When you hire an agency or individual to manage your paid search advertising account, you are trusting that the account is going to be professionally managed to produce the best, most cost-effective results for your business. It’s likely that you hired a manager in the first place because you recognized that paid search is way too complex for you to spend your own valuable time on. That makes it all the more important that your trust is well-placed. In this series, I’m giving you some keys to how to review your paid search account and evaluate whether your manager is doing the things that ought to be done. (To see all posts in this series, click the series title link above.)

Rip-Off Sign #3: Poor Use of Keywords

Carefully-chosen and well-crafted keywords are “key” (if you’ll excuse the pun) to paid search success. They are the gateway at which the search intent of your potential customers meets the creativity of your ads. In brief, a keyword is a word or phrase that a paid search program (such as Google AdWords) matches up with the word or phrase that someone enters into a search engine. In AdWords (and in very similar fashion in Microsoft’s AdCenter) there are three main match types for keywords:

  • Broad Match keywords can be matched to any search that uses one or more of the terms in the keyword, or even fairly broad variations. For example, the keyword “tennis shoes” in broad match could trigger ads for entries like “tennis sneakers” or “sports shoes,” but even sometimes entries like “red shoes” or “tennis equipment.”
  • Phrase Match keywords match search entries that contain exactly the same words as the keyword, in the same order, but may include other words before or after the keyword phrase. So “tennis shoes” as a phrase match keyword could match entries like “red tennis shoes” or “tennis shoes discounted.”
  • Exact Match keywords must exactly match the search entry to trigger an associated ad. So “tennis shoes” as an exact match keyword will only be matched with a search entry of “tennis shoes,” with no other words before or after, and no variations.

I’ve taken the time to go over these match types for keywords because one sign of a healthy paid search account is a good mix of match types in use. Generally, the longer an account has been managed, the lower the proportion of broad match to the other two types (phrase and exact) should be. This is because while broad match casts the widest net, it also brings in the most garbage along with the catch. The magic of paid search is that it lets you hone in on the searches by customers who most likely have intent to want what you have to offer. This is what sets it apart from traditional “broadcast” advertising, which throws the message up before a huge number of people who have no interest in the hope of catching a small number who do. To treat a paid search campaign like a broadcast campaign is to throw money away. To put it simply: A paid search campaign with mostly (or all!) broad match keywords is throwing away money.

New keywords are created in the AdWords interface as broad match by default, so it is common for new and inexperienced users (or lazy managers!) to just dump a whole bunch of broad match keywords into the ad groups and let them run. So how do you see if this is the case in your paid search account? In AdWords, log in to your account and go to the Campaigns tab. Click on “All Online Campaigns” in the left-hand nav window. Now click on the Keywords tab in the set of tabs just above the graph. This will show all the keywords in your account. Click either “Clicks” or “Impr.” (Impressions) to sort the keywords and bring the most active ones to the top. Scan down the column of keywords. Exact match keywords are enclosed in [square brackets], phrase match are in “quotation marks”, and broad match keywords have no surrounding punctuation. Are all or a great number of your active (non-greyed-out) keywords broad match?

If the account has been running for at least a few weeks, the account manager should have begun to pause more and more of the broad match keywords and started adding more phrase and exact match. It is fine to start out an account with mostly broad match (although an experienced professional will have phrase and/or exact match keywords from keyword and market research right from the beginning) because broad match keywords can be good research tools. Because they pull in everything remotely related to the keyword, they may reveal valuable search queries that the manager had not thought of or found in his pre-setup research. Those insights will show up in search query reports that show what actual search phrases were entered by people who clicked on your ads. Search query reports also reveal words that should be entered as negative keywords (words that will not be matched to trigger your ads).

One problem with too many broad match keywords is that keywords in different campaigns or ad groups within the same account may actually be competing against each other, driving up your cost-per-click and diluting the focus of your ads. For example, let’s say you have an ad group meant to advertise electric widgets and another advertising hand-powered widgets. The first campaign has a broad match keyword electric widgets and the second one for handpowered widgets. It is entirely possible, and even likely, that someone searching for “electric widgets” could see the ad for “handpowered widgets,” and vice versa. Obviously a waste.

From Broad to Phrase and Exact: A Matter of Focus

A regular part of the optimization of any well-managed paid search campaign should be the movement of campaigns and ad groups from broad search keywords to phrase and exact match keywords. This is a major reason why paid search is one of the most cost-effective forms of advertising when properly managed: it allows an advertiser to focus advertising dollars more and more on searches that are most likely to produce the desired result.  A good paid search manager will be continually reviewing the performance of broader keywords to spot opportunities for tighter focus. If a particular query jumps out as having good results, it should be narrowed down to a phrase or exact match and have ads that directly address the intention it reflects.

A side benefit of this continual focusing is that, done properly, over time it will raise the Quality Score of the keywords, ads, and the entire account. Quality Score is Google’s evaluation of the likelihood that a given match between user search entry, keyword, ad, and site landing page will produce a relevant and effective result for the search engine user. On a simple level, the more relevant a keyword-ad combination is to what the user is probably searching for, the higher the Quality Score assigned. Here’s why that matters to you: higher Quality Score equals lower cost per click (or a higher position for an ad at the same cost per click). In other words, more bang for your buck. Therefore, the goal of any professional account manager should be to continually sharpen the focus of keywords and ads so that more qualified customers will be delivered to the client’s site at a lower cost per acquisition.

Next Post: Signs of Ineffective Ads (For other posts in this series, click the series title link at the top of this post.)

Paid Search Is Your Paid Search Agency Ripping You Off? (Part 3)