The Google AdWords Happening

Christophe Bruno, April 2002

Buy as NFT

Ars Electronica 2003

How to lose money with your art ?

At the beginning of April, a debate took place on mailing list, about how to earn money with net art. It suggested to me an answer to an easier problem : how to spend money with my art (if you understand everything on how to spend money, you should in principle understand also how to earn money, because of conservation laws...)

I decided to launch a happening on the web, consisting in a poetry advertisement campaign on Google AdWords . I opened an account for $5 and began to buy some keywords. For each keyword you can write a little ad and, instead of the usual ad, I decided to write little "poems", non-sensical or funny or a bit provocative.

I began with the keyword "symptom". The first ad I wrote was :

Words aren't free anymore
bicornuate-bicervical uterus
one-eyed hemi-vagina

As soon as the campaign was launched, I was able to see the results. Every time somebody was looking for the word "symptom" in Google, they could see my ad in the top right corner of the page.

My first satisfaction occured when somebody who had typed "hemorroid symptom" on Google arrived on my website, after having clicked on my ad.

I decided to explore this new world and to launch several campaigns. Each of them was to be a targeted poetic happening of a new kind.

How 12,000 people saw my "poems" in 24 hours and how I was censored by Google

In 24 hours, I launched the following campaigns, with the keywords "symptom", "dream", "mary", "money".

Words aren't free anymore
bicornuate-bicervical uterus
one-eyed hemi-vagina
Keyword Clicks Impr. CTR Avg. CPC Cost
symptom 16 5517 0.3% $0.05 $0.8
Follow your dreams
Did I just urinate ?
Directly into the wind
Keyword Clicks Impr. CTR Avg. CPC Cost
dream 14 2837 0.4% $0.05 $0.70
mary !!!
I love you
come back
Keyword Clicks Impr. CTR Avg. CPC Cost
mary 31 2682 1.1% $0.06 $1.56
don't ever do that again
aaargh !
are you mad ?
ooops !!!
Keyword Clicks Impr. CTR Avg. CPC Cost
money 5 837 0.5% $0.05 $0.25

Impr. means the number of times the ad is shown on a page
CTR is the Click-Trough Rate. Here, ad number three got the best rate of click.
Avg CPC is the average Cost-Per-Click
Cost is the cost of the campaign : every time somebody clicks on your ad, you pay $0.05

During the fourth campaign, I kept receiving these emails from Google :

" We believe that the content of your ad does not accurately reflect the content of your website. We suggest that you edit your ad text to precisely indicate the nature of the products you offer. This will help to create a more effective campaign and to increase your conversion rate. We also recommend that you insert your specific keywords into the first line of your ad, as this tends to attract viewers to your website"

Then I got a last email :

I am the automated performance monitor for Google AdWords Select. My job is to keep average clickthrough rates at a high level, so that users can consistently count on AdWords ads to help them find products and services.
The last 1,000 ad impressions I served to your campaign(s) received fewer than five clicks. When I see results like this, I significantly reduce the rate at which I show the ads so you can make changes to improve performance.
( ... )
The Google AdWords Automated Performance Monitor

My ads were then Disapproved and my campaigns were suspended.

I was quite disappointed : I had just started to warm up.

My longer term objectives in doing this were as follows :

1 ) launching a large scale series of poetry happenings on the web
2 ) targetting very precisely the happenings
3 ) observing the statistical results
4 ) improving the stats on my website

As you can see, very few people came on my site. But the main result was here : 12,000 people had seen my happening. In addition, I like imagining that somebody looking for something is suddenly projected into a completely different area. You look for "virgin Mary" and you end up on a site about symptoms and net art !

The price of words : towards a generalized semantic capitalism

One of the most interesting fact is that we have reached a situation in which any word of any language has its price, fluctuating according to the laws of the market.

Words already had some kind of exchange value, but we hardly realized it : if I insult somebody, I will get something in return, such as a punch in my face for instance. But now there is no doubt anymore. The word "sex" is worth $3,837, the word "art" $410, "net art" is only $0.05 (prices on the 11 of April 2002). And the most expensive word is "free"! Prices are determined according to the number of search requests and an average Cost-Per-Click.

At first sight, there may be something healthy in the fact that words may have a price. If you know you have to pay, you are more careful when you have something to say. And if you see that every person who clicks on your link, makes you lose 0.05$ (as it is the case in the Google system), you think twice before writing your sentence.

But of course there is another side to this story and I have the intuition that this could be a big event in the history of mankind. There aren't many events like that : the invention of writing is one of them for instance. Right now, we may not realize the importance of this fact because the web is not such a big part of our existence. But imagine the day when a search engine will rule the whole textual content of the web, in which the memory of mankind will be stored.Think of the power in their hands.

Google's laws

Google has created an imensely powerful and fascinating tool. The main rules of this new world are not ethic rules. As you can read in the emails I received, my happening has been censored by Google not for moral reasons but for economic ones. You are actually allowed to write sexual content but this content has to be in accordance with the content of the website. This is a guarantee for Google that their ad system is not depreciated. They need these rules in order to remain competitive.

Click here if you want to know more about all these rules.

From the economic point of view, they are probably necessary rules, at least in the short term. From a more general point of view, it seems to me that we are faced with the emergence of a new era in which censorship totally unveils its economic side, as was first noticed by Karl Marx about history and by Sigmund Freud about the unconscious.

I understand quite well why they didn't let me do what I wanted to do. But I don't agree with the reasons why I was censored. I believe that the censorship rules of Google are not in accordance with the power and the importance of the tool they have created. Such a tool should be used more freely and should be self-regulated. Actually I cannot say what would be the real interest of Google in this story (a part from the short term interest). Obviously they don't want to take risks. We'll see what will happen in the near future.

Prices of some words

Prices of some famous people

Traffic Estimator *
Keyword Clicks /
Cost /
anal 390.0 $0.83 $319.90
art 800.0 $0.52 $409.67
capitalism 30.0 $0.10 $2.74
communism 2.1 $0.16 $0.33
death 92.0 $0.47 $42.66
dream 390.0 $0.17 $63.07
free 5700.0 $1.33 $7,569.23
freedom 5.1 $0.37 $1.88
gay 2200.0 $1.02 $2,239.56
hemorroid 0.5 $0.16 $0.08
language 650.0 $0.37 $237.30
lesbian 740.0 $0.80 $584.62
love 730.0 $1.74 $1,264.72
mankind 8.0 $0.59 $4.70
money 350.0 $0.81 $281.46
net art 0.9 $0.05 $0.05
self 80.0 $0.85 $67.72
sex 7500.0 $0.52 $3,836.79
suicide 18.0 $0.27 $4.72
symptom 23.0 $0.30 $6.83
Overall 20449.6 $0.84 $17,106.49
Traffic Estimator *
Keyword Clicks /
Cost /
bin laden 250.0 $0.10 $24.37
britney spears 490.0 $0.30 $144.20
bruno 96.0 $0.06 $5.50
cosic 0.6 $0.05 $0.03
einstein 27.0 $0.18 $4.62
etoy 0.6 $0.05 $0.03
freud 35.0 $0.09 $3.13
god 40.0 $0.27 $10.46
grancher 0.3 $0.05 $0.02
jesus 160.0 $0.16 $25.59
jimpunk 0.1 $0.05 $0.01
jodi 32.0 $0.07 $2.08
lacan 8.0 $0.07 $0.53
manetas 0.2 $0.05 $0.01
marx 24.0 $0.10 $2.36
mouchette 0.2 $0.05 $0.01
napier 17.0 $0.13 $2.15
pavu < 0.1 $0.05 $0.00
picasso 280.0 $0.12 $32.61
randolph 19.0 $0.05 $0.95
shulgin 0.8 $0.05 $0.04
warhol 150.0 $0.11 $15.95
witten 14.0 $0.12 $1.56

Last minute

Manifesta for Sal Randolph
Plining for
Slampoetrypictures for jimpunk
Asquare for Garrett Lynch

Keyword Clicks /
Cost /
manifesta 0.2 $0.05 $0.01
plining < 0.1 $0.05 $0.00
slampoetrypictures < 0.1 $0.05 $0.00
asquare < 0.1 $0.05 $0.00