Search-Related Ads Rely on Poetry of Words, Numbers

Times Staff Writer

When Kiesha Ramey tells people she works for Google Inc., they usually think she’s a computer geek.

She’s more like a commercial poet.

Ramey, 30, is part of Google’s in-house advertising agency, a team called the Maximizers that helps clients navigate the complex world of search-related advertising.

Her mission is worthy of a haiku writer.

She crafts text ads to intrigue Web surfers because advertisers don’t pay Google unless the ads are clicked on. She has only three short lines -- of 25, 35 and 35 characters each -- and a link to make her pitch.


“I’ve learned to speak in 95-character sentences,” she said.

Google and its advertisers wouldn’t provide many examples of ads they’ve written, afraid of giving away their secrets to competitors. But it’s a lot like writing a personal ad, in which seduction lies in the art of few words. A recent Google search for “surf camp,” for instance, pulled up this:

Surf Trips for Everyone

Trips to Costa Rica and Mexico

Yoga, massage, culture and more!

Search-engine advertising has swelled to a $5-billion-a-year business, enabling the Internet to become the first medium to post consecutive years of 30% ad growth since broadcast television in the early 1950s. Google reaps 56 cents of every dollar spent on search ads, according to research firm EMarketer Inc.

The market is based on a simple concept: Targeted ads appear when people type queries into search engines. Advertisers bid for placement. The smallest business can jump in by opening a $5 account with Google.

As with EBay Inc.'s online marketplace, though, a basic idea can be maddeningly complicated to carry out with any level of sophistication.

“It’s like playing three-dimensional chess with one arm tied behind your back,” said Fredrick Marckini, chief executive of IProspect, a search-engine marketing firm.

The continued growth of search advertising depends on its ability to teach the biggest advertisers how to play that game better so that they devote more of their marketing budgets to the Internet.

Here’s how it’s played: After signing up for an account, an advertiser starts selecting keywords. Every time someone types those words into Google, the advertiser wants his ads to appear in the box above or alongside the regular search-engine results. The ad links to his site.

He tells Google how much he’s willing to pay each time someone clicks on his ad. Google takes that bid price and runs a calculation that also takes into account the “click-through rate,” or how often the ad gets clicked. The advertisers that score the highest rise to the top.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The auction is repeated for each of the hundreds of millions of searches conducted every day. So an ad that appears first can suddenly drop down in the order if competitors raise their bids. Advertisers can set limits on the amount they’re willing to spend each day; once they hit that limit, their ads disappear.

Now consider that big advertisers can run campaigns over thousands of keywords, even hundreds of thousands. For each keyword, those advertisers must calculate how much they’re willing to pay, write compelling ads, monitor the price competitors are willing to pay and keep track of how well the ads perform.

Moreover, Google isn’t the only game in town. Many marketers also advertise on Yahoo Inc.'s competing system, which uses a different set of variables to rank ads, as well as those of smaller rivals. Microsoft Corp. also is testing its own search advertising program.

“When you consider all the variables involved, paid search is the most complicated form of advertising,” said David Hallerman, a senior analyst at EMarketer.

An entire industry of firms has sprung up to help advertisers. They try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the search-ad market, much as hedge funds seek to exploit inefficiencies in the financial markets.

Google too has a strong business interest in helping advertisers and their agencies. Better ads lead to more clicks, which generate more revenue for Google. And if advertisers are getting more sales through Google ads, they’re likely to boost their spending.

So Google created the Maximizers, named after the group’s founding member Max Erdstein, in 2000.

Google declined to say how many Maximizers it has or how many advertisers they work with.

At their desks at the Googleplex, as the company’s headquarters are known, the Maximizers help advertisers select keywords, write ad copy and choose the correct “landing page.” For example, shoppers who click on an ad for “Dora the Explorer” books should be whisked to the page where they can buy it, not the e-commerce site’s home page.

Maximizers come from all backgrounds, Google said. For example, Ramey, 30, grew up in Carson and studied urban planning and international relations at Stanford University, where Google was founded. Her colleague Ronnie Castro, 24, grew up in Burbank and studied product design at Stanford.

One thing the Maximizers can’t do, of course, is help people with their campaigns on other search engines. And some search-engine marketers complained that the Maximizers sometimes made competitors’ campaigns sound too similar.

But Michael Brucker, a senior manager in online marketing for WebEx Communications Inc., said the number of people clicking on his ads increased dramatically after he consulted with Ramey.

She helped him figure out which keywords weren’t worth the price he bid, and which were generating so many leads that he could afford to pay more. He had set limits on the amount of ads generated per day, but she told him to run his most essential keywords through a separate account so that they always appeared when someone typed in, for example, the product’s name.

She gave him advice for writing copy: Use the word “free” but not too often. Avoid question marks and exclamation points. Don’t try to be too clever.

“It is both a science and an art,” Brucker said.

Search-related advertising lacks the attention-grabbing images of television, billboards and print ads. But because they get such strong feedback on each ad -- Web surfers either click on it or they don’t -- marketers can fiddle incessantly with the variables, trying to improve the ads’ allure.

Some advertisers use search engines not just for direct sales but also to promote their brand names. Days before General Motors Corp. gave away 276 Pontiac G6 cars on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” it called Google to ensure that its ads appeared when people searched Google for “Pontiac G6 wildest dreams” and other terms.

But some consulting firms say many big advertisers still don’t get it. Amid all the hype surrounding the release of “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith,” marketers such as Burger King and Pepsi created elaborate websites tied to the film. Yet when he searched for terms related to the film on the day it premiered, search-engine consultant Josh Stylman found ads for sites offering illicit downloads of the film, not ads for the big-name advertisers’ promotions.

“That’s disgraceful,” said Stylman, managing partner at Reprise Media. “It’s great that they’re building websites, but if you can’t find them from a search engine, what’s the point?”

More advertisers are asking the same question, increasing the demand for people like Ramey. Google is hiring more Maximizers all over the world. The jobs section of the company’s website has openings for Maximizer positions in Mountain View; Atlanta; Toronto; Chicago; Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Madrid; and Paris.

“Do words come easily to you?” the ad begins, adding that the company is seeking “a self-starter with a proven record as a persuasive, effective writer.”

But some Maximizers discover that it wasn’t the creative outlet they expected.

Ramey became a Maximizer after striking up a conversation about writing with founder Erdstein. She likes her job, but she said it has become more analysis than poetry as she works with bigger advertisers. Working mostly for enterprise software companies, she finds herself writing copy like this:

MyWebExPC (Official Site)

Access your remote computer

100% Free

Some Maximizers have learned to channel their creative frustration into art.

Rated Rookie, an independent magazine, published “Haiku Hell,” a lament by someone using the pen name “Abby Reynolds” who claimed to be a Maximizer.

Google is one of the world’s great companies, she wrote; she loves the pay, the free Odwalla bars and Snapple and the lava lamp on her desk. But she didn’t expect to make it through 11 rounds of interviews only to spend most of her time staring at spreadsheets.

“With the character limits and strict editorial guidelines, I find myself swimming in a sea of ‘Buy Now!,’ ‘Learn More’ and ‘Get Info Here,’ ” she wrote. “Creative it is not.”

She concluded with a haiku that Google probably would frown upon:

Here I Sit and Write,

Pointless Drabble, I Create,

But It Pays My Bills.