I used to tell people that if they were shopping online and using Google to search for specific products, that they should visit sites returned under the Sponsored Listings before they checked the natural search results; the rationale being that merchants who pay to advertise their products on Google AdWords will deliver more accurate results faster.

Well, after a frustrating – no, grueling – attempt to source a Christmas gift online this year, I won’t be sharing that particular tidbit of advice anymore.

The experience led me to conclude that most Internet merchants and affiliate marketers who use PPC to drive traffic are more interested in getting visitors to their sites than in actually selling to those visitors, a focus which in my opinion is completely bass-ackwards.

Case in point: I wanted to buy a specific 42-inch round teak coffee table online and have it shipped to a family member in Ontario, Canada. All summer, the table had been widely distributed through patio furniture stores in major North American cities, under a variety of brand and model names, including Kingsley- Bate and Candice. I bought the same table locally in the spring for $1,399, and was hoping to do some serious dollar-cost-averaging in September by taking advantage of end-of-season sales. Too, with the Canadian and U.S. dollars at par, inexpensive shipping rates and negligible customs duties, I was fully prepared to shop cross-border.

Googling the phrase "kingsleybate 42" round teak coffee table" produced exact product search results for merchants using Google Checkout, as well as page after page of highly relevant natural search listings. My curiosity as an Internet and affiliate marketer, however, led me to check out the Sponsored Listings first. What I found – and didn’t find – was disappointing to say the least.

Had I wanted to change the bait board to a food tray on my nonexistent boat, the product returned under eBay’s top spot "Bait Table" Sponsored Listing may have been a good find. Authenteak.com had a table similar to the one I wanted, shown without a price or full description, but the site didn’t facilitate online sales, and a 2,637-mile trip to Atlanta wasn’t an option. Authenteak did however have a link to Kingsley-Bate’s official site which listed U.S. dealers only, so I continued my search.

Frontera’s "Kingsley-Bate Furniture" Sponsored Listing title looked promising. After meandering through the Classic and Normandy collections, I found the table I wanted for a reasonable $531.00. A note under their "Policies" link, which read, "For international shipments, please contact our Customer Service department for information regarding shipping options and rates to your destination" led me to think that my search might nearly be over, but the "Customer Service" link within the statement was broken. The Customer Service tab at the top of the page provided an email address but no phone number. Suspecting that my assumption of success was premature, I visited the order page, where sure enough, "Frontera Furniture Company does not ship to Canada" was highlighted in yellow near the top of the order page.

Back to scanning the Sponsored Listings, BizRate’s somewhat generic "Round Teak Table" title with a BizRate.com/TeakOutdoor display URL got the click. Links near the top of the landing page labeled "Outdoor Furniture" and "Living Room Furniture" both led to product pictures of tables all clearly intended for outdoor use. I had to wonder whether the Biz- Rate folks care that they disappoint those looking for living room furniture or that visitors shopping for outdoor furniture might miss an array of relevant products shown under the mislabeled link. Indeed, as I scrolled down the page again past a Google AdSense display that took up most of the area above the fold, it appeared that BizRate’s primary objective was to make quick revenue from folks leaving the site, rather than sell their affiliated merchants’ wares.

Casting a Wide Net

Broadening my search to "42" round teak table," eBay.ca returned a "Teak Table" listing title. Products on the resulting page included teak patio furniture sets with tables, teak table lamps, fancy veneer radial tabletop skins (quarter teak) and an oil painting easel. The tabletop that I was looking for showed up on the second page, but I decided to forego the frustration of hunting for a matching set of table legs which the seller did not have listed.

Shopzilla merchants CSNLighting and Teak Wicker & More both showed the 36" model, so I clicked on CSNLighting and located the 42" model by doing a brand and highly specific keyword search. CSNLighting does not ship to Canada, so I visited Teak Wicker & More and discovered that it too is a division of CSN Stores, Inc., which sells everything from cuckoo clocks to Crock-Pots and trash cans to TV stands across a network of 212 websites, all with the same "we don’t want your Canadian business" policy. OK, those are my words, not theirs.

Results didn’t improve by adding "Canada" to the phrase. HomeDepot. ca and a furniture broker in Coquitlam, B.C., showed up, neither of which carried a stick of teak furniture. An onsite search for "teak" under Home & Garden at Sears.ca also produced "0 results" along with the suggestion that I might look at men’s shirts and ladies’ pull-on pants for "more shopping ideas."

Still Searching

A search for the phrase "teak furniture" had the no-content Ad- Sense and YPN (Yahoo Publisher Network) arbitragers showing up in droves. The "Teak Furniture Directory" promised "The Teak Furniture Deal Guide" where visitors will "Find Teak Furniture Quickly," yet sends them to a TeakFurniture subdirectory of SwimmingPools101. com where the only teak mentioned was in a YPN ad.

Most bizarre of all was a Sponsored Listing titled "The Teak Outlet Shop" that included "Find Teak Quickly" in its description. The landing page presented a "How to Install Moulding" article, and a quick browse around the site revealed it as repository of do-it-yourself articles monetized with AdSense.

Although neither carried the product I wanted, two sites deserve kudos for their sales conversion efforts. GoldenTeak’s "Summer Sale Teak 25% OFF" listing title was a big draw (to a sadly designed site), and the first thing I spotted on Decor Americana’s site was BETTER THAN TEAK – Brazilian Cherry is the hardest and most durable weatherproof wood available." They almost had me convinced, but didn’t carry anything remotely close to the table that I wanted.

Despite Wordtracker’s predicted 466 searches for the day and an ample supply of teak product merchants with affiliate programs, not one teak-selling content-publishing affiliate showed up in the Sponsored Listings. Commission Junction alone returned more than 1,000 "teak" products with merchants such as Yardiac paying up to 15 percent commissions. Although teak-related AdWords are pretty pricey at the moment, when Google finally gets serious about producing relevant search results and dumps the no-content AdSense and YPN arbitragers outright, advertising costs for real affiliates (and merchants) should decrease substantially.

So 10 years after the introduction of PPC search engines, most advertisers apparently still know very little about basic campaign management techniques; particularly broad, phrase, negative and exact keyword matching options as well as geo-targeting – all of which lowers advertising costs and increases sales. To rectify the problem, companies may elect to outsource their campaign management; however, having a PPC specialist on board who understands your business is the best option. An in-depth PPC training course is available at PPCClassroom.org.

As for my table, I toughed out another 6-hour round trip to buy the second one from my "local" supplier at 50 percent off the original price. I’m now looking for a large shipping box – something I won’t attempt to source online – as I suspect a Google search for "shipping container" would produce a "container ship" just full of 42" round teak tables en route from Vietnam or Indonesia.