Personalized Results And Paid Search Are Not A Match

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.

6 comments about "Personalized Results And Paid Search Are Not A Match ".
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  1. Nick Guastella from Self Employed, April 23, 2010 at 4:01 p.m.

    I had the same problem Pre-personalized search with a jewelry advertiser and the workaround was the same fill up with negatives to make the right ad show.

    It might be a good idea iff this is a permanent change by Google to offer advertisers and opt out feature for personalization on adwords campaigns. Most of us don't have the hours of pulling together negative keyword lists so ads we carefully create show as we wanted them to

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 23, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    Bing goes the strings of your heart ;)

  3. Alan Hamor from adworthy inc, April 24, 2010 at 7:53 a.m.

    We're an SEO shop here, Emil, but we've seen this same paid search phenomenon and heard it from our clients. They're unhappy about it, too.

    I like Nick's thought about campaign opt-out but agencies are looking for rifle shot or strategic 'matching' and the client's want to combine that SE marketing precision with presence (brand awareness) as if these were display campaigns. In the short term they're likely to be happy showing for *every* search - this is CPC after all; costs them nothing to be there!

    Rhetorical question: if the searchers end up seeking relevance elsewhere because of "ad fatigue" (AND SERP fatigue) and advertisers seek a more level playing field with other search engines to avoid participating in the G Page 1 bidding frenzy, will this change the personalization practices?


  4. Miki Dzugan from Rapport Online, April 24, 2010 at 9:17 a.m.

    Where have you been for the last three years, Emil? Google has the attitude that their software knows better than you what you want. (Sound like any other software monopoly that we can think of?) But I think it might have more to do with maximizing profit for Google than personalizing the user experience.

    As an advertiser, you have to love the results Google brings because of the huge user base, but the bottom line is Google's bottom line.

    Where does the user go? In its fight to stay alive, Yahoo has taken a page from Google and now does the same kind of ad serving and Bing, you expect better from Microsoft? Really?

  5. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., April 27, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.

    This is one of those thorny issues that will be left to natural market forces to determine how the story ends. In a nutshell, if the consumer likes "personalized" ads and organic search results chasing them, they will prevail. OTOH, if seeing ads and search results appear for something I did a few searches ago or perhaps a few days ago are following me around and aren't relevant to the task I'm focused on now, why on earth would I click on those links??? And it follows, that if users don't click on those links, they will stop appearing. I would guide my clients to ignore this as a Google experiment that will live or die by the relevance of the links. If the links are relevant, it will be good for everyone. If they're not, it won't be good for anyone.

  6. Kathleen Makoski from Prime Time Solutions, April 28, 2010 at 10:46 a.m.

    I have also encountered this frustrating issue several times, but I was given a different reason as the cause. I was told this was done to enhance our campaigns. When there is a cheaper keyword with a higher Quality Score and ad rank and a cheaper CPC, sometimes the ads for these 'cheaper' keywords will show instead, even if they are from a different ad group or even campaign. This is done to 'save' money on our campaigns and CPC. However, we don't save anything when the wrong ads show, decreasing our CTR and bringing people on the wrong landing pages.

    Our rep admitted that this was causing a problem by allowing incorrect ads to run, but again provided the same solution of putting our terms as negative keywords into each ad group, not really a feasible solution and not one that seems to work all of the time.

    More Information can be found on this in Google AdWords Help under the section "There is a cheaper keyword with a higher Quality Score and Ad Rank" at

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