Recently, I was doing some routine campaign QA for one of our clients when I ran into something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I was searching on Google for one of the client's automotive model names when, much to my dismay, I was shown a listing from a completely different ad group within the client's account. The listing that should have shown had language that was specific to that car model's name, but the one that did show was tailored for the broader automotive brand name. I soon realized that the ad that was shown was from an ad group that historically had the most traffic volume of the account.
Now, I have been in the paid search industry for some time, and have seen this type of thing before. I'm well aware that there are vague explanations from engines about what "broad match" really means, and that the keyword could well have been matched against another in the account. But here's the kicker: this keyword was on "exact match."
I quickly hit "F5? to ensure it wasn't just a glitch, but sure enough the same ad showed. I searched four, five and six more times, and each time the wrong ad came up. Finally, on my seventh search (We like to be thorough here at Reprise Media), the correct ad showed. My heartbeat slowed from a frenzy as the issue seemed to be fixed. Deciding this whole situation was probably just an anomaly, I closed the browser.
But something was still bugging me. I opened it again for good measure, and searched again one last time. Wrong ad again! As I pondered what was happening, I glanced up at the upper right hand corner of the SERP and saw that I was logged into my personal Google account. That's when it finally hit me: Personalized Search!
This wasn't an isolated incident, either. During another instance of my routine campaign quality checking, I had been searching on a few brand terms from three different accounts in consecutive order. We'll call them "retail client," "automotive client," and "CPG client." I searched on the retail client's brand name, and received the correct ad. I then searched on the automotive client's brand name, and I received the correct ad again. I searched on the automotive client once again for good measure, and all was good. Finally, I searched on the CPG client's brand name. I received the correct ad here, but I also received an ad for the automotive client!
Wait a minute; ads were showing for advertisers when I hadn't even searched on a relevant term? Just like last time, I realized I was logged into my account. Personalized Search was starting to look like the culprit here.
For those of you who don't know, Personalized Search basically lets Google keep track of all of your search history (both the keywords you search for and the sites you visit) in order to better understand what search results you want to see. When you are signed into your MyGoogle account, they can use this data to customize the results that you see. While this customization used to be limited to the organic results, there's clearly some jockeying going on within the paid results as well. Furthermore, Google recently rolled out an update to this functionality that allows the engine to personalize search results, even if you're not logged into a Google account.
I reached out to our friendly Google representative for an official explanation. Sure enough, my theory about Personalized Search was confirmed. The rep explained that because I had searched for the client's brand name more often than the model name, Google made the "executive decision" to show the more frequently searched-for brand ad. My rep went on to recommend that we should take all keywords outside of the affected ad group and add them as negatives in order to ensure that our ads would show properly. In other words, if the account had 40,000 keywords living in alternative ad groups, we would need to add these 40,000 keywords as negatives -- and do this for each ad group in the account. Obviously not a feasible solution.
These experiences got me to thinking about what this really means for SEM in general for now, and for the long term.
This obviously provides Google with a better chance to capture the click by essentially chasing the user through their search experience -- in the end, more money for Google. What this means for the search engine marketer is probably a whole new approach to the game.
If Google's big brain algorithm can decide to display ads from anywhere within the account, regardless of where they live within the account, then what does this mean for the sanctity of an account structure? What does this mean for the sanctity of the "ad group"? And long term, what does this mean for the search engine marketer?
Is Personalized Search giving Google carte blanche to take over our accounts and show ads as they see fit? Is this disregarding of boundaries Google's first steps to phasing out search marketer's manual control of accounts, in order to make sure more clicks are happening -- and consequentially more spend is occurring? If not, it certainly seems that way.
More to the point of my second experience: Doesn't showing ads on non-relevant terms follow an ideology converse to what search and paid search is built on? Relevancy. From a user perspective, while using my search history to target ads to me might make sense at a conceptual level, when I'm searching for something very specific, is it possible to consider that unrelated ad relevant due to my past behavior? More important, are the core fundamentals of building a paid search campaign based on relevancy making way for broader targeting around behavior and/or intent? And if we do so, don't we lose a little something that makes search special and different from all other forms of media? All signs point this way.
As I see it, what we are experiencing right now on the SERP end of Personalized Search is just a prelude to what we will see in the months to come on the AdWords end. Could we be seeing the end of the "ad group"? Could dedicating keywords and ads to a group-like structure be a concept of the past entirely? As control is redefined, could the search marketer's role be redefined along with it? All of the answers remain a bit murky at the moment, but the way things are shaping up, it certainly looks like this might be the case.