Not all Google searches make Google money. Google often says that it only shows ads on about 20 percent of queries, the ones it calls “commercial queries.” You can probably guess what qualifies. “US president in 1836” is not something you type when you’re about to buy something; neither is “facebook” because all you’re looking for is Facebook. But if you type in “best new car 2023” or “cheap flights to London” there are a lot of advertisers that would like to be the first thing you see, and there’s a lot of money for Google to be made in the process.
This week, during the US v. Google antitrust trial, we got a rare glimpse at a closely guarded secret: which search terms make the most money. The list is only for the week of September 22nd, 2018, and it is the list of top queries ordered by revenue and nothing else. Still, we’ve never seen anything quite like this before, and the list was only made public after long deliberations from Judge Amit Mehta, who has, over the course of the trial, begun to push both sides to be more public with information and data like this.
Okay, here are the top 20 queries for that week ordered by revenue:
- iphone 8
- iphone 8 plus
- auto insurance
- car insurance
- cheap flights
- car insurance quotes
- direct tv
- online colleges
- insurance quotes
- free credit report
- cheap car insurance
By my count, that’s three iPhone-related queries, which makes sense, given that the iPhone 8 had just launched and there were a lot of retailers, carriers, and accessory makers who might want to bid to be at the top of search results. There are five insurance-related queries on the list, which has always been a competitive and lucrative space — I just Googled “auto insurance” and got four ads before a single regular result.
There are a bunch of pseudo-navigational queries on the list, which at first seems a bit odd. People searching for “at&t,” “xfinity,” “hulu,” and “uber” are probably trying to get to those websites, not browse for competitive products. But Google has long encouraged brands to buy ad space for queries with their own name, lest they have their search results space stolen by a competitor. (Enterprise project management tools are always my favorite example: search “monday” and you get ads for Wrike, Asana, and Monday, before getting the link to monday.com you were looking for. When I searched for “Asana” just now, Monday.com and Asana both had ads before the normal asana.com link.) I can’t prove it, but there’s a decent chance that a lot of Google’s revenue on searches for “hulu,” for instance, came from Hulu itself. And I bet Apple advertised pretty heavily to get the Apple Store at the top of those iPhone searches.
In general, these high-revenue queries are for things that typically have high customer-acquisition costs but high value over time. Most people don’t switch car insurance very often, so it’s worth a lot to Allstate or State Farm to get your first click when you search. Same goes for cable companies, wireless carriers, and apparently online colleges. The sweet spot for Google, it appears, is right in the middle: a popular search query that overlaps with a competitive, expensive industry.
Google’s “cost per click,” or the price an advertiser pays every time someone actually clicks on the ad in search results, has historically been high for this kind of stuff. And the more specific, the more expensive: a 2020 Hubspot study found that you’d pay $475 for a click from a “california auto accident lawyer” search but an eye-watering $1,090 for “houston maritime attorney.” To compare that to our list above: “auto insurance trucks omaha” would bring in more money per click than “auto insurance,” but the latter surely gets vastly more searches and thus more overall revenue.
Again, there’s only so much to extrapolate from one week’s list, especially given that the other side of the table — how much money each query brought in — is still redacted in the public exhibit. But during a trial in which so much focus has been on the way Google spends its billions, it’s nice to see even a small glimpse into where those billions come from. And funny enough, it appears that in both cases the answer is at least a little bit Apple.