Beneath the seemingly innocent surface of paid search, monstrous errors could be lurking. If your paid search efforts aren’t performing the way they could, should or did, gather ‘round to hear these true stories of disastrous decisions from our own case studies.

Part 1: How Meeting Our Numbers Was Killing the Client

Has your keyword management been taken over by mindless machines? Here are a few ways to tell:

  • Total keyword volume is steadily declining
  • Cost per lead has gone up as lead volume has gone down
  • Your team seems generally less informed on the day-to-day workings of your account

If so, you might be suffering from…

The Zombie Nightmare of Automated Bid Management

Now, we’re not anti-tool; we use many of them to optimize our clients’ paid search activities. However, we vet each tool we use very carefully, and only use it to the extent that it makes us more efficient in carrying out the strategies and tactics we’ve designed for our clients.

There’s a sort of sinister allure to automated tools. Some of them are built right into the paid search platform, making them extremely convenient, especially for an in-house team that might not have much expertise in the details of account management or the budget to screen tools and purchase one or more.

Also, they give the illusion of management and efficiency, making it seem that your account is being adjusted in real time for optimal performance. Just like a Venus Fly-Trap seems like a perfectly innocuous place to land for an insect.

But who’s really in charge? As we’ve said before, “set it and forget it” is not a sound policy for paid search, because there’s just too much activity. There are two marketplaces in paid search:

  • The arena in which your ads run and users decide whether or not to click on them
  • The arena in which the ad platform determines which ads to run in the first place

That second marketplace is every bit as volatile as the first, if not more so. Without strong, detail-oriented oversight to harness bid adjustment tools, those tools could make changes that completely undercut your ads’ performance.

Unlike many digital tools that have an on/off function, bid management rules can be set to pause ads automatically, but there’s no rule to re-enable them automatically. There’s no “back on,” only “off.”

One of our clients had set many rules for pausing keywords, but hadn’t gone back and manually re-enabled them when the circumstances surrounding the rule changed (i.e., when a minimum bid went back under the client’s maximum bid limit).

Nor had they made a regular habit of reviewing their account for keywords that might need re-enabling. They re-enabled nearly 200 keywords after Q1, but that only slowed the keyword attrition, as an additional 87 keywords were paused that same month.

Within the first 5 months of the year, their total active keyword volume was down by 189 keywords. Fewer keywords meant fewer opportunities for their ads to show, and thus fewer leads and customers. They were dangerously close to the dreaded “death spiral” of keywords.

The Bloodletting of Wasted Spend from Choosing the Wrong Metrics

Once again, there’s a sequel. This same client had set automated rules to pause keywords and ad groups based on “performance,” but they used metrics that didn’t align with their marketing or business goals. Instead they relied on non-essential metrics like average ad position.

One of their rules paused keywords whose average ad position wasn’t in the top 3. You might note that average ad position has no connection to revenue or return; it’s just where the ad falls on the search engine results page. Because of this disconnection to business goals, some of the “highest ranking” terms also had some of the lowest conversion rates (CVRs) and highest costs per lead (CPLs).

Meanwhile, the terms shown on the right delivered lots of leads with low CPLs, but because they fell outside the top 3, they were paused. Ponder, if you will, the tragic loss of leads caused by pausing these keywords. (And remember, re-enabling a keyword requires a manual action, which they weren’t performing regularly.)

The Dizzying Heights and Sickening Depths of Compounding Rules

This client had also set multiple levels of rules for bid adjustments based on locations, which meant that the horror of multiplying fractions had infected the account. The result of all this compounding was a bid adjustment range of -90% to +293%.

As with the case of pausing keywords based on average ad position, these rules were based on total spend rather than a revenue-based metric. And as in the keyword case, the locations with the highest lead volume and lowest CPLs were “penalized” with lowered bids while locations that didn’t contribute anywhere near as many leads and had significantly higher CPLs were promoted.

Escaping the Zombie Nightmare of Automated Bid Management

Between the keyword attrition, wasted spend and compounding rules, one truth emerged: there was no cohesive bid strategy across campaigns. Without a strategy to guide them, the team was making in-the-weeds decisions that might have seemed reasonable at the time, but ultimately combined to doom the company’s paid search efforts.

The most crucial action you can take to avoid the rise of the machines is to communicate these concepts to your team:

  • Automated tools can save effort, but not replace it: there’s still a level of work that must be done in overseeing paid search to ensure that they don’t take over
  • The metrics for automated tools must align with business goals, not platform-centric numbers such as ad position or spend alone
  • Automated tools must be used judiciously and consistently. Err on the side of caution when setting up an automated rule
  • If the team is using more than one automated tool, the risk of the tools interacting and compounding is very high, so the level of care and management should be much higher than for a one-tool account

In other words, by applying hands-on management for paid search. (un)Common Logic uses tools for efficiency, but we depend on the human intelligence and attention to detail of our analysts for strategy, testing, and optimization.

Coming next week… grab a flashlight and have 911 on speed-dial for The Three Fatal Errors of a Paid Search Audit