May 19, 2014

by Cameron Cowan (@SEM Cameron)

Four weeks ago Google caused more waves in the paid search landscape as they announced they are going to begin removing query information from the referring URL strings of paid search ad click-throughs. This change has already begun to have significant impact on marketers across our industry, handicapping fundamental PPC campaign management.

The Heart of Search Marketing

When you cut to the heart of search marketing, it is all about a person asking a search engine a question (query) and then clicking on a listing that they predict will lead to the best chance of them finding the answer for which they are looking.  As PPC marketers, we are all jockeying for the opportunity to be the ones to provide consumers with our “answers” to their “questions”.

One of my favorite things about paid search advertising has always been that it is truly intent-driven. It is “pull” not “push”. TV commercials, radio spots, billboards, online display advertising, and even the majority of email marketing are all seen by most consumers as a “disruption” pushed upon them over the course of their regularly-scheduled lives. But paid search is the consumer coming to you. They have a problem, a need, a want, a question (a query!) and they are actively searching for an answer. And there is no need to guess what you think your target audience may want or need – they’ve told you right there at the top of the page in a little rectangular search box. Queries express consumer intent.

Although it is true that most of the “levers” campaign managers pull each day (bids, budgets, targeting, etc.) are tied to specific objects within the traditional account structure (such as keywords and campaigns), all of these management tactics are fundamentally aimed at harvesting consumer intent. Keywords themselves (along with their associated match types) are nothing more than a targeting mechanism to help define which searchers should and shouldn’t see your ads. Searchers never see your keyword lists, your match types, your campaign structure, or your targeting settings. All they see on a search engine results page [SERP] is what they themselves have typed into the search box (the query) and the resulting ads.

What we really are managing as search marketers (or at least what we should be managing!) is queries.

Why Is Query-Level Performance Reporting Important?

Far too often when businesses measure performance of paid search programs, they think of keywords as being the lowest level of granularity (after all, they are at the lowest level of the account hierarchy in a PPC account). However, reported data for a single keyword can potentially represent hundreds or even thousands of individual search queries, all with varying levels of performance that are “lost in the averages” of keyword-level reporting. A “strong” performing keyword may be collecting traffic for dozens of parasitic queries quietly wasting ad spend in small increments. Similarly, a “poor” performing keyword may simply be too broadly matched and if refined down to a handful of its core converting queries could be one of the most important performers in an account.

For seasoned paid search marketers, query level performance reporting is some of the most vital and useful data we have access to. These reports can tell us how well we are targeting our ads to specific queries (impression volume). They can tell us how often searchers believe we may be able to provide an answer to what they are looking for (clicks and CTR). They can tell us how often they find they are wrong in those predictions (bounce rate and other “fall-out” and “abandonment” rates). And ultimately, they tell us if and when we are indeed addressing expressed consumer intent (conversion, micro-conversions, and site engagement).

Through leveraging search engine traffic and cost data in combination with site-side conversion and engagement data, search marketers can turn these valuable results into real revenue and conversion lift for their businesses. New keyword opportunities can be uncovered and added to accounts. The need for additional negative search terms can be identified and implemented. And campaign/adgroup structural misalignments can be revealed and addressed. All from a single report!

Not only have advanced measurement platforms (like Adobe Analytics) been able to track event-based performance of search queries, they have also been able to add context around the post-click experience users go through as they come from various queries. These platforms can uncover interesting and actionable performance segments across the lines of geography, language, time-of-day, device types, operating systems, products browsed, and a host of other important dimensions. Savvy search marketers have in turn synthesized these insights into campaign structure and targeting decisions that have resulted in marked lift in their PPC programs.

How Adobe Marketing Technology Is Affected

Except for the search engines themselves, all ad management and analytics platforms have historically measured query-level site-side performance and engagement in the same way: we look at the referring URL on a landing page, identify when it comes from a recognized search engine (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.), and then grab the value found within the query parameter (q=, p=, etc.) off the referring URL and store it in our systems, linking that value to all subsequent conversions and site interactions. This has been the state of query performance measurement since long before early 2005 when I joined a little startup in Orem, Utah called Omniture.

With their announcement earlier this month, however, Google changed all of that in a few short sentences on a blog post (and I’m sure no small amount of backend engineering).

So how does this change affect Adobe Marketing Cloud Solutions? From a Media Optimizer perspective there have been two primary impacts:

  • The Search Term Report (found under Advanced Reports) no longer has the Google query data in it, meaning no AdWords post-click conversion or engagement data can be reported on in that report. (Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, Baidu, and Yahoo Japan query data are, however, still available in this report.)
  • The Generate Keywords tool (found under Search > Bulksheets) will no longer work if you select to generate keyword ideas for any Google accounts from the ‘Adobe Search Term Report’ (but it will still work for all non-Google accounts, as well as for Google accounts if you select to generate keyword ideas from the ‘Google Search-based Keyword Tool’).

Adobe Analytics will be similarly constrained from tracking paid search queries and reporting on them (as it has already experienced with the tracking of organic search queries over the past couple of years). For a complete account of the impact on Analytics please see Brent Dykes’ blog post from this week.

Ultimately, what this means for our users – and anyone using a third-party system for search campaign management and/or analytics – is that for all Google search queries (both paid and organic) all post-click conversion and engagement data, along with all cross-dimensional data relationships (“subrelations”) and insights, are no longer trackable or available for you and your teams to leverage in our platforms going forward. Of course historical data, as well as the rich query-level information you’ve enjoyed for years coming from other search engines, will continue to be available to you as they always have been.

The Broader Impact of Google’s Change

Those running smaller PPC programs directly through AdWords itself – and not leveraging the power of enterprise-grade campaign management and analytics platforms – don’t feel the impact of this recent change, calling concern over the announcement unfounded. Little if anything in their world has changed because they already run all their basic conversion tracking using AdWords pixels, apparently not concerned that they are giving Google – the very company that decides how much they pay for each and every ad click – complete visibility into how many conversions (and other financially beneficial site engagement activities) those clicks are driving.

For the rest of the industry that is unwilling to give Google full access to the henhouse, including many of the world’s largest brands and organizations that place their trust in independent third-party platforms, this change has a very direct impact and is indeed cause for concern. With Google no longer providing the parameters essential to performance tracking at the query level, paid search marketers wanting to measure query-level conversion data in their AdWords accounts are stuck with only two choices:

  • Implement a Google pixel on your website, allowing for (limited) conversion data to show up directly in the AdWords Search Query Report, but at the same time also providing Google with important and often sensitive business performance data
  • Do without
Indeed, for many organizations (such as many in the financial services vertical) placing a Google pixel is strictly forbidden by corporate policy. Other businesses have simply made the business decision not to implement AdWords tags as they are wary of the obvious conflict of interest this would create for Google as both performance measurer and auction (price) creator. In either case, Google’s message to advertisers is the same: “Use our technology to track and report on your conversion performance, or ‘no soup for you!’”

Let’s be honest – Google wants as much data as it can get its hands on. It is in the data business! Data is in reality the fuel off of which Google runs its advertising empire. And as it uncovers situations in which individuals and organizations are unwilling to give Google their data, it has strong financial incentives to exert its influence where possible to create environments that will induce more people to “get on board”.

Is this evil? Not necessarily. It’s just business – good business if you are a Google stakeholder. The more data they have, the more profitable they can potentially become.

And many, many businesses in the world today have signed off on implementing Google tracking (in one form or another) because, hey, they get free products out of it. Just remember:

“If the product is free, you [and your data] are the product!”

Creating Our Own Silver Linings

There is no sugar-coating it – this recent change by Google directly and significantly impacts most enterprise search marketing programs. But it certainly doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Query mining and keyword discovery remain a core tenant of paid search campaign management, and Adobe Media Optimizer is actively building tools to not only help to automate the query mining process, but that also help take the signals from the data we still do have and use that across engines to provide marketers with keyword and negative recommendations for their entire PPC program despite these hurdles thrown up by Google.

Furthermore, those that are employing Adobe Analytics have a tremendously rich set of query data beyond just the paid search channel that can help inform keyword and negative search term recommendations. The most important of these is on-site search. Over 80% of all Analytics customers track internal search in one form or another. These aren’t queries just searched for out on public search engines – these are the things that your customers are searching for on your website. I don’t know that there is another more valuable source of business-relevant search terms that exists in the world. And Adobe is developing tools that leverage this and other query mining sources. (Stay tuned for upcoming product announcements from the AMO team!)

This digital marketing world we live in is constantly changing. And it’s up to us to all roll with the punches (even when we take one directly to the gut every once in a while). Through leveraging rich data sets and powerful automation tools, users of the Adobe Marketing Cloud are well positioned to win round after round without ever having to bow out.