The History of PPC

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Once in a while, it’s good to look back on where we came from. I didn’t start out in PPC – in fact it didn’t exist when I started working. My PPC career began in 2002 when Google announced the CPC version of Adwords.

But the history of PPC, surprisingly, doesn’t start with Google. It started with GoTo back in the late 1990s. GoTo turned into Overture, and then Yahoo bought them in 2003.

Recently, some of us on PPCchat started a new hashtag, #ppctbt. It’s an homage to Throwback Thursday, but specifically related to the history of PPC. It’s been fun to reminisce about all the retro PPC engines that aren’t around anymore: FindWhat, LookSmart, Kanoodle, Enhance, and many more.

Back in the day, when I did in-house SEM and CPCs were a lot lower, I tested so many of these early engines. We tested FindWhat (so-so), LookSmart (decent), Kanoodle (not good), Enhance (pretty bad), Findology (not good, although shockingly, they still exist – which I didn’t realize until today!), and Quigo (which wasn’t bad, although time-consuming to manage).

It’s so funny to look at that list and realize that I was actually able to manage all of those engines and not lose my mind! Although, if you think about it, today isn’t that different. We just have Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn instead of Kanoodle and FindWhat.

In those early days of history, PPC was so new that there was only a small group of professionals doing it. We hung out on search forums like IHelpYou, Search Engine Watch, and High Rankings, sharing tips and asking questions. In those days, I learned so much from Danny Sullivan, Andrew Goodman, Jill Whalen, Brad Geddes, Kevin Lee – and many others who’ve since left the SEM field.

It’s interesting to look back and see how much the space has changed. We didn’t have Twitter in 2002; in fact, the Search Engine Watch forums didn’t exist in 2002, and SES had just started (I’m still getting used to calling it ClickZ Live, folks). Few blog posts on PPC strategy existed. We learned by trial and error. It was great!

Lest I sound too much like PPC Moses, I’ll just say that it’s fun to see the industry evolve. PPC is both easier and harder than it used to be: easier, because the engines have improved so much usability-wise; and harder, because the competition is so fierce. 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of paying more than $2-$3 per click; now, $20-$30 CPCs are common.

But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s been a great ride so far!

What about you? What do you remember about the history of PPC? When did you get your start? Share in the comments, or on Twitter using #ppctbt – you don’t have to wait till Thursday to chime in!

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  1. Memories… I can’t go back to 2002, but even in 2006 the landscape was vastly different than it is today. I cut my teeth in AdWords, of course, but the version of Yahoo! at the time was simply a rebranded Overture. I actually kind of miss it. Bidding was straight forward. Know what the next closest competitor is bidding and increase by 1 penny. Fun times. Of course came Panama, but I’ll just stop there.

    That was when Microsoft paid Yahoo! for the rights to their search technology. Quite the turn of events that most people forget about (or ignore). The first version of AdCenter was atrocious and such low volume. Pretty interesting to see the evolution of the AdCenter / Bing Ads ecosystem over the past 8 years, too.

  2. Don’t forget JimWorld. 🙂

    I virtually met one of our first employees, Scott Perry, through private message on that forum because we were both complaining about GoTo click fraud… and having our posts censored because GoTo was sponsoring the forum. 🙂

    In 2002 or 2003, I helped one of my first clients get a huge flood of traffic to his email software startup advertising on the term “” at a nickel a click. (There was no such functional domain at the time, but a lot of Canadians typed it.) Try doing that with Quality Score today!

    We also dabbled in the account of a still-popular “Cold Calling Critic.” One of the keywords we hit on was the broad match for the word “sales” – single word – (don’t try this at home, kids), using thousands upon thousands of negatives. Again, with the way proto-Quality-Score worked then, you could pull stunts like that.

    Also, competitor words *did not have any Quality Score challenges*. We could fill up campaigns with the competition’s brand words and not pay any type of premium. The ROI was outrageous! That is, if you could stomach the potential lawsuits. The legal precedent was not as well established at the time. At SES London, junior marketers working for large firms would shout at SEM’s in what felt like one step removed from having us placed in the gallows for violating their precious trademark … so strongly did these employees identify with their parent companies and the legal system.

    After I released my AdWords ebook in 2002, I was invited to tour the Googleplex (the old one), and got to meet Barry Schnitt, David Krane, Sheryl Sandberg, and a few other folks. Two of those three work at FB now :). Google couldn’t believe people would need a book on AdWords. “Don’t people read the help files?”

    Definitely one consistent thread to all of that history is: PPC marketers are willing to try just about anything — if it works for ROI. The system had to be built robustly to create a level playing field for everyone and to weed out weird anomalies. 🙁 In that regard, we’re not so different from SEO’s. But really, right from the start, we witnessed an unfortunate “divide” between those who identified mainly with SEO and those who were open to PPC. The SEO folks were more rigid, “howled” bloody murder at the whole concept of paying for a customer, and seemed to think the free traffic gravy train could go on forever.

    And even within SEO, the divide between black hat and white hat became pretty pronounced. In PPC, the concept of “black hat” never really caught on, despite the efforts of a few.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      What can I say? Great stories! I knew you’d have a few, Andrew – your ebook was the first “book” I purchased on PPC! I printed it out (yes, all 100 pages or whatever it was) and kept it on my desk – and used it all the time in those early days. And JimWorld! I didn’t hang out there much but I do remember it, along with the black hat/white hat and SEO vs. PPC fights.

      And ah, the days before Quality Score! We made *so* much money back then. Sigh…

  3. Lisa Sanner says

    Nice article Melissa! I don’t go quite that far back (2005 for me), but I do share the experience of reading and being inspired by Andrew’s book. I printed it too, highlighted and wrote all over it. I might still actually have that copy in a file cabinet, keeping it as a souvenir.

    Coming from a world of traditional media buying/planning (radio, tv, print) and then also market research and product management for a start up during the bubble, I started dabbling in ppc after taking a career hiatus and being a full time mom for 7 years, just to learn something new and help out two friends who had started an agency. I loved the rapid testing environment and cause-effect of seeing the results of my optimizations. For advertising, it just was so logical, data intense, and made so much sense. I knew I was hooked; my Adwords/ppc addiction commenced. It was like a drug.

    From the early days, I do miss creating bid jamming rules (that was really FUN), and investigating and proving click fraud, but I definitely do not miss all the conversion tracking issues, manual URL building sessions, or lack of analytics. PPC’ers who don’t know life before Adwords Editor can’t fathom how ridiculously mind-numbing some tasks were. I share your review of LookSmart, FindWhat, and also bought Ask Jeeves and separately with some mild success.

    Fun looking back…. but more exciting looking forward. 🙂

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Ah yes, we also bought Ask Jeeves and Ask was pretty good at that time, the best of the mid-size engines imho. didn’t work for us but it wasn’t our market at the time. So fun hearing all the stories!

  4. I guess I’m a newb compared to you guys since I started in 2010. Even over the last 4 years though, things have changed a bit. For instance, getting my paid search start at an e-commerce equipment company, I was particularly close to the continuing evolution of Google Shopping. Let’s see if I remember them all: Froogle > Google Base > Google Product Search > Google Shopping… did I miss one?

    And just think, all of us will look back on this time period in a decade and say “remember when we lived through the 2013 enhanced campaign changes?”

  5. Another newb here. I was 18 at my first job, and the company I worked for bought an online subscription-based company that relied on SEO/PPC/social, but nobody knew anything about those channels. So they told me to learn. I found it so fascinating that regular people could affect Google search results. It’s been quite the ride ever since.

    At the time we bid on Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon (ClickRiver) – all through different interfaces. And even then, in my industry, CPCs were really low. It was so hard for me to adjust from cents per click to dollars per click (which are much more normal for my current clients).

    I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning, and way more than that doing. I love the trackability and results-accountability that we have – the more you focus on that, the better you get. And it’s a real thrill knowing that you’re generating massive business benefit for clients.

  6. ah Mel! The good old days! You know what I love about this industry is how “old timers” and “newbs” can work side by side. Sometimes those of us who have been around a while forget that the “basics” is where it is at many times. Consistently doing the basics many times will win out over crazy “mad scientist” PPC experiments.

    You forget that until you have the opportunity to train multiple people brand new to the industry. Have to say I am grateful that serendipitous fortune helped me get my start as an account executive, managing and selling PPC for Lycos back in ’06

    Thanks for the #ppctbt post it’s fun to reminisce

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Bryant, so true that we all need to go back to basics at times. That’s why I love training new people – it forces me to remember, and also to understand and explain WHY we do what we do. And I learn a lot from newbs who are better at technology than I am. It’s great!

  7. This is a fun look back 🙂

    Back in the day (late 90s for me) I’d often sit and figure out the exact moment that GoToast would change someone’s bids and map that out over 24 hours before I set up my own bid management.

    I also find that our terminology in this industry has a short life span. Twelve years ago we were using: bid jamming, gap surfing, bid shadows, etc.

    I’m ready for Quality Score to be the next word retired 🙂

  8. Ryan Bartholomew says

    Was curious about some of the old PPC engines and came across this wonderful article. Thanks for rekindling some great memories! I was an early GoTo advertiser (so early that I remember when they essentially had no relevancy restrictions) and ended up being Google’s first advertiser in 2000 (when it was CPM). Built a career out if it, largely by sending huge quantities of traffic to Amazon via their Associates program. Still work with Google in a lot of ways, though my strictly-PPC days are long over. One of my fondest memories, as odd as it may sound, was scrambling to access super-deep lists of search terms that would enable 1-cent bids on long-tail terms. Ah, those were the days…

  9. Melina Williams says

    It was Google, among others, that finally created a search engine that ranked pages in a way that made sense (read more here about that) and by 2000, search engines in essence became the best starting point for finding web content. Since then, the number of searches has grown dramatically (and steadily) and with the widespread adoption of broadband access, search engines have become utterly vital to our web experience.


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