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For the last several weeks a team of Kellogg MBA students has been experimenting with Google AdWords ads on behalf of Genlighten. It’s been an interesting exercise — by which I mean educational, rather than dramatically successful.

As evidenced by the popularity of books like Dan Lynch’s Google Your Family Tree, a lot of genealogists are using the world’s favorite search engine as a research tool. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: do any of them ever click on the “Sponsored Links” next to their search results?

Try this experiment (in another browser window!) Type the single word “genealogy” [no quotes needed] into Google’s search box. If your experience is like mine, you’ll see one sponsored link (with a shaded background) above your search results, and a list of nine more in a column on the right-hand side of your browser window. Two questions for you: 1) who’s buying these ads; and 2) are you at all tempted to click on any of them?

On my results page for a search on “genealogy”, I see Ancestry’s ad in the number one position (at the top of the page) and ads for EllisIsland.org, OneGreatFamily.com and GenealogyBank.com, among others, along the right-hand edge. Since I’m already familiar with these sites and their costs/benefits, I’m not at all inclined to click on any of their ads.

The ads for sites I’ve never heard of, however, do pique my curiosity some. “Free Genealogy Records” reads one. “Free Genealogy Search” is the headline for the one right below it. I’m not sure why, but my internal “bait and switch” alarm goes off when I see these. What comes up when I click on the ad?

The “landing page” I see after clicking starts off innocuously enough, with a search box that allows me to enter the name of the individual I’m looking for. But the word “free” is noticeably absent. They’ve already dropped that claim. (Turns out I won’t see any results without paying $29.94 first.)

The remainder of the text on the page has an odd ring to it, almost as if it were created by a computer algorithm that was well-trained to compose English text, but didn’t quite pass the Turing Test. For instance, the word “Ancestry” shows up repeatedly, in odd contexts. And then there are those long, repetitive lists of terms such as “<name of state> Genealogy Searches” and “<name of state> Ancestry Search”. What’s going on here?

The answer lies in the arcane field of Search Engine Optimization / Search Engine Marketing (SEO/SEM). The company that purchased the “Free Genealogy Search” ad — for a genealogy search that isn’t free — is simply utilizing techniques that have been demonstrated to produce good results on Google. They’ve included words and phrases in the text on the page that have been shown to be popular with Google users.

The word “Ancestry”, for example, is a very popular search term. Why? If I want to visit Ancestry.com, wouldn’t I just type that into my browser’s navigation window? Sounds reasonable, but the data show that many people instead type Ancestry into Google’s search box instead, and since Ancestry’s site pops up as the first search result, they click on that link to be taken to the site.

So the company behind the “Free Genealogy Search” ad simply sprinkles the word Ancestry in seemingly random places on their site, hoping to gain some of the “Google Juice” that Ancestry has invested heavily to obtain. Google is currently being sued by companies seeking to prevent similar attempts to piggyback on their brands’ popularity. [To be fair, I'm not accusing the "Free Genealogy Search" people of any such thing.]

Where am I going with all this? As the founder of a fledgling genealogy-focused web startup that will soon need to attract users, I’m extremely interested in the potential cost of “customer acquisition”. Google ads are appealing to advertisers precisely because they make it easy to determine that cost. Google can tell the advertiser exactly how much they need to pay every time a potential user clicks on one of their ads. Combine that number with the “conversion rate” — the fraction of those who click on the ads who actually sign up for the advertiser’s product — and the customer acquisition cost can be specified with surprising accuracy.

But there’s a big unknown that Google can’t easily eliminate for me as a potential advertiser. Who will click on the ads I might choose to pay for? Will they be the kinds of potential customers who will really grasp what Genlighten is all about? And what if I try to use Google ads to recruit potential lookup providers? Will I risk sacrificing quality for quantity in such cases?

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Do you click on “sponsored links” — Google AdWords Ads — when you use Google for genealogy research? If so, what has your experience been with those ads? I’d love to hear from you.

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