Google: “It’s Not A Bug, It’s A Feature!”

Last year about this time we identified what we thought was a bug in Google’s ad serving algorithm. We noticed that as we lowered bids on high traffic general terms that didn’t convert well, much more specific keyword ads started being served in their place. This had three annoying consequences:

  • The more specific keyword had a higher bid, hence we ended up paying more for the traffic than it was worth to us.
  • The landing page was less targeted, so we were taking bad traffic and landing it on the wrong page, making it even less valuable traffic.
  • Because of the poor quality traffic pouring in on what had been a high quality term, we bid that term down, meaning we also get less of the high quality traffic that the term normally draws.

Our reps at Google at the time told us that this couldn’t happen, that the exact matched keyword would always get precedence over the broad mis-match so what we were seeing… er… “wasn’t happening.”

We knew we were right about the phenomena and given their protestations that exact matches always won we suspected it was a mistake on Google’s part. We asked them if there was logic that makes exceptions to the exact match precedence if the ad is paused. They said “yes.” We then suggested that back in the day when there was a minimum bid, that an ad bid below that minimum might also be considered paused. They concurred. Then we suggested that when the minimum bid was replaced by the first page minimum bid perhaps the code wasn’t updated and any ad that didn’t meet that minimum would be treated as “paused.” They said at the time “That shouldn’t be the case; that isn’t what we intended; if it’s a mistake we’ll fix it.”

Googlers in good authority now tell me that that bug doesn’t exist—there’s no reference to the first page minimum in the code that drives the rankings. Instead the explanation is simply that the more specific keyword must have a higher Quality Score than the exact matched more general keyword… or that its combination of bid and Quality Score are higher than the exact matched term. We’re told that this shouldn’t really happen if the Quality Score of the generic ad is good, but our data suggests otherwise. Just a cursory look at our data showed plenty of instances where an exact match ad with a Quality Score of 10 was passed over for a broad matched ad with a higher bid.

Managing this self-competition with the current tool set is not just cumbersome, it’s impossible to do well. Adding every keyword as an exact matched negative for every other keyword in the account is unworkable. Bombing in all the general keywords as exact match negatives for all the more specific keywords is doable but time intensive and therefore costly.

Some advertisers simply give up on broad match to prevent the shenanigans. We’d say that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but understand the frustration. We do what we can, but anyone claiming to have this problem solved is either delusional or deceptive.

As I noted a couple of years back, one way Google could effectively self-destruct would be to go too far down the path of allowing higher bid/lower CTR keywords to take precedence over the right keywords. As described above, not only does spraying the traffic around unpredictably make all bidding systems less efficient and hence spend less money to reach the same efficiency target, the bigger danger is in alienating the shoppers who use the ads.

Advertisers bid ads down for good reason, like when inventory is thin, and if other ads take their place and continue drawing in traffic that won’t convert it is a disservice to the user as well as the advertiser.

Sometimes I rant around the office saying things like: “Advertisers should sue! Here we’ve given Google instructions as to how much we’re willing to pay for people who type in “Foo Bar,” but when someone types in “Foo Bar” Google decides to serve my ad for “Left-handed steel foo bar” which has a much higher bid! That should be illegal!!!”

Important note: I should be ignored when I rant on like this—other times, too, but particularly when I rant. Anyone looking at the AdWords terms of use for ten seconds would realize that Google can serve whatever ad it wants so there’s no point in calling a lawyer.

Google’s engineers genuinely believe they can algorithmically pick better ads to serve than the advertisers can. This may be true for badly managed accounts, but is not true for well-managed campaigns. If this notion that sometimes humans are smarter than the machines is offensive to engineers, perhaps it could be framed in the language of “crowd sourcing.”

If the engineering team is willing to acknowledge that some folks might actually choose ads, landing pages and bids rationally, there may be a profit maximization angle as well. Google is not “evil;” it is a publicly traded company looking to grow its top and bottom line just like us. My argument here isn’t that they can’t do this legally, nor is it that they shouldn’t do it ethically. The argument is that this isn’t a good business decision on their part.

Bing’s path to victory lies not in stealing Google’s organic traffic, but in taking Google’s shopping traffic. That’s what Cashback is about, and if Google places short term revenue maximization over long-term ad relevance they’re opening the door for Bing to step through.

If average users decide that “Google is great for research, but go to Bing for shopping” Microsoft’s big investment might just pay off.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdWords | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Scientist of RKG, a technology and service leader in paid search, SEO, performance display, social media, and the science of online marketing. He also writes for the RKG Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @georgemichie1.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • mmarshall

    George – This is a fantastic article!

    This has been my primary pain point with AdWords. Advertisers need to have much tighter control over our accounts and Google just continues to remove our ability to micro optimize. Something needs to be seriously reevaluated.

  • George Michie


    Better controls will benefit everyone, no question about it.

  • GE.GAO

    This is so true!

    The first time I noticed such problem I believed this was a bug, which Google rep denied even when I presented the screenshots to him. “This could not happen” while it happened in front of us.
    Well, after it happened again and again I started to realized this was intentional. Just as you said, ” it is a feature”. And I don’t blame the Google rep because it is not what their training tells them.

    Supposedly Quality Score should be an entirely independent system aiming at improving user experience (therefore generates higher long term revenue), but I seriously doubt that it is not the case any more.


    This has become a complete pain. Google is definitely displaying ads based upon non-exact matched keywords over exact match keywords if the exact match bid is lower. We’ve had to add 100′s of additional keywords to help prevent this. In addition our policy now is to drastically limit the use of broad matching beyond an initial ‘bedding in’ period.

    This is clearly about revenue gathering rather than relevancy. Rather than bid up the exact match keywords we ensure the bids on phrase and broad matching are generally lower than exact match. This market is crying out for some real competition to Google.

  • George Michie

    Artisan, I feel your pain!

    On the subject of competition I will say this: the folks at Microsoft are listening intently on the subject of matching, relevance and the controls advertisers want and need. Not sure when/whether their traffic volumes will ever catch-up to Google, but I get the sense that they’re going to build a great tool set.

  • racecar

    I think the key here is “Google’s engineers genuinely believe they can algorithmically pick better ads to serve than the advertisers can.” There may be all sorts of reasons (that Google would never think of) that the advertiser would want to run an ad that Google thinks is lesser, over an ad that Google thinks is better. For at least the time being, it is still people who search, people who click on ads, and people who buy the products and services.

  • Stupidscript

    IMHO, this is, in fact, a bug and not a feature … it’s just that there are so many bugs like this that fixing a single one is not only not a priority, it’s not even possible. In order to fix this bug, they would have to fix other bugs and change other rules and massage other algorithms … it’s a huge undertaking at this point.

    We’ve noticed many, many of these logic bugs when they display themselves as click fraud and poor matches. For example, we very often see the same user come to our site many times, using the same query but matching on different keywords, each more expensive than the last.

    In addition, we have been documenting and attempting to pass to Google engineering multiple bugs in their billing and event notification programming.

    Unfortunately, if they were to acknowledge any of these bugs, including the bug this article is about, they open themselves up to withering lawsuits, so we can never expect any satisfaction from them. They simply cannot tell us the problems exist, or they would be sued out of existence.

    As Google grows, they are having a harder and harder time of keeping everything in line. We can expect a huge fallout, one day, with a massive pummeling of Google’s bottom line before they finally go back and dig in to all of these errors that are creeping into their programming.

    It’s the cycle of growth. It doesn’t make it any easier to accept … the frustration is quite palpable … but we have no choice but to accept that we can do nothing at all to help them improve their system, because once they accept our help with pointing out bugs, their lawyers get real busy, and they know it.

  • George Michie

    Really interesting perspectives, folks, thank you!

  • seethesunrise

    We had the same issue a couple weeks ago. I noticed an exact match keyword that had the status saying it wasn’t showing because another keyword was being matched to searches.

    Turned out to be a broad match. Both had the same quality score. So our reps told us to make sure the bid for the exact match was higher (which tells me they compete against one another, which they swear doesn’t happen). However, they were both low cost keywords and the CPC was much lower than our max bid on both. So it wouldn’t have made a difference.

    Going back to them again they said that given that, the algorithm next looks at the average position. The exact match was at 1.3 and the broad happened to be at 1. So it was displaying the broad. Once the broad dropped in either QS or positioning, then the exact would show up.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide