How Google Marketers Exploit Your Discomfort


We’re trained to serve ads in your moments of quiet desperation

Today, three out of four smartphone owners turn to Google first to address their immediate needs. As a result, Google marketers like me must survive on our ability to play on your impatience and impulsiveness when you’re using a mobile device. We must be there to serve you an ad in your “micro-moment,” the second you decide to use your phone to alleviate the discomfort of not having “it” now — whether “it” is a last-minute sale, directions to a soon-closing store, information about a fast-filling class, or anything else.

As Google plainly phrases it, micro-moments are the “intent-rich moments when decisions are made, and preferences shaped.” This belies what Google can’t say: Your need-it-now mentality usually comes with uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and fear. When you’re shopping in this mindset (for anything, not just a product), your restraint is clouded by emotion. Your immediate transactional, navigational, or informational “need” is conflated with a desire for your bad feelings to go away.

In reality, Google’s goal (and our goal, as Google marketers) is to separate you from as much of your money as possible every time you aren’t thinking clearly —and we do so through ads. Micro-moments are so important to Google’s bottom line that, since a May 2016 keynote, Google has taught us marketers how to best leverage them against you. We do this by serving the ad best suited to your flavor of impulse, and by making sure we’re there for each of those impulses. In a perfect world, marketers would be trained to help you use Google well when you are of an impressionable mind. Instead, we’re taught to exploit your befuddlement.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have micro-moments about 150 times per day. You will see ads during most of them. These ads speak to what you seek; play on emotions that are unlike you; and fit your age, income, gender, location, and browsing history (as well as other targeting methods I outlined in part 1). Marketers who can’t serve ads in your moments of ephemeral distress die a quick death.

Desperation in consumerism is nothing new. Consumerism relies on it. But today, the degree of targetable desperation with ads is unprecedented. Micro-moments are a very recent phenomenon. They have only been made possible in the last few years due to specific conditions:

  • The number of cellphones in consumers’ hands has hit critical mass.
  • Our relationship with our phones has changed.
  • Our relationship with Google has changed.

A basic example of a micro-moment that any marketer would kill for is when you, the consumer, are standing in a shoe store and it’s about to close. You know for a fact the store has the new Air Max you’ve had your eyes on, but you’re not so sure about the reviews on these new kicks. You’re going to be dropping a couple of hundred bucks, so you definitely want to confirm the reviews are good before you buy. But you can’t find a salesperson to ask about the sneakers. Or, more likely, there’s one standing right by you, but you trust what your phone says over what they do (we’re all guilty of this).

“Dear shoppers,” the intercom says, “we’ll be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases up to the register.”

In a moment of desperation, you turn to Google. You search for “Nike Air Max reviews.” The results page loads, and our ads get in their positions.

As Google “thinks,” the switches are flipping inside the AdWords account of every marketer targeting your physical location, your query (“Nike Air Max reviews”), your age, your gender, your income, and so on. Savvy marketers that are a match will bid up aggressively in a battle to have the №1 result position on your phone (the top two positions on mobile are coveted because they’re all that really matter; the vast majority of mobile users don’t scroll down the search results page).

The ads load.

“We’re closing,” the salesman says. You ignore him, again (poor guy).

A marketer somewhere in the world has just won the battle for your micro-moment.

You’re about to click the ad to read the review it promises to show you, but at the very last moment, your eye catches the price in the ad copy. The exact shoes are listed for $25 cheaper than in the store. That’s it; you’ve made up your mind. You have converted. You don’t make eye contact with anyone, and you make directly for the exit. Sitting in your idling car afterward, you buy the sneakers through the ad.

A marketer somewhere in the world has just won the battle for your micro-moment. They are awarded your money for their victory as well as another, more important trophy: your conversion. That marketer accrues a “+1” tally mark in their AdWords ledger. They forever will be able to look back at that very moment to see the levers that delivered your sale and tweak them as needed to ensure their client’s ad is in the №1 position in any of your future micro-moments.

Micro-moments are leveraged by marketers on behalf of advertisers (in the previous example, that would be Nike) in nearly every industry, whether it’s in B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business). It doesn’t matter whether the product the ad is selling is a sneaker, a loan, a bail bond, a whitepaper download, or a free eBook. As long as there’s an action that the marketer wants you to take, there will always be a correlating moment when they exploit your desperation.


Sometimes the desperation we’re leveraging against you in your micro-moment happens organically, like in the shoe store example. Sometimes it happens inorganically, with the urgency manufactured by us. Ads with countdowns and bogus “flash” sale ads are some ways we create FOMO that plays on your fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

There are industries whose very services rely on the urgency inherent in micro-moments — using the mobile device as a panacea. One of these is locksmiths, who, for years, abused Google ads to exploit people when they were locked out of their homes.

When you are in the market for no product other than the alleviation of discomfort, your phone is your salve.

For example, a successful marketer with a locksmith client would know to skew up their bids for women searching for help online after standard business hours on mobile devices. Marketers know these women, who are locked out of their homes, are often very tired, may have their children with them, and might not have anywhere else to go. In other words, these are women who are willing to do anything to alleviate their anguish, no matter the cost.

After the Google searcher places a call to the locksmith through the ad, the offending advertiser may sell the call out to an offshore center while the searcher waits for help. And when that help arrives, it comes at 10 times the price promised in the ad. Scammers aren’t often shy about using intimidation to demand full payment on the spot. In one common practice, the imposter locksmith drills the lock and won’t let the Google searcher into their house until they pay up.


Advanced marketers know it’s not enough to simply be there in each of your need-it-now moments when it’s something tangible you seek. Sometimes, what you seek is immaterial but no less exploitable. Marketers who rise to the top in a world of constant micro-moments understand that your desire to buy, go, or do is not the only reason you turn to your phone in a state of urgency.

Today’s average consumer spends 4.7 hours per day on their phone. And I’d wager most of that time is not spent with the intent of buying a product before a sale ends or getting to the mall before it closes or signing up for a degree program. A chunk of the time you spend on the phone is, of course, during stretches of boredom—when you’re in the bathroom, while your spouse is telling you about their day, or when you’re driving on a side street. A successful manipulator of micro-moments is not as interested in serving you ads when you’re bored—when you have little intent and are not led by emotion.

You don’t even have to open Google to be exploited.

But we want to serve you ads during another form of downtime when you are clouded by emotion: during your moments of social awkwardness. And we humans are uncomfortable in social settings many, many times per day: in the elevator, waiting at Starbucks, when a stranger sits across from us on the train, or when a co-worker inquires about our weekend. There is no adult who doesn’t understand the unique sensation in the guts triggered by these modern encounters, or how ridiculous it can feel to get your coffee, settle in at a table, and then sit there with no distractions. When you are in the market for no product other than the alleviation of discomfort, your phone is your salve.

You don’t even have to open Google to be exploited; if you just browse the web, Gmail, or YouTube, you will be served a Google ad. Whether you click it or not, you are being impressed, counted as a view-through, and entered into a conversion path that will culminate days and clicks later.

There’s an ad for every variety and instance of your relief-seeking—all of them hosted across channels through Google. The targeting methods used to convert you at your lowest are informed by Google and wielded, at times irresponsibly, by marketers.

And Google keeps us informed of the best practices.

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