Best practices — by definition — are a set of highly recommended tips and tricks born of repeated and ongoing expertise in a specific subject matter. As professionals, we rely on these tried and tested procedures every day because we assume them to be correct and effective.
But are these best practices always the right course of action? If anything, they might just be, as many describe, “just a good starting point” that shouldn’t be relied on as the only way to manage paid search.
Susan Waldes’ recent post here at Search Engine Land on why search marketers should reconsider using broad match challenges the best practice on avoiding that match type when possible. I read this piece and was inspired to re-examine other best practices search practitioners take for granted as being hard and fast rules.
The goal here is not to try to debunk these best practices — they’re all highly effective methods — but rather to explore a counter view of each to see if there are any interesting insights we may uncover from this exercise.
The Top Ten Paid Search Best Practices Re-Examined
The following best practices are not ranked in any order. This is a list of tips that frequently appear on best practice lists published on the Web and shared at industry conferences.
1. Avoid Broad Match
Search marketers generally try to use as little broad match as possible in order to gain the most control of their accounts.
After all, on broad match, search engines tend to include plurals, misspellings and other close variants automatically, which can steal traffic from other ad groups that overlap. With potentially millions of keywords across thousands of ad groups, it may be hard for you to steward the budgets toward the strategies in the way that you want.
Overusing broad match can also submit your campaigns for auctions that aren’t necessarily for audiences you hope to reach. If you’re a chocolatier, you don’t want to show up for every search for candy, dessert, etc. Wouldn’t it be best to limit yourself to folks searching for chocolate only?
Insights From Counter View? As Ms. Waldes explains in her article, broad match can be a valuable tool to reach consumers who may be interested in your products/services but don’t search on the terms within your account. She reminds us that on any given day, 10–20% of Google queries have never been seen before.
Broad match can effectively become the catch-all net to ensure that you do show up for everyone who may be interested in your business. Broad match also becomes a very strong research tool to mine queries that may not already be in your account.
2. Test. Analyze. Optimize. Repeat.
This is a best practice at the very heart of search marketing (and many other digital marketing disciplines). Because of the rapid-response nature of paid search, it is an ideal advertising channel to continuously try out new things, examine the results, and then build upon what is and isn’t working.
In essence, you can load up new creative or keywords on Monday, let them run for a few days, pull the results on Thursday, and upload improvements to your campaigns on Friday.
In some instances, you may be able to analyze thousands of clicks and millions of impressions over just a few days. The value of that data has been instrumental in making paid search the largest (and arguably the most valuable) digital marketing channel.
Insights From Counter View? This is not just a search marketing best practice, it’s nearly a mantra for many practitioners — including myself. It will be hard to argue against this approach. However, I could argue that a lot of time is spent testing things that have already proven to be highly effective. Maybe we could do less testing (quantitative research) and more qualitative research.
The answers aren’t always in the numbers. Sometimes the best data comes from speaking to your customers via surveys or talking to them one-on-one. In the hours it takes to analyze the data from your search account, you may be able to speak to a half-dozen consumers who provide you even stronger direction on how to best reach them with the paid search channel.
3. Don’t Solely Use Google
When I first started in paid search in 2002, there were a dozen or more viable search engines: Ask Jeeves, Excite, Alta Vista and Dogpile, to name a few, as well as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. Because market share was spread across so many publishers, the only way to get scale was to tap into an aggregated stream of the entire search universe.
Over time, Google pulled out ahead, and for some time now, it has represented about 65 percent of all US search traffic, with Yahoo and Bing making up around 33 percent.
Let me say this emphatically: You must unequivocally be on all three engines at this point if you are serious about your paid search efforts.
Insights From Counter View? For the biggest search advertisers spending more than a couple hundred thousand dollars a month on paid search, it’s almost impossible to solely use Google. The available inventory from Bing/Yahoo (especially those incredibly valuable brand terms) completely dictates that you must run outside of Google to maintain a healthy search account.
However, for the 99 percent of AdWords customers who are not the giant spenders — those whose budgets are sub-$1,000/month — it certainly makes sense to focus on Google for your SEM efforts.
Being the search marketing expert for all of my friends and family, I’m often asked to talk to their friends or colleagues about the paid search they’re doing for their small businesses or personal projects.
For those people who read that they should be using other engines, I often tell them that it’s okay that they’re just on Google. As long as they’re not capped out on branded terms in AdWords, small businesses that are stretched thin across so many tasks (even outside of marketing needs) don’t need to spend the time it takes to learn and manage accounts on other engines.
But if you have a zillion things to do in a day and you’re wondering if you should carve out time for other engines, unless you’re an Internet-only business, AdWords should be just fine for you. When you grow and start spending more, that’s when you can hire someone to help you expand to other publishers.
4. Utilize Negatives
Managing negatives effectively is a very strong technique to help control when the engines submit you for auctions, as well as which campaigns and ad groups are submitted for specific use keyword queries. They’re one of the main levers search marketers use to pare back keyword groups in order make them more streamlined.
I personally think advanced negatives handling is one of the key differences between average and expert search marketers. Whenever I audit a paid search account for the first time, I always check out the account’s negatives in order to understand how advanced the approach has been to date.
There are some really amazing ways marketers are hacking the negatives field, and there are plenty of great articles available online to help you get your negatives to the next level.
Insights From Counter View? This best practice is super-tough to counter because negatives are such a valuable parameter for search marketers. However, for the sake of this exercise, I imagine there are some marketers out there that haven’t truly mastered all the ins and outs of how negatives affect their campaigns. They may actually be limiting their effectiveness and scale by not managing them correctly.
Additionally, if there are multiple practitioners managing the same account (as there generally are with big advertisers), they could be utilizing different negative strategies that could bring a level of chaos to the account that the practitioners don’t realize.
I’m reaching there a bit to counter the negatives best practice, but if you’re on a team of SEM pros managing the same account, you might want to make sure you are all on the same page on how negatives should be used and when they should be used, and you should make sure all of you are using them in the same way to avoid any performance issues.
5. Use Different Creative For Mobile And Desktop Ads
Mobile, once a traffic outlier in single-digit percentage of clicks, has now become the dominant sub-channel for paid search for most advertisers. As mobile grew in importance and volume, many best practices for mobile search were written, the main one being that search marketers should utilize different ad copy for mobile and desktop ads.
This totally makes sense. We know that user search behavior on mobile devices often differs from desktop usage, even for the same query. Mobile users are on the go, have smaller screens, are looking for more localized content and so on.
Insights From Counter View? I’ve gone back and forth in my career regarding the importance of ad copy. Of course, it’s part of the triumvirate of paid search (keywords, ads, bidding), but I do believe practitioners sometimes overthink just how many variations of those 95 characters should be used. Do we really need to test 25 versions of the new promotion’s ad copy? Does changing one word here or there really make a difference?
Generally, I would emphatically say, “Yes! Of course it matters.” However, in the context of this article, could we learn something by arguing against using different ad creative for desktop and mobile campaigns?
The only reason I may take the counter view on this best practice would be that it takes a lot of time to write, edit, load manage, report, analyze and test twice as much creative as it would to use the same ads for desktop and mobile. If you are unable to complete your daily search duties due to time constraints, you might try deprioritizing this tactic in lieu of adopting other best practices.
By taking that time and applying it to advanced bidding analysis or to match type management, might you move the needle faster than by focusing on device-specific ad copy?
In part two of this article, we will re-examine the next set of best practices and see if we can learn anything new from the counter view:
6. Big keyword lists
7. Conversion tracking
8. Specific landing pages
9. Watch your competitors
10. Query mining