Google AdWords Invade - Huge Upside or Huge Mistake?

Today (Friday), as I trolled the Old, I was shocked to find the site running Google Adwords campaigns on the bottom of each product category page. I rubbed my eyes and did a double take. Then I noticed it in left column navigation, too.

"Huhhh?" I retorted, out loud.

As a long suffering ecommerce practitioner, I have studied Gap's eCommerce infrastructure (which is shared across Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Pipelime and Athleta).  I understand their model, IA, design and functionality... and I have considered it a category leader with regard to usability and merchandising.  Lately, however, I've felt it getting a bit cluttered...with solicitations for newsletters, cross-site ads, promotions and extra navigation. Their bill payment areas are problematic, suffer from service outages and are not very usable. Now, on top of all this -- they've added Google Ads.. 

I find this intriguing and perplexing on a personal and professional level.

Competitive ads on an eCommerce site?  Isn't it a conflict of interest?  Doesn't it compete with user attention?  Doesn't it violate some cardinal experience rule related to task interruption? Won't it motivate shoppers to go purchase elsewhere? Wouldn't the loss of sales subvert the potential revenue up-side of the advertising?

Evidently not!

Click into just about any category and find a series of text-driven Google Ads under the left-hand navigatoin and at the bottom of the product listing (see magenta arrows above for placement). Click an ad and you'll get a new window corresponding to the ad. The ads are, of course, using Google's contextual targeting technology. Men's Jeans pointed me to Lee, Nordstrom and several other retailers. Womens Plus New Arrivals points to ads for HSN, Nordstom, Avenue and other retailers. Women's Sweaters point to ads for Ann Taylor, JJill, Victoria's Secret and others.

I did some web-based probing. I don't see any articles on the web about this yet. Based on a few spot checks, this is not active on any other Gap property other than Old Navy, yet. I also reached out to @oldnavy on Twitter, waited for response and got nothing. Quickly realizing it does not seem to be Gap's pattern to publicly interact with anyone on Twitter, other than Re-tweeting positive mentions (Boo for that, by the way).  So, I decided to write a post about it.

Last month, Old Navy alone had  2,593,080 unqiue visitors to its subdomain.  That's a nice amount of traffic and equates to a grand number of impressions.  So, maybe the up-side, from a pure revenue perspective, will be worth it.

As a professional who plays in the eCommerce, Digital/Social media and marketing space... I'd love more information that probably falls in the "none of your business" category!  In the end, I am left asking myself what the tradeoff will be, in terms of sales, revenue and relationship?" Maybe people will filter it out - and maybe not. Perhaps Gap Inc. is merely searching for answers. I applaud them for questioning, and wonder:
  • Is this some kind of public test?
  • Did Gap do any lab-based user testing go gauge user reaction, behavior and sentiment?
  • Does Gap anticipate that people actually click these ads?
  • Is Gap concerned the ads might irritate customers?
  • What is the calculated risk of this practice?
  • What's the potential financial up-side of this practice?
  • Is the company doing any analysis of click patterns from these ads?
  • Will these soon appear on,, Piperlime and Banana Republic, too?
Not that I think they will give me any public answers...I mean -- who am I?  Whatever the case, this is a lot more provocative than adding Facebook "like" buttons to product or the home page...

As a consumer... the ads feel disruptive and out of place.  I literally had a "What The Heck?" moment when I noticed them.  I did notice them right away on this visit, but in fairness, I don't know if they have gone unnoticed in previous visits.  I haven't been on the site in at least three weeks.  I weighed my "shopper reaction" and it was negative -- although by clicking an ad out of curiosity, I found Hannah Anderson had some really cute stuff!  Further, I find the AdWords placement adds to the confusion of an increasingly cluttered design, which is the tip of the iceberg with my frustrations over some key areas of the site.  
Perhaps most significantly, I did not make a purchase.

What was I worth on that visit?  Was the loss of a sale worth it? Will the retailer assume I'll go back and buy anyway? I guess the jury is still out.  We'll see if the ads continue...or spread.

(Author note: Shortly after this posting, I @JamieHolzinger pointed out that Target is using Google AdWords, too (scroll down to see ads, as well as full banner ads for large brands). I haven't checked out Target online in awhile, so I hadn't picked up on this. Despite much Googling, I'm also having trouble locating articles about this.  So - we may be on to a new trend here. The question is whether it will be good for shoppers or not).

But now for the most important question:

What do you think?  Does the ad placement strike you as weird? Bothersome?  Desperate?  Smart?  Interesting?  Do you even notice them?


Paul Ten Haken said...

Interesting idea....not sure I would call it a good idea. Funny thing is that the AdSense ads are not there today. Hmmm.....

LivePath said...

Funny, this must be an A/B test because it's showin' up FINE for me! You do have to go into a category page, where multiple products are listed.

Promotional Products said...

I am with @Paul. Looks like a very interesting idea. Not sure what I think of it, this may take some head scratching and conversations.

JH said...

For a site that SELLS something, they shouldn't be running any ads that they don't have direct control over. And it seems to me that it lacks a bit of professionalism that a retailer site where I would presumably spend money, is making money off of me viewing an ad for a potential competitor on the side. I'm fine with news sites running ads -- they still need to make their money. I'm fine with personal sites running ads to try to get a bit of dough on the side. But something seems ethically wrong for a retailer site to also be running third-party ads at the same time that I am considering purchasing whatever they may be selling. If your online store is not making enough money to pay the bills, then something is wrong with the online store, or the products your selling, or the marketing or the site design. Re-evaluate what you're doing -- but please do not need to resort to hawking ads. It screams of desperation, and reeks of tackiness.

Leigh Durst said...

@JH not sure it's a problem of ETHICS but it does seem to be a conflict of interest. I'm glad i took screen shots - I can't access the ads anymore, so perhaps they have been taken down.

Plenty to see on though!

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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