Do “Suspicious Minds” Make the Best PPC Managers?

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

– Fine Young Cannibals (and Elvis, and high-level PPC reports)

Most of the history of advertising – with the exception of classified ads and the like – has adopted what I’d call an “expansive” mindset. There was a land grab on; consumer attention to be gained. So let the “creatives” have at it. And spend, spend, spend! (In a way, this is much like how the second American frontier – suburban and exurban real estate growth – drove the economy for close to a century, in what urban geographers Richard Florida and David Harvey have called the “spatial fix.”)

Online marketers are held to a different standard than those who drove the growth of advertising under the television-industrial complex. Campaign managers who are merely driven by an optimistic, “try stuff” mentality are every bit as ineffective as those with a “shut off all potential losing segments in advance” (“short leash”) approach. Basically, it’s important to adopt the proper balance between an expansionary approach and a stance of vigilance.

In the right proportion, the “suspicious mind” is a sharper campaign manager than the pure optimist, or the “laissez-faire” thinker. Think Columbo.

There’s a time and place for a more exhaustive list of everything you should be suspicious of in the world of Google as a whole, Google AdWords, and Bing Ads.

And indeed we could devote several columns to that old favorite, click fraud or invalid clicks.

But in ordinary account management, a lot of the problems recur mainly around the same two or three themes, draining budgets or misallocating funds:

  • Ambiguity in query intent that a “suspicious mind” will expect from the get-go
  • Tightly connected with this, improper use of keyword match types
  • Display network performance that rapidly degrades

In these areas, the “suspicious mind” knows that relevant data comes in layers, like peeling an onion.

Ambiguity in Query Intent
At a high level, for example, you might choose a keyword that’s incredibly relevant to your product offering, bid on several match types, and see the ball start rolling with reasonable cost-per-actions (CPAs). Great! A trusting mind may assume that because these are such obvious terms, they’ll be good forever, despite the fact that many more nuanced keywords (when the effort is made to find them) perform better. The nuanced keywords drive less volume with more effort, so you cling to the hope that the more literal, “higher level” keywords will continue to perform.

As a hypothetical example, let’s say the term is “network security.” And you have the various match types running, including the broadest match type, broad match.

What’s the problem, if that’s your line of business?

Well, every time there is an eruption of mass interest in this field – let’s say based on a high-level security breach, a legal case, or some other headline fodder of prurient interest to the many – searches on this term spike. Your ad copy does little to stem the tide of curious clicks, simply because you were too trusting in keyword intent, so your ad slid up into ad position two or one…and that happened because your more diligent competition looked harder for the numbers behind the numbers. Your suspicious-minded and nimbler competition looked at the search query report and negatived out what they could. Beyond that, they merely bid that keyword way down. Like those competitors, you’ll have to work harder to build an account full of the geekier, more granular industry jargon terms that will lead to great targeting without also attracting hordes of laypersons and gawkers.

Improper Use of Keyword Match Types
Closely related to keyword ambiguity is the improper use of keyword match types. Unsurprisingly, given that our dominant reactive brain regions are fond of defaulting to the heuristic of WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”), account managers may allow broad-matched forms of highly relevant phrases to run on and on, because they see only occasional or slight weaknesses in performance when viewing the stats at the keyword level.

Remember, though, that your keywords are just mechanisms to signal your desire to serve ads to people searching for a range of queries that might match up with your keywords, depending on the match types used for those keywords. The suspicious mind frequently peels the layer of that onion, delving into the search query reports. Not only may these reveal a mix of highly undesirable phrases dragging down performance unnecessarily, but there can be other scary phenomena at work undermining your carefully built campaign structure, such as cross-contamination from other ad groups. Your own high-ROI brand keywords can even “leak in” and be mapped to broad-matched keywords if they’re bid high enough, obfuscating the true value of non-brand keywords and ad groups. In the greatest danger are hapless advertisers who rely too heavily on black box automation, such as Google AdWords Conversion Optimizer.

Seeing weak performance at the keyword level, a non-suspicious mind might also just take a stance of futility, assuming that the auction has gotten too competitive, or that PPC doesn’t work. That’s more like systemic discouragement rather than dogged investigative work; the equivalent of Columbo concluding that “police work is too hard” because you can “never tell what these bad guys are up to.” The properly suspicious mind is proactive and curious, like Columbo, and comes to play with a disposition of personal efficacy.

Display Network Performance That Rapidly Degrades
Like obvious search keywords, the Google Display Network is another temptress, akin to Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. With the right keywords for targeting support, bidding strongly on some of the placements, why can’t you expect automatic matching to keep finding you exciting new sources of traffic without draining your budget? You should be able to exclude bad placements (publishers) every few weeks, gradually building up a nice file of strong performers. Auuughhhh! No, you blockhead!

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Now, as ever, the Google Display Network (GDN) is rife with low-quality publishers, mobile apps, and other junk that will drain your budget in a heartbeat. It’s sad, because there are some great pockets of performance (usually, they come in the form of real, recognizable websites that you know because you or a friend visit them often), so why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Fair enough: there’s gold in them thar hills. Just be appropriately suspicious, and be prepared to manage the placements literally every day if you’re bent on using automatic placements to discover new pockets of performance in the GDN. Every single day.

Naïve trust in PPC auctions or display networks will only lead to financial pain. Sorry, Charlie Brown. “What you see” is rarely “all there is.”

The good news is, with a few adjustments and an attitude of eternal vigilance, you’ll gain the advantage as competitors limp off the playing field, licking their wounds.

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