Wanted: PPC Search Industry Standards

With the launch of Yahoo’s Panama, some major differences in creative standards and account structures among the search engines are disappearing. Yet campaigns often aren’t portable between engines. What may initially seem like common standards aren’t as common as advertisers would like.

There’s hope, however. Evidence of cooperation among engines shows up not on the PPC (define) side of the business, but on the organic side. Many of my SEM (define), SEO (define), and Web development colleagues joined me in my enthusiasm for the recent adoption of standardized sitemaps. They were thrilled to see Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft jointly agree to support the sitemaps protocol originally developed by Google.

It’s about time the search engines agreed on standards within PPC paid placement SEM systems as well. Advertisers and their agencies spend far too much time reconciling account structures, dealing with different creative specifications, and building tools that allow for translation of other special features provided by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and second-tier engines.

Top search engines may believe standardization will result in their losing a competitive edge, but there are lots of things all engines share that could and should be standardized. The time marketers waste resolving duplicative issues among accounts would be far better spent finding ways to add efficiencies to the campaigns, which would result in more overall PPC spending. More spending helps all the engines. Some of my favorite candidates for standardization are below.

Creative Length

At first glance, it would seem the search engines could at least be made to work together using a common creative of 25/70. Titles at 25 characters fall under Yahoo’s title maximum of 40. For example, you could use Google creative in your Yahoo campaign, ignoring the extra 15 characters (even though having them might be handy). Microsoft’s adCenter shares the 25 character title limit, so all’s well there.

But the differences get annoying as you move to the description. In this case, Google’s the odd man out. All three engines allow 70-character descriptions. But Google forces them into two lines of 35 characters each, while Yahoo and Microsoft allow for 70 characters regardless of how the characters break. This means you can’t confidently port a Microsoft or Yahoo campaign to Google, but you can port a Google campaign to Microsoft and Yahoo. Argh!

Dynamic Keyword Insertion

Dynamic keyword insertion (DKI) is highly useful when planning and executing campaigns. At first glance, the standard appears to be common: {keyword:} in the title or description will cause the search engine to dynamically insert the actual query into your ad. Google and Yahoo use a colon after “keyword” to support a default replacement if the query used is too long. Microsoft doesn’t seem to support the default creative yet. I could remove the colons in a spreadsheet, but why should I have to? There are additional unique departures and issues that are not common. Google supports a bit more customization. For example:

  • {KeyWord:} capitalizes the initial letter in all words.

  • {keyword:} lowercases the word.
  • {KEYWORD:} capitalizes all letters.

I haven’t seen any documentation supporting this standard in either Microsoft or Yahoo, and I haven’t had time to test it yet. However, since Yahoo seems to default to capitalization in its implementation, I’d imagine it doesn’t support the above feature.

Similarly, Microsoft has cool new “param” features to facilitate the use of templated copy. These would need to be stripped out before adCenter ads could be used elsewhere.

API XML Language/Tags

My team hates that the three engines’ API (define) standards use different tags for some data definitions. There’s certainly room to standardize at least the common elements.


Paid placement search has been around for about nine years. In the early days of GoTo (which became Overture, then Yahoo Search Marketing), standards weren’t needed. Times have changed. Industry players must communicate by setting common standards for not just organic data exchange but also PPC advertising and other advertising in online marketplaces. This will become increasingly important as contextual, behavioral, audio, and video advertising are added to the mix. The above areas are a great place to start.

If the folks at the engines are reading this, I’d be happy to host a dinner during the next SES conference in NYC for the product development folks from the big three engines. Getting them to agree would be a great advance. I’d consider this task to be a personal and Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) mission.

Speaking of SEMPO, there’s still time to get your voice heard. Take the SEMPO survey. The preliminary results look fascinating, but having additional respondents will really improve the results’ validity.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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