Searching Beyond the Paid

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Say Goodbye to Google Garbitrage

Google Adwords has long been blowing away their competition by rolling out with cool features requested by their advertisers. There have been so many innovations in the program since we started back in June 2002, I couldn't begin to list them all, but some of them include Site Exclusion, AdWords Editor, and all the keyword research tools. Now, it appears that a significant number of sites involved in AdSense arbitrage have been given the boot from the AdSense program.

It's about time. Many (not all, but many) of these sites have been a thorn in my side for a long time now. I've been forced to reduce content network bids to a few pennies in many cases, and have had to shut off content entirely for a few ad groups. Doing that basically amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater - but I didn't have another option, since (until recently) I couldn't see what sites were sending us content traffic, and I couldn't afford to pay for the garbitrage. Legitimate, converting publishers were inevitably cut off in the process.

I was thrilled to be asked a couple of months ago to participate in the beta test of Google's Placement Performance report (explanation and screen shots at Marketing Pilgrim). From this, I discovered that our ads were appearing on over 7,000 content sites. 95% of the sites are no problem at all - either they convert, or they don't send us any measurable traffic (which is fine). However, there was a handful of sites that were performing extremely badly, and I was able to quickly eliminate them via Site Exclusion after reviewing the report. Better yet, I've been slowly increasing my content CPCs for better positioning. I can do this with confidence now, knowing I can find the deadbeats quickly and easily, and block them.

Giving the garbitrage sites the boot was a logical step for Google. They know which sites are being excluded by significant numbers of advertisers. And, as Brad Geddes at eWhisper surmises, the timing is interesting at a minimum. It appears Google decided to proactively remove the bad sites before releasing the Placement Performance report to the masses, saving us all a bunch of headaches (and probably greatly reducing the load on their Site Exclusion server).

Bravo, Google. Once again you have set the bar for the competition, and once again they are moving at a snail's pace compared to your warp-speed rollout of new and useful features.

This news has been pretty well covered in the SEM blogs. Some good summaries are at Search Engine Watch, JenSense, Search Engine Roundtable, and of course Webmaster World (better grab a cup of coffee and some snacks if you want to read the entire thread, as it spans 16 pages at the time of this writing!).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Happy Ann'y, Beyond The Paid!

One year ago today, I decided to take the plunge into the world of blogging. 70-some posts and a lot of SEM news later, here we are at the one year anniversary. I've learned a few things along the way:

* Blog post titles should be descriptive.
* Putting a feed link on your blog means a few people will actually subscribe.
* You really can change your template in Blogger, and even an HTML hack like me can figure it out.
* Blogging is a great way to meet some great people in your industry.

In scanning through the topics I've covered over the past year, a ton has happened - from Danny Sullivan leaving Search Engine Watch, to Google AdWords (and subsequently, Yahoo Search Marketing) implementing Quality Score, to Yahoo's Panama, to MSN and Ask launching content programs, it's a different world in May of 2007 than it was in May of 2006.

Here's to another year of fun and growth in the SEM industry. I can't think of a better way to make a living.

(I have to give credit to ESPN's Around The Horn for the title of this post. It's a great show if you're a sports junkie. I usually end up catching it while I'm at the gym and therefore with the sound off, but it's good even without sound. Ranting sports writers are almost as much fun as ranting SEM writers....)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

When Exact Match Isn't Exactly Exact

One of the most basic elements of PPC is keyword match types. Each engine has slightly different options available: Google and MSN have Broad, Phrase, and Exact; Yahoo has Standard and Advanced; and Ask has Exact and Broad. All four also have negative match, which essentially is keywords you DON'T want your ads to appear on.

Google's Adwords Help Center defines the match types, and these definitions are pretty standard across all the engines. Exact match, in particular, is defined this way: "If you surround your keywords in brackets - such as [tennis shoes] -your ads will appear when users search for the specific phrase tennis shoes, in this order, and without any other terms in the query. For example, your ad won't show for the query red tennis shoes. Exact matching is the most targeted option. Although you won't receive as many impressions with exact matching, you'll likely enjoy the most targeted clicks, because users searching for terms in this manner typically want precisely what your business has to offer."

Pretty straightforward, right? Makes sense, right? So, by way of example, let's say my keyword is, oh, Redbook. If I have Redbook set to exact match, for Google, MSN, and Ask, then my ad will only show when someone types that one word into the search box, right? I mean, Google says so, so it must be true, right?


Let me give an actual example from our analytics. One of our more popular magazines is TV y Novelas. One of my PPC keywords for that magazine is [tv y novelas] - exact match, with the brackets and all. So, according to Google's definition, the only search that'll trigger that ad is those three words, in that exact order. Not true. Here are some of the other search terms that drove clicks to our site for that keyword:
* tv y novelas magazine (which is also a keyword in the same ad group, and even has a higher CPC attached to it!)
* univision novelas (sorry, not even close)
* www (dot) tvinovelas (dot) com (dot) mx (huh??)

There are others, but you get the point. I don't know about you, but in my book, these are anything but exact match. They're not even phrase match, which according to Google means "your ad will appear when a user searches on the phrase tennis shoes, in this order, and possibly with other terms in the query."

I find that, in general, the search partner sites are bigger offenders than The worst one is AOL. On the exact match keyword [martha stewart living], we get 2-3 clicks per day from AOL on www(dot)marthastewart(dot)com. Not only is that not exactly the keyword, it doesn't even have all the words in it! I purposely don't have "martha stewart" as a keyword - hello, probably 99% of the people searching for that aren't looking to subscribe to her magazine. And I even have "www" and ".com" as negative keywords. Apparently AOL doesn't understand the whole "www" thing. (Why am I not surprised?)

I have to stop picking on Google for a second to say that this problem is worse on MSN, and worse yet on Ask. Some of our highest-volume referrals in the Ask program are www dot whatever dot com. Needless to say, these don't convert real well.

Here's my opinion. I'm fine with the engines showing my broad match keyword ads on stuff like this. That's the risk you run when you use broad match, and often you get the benefit of capturing those tail searches that would be missed by phrase or exact match. But, Dear Engines, you can't have it both ways. Don't tell me that exact match means my ad won't show if there are other words in the query, when clearly my ads DO show in that case, especially on AOL. Either make the match options work the way you say they work, or change your definitions. When I'm paying top dollar for [martha stewart living], I don't want visitors that typed in something else. And when I start getting visitors that typed something else, I have to reduce my bids to account for the untargeted (and un-converting) traffic.

Hey Google et al, next time you're at a restaurant and you order a root beer, I hope you don't mind if I bring you a Bud Light instead. After all, it has "beer" in its name, too.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Garbitrage Meets "Office Space"

If you haven't seen the movie Office Space, you must go and rent it tonight. It's one of the funniest commentaries on corporate life out there.

The main characters in the film work for Initech, a fictional tech firm. Today, a coworker was doing some research on Yahoo, and searched on unique gift ideas. She especially noticed the first organic result: for We all got a good laugh out of the creative misspelling, and that was that.

Being the curious sort that I am, though, I went back and clicked on that listing - only to discover it's a GARBITRAGE site - running, of all things, Google AdSense ads! As these type of sites go, it's a good one: it appears to be an affiliate site, too, so they've got product photos, links, and a little bit of copy on their pages. Which is probably how they're ranking so well in the SERPs. But still, clearly the purpose of the site is to profit from Adsense and affiliate links, not provide useful content for visitors.

The site owner is brilliant, in my opinion (even though I hate garbitrage). They not only picked a great, clever name for their site, but they've figured out how to put one over on Yahoo. Yahoo, the joke's on you -- you're sending free traffic to this site, while Google makes money from it!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

MSN Says "Carpe Diem" to adCenter Advertisers

I promised myself I wouldn't turn this blog into an "MSN bashing" blog. But last week's boneheaded move and the resultant fallout just can't be left un-blogged.

On Monday, April 30, MSN adCenter advertisers were greeted with the news that MSN had changed the Terms & Conditions for adCenter, as follows:

"We're writing to notify you that your Microsoft adCenter Terms and Conditions are updated. The changes take effect on April 30, 2007. Some of the key adjustments to your Terms and Conditions include: Microsoft may use matching criteria other than keyword searches to display your advertisements. Microsoft may display your advertisements on its network of advertising channels operated by the Microsoft network of participating websites and other distribution outlets. The payment and reporting terms in your adCenter agreement have been clarified to describe your rights. To review the new Terms and Conditions online, follow these steps: Sign into adCenter: Click the Advertiser Terms and Conditions link on the footer of the page. Review the document. If you do not consent to these revised Terms and Conditions, you may cancel your adCenter program relationship with Microsoft at any time through our Microsoft adCenter support team. Your continued use of the Microsoft adCenter program will be deemed your consent to the new Microsoft adCenter Terms and Conditions. Please contact our adCenter support team if you have any additional questions. Thank you for using Microsoft adCenter. Sincerely, The Microsoft adCenter Team."

I saw this, and didn't think much of it. I figured it was written to cover the Content Network which had come out of beta and to the masses over the previous weekend. We'd opted out of content weeks ago, so I went on my merry way.

However, some advertisers on the forums were concerned. My friend Discovery started a thread at Search Engine Watch questioning MSN's line of thinking, and others began to chime in.
The very next day, I was reading one of my Google Alerts. This one happened to be about The Source Magazine, which is folding. We used to carry The Source, and it was a big seller for us, so I was curious what was up. I saw that the page had IntelliTXT ads on it. One of the highlighted words was "magazine." Hovering over it, I saw that the ad was for Live Search, and the search was: magazine.

Let me stop here and say that "magazine" is one of our top 5 PPC keywords. I was now beyond curious. Continuing on...

So, I clicked on the IntelliTXT ad, and was taken to, yes, a Live Search page for the keyword "magazine," and there was our ad. OK, now my curiosity has flipped to anger. I immediately went and checked my stats for that keyword. Not surprisingly, clicks were way up - and conversions were not. I went and posted in the thread at SEW that MSN was now in the garbitrage business.

That's when all hell broke loose. By Friday, it was all over the blogosphere, and Kevin Newcomb from SEW had contacted me wanting more info for his blog post. PPC bloggers came out in force, decrying this latest faux pas by MSN.

My intention was not to slam MSN. I found out about the IntelliTXT campaign by accident. And I didn't get too worried until I checked my stats. Once I saw the damage, I had to say something.

Incidentally, those stats are pretty damning. Clicks on the keyword "magazine" for last week (4/29 through 5/5) were more than double what they were the previous week; yet conversions were the same from week to week. So essentially, conversion on that term was cut in half by this. Other keywords were affected too, although not on the same scale. None of them saw an increase in conversions. Things seem to have settled down this week, but it's still early. I'm still not happy about all this. MSN calls it a "promotional campaign," which I guess it is, in a way - but it's a campaign financed by MSN's advertisers, who are stuck with it under the new "like it or lump it" T&Cs.

I'll close with this summary of links to some of the blogosphere coverage of this debacle that weren't mentioned earlier. If you know of others, post them in the comments so I don't forget anyone.

Search Engine Roundtable
John K's Got Ads? blog
and the best one of all so far, this Search Engine Watch post by Tony Wright of Dexterity Media. Rock on, Tony.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Google PPA: Beta Testing At Its Best

I mentioned earlier that we were part of Google's Pay Per Action beta test, and that things were off to a slow start. That continued to be the story - up until yesterday.

First, a little background. Discussion about the PPA program was on all the major search engine forums, including Search Engine Watch. Member abbottsys and I posted there that we weren't getting any impressions on our text link ad formats. Barry from Search Engine Roundtable jumped in and said he'd use the text link ads.

Long story short, I had an ad set up for Search Marketing Standard Magazine - a great fit for SE Roundtable's audience. Problem was, the text link didn't appear to be available for publishers - Barry could only find our regular Adwords-type text ads, not the links. He got the Google PPA beta team involved, and it turned out there was a bug in the system that prevented the text link ads from being approved - basically, they were stuck in an editorial purgatory. Google fixed the problem late last week.

Yesterday, Barry posted an example of the PPA text link format on SE Roundtable. I knew his site had a lot of visitors, but wow. Overnight, SE Roundtable has leapfrogged to the top of the heap as our #1 referrer for the PPA program.

I have to thank Barry, along with Rob Kniaz from Google, for persisting and figuring out why the text link ads weren't showing up. This is what a beta test is all about - finding holes and patching them. More importantly, it's about advertisers, publishers, and Google all working together to find and fix the problems. When that happens, everybody wins. This is what I love about search engine marketing - the sense of community and willingness to share and work together. It makes it fun to come to work every day!