The dirty secret of Pay Per Click advertising (or how lockdown has opened our eyes)

by Sam Collett
Covid lockdown has given us a unique and unexpected experiment; what happens when online ad spend stops across the board in a sector?
Jun 1, 2020

Now let’s start with some caveats. I, and we here at, are not PPC specialists. But we are SEO specialists and creators of websites and apps for brands and companies. Our task is to drive traffic and optimise the user journey and funnels to drive sales. We live for stats and we see patterns in traffic and use. We pride ourselves on getting the most out of SEO and by sparing use of PPC when needed.

We look after many client’s websites and some of these spend a fortune on their PPC ads, primarily via Google Ads, but to a lesser extent via Facebook and Bing. They rightly use specialist agencies for this task. We also do look after, but mostly advise from afar, strategies on new PPC campaigns for smaller brands – generally on the eCommerce side of things.

When lockdown began, most of our clients effectively stopped all ad spend overnight.

So did their competitors.

And in turn this has given us a unique and unexpected experiment; what happens when online ad spend stops across the board in a sector?

What everyone expected to happen is that traffic would plummet. And in turn so would sales. SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages, or positions on Google for key terms) would also drop because site interaction and use was also down.

What has actually happened? For our sites – at least – traffic is slightly down (more on this later), but there has been no plummet, no cliff edge. Clicks are down, too, but the quality of the leads that come through are resulting in more sales – better quality leads. Positions on Google have remained more-or-less unchanged – slightly up in fact – bar that sneaky little update they did a few weeks back.

As far as we can see the same is true for competitors and this is the same for different industries. You will understand that there are no graphs here and no mention of specific brands. I have the data but I cannot share. We are talking about already high ranking sites with large volumes of traffic.

What, then, are the learnings here? In many ways there is nothing new here. PPC Ads favour the underdog and the new competitor. Ads are the way to the top of the listing without the patient process of SEO optimisation which can and should take years. But for established brands that are already top of their game in terms of SEO, PPC clouds the results. It brings fewer quality leads but also takes away traffic that would normally come from those top ranking search results, which slightly harms those SERPs (as the ads get clicked on not the link). PPC ads can literally be a waste of money, even if done as perfectly as possible, as those aforementioned search agencies do.

And here comes the rub. This ‘experiment’ has shown what happens if universally all players in a sector stop their PPC activity. Now that we begin the process of returning to normality, it is time to take stock about who really wins from PPC and to be mindful about feeding the beast that is Google (or Bing).

In an ideal world it would be cheaper and better to have a call with the competitors and agree on who bids on what. Then spend that saved cash on a slap up meal together. But this is not the ideal world and that might even constitute illegal collusion. PPC favours the newcomer so any gentleman agreement would be broken in days by some unscrupulous upstart. This is the way.

Therefore we are are stuck in the cycle of feeding money to the beast for fewer good leads that take away traffic from your hard earned SEO listings. This is not going to change as it is not in the interest of the provider (who gets paid for every click). If they were serious then a small change might be people not bidding on your brand name as a search term. This favours only the competitor and Google. The latter makes vast sums from this, of course.

A word on traffic. Earlier I mentioned that traffic was down for key sectors sales, and therefore traffic has dropped. But in other sectors traffic has all gone online and therefore traffic is hugely up. Think cinemas, whose searches, ‘footfall’, and money has all gone to streaming services. Overall it seems that we have all gone online, and therefore we are spending all of our time online. There is data to support this industry by industry:

COVID-19’s impact on PPC advertising

Article removed

And there is other evidence to suggest that more and more traffic has gone “off SERP”. In other words, as people are spending more time on Facebook and the like, then ads, recommendations and traffic is coming direct from these channels. A good investigation of this, and other topics in this article can be found here:

Update – The Impact of COVID-19 on PPC: Industry-by-Industry has been removed

There are of course already signs that we are creeping back, inevitably to our old ways: “Specifically, starting the second week of April, paid search conversions rebounded to about 89% of their pre-COVID levels.”

The moral of this tale then?

Firstly seriously examine the traffic and stats from this unique time for your business. What can you learn, what trends did you see.

Secondly, be wary of restarting the arms race that is PPC bidding. Start from zero rather than from the status quo. Spend warily as your competitors will hopefully be doing the same.

Lockdown has been an opportunity for us to examine what is important, and for us lucky ones to return to a simpler life. Perhaps in the world of ad spend this should also be true.

Further reading:


This article was first published on LinkedIn:


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