IndustryCompare & Contrast: Ad Guidelines At Overture & Google

Compare & Contrast: Ad Guidelines At Overture & Google

This article explores the editorial guidelines at Overture and Google for advertisements.

Those new to paid placement listings might assume that it’s anything goes. If you pay enough, you can come up tops for the terms you wish to target and with ads that say exactly what you want.

The reality is that paid listings actually operate within a number of constraints. Indeed, as the sidebar article Paid Listings Held To Higher Standards explains, paid listings face stricter guidelines than crawler-based results. Ads must be relevant in some way to the terms they appear for, and the relevancy standard can be very high, depending on the exact term. The wording of ads must take into account a variety of style guidelines.

Such standards for paid listings can be a shock to those used to dealing with regular search engine optimization for crawlers, where no one controls your title and description, much less imposes a keyword-by-keyword relevancy review of your content. Numerous emails have crossed my desk from those who are upset, put out or even offended because they were deemed “irrelevant” by paid listing staff for a particular term.

To make matters worse, if there are few clear standards for search engine optimization on crawlers, paid listings standards are hardly universal. To better guide you, in this article we’ll review what commonalities there are between the two major services in the US/global space, Overture and Google. And when I say Google, keep in mind that I’m referring to the Google AdWords program.

You Gotta Be Relevant!

Overture, Google and any other paid listing service with significant distribution will insist that you only bid on terms that are relevant to your web site. So that’s easy, right? Not necessarily, as anyone who has had a dispute knows. Relevancy is a subjective decision. If you sell computers, you might believe your site is relevant for the term “computers.” However, if you sell computers only to those who live in California, then your “relevancy” is suddenly narrowed to a much smaller group of people.

Both Overture and Google want those bidding on a term to be relevant to the widest variety of people possible. Why? Money is a chief reason. In a cost-per-click situation, they only get paid if people decide they like what your ad offers and click on it. If ads are off the relevancy mark, they take up space but don’t generate revenue.

In addition, irrelevant ads can potentially cause people to dismiss ads altogether. If ads never offer anything helpful, users might stop looking at them. That hurts the underlying business model in the long term.

Running irrelevant ads can also hurt you. Targeting a term that you aren’t really best for may get you traffic, but that traffic might not convert into sales. Google and Overture make money from you in the short term, but in the long term, you might decide that advertising with them doesn’t work. It really is in their interest to have your ads as targeted as possible, because your return on investment is then more likely to be higher, and you’ll stick with them for advertising in the long term.

Be Specific, Not General

“The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter discriminations.” Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson

The famous passage above is where Samuel Johnson makes his claim that good literature is based on the general, rather than the specific — that you provide enough details to appeal to as many people as possible without being so specific that you alienate some readers.

With respect to Johnson, he would have been a terrible search engine marketer. Especially when it comes to editorial guidelines for paid listings, you must be as specific as possible. The more you “number the streaks of the tulip,” the less likely you are going to have your ad rejected.

The logic behind this is simple. People who search broadly, such as for “books,” may want different things. It can be relevant for a site like Amazon to advertise against that term because the selection of books, as well as reviews of books, is extremely broad at Amazon. Many users will likely find the site to be useful, if they clickthrough on the ad. In contrast, allowing a site that sells only children’s books to advertise against “books” may not be relevant. Yes, it sells books, but only a small selection of those who search on books will be interested in the site.

“You are very much wanting to make sure you are serving the majority,” said Dana Baker, Overture’s editor-in-chief.

And from Google AdWords:

“The power of advertising on search is that you can reach an audience looking for exactly what you sell. Relevancy is key to harnessing that power,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s director of AdWords sales and operations.

If you do target a broad term, be prepared to defend yourself. Have an explanation why you might be relevant for the term to many people. If challenged, your explanation may help an editor better understand why their users would indeed consider your ad, and that can get you through.

Baker also added that in the book example I’ve used above, even a children’s book store would be allowed to bid on the term “books.” It might not be the most relevant site for the majority of people, but isn’t necessarily irrelevant. The main thing, in her opinion, is that it sells more than one book.

“If you only sell ‘Goodnight Moon,’ you do not have the variety needed to bid on books. So you need to sell more than one book to bid on that particular term,” Baker said.

Location Issues

Geographic location seems to be a common issue for problems. For instance, those bidding on broad terms may get rejected as being too location-specific, such as someone who bids on “hotels” but only operate hotels in London.

Rejection over location has seemed to be more an Overture rather than a Google problem. The good news is that Overture is becoming more liberal about when they will allow geographically-specific sites to bid on broad terms. In particular, this happens in areas where they feel geography isn’t so relevant.

“Having someone modify their terms to be location specific makes sense in some cases, for instance for dentists or lawyers, who can only serve a certain area. However, eating disorder clinics, swimming with dolphins, wedding planners, perhaps these are cases where someone will travel to you, and we would not want to limit their terms to include location,” said Baker.

Another example comes from an article in, listed below. In it, a fishing resort based in Montana was rejected back in February for terms such as “fishing resort” and “fishing trip.” The person marketing the web site appealed against the rejection, saying that people looking for fishing vacations may not have a specific geographic location in mind.

Overture initially rejected the argument. However, the company later changed its mind.

“We heard about the issue and fixed it, realizing that this is a great example of a guideline working well in some areas but not in all,” Baker said.

There’s no disagreement from the marketer:

“We did wind up getting everything resolved with our fishing resort client. Overture approved all of our listings after the article appeared, and we were able to run the advertising campaign we wanted,” said Dave Lerner, president of WyomingNetwork. “As a footnote, the resort did get a good response, and ended its campaign when they booked up for the season – so they are not advertising at the moment.”

A good response — therein lies the reason why Google may be less likely to police location-specific ads versus Overture. As will be discussed further below, the appearance and placement of CPC ads on Google is influenced by clickthrough rate. Rather than have to make an editorial guess whether an ad is location specific or not, Google will let the clickthrough rate make the decision.

“If you are running on ‘fishing resorts’ and you say ‘Montana fishing resorts’ in the ads, we let the web tell us thats a relevant ad,” said Sandberg.

Indeed, Sandberg’s comment underscores the major location rule that Google has. Bidding on general terms may be OK, but if your product is only sold or available in a particular location, that needs to be noted in the ad.

Even with Google being so liberal and Overture’s flexibility increasing, you may still find your ad rejected. As with any rejection, come back with a good explanation of why location should make no difference, and don’t be afraid to ask the editor that rejects you to explain their reason. Also be prepared that location issues will still likely be an issue.

“Overture is very quirky. For example, I have one client who had the words Christian camp and summer camp approved, but Christian summer camp was declined,” said Lerner. “Girl camp was approved, but girl summer camp was not. I’m not sure I can tell the difference, but Overture claimed girl summer camp needed to be location specific, but girl camp did not.”

Don’t be afraid to question that quirkiness. Lerner had enough of his terms approved that he didn’t need to pursue the ones declined, but it did turn out that the terms shouldn’t have been rejected.

“I can only say this is a mistake, and should not happen. We have increased our editorial staff greatly and perhaps there was a new editor who was looking for exact terms. I don’t know, but I certainly apologize,” Baker said.

Finally, those who try to be too geographic-specific can also be rejected. Imagine the situation of a huge hotel conglomerate that might want to come up for “hotels in [city”” where [city” is replaced by hundreds of major cities around the world. If they don’t actually have hotels in some of those cities, then they shouldn’t be allowed to bid on those locations, at both Overture and Google AdWords.

“Clearly, no user wants to search for a hotel in a specific city and end up with a result for a hotel in a totally different city. That would be completely irrelevant and in fact irritating to a user,” Baker said.

Relevancy Of Landing Pages

When someone clicks on your paid listing, they leave the search engine and “land” where you direct them to. Hence the term “landing page,” which is used by Google and long been terminology among search engine marketers. Both Google and Overture insist that the landing page linked to an ad be relevant for the ad’s terms.

Overture calls this the “direct path” requirement, and the name makes sense. Someone who searches on a topic such as “Apple computers” probably doesn’t want to end up on a home page for a store that sells only Windows-based PCs. Or, if an electronics store sells Apples among many other products, the user will probably prefer landing on a page within the store specifically about Apples, rather than having to hunt for it.

“As a user, I’ve already put in my search term, so I dont want to have to go to someone’s home page and search again,” said Baker.

Similar comments come from Google:

“The philosophy behind it is pretty simple. We want our advertisers to have the best ROI and our users to have the best possible return. The faster I can get from my search to a place where I could click and buy, the better for the user and the advertiser,” Sandberg said. “We think everyone wins when those pages are as relevant as possible for the search results.”

So if you are bidding on a specific product, ensure that you direct users to the page about that product within your site. Not only will this make it easier to get accepted by Overture and Google, but you may also find that your return on investment improves, as well.

“Ive been impressed that weve seen many letters [from advertisers” saying this has improved their ROI,” said Baker, about advertisers who’ve begun linking to the most specific material within their web sites.

Pointing to your most relevant page doesn’t mean that you can’t point to your home page. If you bid on a particular term, and a user coming to your home page can easily see how to get information about that term, then you should be OK with the guidelines in both places.

Dynamic Landing Pages

An example of the user frustration mentioned above can be seen from a search on Overture for “unfinished furniture,” which brought up this listing from eBay last week:

Find Unfinished Furniture on eBay
With over five million items for sale every day, you can always find what you’re looking for at eBay, the world’s online marketplace.

The URL took users to a page at eBay about furniture in general. I didn’t see one item of unfinished furniture listed. I think most users who visited this page would have come away disappointed.

Stores like eBay pose a quandary for Overture and Google. In the example above, eBay failed to provide relevant products. But for many other items, eBay might have a good match. Unfortunately, eBay and other merchants may not have “landing pages” for all these products, particularly if they are search oriented.

Search oriented? Imagine any merchant site you go to where the emphasis is on having you search for products you are interested in, rather than browse results by following links. Even these sites often will have “static” pages for major products, but there can be many other products that simply never get “revealed” to customers until a search is performed.

For this reason, both Google and Overture allow you to link “prepopulated” search results. For instance, here’s an eBay ad that was running last week on “unfinished furniture” on Google:

Find it on eBay.
Low Prices. – Millions of Items.
Buy or Sell on eBay Here!

The landing page URL for this ad looks like this:

See the query=unfinished+furniture part? That causes anyone clicking on the URL to tell eBay’s own search engine to do a search for “unfinished furniture.” This all happens behind the scenes. The user didn’t have to do any further searching. Instead, they end up at a page with relevant products.

Well, at least that’s what should happen. As it turns out, there are no unfinished furniture products that get listed when you come to the landing page. Instead, it’s “0 items found for unfinished furniture” that you are shown. This stresses that if you are going to run prepopulated searches, you’ll need to ensure that you regularly have a significant number of products that match the terms you target. If not, you may find your ads pulled.

Overture has a twist on prepopulated results that they’ll allow. You can send people to a search box on your site, rather than actually causing a search to be run. So in the eBay example above, it would be OK for someone to arrive at a page where there was a search box filled in with the words “unfinished furniture.” The key is that the box has to be easily visible — “above the fold” and not causing people to scroll or hunt for it.

As for Google AdWords, it doesn’t have a specific policy about this.

Relevancy Of Ad Copy

The quest for relevancy is also reflected in guidelines about ad copy, how you word the title and descriptions of your ads. However, there’s an important difference on what the ad copy is relevant to, between Overture and Google.

Overture emphasizes that ad copy should be relevant to the terms the ad appears for, as its guidelines state: “The title and description must accurately describe why the Web site qualifies for the search term.”

In contrast, Google’s guidelines emphasize that the ad copy must be relevant to the landing page a user will see, rather than the search terms the ad appears for: “Your ad text must directly reflect the content on the web page to which your ad links.”

Please take note of the word “emphasize” in the statements above. Overture does care about how relevant a landing page is in relation to an ad’s search term, of course. Google does care about how relevant an ad’s copy is in relationship to the terms it appears for. However, you do see a difference in the rules that are spelled out.

Why is this? Two major reasons. First, Overture is more term-oriented while Google is more campaign or ad-oriented. In other words, at Overture, you choose terms to bid on and then link ads to those terms. Everything revolves initially around the terms. It’s a system Overture finds effective.

“Overture has found term-oriented listings are better for the end users and receive higher clickthrough rates for the advertisers,” Baker said.

In contrast, at Google, you think of the ad message you want to get out, a campaign, so to speak. You then can link that ad (or a campaign of several ads) to a variety of terms, which Google says works best when the terms all used in a single campaign are highly related to each other.

The second and more important reason is that Google makes use of clickthrough measurements to determine which ads are allowed to run. For instance, an ad in the top position with Google AdWords failing to get a 0.5 percent clickthrough rate on Google alone or 1 percent if on Google and its ad partners such as AOL may be dropped from rotation (the rate is less for other positions). In this way, Google leverages its users to help determine if the ad is relevant to the terms it appears for. If not, then the ad will disappear.

“We have two filters, the human editorial filter [Google’s paid listings staff” as well as the democracy of the web test, the clickthrough rate filter,” said Sandberg.

Here’s an illustration of the difference, which can be subtle to understand. A search for “toner cartridge” on Google brings up this ad:

70% Off Inkjet Cartridges
Purchase HP-Epson-Canon-Lexmark Ink
Cartridges at over 70% off retail

Nothing is mentioned about “toner cartridges” in this ad, so under Overture’s guidelines, it *might* not be acceptable to appear for a search on “toner cartridges.” However, many people wanting inkjet cartridge might mistakenly search for “toner cartridges.” In addition, those looking for toner cartridges might reasonably assume that a place selling inkjet cartridges would also carry toner. And this site indeed does sell both types of products. In conclusion, the ad is relevant to the search terms and also explains what you will find when clicking on it.

Reviewing Overture’s listings, all but one of the top 40 ads for “toner cartridges” make use of the word “toner” in the title or headline, clearly in part to help justify that they are relevant to appear for “toner cartridge.” One ad did appear saying only “inkjet” and never mentioning toner.

As it turns out, this was probably a case where when the ad was reviewed by Overture’s editors, it was decided that “inkjet” was close enough to toner to be acceptable.

“We try to get our clients to use their search terms in their title and/or description, but it is not a hard and fast rule. We certainly would not want to reject a relevant site simply because they did not use the exact term. If the site offers toner and is bidding on toner, then I of course want that site in our search listings,” Baker said.

Targeting Via Copy

Of course, many experienced with paid listings say that making use of the search terms you are advertising on in your ad copy can help increase clickthrough rates. So even if Google might not require you to say “toner” in an ad linked to “toner cartridges,” you might find doing so makes your ads better.

“Using your keywords in your ads is very effective,” Sandberg said.

Certainly doing this may take more work, in that you have to come up with a variety of different ads and spend more time doing specific targeting with Google. However, such work also will probably make it easier to run similar ads at Overture, not to mention may bring back a better return on your ad spend.

Here’s an illustration of how terms in the ad copy can be important, drawn from ads appearing for “french lessons” at Google:

In the Heart of France
Coeur de France Ecole de Langues
Families, couples and individuals.

Find them in French only
French books, video, cdrom, cd, dvd
For kids, grown-ups & teachers

Learn French in Brussels
Intensive courses for adults
Groups (max 8) : $255 for 2 weeks

To me, the first ad is bad because it failed to make it clear the core issue, are French lessons offered? OK, “ecole de langues” means language school in French. But if you are searching for “french lessons” on an English-language search engine (the default for and don’t speak French, then getting an ad saying “language school” in French isn’t user friendly.

The second ad is OK. Listing items such as books, videos and CD-ROMs suggests that information related to learning French might be present. The third ad is right on target. “Learn French,” it begins — how much more clearer or on target to a search on “french lessons” could you be?

Ad Copy Formatting

A big difference between Overture and Google is how ads are formatted. Both require ads to have titles, but Google allows only 25 characters while Overture gives you 40. Both require ads to have descriptions, and the differences between them are even worse, here.

Overture allows you to have a description up to 190 characters long. Google only allows descriptions to be 70 characters long. Moreover, descriptions at Google must be manually broken by the advertiser into two lines, with no line longer than 35 characters.

Both Overture and Google will display a URL along with your ad, but this almost certainly won’t be the URL that the ad is linking to. Instead, it will probably be domain name of the site hosting the actual landing page.

For example, here are the top two listings for “amazon” from Overture:

Shop at and Save! is the place to find and buy what you want online. Shop for books, music, video, toys, electronics, home and more! Shop now!

The Amazon Online Book Store
Amazon – The earth’s largest online book, video and music store. Buy books, DVDs, software, videos and toys direct from this Amazon affiliate.

The first ad is actually from Amazon itself, and clicking on the link takes you to a page within the web site. That’s why Overture automatically displays “” after the description. The second ad is from an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on that ad takes you into the affiliate’s web site at, so “” is shown under the description.

Many users judge what to click on by looking at not just title and description but also URL. A savvy user looking for the “official” Amazon site may make use of the domain name displayed by Overture to help decide which site to visit. It should be noted that Overture and Google also have special rules requiring affiliates to identify themselves, which will be covered further below.

Unlike Overture, Google makes advertisers manually enter a “display” URL. Confusingly, the guidelines says that the display URL “must accurately reflect the URL of your web page.” Doesn’t accurately mean then that the display URL should be the same as the landing page URL? No. What Google really means is that the URL displayed should have the same domain name as the landing page.

In short, look at the URL of your landing page. Let’s say it is
pages/products/zebra.html. Now find the domain name — reading left to right, that’s the part between http:// and the first / character:

That’s the part to use for your display URL. Whoops! That’s over the 35 characters allowed. Google says this rarely happens, but if you are in this situation, cut in the best logical place or modify as seem to make the most sense, perhaps like this:

Don’t Make Text Ads Into Banners

Overture and Google also a variety of rules about punctuation, symbols and capitalization in ad copy, but I can sum these up easily. Punctuate for grammatical reasons, not for visual appeal. The same is true for symbols and capitalization. Use them when required by commonly accepted style guidelines, not as a way to make your ad stand out visually.

The temptation to misuse punctuation, symbols and capitalization is understandable. Everyone wants their ad to be seen. But paid listings are not banners. They are not image oriented. They are meant to be read. The more easily readable you make your ad, the more acceptable it should be to the audience viewing it.

Here’s an example of both good and bad (mostly bad) that we’ll deconstruct:


First, let’s get rid of some of those symbols. There’s no grammatical reason to repeat the exclamation or question marks. The excess are simply there for visual reasons. The same is true for the asterisks. There is no reason for them to be present.

The @ symbol gets to stay, however. Why? In this case, @DVD Stores is the name of the store. As the symbol is part of the company name, stylistically, it can remain. Our work results in this:


Next, that captialization has got go. Again, there’s no grammatical reason for it. Both Overture and Google use “sentence case” or “sentence style” capitalization. This is where you capitalize the first letter of each sentence. Sentence capitalization is OK for both titles and descriptions, so the copy above would be written as:

Buy a DVD player today!
Now in stock from @DVD Stores! Why miss out on the video revolution?

Why was DVD left capitalized? Certain words are commonly written in all caps, and DVD is one of them. So, it stays that way in the title. In the description, it is capitalized, as is the S in Stores, because the formal name of this company is @DVD Stores.

By the way, while sentence case is always acceptable, you can optionally use “title case” capitalization in the title of your ads at both Overture and Google. This is where the first letter of each word (or only the “long” words) in the title is capitalized, like this:

Buy a DVD Player Today!
Now in stock from @DVD Stores! Why miss out on the video revolution?

Them Exclamation Marks!

There’s another important change we have to make to the ad copy for both Google and Overture, involving the exclamation mark. Overture simply doesn’t allow them. Why not? I mean, why not! Overture feels they are prone to misuse and can make the ads look bad.

“They are used so often that they can diminish the listing a little bit,” said Baker. “Clickthrough rates are actually much higher when copy is clear, clean and objective.”

As I’ve written before, I feel exclamation marks are a useful part of written language, have a role and really shouldn’t be excluded from ad copy when used in a grammatically correct way. That’s especially so when “editorial” listings often running along these ads get to use exclamation marks without restriction.

All hot and bothered about the exclusion of exclamation marks at Overture, I was all set to tear into Google. There, you can use one exclamation mark in your ad text, which is a nice compromise with allowing it but trying to keep misuse under control. But no exclamation marks in the title of ads? What’s that all about!

As it turns out, when AOL runs Google ads, the titles and descriptions are combined into one line with a colon between the two elements. So our ad, if unchanged, would look like this:

Buy a DVD Player Today!: Now in stock from @DVD Stores! Why miss out on the video revolution?

As you can see, the exclamation mark looks pretty odd sitting next to the colon like that. And therein lies another lesson about all these guidelines at Overture and Google. What can see arbitrary often has a good reason behind it.

More Punctuation

To recap, write your ads in the form of normal sentences, using punctuation and capitalization for appropriate reasons, and you’ll be fine. However, there are a few little things remaining that might trip you up.

For instance, Overture does not allow the use of the ampersand (&), the dollar sign ($) or slashes (/) to save space. For instance, you couldn’t say “buy & save,” “save $” or “purchase televisions/telephones/DVD players from us.” In short, no replacement of words with symbols for space saving reasons. Symbols can be used if they make up your name, such as “Barnes & Noble,” or where appropriate for style reasons, such as “save $10” or “20% off.”

Google is more liberal about symbols, probably because ad descriptions are so much shorter. The ampersand can be used in place of “and,” but the plus symbol (+) cannot. The number sign (#) can be used in situations such as “pin #.” The hyphen (-) can be used to save space instead of a period, such as, “Low prices-most orders shipped free” rather than “Low prices. Most orders shipped free.” If in doubt, try a symbol substitution where appropriate for space saving reason and see if your ad is approved.

Overture also has some unique rules regarding the use of dashes, ellipses and commas (as used in a list). Check out the guidelines page from Overture listed below, to make sure you are familiar with them.

Avoid Superlatives

One Search Engine Watch reader emailed me to complain that Overture had rejected this description:

“No more searching through an entire area code, one ISP at a time – go straight to the best ISP values in your city. Searchable database includes user ratings.”

As issue were the words “the best” next to “ISP values.” Overture changed this to “great ISP values.”

What’s the difference? “Great” is just as much marketing language as “best,” isn’t it? Not quite. “Best” is a superlative, an adjective that suggests something is superior to all others. In the example above, saying “the best ISP values” suggests that all other ISPs aren’t as good.

Google and Overture aren’t comfortable with advertisers unilaterally pronouncing themselves better than everyone else, like this. Instead, you just need to step your declarations down a level and use an adjective that allows the possibility that there might be others who are as good as you.

“You can’t declare a victory, but you can imply that you are good,” said Alana Karen, policy specialist for Google AdWords.

I know, it’s not true — you really are the best! But without a third party to independently verify this, neither company wants you to use superlatives in your ads.

What if a third party did rank you tops? Then you can declare that in your ads at Google, but not at Overture. For instance, someone might say:

Build zebra pages and see your traffic rise. Rated the best zebra page maker by PC Super Compute magazine.

Since a third party gave this recognition, Google allows it to be used. Overture, however, does not.

When Superlatives Aren’t

Of course, it should also be acceptable for you to use these words when they are not superlatives, but watch out in case editors mistakenly assume they are. Mike Grehan, who has a book out about search engine marketing, tried to get this ad running at Google:

Search Engine Book
Find out how to get your site to
the top at the major search engines

It was rejected because “top” was seen as a superlative, when in reality, it was a preposition — a part of speech showing the location of an object.

Poor Grehan. Ideally, he would have appealed the ad and explained the editor’s mistake. Instead, he went with this revision:

Search Engine Marketing:
The essential best practice guide.
New 2nd Edition – Download it now.

He got rejected again for having the word “best.” Yes, a superlative, but not one describing his product. He wasn’t saying his guide was the “best” guide. He was saying his guide was a book about “best practices.”

This time, Grehan queried the rejection — and got approved.

Google’s Special Rules On Ad Copy

Google also has a number of other restrictions on copy. The editorial guidelines section below spells these out, in the “Ad Content” section of the page. I’ll mainly highlight some of the “why” behind these rules as well as more specific examples.

If you say “free” in your ad at Google, you really honestly and truly have to give something away for free. The point is obvious — Google doesn’t want users to feel mislead. But even this seemingly crystal-clear rule has some nuances.

If it’s a “buy one, get one free” offer, you have to note this in your ad, since something must be purchased. However, an offer by AOL to get 100 free hours wouldn’t have to be qualified, because you really could have the free hours without obligation of continuing your service, Google says.

Google also wants the landing page to clearly show what’s “free” when someone arrives at the page. They shouldn’t have to hunt for the free offer. A big exception is on shipping. If you offer free shipping on products, you don’t have to make this immediately clear on the product page. In other words, you might have an ad like this:

Vitamins & Health Supplements
Fantastic prices, service & choice
Free delivery!

The ad would take you to a page primarily about vitamins and health supplements. You don’t have to say big and bold, “Free Shipping” on that page. You don’t even have to say it at all. However, you’d better honestly offer free shipping or risk having your ad pulled.

As for Overture, it doesn’t spell out rules on free as it pertains to ad copy but rather as a term you might bid upon. So let’s say you wanted to have an ad showing up for “free email.” You need to ensure that you really do offer free email.

Google also has restrictions on “universal calls-to-action,” language that tells a user to do something, such as “Click Here.” Crazy, isn’t it? I mean, every good ad should have a call-to-action.

Google agrees. You should have a call to action, but it shouldn’t be “universal” or “generic.” It should be specific. “Buy DVDs now!” or “Savings on DVDs here” would be OK.

Google also doesn’t want the words “welcome to,” “online,” “website” or “homepage” in the title of your ads because these are considered words so common that they convey little content to users. However, you can use them if essential to describing your product, such as “website hosting” or “online training service.”

Overture’s Rules On Special Web Sites

Reviewing Overture’s guidelines, there are a variety of rules that cover types of web sites. Adult sites, gambling sites, sites outside the United States and real estate sites are just some of these named. Why all these special rules? Actually, they aren’t so much special as good advice about relevancy that has come up with these various types of sites over the years.

“Most of these guidelines, when you look at them, they are common sense. They just needed to be reiterated, because whats common sense to us may not be common sense to everyone else,” said Baker.

Of special note, the rules about sites outside the United States have recently changed. Previously, English-language sites outside the US had to note this in their ads. That doesn’t always make sense. If you sell products that are expensive to ship, then Overture may want you to note your location. In other situations, it won’t be necessary.

Affiliate Issues

Both Google and Overture have a specific, common rule when it comes to affiliates. You must identify that you are an affiliate somewhere in your ad.

Overture has some additional rules. First, you must “land” people in your own site, rather than using a URL that embeds your affiliate code and sends people to the site you are affiliated with. Second, your site shouldn’t “mimic” the look of the site you’re affiliated with. You can’t be an Amazon affiliate and make your site a clone of the Amazon site, for instance

Oddly, however, an affiliate at Overture is allowed to frame the Amazon web site and bid on terms related to Amazon itself, as long as part of their own site is visible. But the affiliate could not look at what products are listed on the Amazon home page, then bid on those product names, Overture says.

Why these rules? It comes back to giving searchers a good experience.

“Users often dont find them that useful,” said Baker, about affiliate sites. “If they want eBay, they probably want eBay and not a site that makes them go through several jumps.”

Bear in mind that if you are more than an affiliate, you needn’t worry so much about the affiliate rules. For instance, let’s say you are a web site that talks about children’s books. You offer original reviews, commentary, forums about books and so on. You also make money by being an Amazon affiliate. You do direct traffic to Amazon, but that’s not the primary purpose of your site. There’s “content” beyond a bunch of Amazon affiliate links, so your affiliate status is less a worry.

Both Google and Overture also report that those who operate affiliate programs often contact them upset that their affiliates are running ads against their trademarks, including their own company name. I’m planning a special article on trademark issues and paid listings for an upcoming newsletter. But in terms of affiliates, neither Google or Overture will pull ads if the affiliates are authorized.

I find no fault here with this policy. It’s not a problem Overture or Google made — it’s a problem those running affiliate programs have failed to police. If you operate an affiliate program, and you are concerned about having to compete for your own names, then write language into your program that prevents your affiliates from doing this.

Want to see an example? Then check out the recently launched affiliate program for Search Engine Watch below, where language is designed to prevent affiliates from making is seem like they are the Search Engine Watch site.

Pop-Ups & Back Buttons

It’s possible to “disable” the back button in someone’s browser, so that when they come to your web site, they cannot use the back button to leave it. Both Overture and Google say that it is unacceptable for your web site to do this, if you want to run ads with them. Not just your landing page — any page in your entire web site.

As for pop-ups, the two stand less shoulder-to-shoulder. Overture says that your web site may spawn one pop-up window and that this cannot appear below the current page being viewed, hidden from the user (in other words, a pop-under).

Google just says no to pop-ups. If you have them on your landing page, you cannot run ads linking to that page. You can have them on other pages in your web site — your ads simply cannot point to those pages.

Are These Sites Exceptional?

Now that I’ve covered many of the guidelines out there, let me anticipate the flood of email that will come from readers, citing exceptions that they find. Hey, I see them as well!

No exclamation points at Overture? Then what about these ads that I found last week?

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No all caps, says Google. Only one exclamation mark? Then what’s this?


In response, Overture said that has changed and improved its guidelines over time, which has created some legacy listings in its database. The company says there’s a team of customer service folks constantly monitoring and cleaning up these legacy listings.

As for Google AdWords, it said things like the all-caps ad above can happen because ads are allowed to run instantly, then backchecked soon after by its editorial staff. If guidelines are violated, the ads are then pulled during the checking process.

Duplicates are another guideline violation you might see. Both Overture and Google say that an advertiser should be able to only appear once for a particular term, but through accidents or overt attempts, sometimes duplicate ads get through. Both try to police this, and they are aided by their own advertisers.

“They’re our best tattletales. They really help us,” said Baker.

In Conclusion: Guidelines, Not Laws

Both Overture and Google have guidelines for their ads, but the emphasis is on the “guide” part of that word. The requirements are meant to help guide the majority of advertisers into creating and running relevant ads, but the guidelines can be altered for the right reasons.

“The guidelines in my opinion are not rules, and we have to constantly be changing and listening to our advertisers to see if we are doing the right thing,” said Baker. “With this many listings and this many advertisers, having one size fits all guidelines doesnt always work.”

In particular at Overture, Baker is currently reorganizing her staff of about 100 editors to handle different categories of web sites. She hopes that by doing this, the editors will better understand particular types of web sites and business models.


Google AdWords

Overture Listing Guidelines

Overture has a monstrous number of guidelines, compared to Google. Overture’s also been doing CPC ads for far longer, and that’s why these have grown and expanded. But they are guidelines, not absolute rules. Appeal appropriately, and you may justify an exception. Link is to a printer-friendly, all-in-one version of the rules for your summer reading pleasure.

Google AdWords: Editorial Guidelines

Get an overview of Google’s guidelines here. While Overture tends to focus on rules over what you can bid on, Google’s guidelines are more heavily geared toward what you can and cannot say in ads. Very good coverage here about the use of superlatives.

Google AdWords: FAQ

Some further guidance about Google’s guidelines and making good creative can be found here.

Paid Listings Held To Higher Standards
The Search Engine Report, Aug. 5, 2002

Ironically, while paid listings are sometimes dismissed as a form of search engines selling out, the listings are actually policed far more than crawler-based results, which have grown so much over the past two years. This sidebar article explores the issue more.

Overture Struggles to Refine Search Terms, Feb. 13, 2002

Written earlier this year, after Overture introduced tighter relevancy guidelines, this article details some troubles advertisers had with the changes.

SAP Design Guild: Capitalization

There is no official guide to capitalization, because every publication — indeed every person — may choose to have their own set of rules. However, this page from the SAP Design Guild is a nice overview of sentence and title capitalization. Comparatives and Superlatives

OK, so you slept through superlatives in school. Don’t feel bad — I don’t even remember being formally taught about them. So let’s all get a refresher on this page. It’s the best — well, one of the better ones — I found.

Guide To Grammar And Writing: Adjectives

Much more about adjectives. Long read but fun and informative.

Search Engine Watch Affiliate Program

To me, affiliate programs are a great way to reward people with good content for directing traffic to products at other web sites. The bad part of affiliate programs is that they can dilute a company’s brand. Language in the Search Engine Watch program is designed to help prevent search engine spam and consumer confusion in paid listings. Other companies might want to consider similar language. At the very least, it might be a non-legal way to reduce the number of people coming up for your own name. You’ll certainly find any court action involving pages and trademarks complicated if that action is against authorized affiliates. Oh — and check out the program, in case you want to be an affiliate!

21 Techniques to Maximize your Profits on Google AdWords Select

Looking to improve your listings with Google AdWords. Andrew Goodman has a well-praised report, and I’ve liked what I’ve skimmed, so far. Cost is $49.

All this paid listing stuff have you confused? Catherine Seda has put together what looks to be another excellent guide, based on what I’ve skimmed so far. She also provides a free monthly newsletter full of tips. Buy the $69 book or sign-up for the newsletter here.

Search Engine Marketing

I’ve been doing a lot of skimming, and Mike Grehan’s book has a lot of technical details on how search engines work that will be of interest to many people. SearchDay editor Chris Sherman plans a longer look in September, but you can check the book out yourself now. Cost is $97.

Samuel Johnson Study Guide
Introduction to Literary Criticism, UC Irvine, Winter 1996

Hey, you sit through a year of literary criticism and you’ll find yourself wanting to make a reference to Johnson. Want to know more about those tulip streaks? Here’s some background from my alma mater. See point six. And zot, zot, zot!





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