Eliminating Ambiguity in PPC

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Time for a pop quiz! What do the following have in common? You have 30 seconds to give your answer. Ready? Go!

•    Tesla
•    Madonna
•    Prince
•    Washington
•    Sam Adams
•    Chojuro

Did you figure it out? If you said “they’re all famous people,” you’re right. But only partially right.

All the names above are ambiguous. They have more than one meaning. Think about it: Madonna could be the singer, or the Mother of Christ, or a college, or a statue.

madonna search

When you say Tesla, do you mean the man, the band, or the coil?

tesla search

Prince and Washington have probably 100 meanings between the two of them. And so on.

In normal conversation, ambiguity is often eliminated by the context. If you’re talking about concerts you saw this summer, and you mentioned Madonna, it’s pretty clear who and what you’re talking about. Same thing goes for Tesla.

In PPC, though, the context is in the mind of the searcher. When we search for something, we know what we mean – but the search engine may not. As a result, especially with one-word queries, you fall into the ambiguity trap. You might be paying for visitors who weren’t searching for Madonna concert tickets – they were interested in information about the local Madonna University.

Celebrity names aren’t the only ambiguous search terms out there. In a recent conversation about ambiguous keywords on the PPC Chat hashtag on Twitter, Bryant Garvin pointed out the fact that all of the Choice Hotel brands have fairly generic names:

•    Comfort Inn
•    Comfort Suites
•    Quality Inn
•    Sleep Inn
•    Clarion
•    Cambria Suites
•    Mainstay Suites
•    Suburban
•    Econolodge
•    Rodeway Inn
•    Ascend Hotels

Now, this is by no means a dig at Choice Hotels. They’ve built great brands that are recognizable and familiar to travelers across the US. Still, every single brand name except maybe Econolodge has multiple meanings – and that’s where the challenge for PPC’ers comes in.

Fortunately, there are several techniques for clearing up ambiguity in PPC.

Don’t Bid on One-Word Keywords

This is going to be your best bet for steering clear of those irrelevant and ambiguous meanings. Just don’t do it!

Make sure you’re bidding on long-tail phrases. Tighten up your match types so you don’t get broad-matched to the irrelevant searches by accident. Don’t give the search engines the chance to show your ad on ambiguous searches!

But let’s do a reality check. I know there are times where bidding on single-word keywords is a must. Maybe it’s your brand name (e.g., Madonna, Tesla, Prince). Maybe your CEO is insisting that you show up for that one word, no matter the cost. Maybe a lot of people really are looking for you when they search for that word. Let’s talk about some ways to rein in the ambiguity.

Find Out All the Other Meanings of Your Keywords

This may seem obvious, but I’d be willing to bet that nearly every PPC professional has stumbled across new meanings for their keywords that they weren’t aware of. Just today, for example, I learned that “spice” is a slang drug term. Who knew?

Here’s where your keyword research tools come in. Scan through the list of results to see if any weird ones show up.

Google the term and see what appears in the SERPs. Ask your friends and coworkers if they’re aware of other meanings for the word. Go old school: get out your good old dictionary (or go to dictionary.com) and look up the word. Urban Dictionary is another great resource for alternative meanings of words and phrases.

Add the Irrelevant Meanings as Negatives

When you’re bidding on ambiguous terms, a huge negative keyword list is a must. Take all the irrelevant meanings of the word you can think of, and add them as negative keywords. Then add more.

A great source of common negative keywords can be found here. Add every single negative that doesn’t apply to you, so you can be sure to capture only the most relevant traffic.

You’ll also want to get into the habit of running search query reports. You may even want to run them daily (this can be automated – here’s how), at least at first. Relentlessly add every single irrelevant search query as a negative keyword.

Make Your Ad Copy Crystal Clear

Clear, concise ad copy is a best practice no matter what keywords you’re using. But with ambiguous terms, it’s vital to the success of your campaign.

Now is the time to go overboard with repetition. Repeating your keyword in context will go a long way in deterring irrelevant clicks on your ads.

For example, if you’re selling Madonna concert tickets, your ad could say:

•    Madonna Concert Tickets
•    Get Madonna Concert Tickets Here
•    Buy Madonna Concert Tickets Online

I know it looks and sounds ridiculous; but it will really drive home the fact that you’re not advertising about the Mother of Christ, college, or anything but Madonna the singer.

As with all PPC ad copy, testing is crucial. Test the ad above against another, more “normal” ad. See which performs better. Then test again.

With careful planning and testing, you can indeed eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, ambiguity in PPC.

What techniques have you used?

Author’s Note: Special thanks to #PPCchat participants Dennis Petretti, Bryant Garvin, Chris Kostecki, Luke Alley, and James Zolman for inspiring this post.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Search Engine Watch on August 28, 2012.

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  1. Yeah, who would’ve thought that a BMM keyword +sales +coach would turn up more people looking for discounted Coach purses than people looking for sales coaching?

    Anyhow, great post. Thanks!

  2. Adding the Urban Dictionary to my list of go to places to check for ambiguity 🙂

    The one unexpected side-effect of Google integrating their knowledge graph into search results, is that it’s a lot clearer to see what your single word might refer to. E.g. I search for “drive”, I see a handy box on the right of the screen – See results about Drive 2011 film or Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Love it! (Although doesn’t work if lots of people are bidding on that single keyword and ads take up the knowledge graph space…)

  3. Great post Melissa, once again! In managing some accounts and kw lists for years, I find it really interesting how the ambiguity changes over time. Ahhh, gotta love the the fickleness of popular culture. When auditing some of the negatives I came up with 2 years ago, they no longer apply, but a whole host of other ones now do. Like a lot of other things in PPC and wordsmithing, it is not a once and done kind of thing, which thankfully keeps us all employed. 🙂

    • Melissa Mackey says

      So true, Lisa! It’s easy to overlook your negative keyword lists, but they need to be managed, too. It’s a good idea to audit negatives regularly for just the reasons you state. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Ryan Patrick says

    I think only the big boys with millions to throw away could bid on one word keywords. And even them it isn’t wise…

  5. Prior to launching a new client’s campaigns, we spend a fair amount of time doing “live” searches on google and gathering negatives via Google suggest. We type our root keyword and follow it by every letter of the alphabet, one at a time, to see what is suggested. It’s an easy way to capture some low hanging fruit, so to speak, before wasting a ton of money and having to immediately scour the search query results and play whackamole!

  6. Yup, this is good advice. I have a ton of examples – wedding bands (ring or music), +price +guns (guns for pricing stickers or “price of guns”), etc. So all of your advice in this post is valuable for these situations.

    However, the one that has been giving us trouble are brands that are locations. For example, “durham furniture”. It can be someone searching for furniture in Durham NC or someone looking for the furniture brand, Durham. And if you are not a national campaign, it causes issues. But that’s probably a post for a different day 🙂

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