PPC Search Ads: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

When your PPC (define) campaign first goes live or you add new keywords or creative to your campaign, do the search engines give your new additions the benefit of the doubt (regarding them as “innocent till proven guilty of being irrelevant”), or are they deemed “guilty till proven innocent (relevant)?” Over time, the answer to this question has changed and it will likely continue to change as the search engines find the right balance between advertisers’ need for speed in getting listings live and consumers’ desire to see listings that have proven themselves relevant in comparison to their peers.

Column ideas come from strange places, and sometimes one tries to make the column topical. I had the “privilege” of serving on jury duty this week at the nice new U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse. The jury summons said no laptops, no blackberries, so the first day was bizarre. It was the least connected day I’ve spent in years and while that’s fine during a voir dire where there’s something to do, after reading the day’s news, I started suffering from “connectivity withdrawal and search withdrawal syndrome.” It’s amazing how central surfing and searching have become to many of us within 15 years. While sitting in the jury waiting room I even started visualizing the (define) SERP, thinking about what topic to write this week. So, here it is.

Call it Quality Score or call it by any other name. Reality is, if your ads are deemed guilty of having a poor Quality Score, you risk either having to overpay CPCs (define) to remain in the SERP or face complete banishment from the SERP altogether. Search engines still look primarily at one variable when establishing a relevance score for your ads.

The second variable that isn’t talked about enough is the click-back-rate, sometimes called the “bounce rate.” There is a difference that may be important from the perspective of Quality Score. Google Analytics defines bounce rate as: “the percentage of single-page visits or visits in which the person left your site from the entrance (landing) page.” I define the click-back-rate as the percentage of times that the user/searcher actually hits the back button returning to the SERP. The reason this matters is because Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft could easily be tracking the percentage of times your site visitors return to the SERP, whereas the engines can’t know if the user abandoned your page by instead navigating directly to another site via URL, bookmark, or toolbar. If indeed the engines want to keep searchers happy, as well as maximize their revenue, factoring the click-back-rate into an overall Quality Score is probably a better way to determine the relevance of a landing page than a spider-based keyword, semantic or linguistic analysis. However, the search engines purportedly use those types of landing page factors too.

Before they get to your landing page, consumers judge your ads in comparison to your competition and organic listings, so if you want to keep your Quality Score high and come out of the gate strong, your ad and account structure are really important. Make sure you do the following:

  • Use the right match type. Exact match is great and allows for custom tailoring of your ad copy. However, some mix of phrase and even broad match is often appropriate.
  • Break down ad groups when they have too many words in them to write a relevant ad, even if you use tricks like dynamic keyword insertion. While managing more ad groups is a hassle, when keywords deserve a tailored ad, give those keywords a fighting chance.
  • Start aggressive. Even though all the search engines claim to perfectly normalize your click-through rate to take into account the position the ad was in on the SERP, the reality remains that a strong showing early on in a launch seems to carry weight and build a positive “history.”

In many search engines, when a new ad group is introduced, the account-level history is used to provide a guess as to the relevance of the ads generated by that ad group. Keeping your overall account clean and well managed pays dividends as you roll out new ad groups because you are rewarded or penalized by your prior account history.

When it comes to PPC search, in the long run you have to prove to the search engines that your ad is relevant, beyond a reasonable doubt, and the search engines have the data to prove it one way or another. You have to arm yourself with the knowledge of how to convince the search engines your ad is the one that consumers will prefer.

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