Web 2.0 was alive and popping on Monday in the wake of the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Twitpic: They were all fairly frothing with user-contributed content.
But there was one place that remained essentially untouched: Google search. Or, rather, that long white space to the right of search results. Pop in the term “Osama Bin Laden,” and no ads came up. That's right: zero. No one, it seems, was diving into the AdWords auction for this particular keyword. Not a one.
We picked up the phone and asked Google about it. They reminded us that advertisers mostly use AdWords to jump in front of users who are already planning a purchase. Drop "cowboy boots" into search, for example, and you’ll be drowning in ads before you can make it to one of those little blue results links.
That makes sense. But the term "Osama Bin Laden" was getting stratospheric attention on Monday. It surfed the top of Google’s Hot Trends page and, Google tells us, on Sunday, between 10:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m. ET, the term "bin laden" got a one million percent increase (yes: 1,000,000%) in searches over the the previous weekend. Surely someone might try to capitalize on that, to sell an American flag or two, perhaps, or recruit able-bodied men and women to the services?
Google also reminded us that advertisers can pick and choose the geographic locations in which they wanted their ads to appear. So, for example, mamby-pamby lily-livered San Francisco (where this particular writer is located) might not be a top customer demographic for advertisers seeking to appeal to true-blue patriots. But then we used Google’s AdWords preview tool--which shows you how ads appear in different geographic locations--to see if maybe there were any ads showing up for people living near places like Fort Benning or Camp Pendleton. But the answer there seemed to be no as well.
Then we thought about the last criteria for AdWords ads: Relevance. Google assigns a quality score to each ad to ensure that the ones it displays have some relevance to the search the user is performing. It’s all about creating a great experience for the user. If you’ve ever been exposed to one of those dancing mortgage ads when you have no interest in buying a house, you know what we're talking about.
"Google AdWords allows advertisers to get a specific message in front of people who are searching for relevant information, related to news stories and beyond, via paid search ads," Google spokeswoman Rebecca Ginsburg tells Fast Company.
So in the Google world, that means if you are an enterprising seller of toilet brushes and you wanted to capitalize on the worldwide frenzy Monday, the system might nevertheless not permit your ad to appear next to an “Osama” search, because your product simply wasn’t related to the area of the searcher's interest.
We continued to check back throughout the day, to see if anyone somehow jumped on this opportunity, but nothing changed. Not a single ad all day as far as we saw.
This isn’t always the case with big news stories. Plenty of advertisers find ways to sidle up next to dramatic developments. During the Royal Wedding, for example (remember that?), plenty of advertisers bid up wedding-related keywords to push everything from replicas of the sapphire ring Prince William gave the bride to "fascinators," those little slips of hats that British women toss onto their heads given the slightest provocation. And when bed bugs plagued New York, enterprising exterminators got on the case, via AdWords.
And indeed, we caught a glimpse of that MO yesterday. At the beginning of the day, no one seemed to have much interest in the term "Navy SEALs," despite the fact that the special forces operators that executed the raid on the Bin Laden compound were being hailed as heroes left and right. (The term was also a top Google Hot Trends search term.)
But toward the end of the day, at least a few vendors had clued into the untapped opportunity. We were, for example, offered the chance to snap up a Navy SEAL-branded trailer hitch cover, which made sense.
But also appearing next to the search results was an ad for "DuWop Smoke," which, we discovered, is a type of makeup. Its relevance to the term "Navy SEALs" eluded us--until we deduced that Google's system had determined that our interest in that particular keyword lay more in things matrimonial than reportorial. And after perusing some of the images that came up in SEAL-y search results, we think they might actually be on to something.