remain as one of the most influential and most quoted reports released on this matter, and certainly makes a compelling argument that clicks do not necessarily equal intent. It found that only 16% of people actually click on display ads (a decrease from 32% two years earlier), and that the top half of that figure account for 85% of all clicks. Breaking it down further, 4% of the internet population account for 67% of all clicks on display. It’s easy to palm this off as being a long time ago, and it is (we’re eagerly awaiting a follow-up study), but more recent research by Conversant takes it one step further. They found that of the 3% of their sample size that clicked, they were worth 6.5% of the revenue generated on the site. Furthermore, a 2012 Comscore study into intent actions showed that hovering over an ad actually had the highest correlation to converting (0.49), whilst the action of clicking had the lowest correlation (0.01).

But what does this all mean?

This is not to say that clicks aren’t worth looking at completely, it’s just that optimising for clicks can be a fool’s errand. They still provide insight into the behaviour of your users, especially when combined with conversion data, but this should be an indication to look deeper than this particular metric. The type of campaign you’re running, and what stage of the sales funnel you’re targeting, should help indicate the metrics that are going to be most relevant, but remember that your campaigns are multi-touch journeys. There are going to be many influences throughout the buying cycle, so be prepared to venture beyond the default last-click attribution model. But this is only scratching the surface; something that will have to be covered another day.

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