My Grand Experiment: Turning Off AdWords
As I explained in my last post, I recently found myself with a surprising new problem: all the work we can handle. Because our backlog of orders is as high as I want it to be, I decided to take the opportunity to run an experiment: What would happen if I stopped running Google AdWords?
I have been spending $500 per day on sponsored search, and I believe the results have been well worth the money: $1.8 million in sales as of this morning. But I also believe this is a rare opportunity to see whether AdWords is doing the heavy lifting in our marketing or whether our search engine optimization efforts are yielding results as well.
In January, I started keeping track of the number of inquiries we get each day. The most we have received in a single day has been seven, which has happened three times. There have been 11 days when we received no inquiries. The daily average is 2.65. The weekly number has ranged from eight to 22, with an average of 13.5. So far this year, we have had a total of 569 inquiries.
My own prediction is that our number of inquiries will fall below average, and I would be surprised if it’s not a significant drop. If the number remains close to the average, it would imply that I could be spending a lot less on AdWords than I am now (here’s a previous post I wrote about my experiences with AdWords). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from so-called S.E.O. experts that there is no need to pay for traffic, that I could just run a good S.E.O. campaign and the inquiries would come for free. The experts imply that people tend to ignore the paid links at the top of the page, in favor of the free links further down. I am deeply, deeply skeptical about this. And that’s why I’m running the test, starting today.
2:41 p.m.: We get a call from a furniture dealer in Tampa who is looking for a table with a logo. He says he was told to call us by a client who went to Google to look for tables with logos. He couldn’t remember whether the client had searched this week or not. Out of curiosity, I checked the search string “logo conference table.” We are the fourth and fifth free listings. Nos. 1 and 2 are competitors, and the third is an irrelevant result. Score one for S.E.O.
5:30 p.m. No other calls today.
Total for Monday: one inquiry.
Tuesday, October 25, 8:45 a.m.: I find an e-mail from a potential client who submitted our Request For Info form through the Web site at 8:35 the previous evening. He’s looking for a 12-foot square conference table. I search Google for “square conference table” (using Safari) to see where we land, and our “square and u-shaped tables” page is the eighth free listing on the first page of results. I’m loving the preview feature that Google has added to its results pages — to the right of each result is a gray arrow. Roll your mouse over it, and you see the whole page that the link points to. It’s a fast way to see what you are getting into before you click a link.
My salesman, Don, follows up with the potential client by e-mail. It turns out it’s a monastery where the monks have taken a vow of silence; the client requests that we not communicate by phone. Also in my in box this morning is an e-mail from a guy who wants me to convert a walnut tree in his backyard into a dining set. This most likely came through our old Web site, which listed lots of dining furniture. I send him an e-mail with a link to a lumber dealer who can evaluate the condition of the tree for him and give him the news that it takes several years to process the lumber before anything can be made from it.
5:30: No more calls or e-mails, and it’s time to go home.
Total for Tuesday: two inquiries. Week to date: three.
Wednesday, October 26, 9:39 a.m.: Incoming phone call from a local seminary. (Hmmm. The second inquiry this week from a religious organization.) The seminary is looking for a U-shaped table. The caller says he searched Google and found our site. I tried a search for “u shaped conference table” (using Chrome) and found that we were the top free listing.
5:30: No other action. Calling it a day.
Total for Wednesday: one inquiry. Week to date: four.
Thursday, October 27, 3:56 p.m.: An e-mail arrives from a possible client. I call her and learn that she searched “conference tables,” which returned a bunch of cheap-looking stuff she didn’t like. Seeing the suggested search string listing at the bottom of the page, she clicked on “custom conference tables” and found us. We are the top free listing for that search. When I first designed the new site, I imagined that “custom conference tables” would be a very heavily searched phrase, but our search stats reveal that “boardroom tables” gets more than 100 times as much traffic. I have since added a landing page to the site that specifically shows boardroom tables. This shows up near the top of the second page of free results. We do extremely well with “custom boardroom tables” — it’s the first free result — but unfortunately it gets less than 1 percent of the traffic that “boardroom tables” gets.
Total for Thursday: one inquiry. Week to date: five.
Friday, October 28, 2:30 p.m.: I have been out of the shop most of the day. My lead salesman, Nathan, who is back in the office after working a couple of weeks on the shop floor, reports that there have been no new inquiries.
4:32 p.m.: I’m alone in the office now, and the phone is extremely unlikely to ring this late on a Friday, so I declare the experiment over. As I expected, turning off our AdWords program has led to a big decrease in inquiries. Only five for the week — well below our previous low of eight calls and way below the average of 13.5.
I take a look at Google Analytics to see the raw traffic numbers. Comparing this week to last, I find that the number of visits from AdWords has declined 97.5 percent, from 316 to eight (where did those eight come from?).
My conclusion: If I stop paying, I stop getting clicks.
What is surprising to me is the steep drop in organic visits, the clicks from free links. They have fallen 47 percent, from 328 to 173. Stopping the AdWords payments seems to have affected unpaid traffic as well. According to everything I’ve been told about search engine optimization, this shouldn’t have happened. But from a business standpoint, it makes sense to me. Google is in business to make money by selling searches. Why shouldn’t it boost the free listings of its paying customers — and degrade the results when they stop paying? It’s also possible that people are more inclined to click on free results when they see the same company has the top paid link. Maybe it’s conscious, maybe it’s not. I’d be interested to hear any theories readers may have as to why my organic traffic took such a fall.
In any case, I’m not willing to continue this experiment. The amount of money saved, $2,000, is peanuts compared to our average weekly sales, $42,242. I am perfectly happy to put 5 percent of our revenue toward advertising. So as my last act of the day, I unpause my campaigns. I’m looking forward to hearing the phone ring again.