Web Demographics Are Overrated

Last week, I wrote about some changes going on with Yahoo demographic targeting. This week, I wanted to follow up with some more specific reasons why I think demographic targeting for pay-per-click campaigns is less useful than the search engines would have you believe.

There are three main reasons why I think web demographics are unreliable:

  1. The inaccuracy of demographic statistics online – a great deal of user demographics that search engines use is pulled from third party data vendors, opt-in data, and algorithms that provide “estimates” of user data (source, source). None of these sources could possibly provide information with 100% accuracy. Third party data providers have an incentive to overestimate the value (and accuracy) of their data, opt-in demographic data is by definition incomplete (since you’re not gathering information on 100% of users), and I’d be surprised if my life could be quantified by a computer program. These are the building blocks that you would base your ad planning assumptions on. If you’re targeting 35-40 year old females, how can you be sure that any of these methods could accurately estimate the actual person who is seeing your ad fits into those categories? That brings me to…
  2. One computer DOES NOT equal one person – I’m sure that there are plenty of households out there that share a computer. How many times have you looked up something on someone else’s machine? Despite all the big talk about demographic targeting, there’s really no way to truly target the person. Our ad process ends at the computer screen – you can’t control who is using it. You have no certainty that the user viewing your ad through the lens of the computer monitor is actually the owner of the machine, or the person that all of these fancy demographic programs have data on.
  3. Reliance on voluntary data – Of the three sources mentioned in point #1, two of them rely on voluntary data – the third-party data (probably) and the opt-in data (definitely). For starters, you only reach a small percentage of people who will actually take the time out of their day to volunteer this data. I’m willing to bet that a vast majority of people prompted for this information either are too busy to fill it out correctly, or choose to provide inaccurate or invalid data due to privacy concerns. Then, you have to take into account the people who filled out the information, but provide misleading information either through carelessness or willful inaccuracy.

After you take all of this into account, what percentage of your audience do you think has completely accurate demographic information? Ten percent? Five? Maybe less? There’s probably no way to even know. Instead of relying on these vague demographics, do yourself a favor and spend more time analyzing the data that you know is correct – historical keyword reports and analytics tracking. These sources will provide a much greater wealth of insight than the lazy demographics put out by the search engines.

About Shawn Livengood

Shawn Livengood is a search engine marketing professional based in Austin, Texas. He has extensive experience managing pay-per-click ad campaigns for clients in various industries, from small home-based businesses to large international companies. You can connect with Shawn on Google+.
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