At a recent conference of big retailers in the US, Google paid search marketing was described as ‘crack cocaine’. Highly addictive, but dangerous and destructive in the long term, and something you should wean yourself off.

So what about the UK? Are site owners also wanting to kick their Google habit? And if so, how can they?

From those we’ve talked to the short answer is yes – site owners would dearly love to be less reliant on Google. In fact, some already seem to be controlling their addiction. A few quotes from our recent Online Marketing Masterclass presenters:

“Search is not the Golden Goose”
“We’re moving away from search”
“We don’t see search as the future”
“We’re actually reducing our spend on paid search”

And these are sophisticated online marketers who know a thing or two about search.

And yet paid search is still by far the fastest growing area of online marketing, and certainly online advertising. So what’s going on here?

Well, let’s start with a few observations of the marketplace, at least as I see it from talking to a lot of search marketers:

- Google dominates search. Massively so in the UK. Both paid and organic. For most people, search engine marketing = Google.

- Search traffic (paid and / or organic) accounts for most traffic to most websites.

- So Google essentially controls the success, or otherwise, of most websites. And these sites don’t like having someone else control their destiny to this degree.

- MSN, in particular, is seen as the white knight of hope who may just break the Google monopoly. MSN and Microsoft are the ‘good guys’ now. But, at the moment, they “just don’t have the volume”. Yahoo!’s volumes have nose-dived since the MSN deal came to an end.

- Meanwhile, keyword price inflation is rampant. Retailers in the US talk about 60% price rises in the last months. Financial services companies in the UK talk about a 300% rise in competitive phrases in the same time period. Most of this price inflation is down to a) companies that are ludicrously over-paying and will go bust or b) multi-channel players who can afford a loss-leader for longer term value and cross/up-selling or c) ‘brand’ spenders who don’t really care how much it costs and whose KPIs are totally different or d) immature PPC players who have no idea how much money they are hosing away but will figure it out in a year’s time…

- Clickfraud appears to be a bigger issue in the US than in the UK. But perhaps this is coming to the UK soon…

- Despite all of the above, PPC is often still the most cost-effective form of online marketing, delivering the best ROI.

So there are all sorts of emotions bubbling around and it’s rare these days that you meet anyone in the ‘industry’ who has a good thing to say about Google. But many will admit this is largely jealously. And they’ll also admit that they personally use Google as their search engine of choice. Quite clearly the only thing that really matters for a search engine is to have searchers. And no-one has quite as many of those as Google.

(Actually search is the only area that Google is dominant. In instant messaging, or e-mail, for example, Google is nowhere in terms of penetration relative to the competition. But that’s another story.)

So back to paid search and reliance on Google. How could you kick your reliance on Google? Is it possible?

Should you gang together with your competitors and extract yourselves from Google altogether? That’s just possible, but who then would fulfil the independent role of search across those competing sites?

Do you hope that Google gets better competition so that you have more choices, prices decrease and the market is not monopolised? Well, yes, but everyone is already hoping that and have been for a while. Meanwhile, you’ve got targets to hit.

It’s not looking good…

But here’s a thought.

For a start, perhaps you should focus more on your existing customers rather than chasing new ones too obsessively. Then you don’t need to rely on search engines so much. Plus, it’s just good business sense. I expect to see customer retention (and satisfaction) become an increasing focus for online, and it is, in part, driven by fear of the power of Big G.

But, more fundamentally, many site owners are now really, really focusing on the mythical “customer experience” or “customer engagement”. (BTW, for more on this, read our recently published “Customer Engagement Survey”). Within this I would include ‘innovation’ or ‘differentiation’.

On the surface this is usually about increasing conversion rates. But many are now seeing this as the big beacon of hope for kicking their Google habit. The theory is quite simple: make your customer experience so good that people will talk about it, tell their friends and evangelise through all these new ‘social media’.

It’s word of mouth marketing, or viral marketing enabled by social media. Maybe, just maybe you can then ‘bypass’ Google? (This is very much what I was arguing in my controversial, and low-rated, forum post “Fire all your marketing staff – you don’t need them”. I hope to be proved right in time!).

Did need Google to build a registered user base of 15 million? I don’t think so. Did Skype need Google for its success? No. Did MySpace or YouTube get as big as they have because of Google? Not that I’m aware. There are many examples…

So focus on outstanding customer experiences and real innovation and perhaps you won’t need Google? Perhaps you can invest all your PPC budget into delighting your customers rather than dragging them through to a slightly shoddy website?

And guess what, if your customer experience is outstanding, you may just find your natural search rankings on Google go through the roof because of inbound links, favourable mentions etc. That would be a pleasing irony – stop giving Google money and get loads more traffic from them for free.

Let’s think for a moment. What is the very best example of a company that has built massive success through customer experience excellence and product innovation with almost zero marketing budget, that did not rely on Google search referrals?

Err…. that would have to be Google.

Ashley Friedlein

Published 29 November, 2006 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (4)

Damon Lightley

Damon Lightley, Owner at


One of the best posts I have read in a longtime and something that is also quite close to my heart. Marketers have become obsessed with chasing what I call the 'Google Rainbow', seeking out that pot of gold that they never quite get to.

I think too many online marketers have lost sight of basic marketing fundamentals such as (quoting the CIM) - "identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably."

There are still many digital marketers (mainly individuals that have drifted into online marketing as a result of the skills shortage) that are managing PPC campaigns who don't know what return they are getting on their PPC spend. Many I suspect are running at a loss. But that might be ok in the short term as many businesses don't make an immediate profit from the first 'sale', but over time as the customer buys more and recommends you to their friends and colleagues then the lifetime value of that customer goes up.

So as Ashley points out marketers should also be focusing on retention as well acquisition. In simple terms I like to make generating awareness, conversions and retention all key goals of any marketing strategy.

over 11 years ago

Mirko Behnert

Mirko Behnert, Chief Digital Officer | Independent Advisor | Online Travel Industry Executive at Various

Well done Ashley. Great post and I couldnt agree more.

I think the issue is that when you work in an industry that is still growing at more than 50% year on year (thats certainly still true for the travel industry) its much easier to be in a customer acquisition mode.

I believe that those players who prepare themselves now for the inevitable "war" over customer loyalty and retention that is going to kick in once those growth rates start slowing (in fact they are already starting to slow) will be the long term winners.

Everyone knows that it is 5-10 times cheaper to keep exisiting customers than acquiring new ones, but it is also 5-10 times harder to be good at customer retention and deliver first class online experiences than it is to pour more money into Google.

Perhaps you should consider changing the agenda for next years online marketing masterclass to start the day with a session on customer retention, followed by conversion and put the acquisition part towards the end of the day when everyone is exhausted and thinks about the drinks ...

over 11 years ago


David Rothwell, Owner at

Interesting and entertaining post, some of which I agree with and some I kind of wouldn't, both from the author and the other contributors.

Although the analogy with crack cocaine is amusing and probably appropriate to many advertisers (particulalry new ones who don't know enough about what they're doing, and who should seek advice first), to anyone who knows the system and their numbers AdWords can be simply a "black box" taking your daily budget and converting it to something of value - like more money!

And there's the biggest problem - what's the value you want to exchange your daily budget for? Leads? Optins? Free Downloads? Paid items? Brand awareness? You need to set website goals first...

For ecommerce store owners who know their spend on AdWords is being multiplied many times over, I can see that they would be addicted to it and for good reason.

You make a good point that customer retention and repeat sales are ways to reduce dependence on Search as a means of acquiring new revenue. In Direct Marketing circles it's widely recognised that you don't actually "have a customer" until you've sold to them the third time, drastically increasing the likelihood of a long-term relationship and ongoing business potential. Of course, proactive list management (farming, not mining) then comes into play, but hey - all businesses these days know about the importance of autoresponders don't they?

But Search going away? I can't see that... Everyone wants information (fast!), information inevitably leading to the purchase of goods or services, and increasingly online. Internet commerce is growing unstoppably, and eroding the territory of many "bricks and mortar" stores, some of which are either giving up on product lines they can't compete on any more, or refocusing on an online strategy.

It's true that Google dominate Search, and for good reason - they are the best and they strive to stay ahead. But I believe the argument that they control the destiny of a website is flawed. If your website is well-constructed and relevant - you win. Of course there have to be rules to this game, rules which they set. But since they are the best, they can do that.

And this brings me to my main point - Google is the only search engine that makes available a good set of tools to help webmasters take back control. And they are FREE. So go checkout Webmaster tools (, Google Analytics and Google Website Optimiser (available from your AdWords account).

The old acronym still holds true - GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. On the Internet, the only Search Engine I can see who is actively trying to help webmasters do better is Google.

Read more on my blog at

over 11 years ago



Interesting post. From my perspective advertisers are addicted to PPC search. In fact today’s obsession with PPC search is without a doubt fueled by the channels ability to deliver effective direct response solutions. However, today’s obsession is mostly driven by the inability of many advertisers to benchmark the results of PPC search against all other online marketing channels.

For example there is a strong relationship between the volume of display advertising and the performance of PPC search. Research from companies such as ATLAS DMT indicates 1) 35% of search conversions are exposed to display advertising, 2) 53% of users exposed to display advertising performed a search within 24 hours.

over 11 years ago

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