Google’s Session-Based Broad Match Clicks: Boon or Bane?

Some advertisers see broad (session-based) clicks in Google as an opportunity to broaden the reach of their search campaign beyond the scarce keywords setting a natural cap on their ability to drive campaign volume. On the other hand, many Google advertisers find themselves wishing there were a way to disable Google Broad (session-based) clicks and impressions. This controversy isn’t new, or for that matter news, because broad match session-based clicks have been around for more than a year.

However, a recent catalyst bringing the issue of the quality of session-based clicks to the forefront was a Wall Street Journal article on the Google “feature.” The situation has even gotten the attention of at least a couple of class action lawyers who wonder if it is fair that advertisers don’t have an option to opt out of session-based clicks. I was recently contacted by a couple of lawyers directly and indirectly inquiring about the practice of session-based PPC clicks.

The scenario is simple to explain. If you run some of your keywords in broad match, it’s likely that you’re getting session-based clicks along with regular broad match clicks. And the more you are bidding on a broad match basis, the more likely these clicks are to represent a significant chunk of your campaign. Despite the fact that many searchers are still interested in advertising links relating to a previous search, the general consensus of the SEM community of bloggers and authors has been that they’d prefer that session-based clicks be optional almost from day one. Some advertisers may see session-based clicks as simply a cost of doing business with Google, much as the early days of contextual advertising didn’t give us as much control as we’d like.

Let’s look at the economics of search to see why Google released session-based broad match.

“Commercial intent” is a vague concept that essentially attempts to predict whether a searcher has an interest in some kind of transaction with a company whose listings are in a SERP. Depending on who you ask, the percentage of overall search queries with “commercial intent” is all over the map, but one useful indicator is the amount that advertisers are bidding on the keyword within Google (at least within the U.S.). After all, with millions of advertisers, if there is commercial intent associated with even a small sliver of searchers searching a specific word/phrase, chances are there’s an advertiser looking to capture that intent and turn it into profit.

However, regardless of where you draw the line with regard to a query having high, low, or zero commercial intent, a significant percentage of queries on Google and the other search engines clearly have low commercial intent: no paying advertiser or only one or two. By introducing a session-based impression service, Google accomplishes several very important things simultaneously:

  1. It’s able to monetize queries that might not have been able to support any advertising.
  2. It increases “auction pressure” to lightly subscribed auctions by introducing another bidder within the results, thereby raising the cost of any clicks occurring for all advertisers in the SERP where a session-based ad was served, even if that ad wasn’t clicked.
  3. It fills in the screen real estate for otherwise empty right rail ad spots.
  4. It gives advertisers more inventory for scarce, high-CPC keywords.

I wasn’t able to find solid evidence that Google applies “smart pricing” to session-based ads, yet most data I looked at showed a drop in conversion rates compared to regular broad match. External publishers to which Google serves ads are subject to the smart pricing algorithm in order to make the ecosystem fairer to advertisers, but based on the data I’ve looked at, the same doesn’t hold true within Google. Of course, there will be many factors driving just how much the ROI on session-based clicks compares to the clicks originating from the main SERP, so do your own analysis, even though there isn’t much you can do about it other than make sure your campaign doesn’t rely too heavily on broad match.

When you look at the ecosystem as a whole, it’s very likely that even some advertisers running zero broad match campaigns are being impacted by the increase in auction pressure, raising their clearing prices on clicks. Therefore, even if Google was to enable an opt-out of session-based ad serving and/or implemented smart pricing, the overall auction pressure in the AdWords system will still mean higher bid prices for many of us.

Time will tell if Google will give advertisers control over this form of broad match. What’s your opinion? Contact me if you love or hate broad (session-based) ads.

In other news, you may have heard that (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization) launched new individual membership plans and prices. With local groups and events taking off and discounts on national events, it’s practically a no-brainer to become a SEMPO member. (Disclosure: I am on SEMPO’s Board of Directors.)

Related reading

Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.