How To Choose Between Google AdWords And Facebook Ads

SMBs with tight budgets and schedules can't afford to throw their online advertising dollars against a wall to see what sticks. Here are some guidelines for choosing the right site.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

September 28, 2011

7 Min Read

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It doesn't require a whole lot of highfalutin' analysis to identify a key reason behind Facebook's recent changes: Increasing the site's appeal to advertisers.

Facebook is a business, after all. Research firm eMarketer recently estimated the company will take in more than $4.2 billion worldwide in 2011. The bulk of that--$3.8 billion--is advertising revenue, and it's no secret that smaller businesses collectively comprise the big sales whale. That's true, too, for one of Facebook's chief competitors: Google pursues a similar target with its AdWords platform, which likewise continues to evolve.

So is one a better fit than the other for small businesses? "They're very similar but different advertising paradigms," said Larry Kim, CTO of online marketing firm WordStream, in an interview.

[ Learn about some improvements to Facebook. Read Facebook Strengthens Security, Safety Tools ]

If you're comparison shopping AdWords and Facebook Ads, these guidelines can help you make the right decision.

The Disclaimers

There's absolutely no rule that says you can't advertise on both sites--or neither, for that matter. Nor are they the only games in town. There are indeed other options, including Microsoft's Bing-Yahoo platform and industry-specific channels. But both AdWords and Facebook Ads warrant at least a look simply by virtue of audience size. Google still dominates the search game with nearly two-thirds market share, according to Experian HitWise. Facebook, meanwhile, is The Social Network--it seems just a matter of time before they announce 1 billion accounts.

How They're Similar

Both Google's and Facebook's advertising platforms share some fundamental things in common--that massive potential audience, for one. Kim, who toils daily in the world of clicks and conversions, points out that both are primarily pay-per-click (PPC) advertising channels, even though both offer other advertising options. Likewise, the basic systems for each are largely self-service for smaller advertisers. Kim also points out that both offer free marketing tools, such as Facebook Pages and Google Places, that don't require an ad buy. Another similarity--the opportunity to run campaigns targeting very specific market segments--ultimately leads into the differences between the two platforms.

Advertising Intent

The fundamental question to ask when comparing Google AdWords and Facebook Ads: What is your goal for the campaign? Your answer will go a long way to determining which channel is a better fit. The reason is fairly straightforward: the Web audience doesn't search Google and check their Facebook Profile--excuse me, Timeline--in the same way.

"SMBs really have to figure out what they are trying to sell and to who," Kim said. "Is it branding, or are you trying to sell something very specific?"

Kim said that because a Facebook session tends to last much longer than the typical Google search, the former be a better match for building brand awareness or getting a specific message across. That's even more true if that message is intended for a very specific audience, such as a university alumni group or people that like True Blood. Such specific, people-oriented messages would be more difficult to do with AdWords, Kim said, though not impossible.

But Kim notes that Facebook isn't strong in pure Web searches; Google has the clear advantage there, and as a result could be the better fit for driving actual clicks and conversions around specific products. It comes down to intent: Whereas Facebook users might just be checking up on their friends or posting vacation photos, Google searchers typically have a much more specific goal.

"If you're trying to sell wireless headphones or something like this, it would be very difficult to target that level of granular intent on Facebook, whereas you could just buy the keyword on Google," Kim said. Facebook's lower click-through rates--which Kim said can be as much as 1,000 times lower than comparable Google campaigns--make their ads more like traditional display ads, just with much, much better audience targeting. Put another way: Facebook Ads could be better at building a brand or delivering a marketing message over a longer period of time, but Google offers a clearer opportunity to capture consumers that are itching to buy now.

"[Google users] are trying to find exactly what they're looking for, so that leads to high click-through rates and high conversion rates, because they have a pain or some question that they're trying to resolve when they're doing that search," Kim said. "[Advertisers] are capturing that intent right at the right time."

Ease Of Use

Kim wouldn't describe either platform as easy for do-it-yourselfers: "They're both quite challenging," he said. But Facebook could have a slight edge over AdWords because so many people have personal accounts and therefore are generally familiar with the user interface. (Those that use AdWords for fun are a lonely bunch.) Google recently launched AdWords Express to appeal to SMBs without the time or interest in navigating the complexities of the flagship platform.

[ Google may offer some unusual advertising opportunities through recent acquisitions, such as Google Gobbles Zagat Yum. Yum. ]

"Facebook might actually be easier," Kim said. "The reason is because Google has just such tremendous depth and breadth of features and functions. Every week there's a new AdWords feature or function that you need to learn about."

Kim added that the SMBs he works with tend to be "overwhelmed" by AdWords. In either case, he points out that effective campaigns--regardless of channel--require SMB marketers to move seamlessly between different roles such as creative director, business analyst, media buyer, and the like--all while running their actual day-to-day operations.

Audience Granularity

While Facebook's recently announced updates don't directly change its advertising platform, Kim said they're likely to make that granularity, well, more granular. More data on what people eat, watch, read, and buy could lead to more targeted advertising opportunities.

"I think that will trickle down to the advertising platform to provide greater granularity in terms of the ability to segment their audience and present different types of ads and offers to users," Kim said. "Facebook will have more data."

Google, too, is all about granularity--it's just that it remains more keyword-driven. And though keywords remain the lifeblood of advertising on Google, it's not like AdWords doesn't provide other means of targeting an audience--all those features and functions Kim mentioned have to do something, right? Geo-targeting and language specification are two basic ones.

Coming Attractions

Beyond the immediate AdWords ecosystem, Kim said Google has been offering more demographic-based advertising options via its Google Display Network. Specifically, Kim said there's more emphasis and interest around retargeting--sometimes called behavioral marketing or remarketing--which involves showing ads to users based on their past Web activity. Kim said that has particularly powerful implications for Google (and its advertisers) because those ads can follow their intended audience through the company's vast network of partner sites. (Facebook Ads, on the other hand, only show up within Facebook.) In the past, those ads were based on the content of the Web page. Now, they can be based on the user's past behavior.

"It targets audiences--so it's starting to sound a little like Facebook," Kim said. "It's kind of a shift in Google's targeting strategies."

Audience-driven (rather than keyword-based) ads on Google are almost certain to increase via another channel, too: Google+. As the young social site matures, expect additional advertising opportunities as a result. For the time being, though, Facebook still has the edge on audience accuracy.

"On Facebook, you actually specify what school you went to and what you like, whereas on Google they're trying to infer it based on your surfing behavior," Kim said. "However, now that they have Google+, they're going to have the same ability to target your interests and memberships just how Facebook does."

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About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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