Why Little Short Stories Are Popping Up in Google Ads All Over the Internet

Matchbook rolls out its latest round of mini tales

Photo: Ippei Naoi
Headshot of Tim Nudd

Some Google ads are well written, but these are literature.

If you stumble upon a Google ad this week that doesn’t want to sell you anything, you might have just discovered Matchbook’s “Ad Stories.” The literary magazine just rolled out Volume 5 of its short stories posing as ads, which it places online through Google’s AdWords program. There are 10 new stories, which you can see scattered among Google search results and on the Matchbook website. (See them below as well.)

Brian Mihok, a fiction writer in New York who edits Matchbook with R.B. Pillay, explained to AdFreak how Ad Stories came about, what he looks for in submissions, and how Google feels about the whole thing.

AdFreak: Where did the idea for Ad Stories come from?
Brian Mihok: In 2011 I was trying to think of projects for my literary journal that would allow us to publish stories in some unorthodox or untried way. I was just doing a regular internet search at one point and saw some Google ads and it struck me, what if those ads were tiny stories? The idea of subverting advertising as a way to distribute art that wasn’t selling anything excited me and my co-editor at the time.

Fast forward a few years and now Ad Stories are a once-a-year project for Matchbook, which is currently edited by R.B Pillay and myself. We ask people to send us submissions of stories that fit within the tight confines of Google’s AdWords program. We like pieces that feel layered and complete. There’s something the best ad stories do that includes as much in the text as they omit. The really good ones point to bigger, complex narratives and emotional relationships without having the space to show them. It’s not easy to do. We try to avoid jokes, one liners, etc. We want stories, and we’re willing to accept that “story” may be redefined in the course of writing an ad story.

How does Google feel about the project?
We’re definitely operating Ad Stories on an “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” philosophy. We’re prepared at any moment for Google to pull the plug and tell us move on. So far, though, they really haven’t stood in the way. It’s been six years now. During our first Ad Stories run, I was even contacted by one of the AdWords customer service people to suggest how to better use keywords for people to find our “ads.” She said, “I see what you’re doing here, and maybe you might want to do such and such to get a better reach.” I thought that was pretty great, actually.

Of course, that was one person, and we’re aware that the next person could flag us for some unintended use of AdWords and shut it down. Several times stories have gotten flagged for “potentially offensive content” by the algorithm, but when the stories were then sent to a person to judge, they’ve been approved—maybe all but one, and then we worked with the author to revise the story so it would work.

How does your ad buying work? Do you have a set budget to run the stories for a certain time, at a certain reach?
Buying the ads works on a cost-per-click basis. Essentially you only pay for an ad when it is clicked on. So that allows for an ad to be potentially displayed thousands of times before you hit your budget. We set a daily budget, and when that gets reached, the ads cease appearing on the network until the next day. That prevents us from accidentally owing Google problematic amounts of money.

There’s a balance you have to strike with choosing appropriate keywords—some are more expensive than others, based on how common or useful they are—your daily budget, and then the greater project budget. We want to choose keywords for each story that will get a story placed on sites and in searches. That said, we have to measure that with our piddling budget. We don’t have any income from Matchbook, so this is all out of pocket. Also, we pay writers whose work we accept. Granted, it’s just a token payment, but it’s important to us. So a few hundred dollars for Ad Stories, a few hundred for paying the contributors, and that’s the budget each time. This is a small venture. We run the stories as ads until our budget dries up. That tends to be a couple weeks.

What kind of the data have you collected from the campaign?
Google provides pretty deep analytics, most of which doesn’t really matter to us because we aren’t actually selling a product. The only stat that really matters to us is how many potential eyes read the story. We decided against adding more specific breakdowns of stats because ultimately we didn’t feel like it really served a purpose, especially if it might just serve to make some contributors feel insecure about the performance of their story. We’re not into pitting stories or writers against each other.

But for examples of other stats, there are numbers like number of clicks, CPC (cost per click), and CTR (clickthrough rate). Another breakdown is that we can see how many times an ad story was placed, whether in a Google search or on a semi-random website in the Google Display Network. For example, one ad story from Volume 4 was displayed 50,617 times in Google searches but just 2,212 in the Display Network, while a different story had 18,777 impressions in searches versus 20,540 on the Display Network.

Are you happy with those results?
We couldn’t be happier with the results so far. As far as we know, no other literary magazine has done this. One thing that makes us really happy is that in addition to getting submissions from seasoned writers, we get submissions from people who’ve never written creatively before. The project has inspired lawyers, biologists, doctors, architects, musicians, people from all walks of life, to take a stab at writing the tiniest of stories. Our visits to the site spike when we do Ad Stories, and people share the project a fair amount on social media. For us, it’s mostly about publishing good work, but getting acknowledged for an interesting project helps us grow and stay on people’s radar.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.