Failure to Properly Value Mobile Clicks Leads to Google CPC Decline

Yesterday afternoon Google announced Q4 2012 earnings. In almost every respect it was a spectacular holiday quarter for the company. Consolidated revenues (which include Motorola) were $14.42 billion, an increase of 36% over 2011.

Google made $50.2 billion for the full year, crossing that revenue threshold for the first time. That compares with $37.9 billion the company made in 2011. 

Google revenues 2012 

However the average price that avertisers paid Google per click (CPCs) decreased 6 percent vs. Q4 2011. That was a smaller decline than in the past, which could be seen as a positive.

The CPC YoY drop is because more clicks are now coming from mobile devices and advertisers are paying less for those clicks. According to a report released yesterday from marketing firm The Search Agency, CPC prices for paid-search ads appearing on smartphones are well below comparable ads appearing on tablets and PCs (see graphic below).

In Q4 mobile search clicks were worth less than 50% of what marketers paid for PC search clicks according to the data. Why are marketers paying much less for mobile clicks when mobile consumers are often much better prospects and customers than PC users? 

There's less competition currently for mobile clicks than there is for PC search clicks. Because Google's ad system is an auction that necessarily affects pricing. But more than that many advertisers are unwilling to pay more for mobile clicks because they don't trust them and/or can't calculate a mobile ROI.  

CPCs - tablets, PCs, smartphones 

Source: The Search Agency 

Many search marketers, especially brands and large advertisers, rely on automated systems that calculate paid-search ROI based on some pre-defined conversion event. Those conversions can be a variety of things but frequently they're e-commerce transactions or, in some cases, phone calls. 

PC ROI calculations are generally flawed because they usually don't or can't capture online-influenced offline buying. Accordingly the system and the marketer only see online events but not the far larger collection of offline purchases and activities (e.g., store visits) that are driven by online and paid search advertising. The problem is even more pronouced for mobile, however. 

Because there are relatively few mobile commerce transactions -- though there are plenty of phone calls from mobile devices -- marketers simply don't see the "latent" conversions that happen in the real world or later on another screen, such as in the case where someone does research on a mobile device and later buys on a PC or tablet. 

As a result of this varied, multi-screen consumer behavior marketers aren't able to correctly perceive or attribute ROI and accordingly value mobile clicks. While this represents a "buying opportunity" for advertisers that know the true value of mobile the majority of advertisers are undervaluing mobile clicks. And that's reflected in the average CPC declines that Google has been reporting.