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The Real Reason Why Google Is Dropping The Tablet vs. Desktop Distinction – It's The User Context, Stupid!

There’s been some grumbling among PPC marketers over the last few weeks about a few specific changes in Enhanced Campaigns – in particular, the loss of tablet vs. desktop segmentation, which was previously a best practice for mobile advertising strategy. One of my well-respected colleagues put it bluntly:


Now, if you’ll forgive my attention-grabbing headline (based on ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid‘), I’m definitely not actually calling anyone stupid – and, you can certainly see by the volume of re-tweets and favorites, it’s clearly a widely-shared view.

However, I recently had the opportunity to chat with Surojit Chatterjee, the Group Product Manager of Global Mobile Search Ads at Google, and he explained to me some interesting facts and information about the direction that Google is going with their mobile products, and how this changes mobile advertising best practices for advertisers.

Device Doesn’t Matter As Much As User Context Does

Looking at the huge amount of search query data that they have access to, Google picked up on a pattern in the way people use their devices. What they noticed is that user context trumps everything else.

“User context” refers to the time, location and device from which a search is conducted, and as Surojit put it: “User context drives what people search for, and the actions they take. So for example, say I am at home in the evening, and I’m doing a search. The actions that I will take will be largely the same if I’m using a smartphone, tablet or notebook, because the context is the same. Particularly between notebook and tablet, the query patterns are very similar.”

Similarly, the types of searches that we typically think of as “mobile” searches are the ones that people make when they’re out and about, away from home or work – and that user context is actually far more important than the physical device they are using.

As an example of the predictive power of user context, consider that Google Now — Google’s latest app for getting you just the right information at just the right time — is made possible, in part, by your user context data, such as time and location, which gives Google a decent enough idea of what you’ll likely be searching for, and then seemingly, magically provides that information at your fingertips.

New AdWords “Bid Vectors” Target User Contexts, Not Just Devices

In the new system – the enhanced campaigns announcement we’ve been hearing so much about for a couple of weeks – advertisers can now easily target different user contexts – time, location and devices – in the same campaigns you have been using to target desktop search, instead of having to break out new campaigns for each possible permutation.

As a more concrete example of how to target specific user contexts, consider my own search marketing software company, WordStream, which spends tens of thousands of dollars each month on paid search advertising to drive valuable leads and sales through PPC.

We’re optimizing the various “bid vectors” (my terminology, not an official AdWords term) in our own AdWords account to more aggressively target English speaking markets, using different bid multipliers for USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc. We’re leveraging call extensions for searches executed from mobile, and scheduled them to run while our call center is open between 8-6PM EST.

Because so many of our customers are businesses, we’re bidding down our ads slightly during nights and weekends when the office is closed. Thus, you can say that our bidding and ad copy strategy has evolved to become much more about targeting the specific user contexts that tend to convert into the best leads, rather than a strategy based on specific devices.

Here’s an example of how easy it is to add location-based “bid vectors” in AdWords:

Bid Vectors in AdWords

Overall, I think it’s a powerful shift in SEM strategy – bidding for different types of user context rather than bidding for specific devices, which was sort of just a limited proxy for user context to begin with.

Tablets vs. Desktop vs. Phones: What’s The Difference?

Less and less these days. Google has aligned tablets (like the iPad) and desktop searches in AdWords. But why, especially if when we log into AdWords, we can see that there are differences in performance between devices? Or why does it appear that there are differences?

Again, the differences have more to do with user context than device. In a recent Google AdWords webinar on enhanced campaigns, Jason Spero, the Head of Global Mobile Sales & Strategy at Google said (at roughly 45:30): “When we look at search data in a controlled time of day and location … the patterns of search are almost identical … there’s a lot of similarity in how people are searching for things whether they’re searching on a tablet vs. a desktop vs. a smartphone, in that context.”

Additionally, Jason points out that “tablets used to be aligned, because of the price point, with a certain demographic” – higher net-worth individuals who could afford them when they first came out. But now, as prices decline, the tablet demographic is looking more and more mainstream demographic-wise, and so, they expect to see fewer differences over time.

Currently, 80% of tablet traffic occurs in the home, in the evening, and Google is much more interested in user context vs. user hardware.

Google attributes these changes to the mobile revolution we’re experiencing – not only are mobile searches growing rapidly, expected to overtake desktop search sometime next year, but people move seamlessly from one device to another, without treating those experiences very differently.

So What? Why Should Search Marketers Care About User Context?

In summary, user context matters because it helps determine what kinds of things people search for and what actions they take immediately after conducting a search.

No longer an afterthought, search marketers must now think more critically about time, location and device from the get-go, and try to reflect those modalities into their ad copy and bid strategies to harness and capture user intent, thereby ensuring the best possible results. The great news is that with enhanced campaigns, it’s far easier to do this than ever before.

For more information on user context, check out my interview with Surojit Chatterjee, the Group Product Manager of Global Mobile Search Ads at Google, on this and related mobile ad strategy topics, as well as my deep dive on enhanced campaigns.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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