Voice Search and PPC Relevance: A Match Made in Hell

Voice search has come on strong in the past year or so. Bing Ads has been ahead of the pack on voice search, predicting a year ago that it would be big. Purna Virji of Bing Ads talked a lot about voice search in her recent Reddit AMA, as well.

I’ve definitely noticed more obvious voice queries in our clients’ search query reports lately. The much-ballyhooed “near me” searches are showing up in droves in several client accounts. We’re also seeing really long search queries, with 15-20 words not uncommon. Queries that start with “give me the number for” or “can I get the name of” or “what’s the company on First and Main” are prevalent, as well.

Voice search is obviously cool and efficient for the user. It’s so easy to say “OK Google” and start asking a question in natural language. Cars nowadays are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity to mobile phones, giving drivers the opportunity to perform voice searches without taking their eyes off the road. My teenagers almost never type a search query into their phones – they either use OK Google or Siri. It’s the stuff of Star Trek: “Computer! Identify that flying object!”

As search marketers, though, voice search is wreaking a bit of havoc. The search engines, despite their outward support of voice search, seem to have trouble handling lengthy voice queries. Our clients’ ads have shown on some highly irrelevant queries that are obviously voice searches.

The challenge is multiplied if you’re using call-only ads. Call-only ads are great in that they display a nice big “Call” button:

Call Extensions Mobile

But when call-only ads show on irrelevant voice searches, they tend to generate unqualified phone calls – wasting client call center resources on top of wasted click costs.

Another issue is that the engine’s negative keyword functionality hasn’t kept up with voice search. Negative keywords don’t work when the negative term appears more than 10 words into a search query. So if you have “free” as a negative keyword, and someone voice-searches “what’s the name of the company on fifth and main that offers free haircuts to kids,” your ad will still show – even if you’re not offering free haircuts. This is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for our clients.

Another huge issue is close variants. Close variants have always been a problem, but with voice search, we’re seeing even bigger challenges.

Take the example of “company” vs. “companies.” In theory, search queries with either word should perform the same. A search for “business phone company” should perform the same as “business phone companies.”

The problem is, with voice search, the two are very different. Let’s look at an example.

Consider these two queries:

what’s the name of the business phone company on 5th avenue
business phone companies that can help my small business

The first query is clearly someone who is looking for a specific business. They just can’t remember its name. If you’re that business, you’re in luck. If you’re not, you’re going to get a lot of clicks and/or phone calls from people looking for a competitor! Not cool.

The second query is clearly from a user who is looking for a business phone company. If you’re that advertiser, this is exactly the prospect you want. It’s an obvious lead-generation question that should convert well.

And yet, if you’re bidding on “business phone companies,” your ad will serve for both queries, because of close variants.

I’ve become increasingly frustrated with this as time goes on. There’s no way to keep your ad from showing on irrelevant searches, and the irrelevant searches are becoming more frequent due to voice search – leading to worsening ROI from paid search.

We can only hope that the engines will reconsider their stand on close variants and give us the option to choose to include them once again. Otherwise, I can envision paid search quickly becoming too expensive with too low an ROI for many advertisers.

What do you think? Is voice search helping your PPC performance, or hurting it? Share in the comments!

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The Ideal Number Of Keywords Per Ad Group

A while back, one of our new hires asked a great question over IM about the number of keywords in an ad group. Here’s a paraphrased version of how the conversation went down:

New Hire: I’ve been told an ideal number of keywords in an ad group is around 15. If you have much more than 15, what are the chances all the words are relevant? Are smaller ad groups better, like in the 5 word range? Does it just make it more tedious to manage having a lot of small ad groups?

Melissa Mackey: Yeah, there comes a point of diminishing returns when you go below 10-15 keywords. That said, I’ve had 1-keyword ad groups for a very high volume term. It just depends – like a lot of things in PPC.

NH: Ok, so you look at diminishing returns and term popularity.

MM: Right, as a rule that works. Also, you might want to isolate smaller groups of keywords to improve quality score. So for example, if you have a few keywords with decent volume and poor quality score, you’d move them to try to improve it.

NH: What if you have a small ad group where one term gets impressions/clicks and the other one is extremely light?

MM: That’s usually ok as long as quality score is relatively similar.

Was I right about that? I’ll get to that in a second.

The “right” number of keywords in an ad group is a subject of much debate. I found a Quora thread that had as many different “right answers” as there were commenters in the thread.

Brad Geddes weighed in on the magic number of keywords in an ad group on the Certified Knowledge blog. Short answer? There is no magic number of keywords – it depends.

A poster on the Adwords Community forum does a good job of illustrating the concept, but then says 5-15 keywords is the right number.

I agree with him, to a point. I usually strive for no more than 15 keywords per ad group. But I also have ad groups with 50 keywords or more, and that’s fine too. It just depends.

The difference comes in whether the ad group is large because there is a large number of related terms out there, or whether the ad group is large simply due to laziness or lack of time. I recently did some keyword research around healthcare marketing, and there are a LOT of variations of “healthcare marketing” that are all closely related.

So how do you decide if you should split up a large ad group into smaller ones?

Look for similarities.

The first thing I do is look for similarities: in keyword theme, performance, or quality score. In fact, while I often say you shouldn’t optimize based on quality score alone, you can use it as a guide here in ad group development. Often the quality score will tell you what Google thinks is similar about the terms.

Quality score also helps you think about ad copy and landing page needs. If you have a bunch of relevant keywords with a low quality score and you’re not in an industry with traditionally low quality scores, then maybe your landing page isn’t relevant. Or maybe your ad copy needs to be tightened up. Creating new ad groups can be a way to deal with both issues.

Consider grouping by match type.

Sometimes it makes sense to group keywords by match type, to aid in keyword research and control cost per click by match type. I’ve found this especially effective for smaller accounts in niche markets where it’s hard to mine for new keywords simply by using search query reports. In larger accounts, grouping by match type just makes for unnecessary management time.

In fact, too many ad groups often become cumbersome to manage. Even a couple hundred ad groups can be super time consuming – I speak from experience on this. Single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) do make sense, but your entire account shouldn’t be full of them. You don’t want to end up in a situation like this:

twitter convo

This example is less about too many ad groups and more about an unreal number of negatives, but you get the point.

To me, the ideal number of keywords in an ad group is…. It depends. Surprise!

What’s your rule of thumb on number of keywords per ad group? Do you have a rule of thumb, or do you decide on the fly? Share in the comments!

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PPC News Around the Web: Top 7 Posts for January 2013

January is nearly over, and as always the month went fast. And as usual, there was a lot of interesting PPC news published this month. Here is a summary of the top 7 PPC news posts and articles I bookmarked this month.

All About Display

A Search Marketer’s Guide To Google Display Advertising, Part 3.  I stumbled across this excellent series by my good friend Matt Van Wagner a bit late in the game, on Part 3 of 3. The entire series is required reading for both new and experienced Google Display Network users; you’ll find links to Part 1 and 2 in this post.

Get On Those Negative Keywords

I don’t believe this was new in January, but it was new to me: World’s Biggest Negative Keyword List, compliments of Clix Marketing and via David Szetela. While there are other good negative keyword lists out there, this one buckets keywords by vertical. I found it immediately useful for a few client campaigns where we’ve been struggling with irrelevant traffic.

Geek Out Posts

Let’s face it – when you’ve done PPC and SEM for a long time, most blog posts are underwhelming in terms of true geeky content. That’s why these next 2 posts made my list for this month: they’re so technically awesome that I need to go back and re-read them, because I was lost the first time around!

Advanced Filters: Excel’s Amazing Alternative To Regex by Annie Cushing, who gets my vote for being the Miss Universe of Excel. Her posts are so full of knowledge and resources that I bookmark nearly all of them (and then go back and try to understand how the heck to replicate what she did).

Google Analytics Tips: 10 Data Analysis Strategies That Pay Off Big! by Avinash Kaushik. Google Analytics is a valuable tool for PPC data analysis, and this post is full of great tips. It starts out easy enough, but quickly moves into custom reports & segments for some serious data crunching. As a bonus, it includes many of Avinash’s unique phraseology.

Girl Power

Marty Weintraub from aimClear takes on gender diversity on search conference speaking panels and backs it up with data in Female Online Marketing Speaker Stats: 13 True Evangelists Discuss The Data. Ever wondered why so few females speak at search conferences? Marty interviews longtime conference speakers and organizers to get at the reasons. Disclosure: I’m one of the Evangelists in the post. But don’t let that stop you! It’s an analysis that’s long overdue.

Conversion Optimizer Case Study

Brad Geddes brings us yet another informative and detailed post with Case Study: Quadrupling A Small Account’s Conversions In Just 90 Days. A fascinating read illustrating how to replicate his results! (And yes, I realize that this was published on December 31. A mere technicality.)

Most-Commented Beyond the Paid Post

While it wasn’t the top in page views in January, my Adwords Search Query Reports: US Versus The World post garnered the most comments of any in recent memory. It illustrates what’s so great about the PPC community: people chimed in with stories of their own and suggestions for additional research to help me get to the bottom of the situation. I’ll be doing a follow-up post soon, thanks to all the great insight shared in the comments.

There you have it – my top 7 PPC news posts for January. What were your favorites?

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Eliminating Ambiguity in PPC

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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Ramping Up (or Ramping Down) Your PPC Spend

Anyone who’s been doing PPC for a while has heard this before: “We’re getting great results from PPC – we want more! Get us more traffic!” And chances are you’ve heard this before, too: “We need to cut our PPC budget in half for a while, starting today.”

While I hope you hear the former rather than the latter, both statements are enough to strike fear in the heart of any PPC manager. Well, I’m here to tell you there are ways to accomplish both, and quickly. Let’s talk about the “ramping down” scenario first.

Ramping Spend Down

You’re probably thinking, “Well that’s easy – just cut your campaign daily budget in half.” And you’d be right – if you literally have one minute in which to get the change made. Of course you should reduce your daily budgets in half, if that’s the directive. That’ll keep you from overspending. But if that’s all you do, it’ll likely cut your conversions in half, too – or worse.

If you take a little bit of time to look at your campaigns, you can probably squeeze more than half the original amount of conversions out of half the budget. Here’s how:

1. Start big, and get smaller. Look at your ad groups first: are there one or two ad groups that are really underperforming compared with the average? Pause those right away – especially if they’re not generating any conversions at all. If you have some that are converting, but at a higher cost than you’d like, lower your bids.

2. Then look at your ad copy. When was the last time you reviewed the results of your ad copy tests? Now’s a good time to take another look. Keep the winners and ditch the losers. I still recommend testing, even with a reduced budget; but if you’re really skittish, just keep the winners to get the most conversions for your reduced budget.

3. Then take a look at your keywords, the same way you looked at your ad groups. Pause the keywords that are getting a lot of clicks but no conversions; and lower bids on those that are not converting at a good cost.

4. Add negative keywords. It’s common to discover that you’re getting significant traffic for irrelevant search queries. Run a search query report and mine it like crazy for irrelevant terms. If you have time, you can comb through the entire report; if not, filter for terms with a minimum of 5-10 clicks and check that. Be relentless in adding negatives! When the budget is tight (and even when it’s not), there’s no reason to pay for irrelevant clicks.

5. Consider advanced features like dayparting, Conversion Optimizer, or Experiments – but be forewarned, these take more time to implement and more time to monitor, so if you’re short on time, hold off on these techniques at first.

Ramping Spend Up

Surprisingly, this can be more difficult than ramping down! But it can be done, and here’s how:

1. Increase your campaign daily budgets. If I really want to maximize spend, I’ll set each campaign to a daily budget of $1,000 per day, even if I know it won’t actually spend that much. I’ve found that setting lower budget caps can limit spend to far below what you’d really like, whereas setting it at $1,000 seems to max things out.

2. Adjust Ad Delivery Settings to Accelerated in Google, and remove the daily budget cap in adCenter. It’s surprising how much of a difference the Accelerated setting can make in increasing traffic & conversions.

3. Increase ad group and keyword bids. This is basically the reverse of what you did in the “ramping down” section: find the top performing ads and keywords and crank up the bids.

4. Add new keywords. I like to start with the search query report for this step. Just like you’d comb through it for negatives when you need to reduce spend, dig for high-converting variations that you’re not currently bidding on.

5. Consider the Display network. While this isn’t as easy as clicking the “show on all available sites” campaign setting, the Display Network can be a great source of incremental traffic and conversions. We’ve had clients who get as many conversions from Display as from search, at as good a cost.

By using these quick steps, you’ll be able to make your boss (or your client) happy, and get great results from your campaigns at the same time!

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