STORY: When Google Brute-Forces Best Practices into Existence
This was originally shared in the Unthinkable Mondays newsletter, sharing one idea or story each week for being better than best practices. Subscribe here.
“And on the seventh day, Google laughed all the way to the bank.”
How often do we stop to consider how a best practice ascended to that status? That’s what I wonder every time I see an ad on Google search results using SiteLinks.
You may not know what SiteLinks are, but you’ve undoubtedly encountered them — even if you don’t remember seeing them. SIteLinks are a feature of Google’s advertising product, AdWords. We’re all familiar with how search results and search ads work: You click the blue headline in order to enter the site. In November of 2009, Google introduced SiteLinks, a new feature that would allow advertisers to append four additional blue links just below the black descriptions in their ads. So for instance, if you search “Nike shoes,” the subsequent ad might read “Nike.com | Nike Official Store” at the top, followed by four smaller blue links leading to more product- or category-specific pages, like this:
As long as I live, I will never forget SiteLinks, or the number Google used to convince advertisers to adopt this feature: 30%.
That stat is burned into my brain forever. You see, I was part of the sales team at Google that helped launch SiteLinks to advertisers. During beta testing, Google found that clicks to ads increased by “30% on average” using SiteLinks — a line that I used literally thousands of times. I had over 1,000 clients as an account manager, all of which received “scalable sales initiatives” from me and my colleagues. Because my clients were small businesses, Google didn’t invest in one-on-one or in-person sales or account management. Instead, I’d receive spreadsheets and training modules from Mothership Googs, instructing me to send batch emails or pitch decks, or to cold-call a set number of accounts to prescribe the same change.
In 2009, that change was to enable SiteLinks. The logic was simple: “We’ve seen advertisers get 30% more clicks on average. If you enable them, you’ll also get more clicks. More clicks means more sales on your website.” But this was faulty logic, especially considering that small business websites are typically a mess. They’re often incapable of generating enough sales to match a sharp increase in ad spend. Thanks to that fact or any number of other variables in a company’s marketing funnel, it was far from a guarantee that advertisers would see more sales given the “30% more clicks on average.” However, there was one thing that was indeed guaranteed: Google would generate way more revenue.
And so, I was told to sell SiteLinks. Despite being in my early-20s, executives and practitioners alike thought I knew something, and I suppose I did know something: I knew what worked on average. As for what would might work for my specific clients? That was something I couldn’t tell them. I just prayed that those questions never came. When they didn’t, I was grateful at the time, but now I wonder: Why didn’t they? Why didn’t my clients start their thinking by considering their own context first, and then make sense of this new trend, given what they knew to be true about their own businesses?
Instead, history repeated with SiteLinks, just as it had with every sale we made: Clients conflated what works in general with what would work for them. In under a year, millions of businesses had adopted SiteLinks. Google had activated its massive reach and unleashed legions of charismatic salespeople (and also me) upon their clients, and they simply brute-forced a new trend into existence. So why are SiteLinks a best practice?
Because Google wants them to be.
Months later, when clients complained that their budgets were drained due to increasing clicks but not corresponding increases in sales, I was told to respond with a simple question: “Have you installed Google Analytics?”
Google laughed all the way to the bank, while I stared at my sales quota and felt sick to my stomach:
104% to target.
Get one new idea or story like this each week in the Unthinkable Mondays newsletter, helping you do better work than any “best practice” can deliver. Subscribe below.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
Get in touch anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org // Speaking inquiries: email@example.com