PPC-Man Drowning… Too… Many… Keywords…

The keyword long tail is dead. Long live advertising.

The first shot (heard ’round most of the search marketing world) in this war against busywork was actually fired in 2002 by Google, when they introduced powerful matching options for AdWords. Too bad some folks haven’t yet heard that shot.

This may be an exaggeration for effect. But if you’re like me, an experienced paid search pilot with somewhere close to your 10,000 hours in flight time, you’ve probably had enough of bloated ad groups containing hundreds of pointless, longshot, low-to-no-volume keywords.

Some experts in the field are suddenly joining me, jumping on this Long Tail Keyword List Critique bandwagon. One, who used to work in business development for a campaign management platform which shall remain nameless, up until recently sung the praises of the Long Tail to the sky. Until he changed jobs. Now, he says that’s so 2005. The top 10% of your keywords create 99% of sales volume. Or if you make really long keyword lists, the top 1% of your keywords create 99% of your sales volume. Let’s get real.

If I had my choice, this would be my shortest column ever! Maybe I’ve been tweeting too much. Forgetting prepositions. PPC superhero tired. Many keywords. Dragging him down.

First, the requisite disclaimers. Accounts vary. Campaigns can benefit from a lot of keywords, sometimes, if managed correctly.

But the situation I ran across recently was typical. Let’s say the product (name changed to disguise client identity) is “balsa wood sailboats.”

Inside the ad group someone had diligently built years ago, I found hundreds of phrases: [green balsa wood sailboats]. [balsa wood sailboats midwest]. [how to make a balsa wood sailboat]. And my particular favorite: [pinkbalsawoodsailboat]—perhaps a translation from the original German. And hundreds of others. You might think that being so thorough is good campaign management. I don’t think so.

Not to overcomplicate my reaction: I have a pretty good feel for these things. And these pages and pages of keywords were really starting to piss me off.

Part the reason for this visceral reaction boils down to keyword intent. Googler Nick Fox has recently been quoted as saying that focusing Quality Score so heavily on CTR is kind of like using the wisdom of crowds to tell you what is or isn’t relevant. CTR isn’t the only relevancy factor, but if there is a huge disparity from e-commerce industry norms, that should be speaking volumes. So the high-intent words were generating really good CTR’s, in the 3% range. And some of the words that might be more informational or DIY in nature, were eking along at 0.7% or so.

Perhaps rather than asking for each and every low-volume keyword, whether its presence might help a campaign, ask if there is much downside to getting rid of it. If it’s very low volume, and the same search might be covered by a broad or phrase match in the campaign (adding appropriate negatives when time allows), then hyper-efficiency isn’t really doing you much good. And indeed, the presence of such keywords can be hurting the account more than helping (though the impact should be marginal either way): they drag down overall Quality Score, and they could be making the job of analysis just a bit more difficult.

Granularity is good, of course. The ability to tightly target very specific search intents is why we paid search marketers get off on what we do. But you can overdo it. By letting these “passenger” keywords take up too much mental bandwidth, you forget that your job is to make the bold moves—to get the big important things right.

The historical data for the past year of this particular case study campaign backed up my theory.

Only the top 80 keywords or so had been clicked even once or more in the past year. Out of 116 conversions, only one came from the bottom 30 of those; in other words, from an economic standpoint we would have been OK if we’d cut the list off at 50.

104 of 116 conversions came from the top 15 keyphrases.

A few of those farther down the list that seemed promising, like [organic balsa wood sailboats], received few clicks and zero conversions for the year. The “organic” keyword got 7 clicks in the year, but didn’t convert. The CTR was adequate, at 2.5%. I guess I’ll let it run for another year. Of course, by then, it’ll only have around 14 clicks—far from statistical significance—but it’s less annoying than some of the others (the ones with zero clicks, especially).

After my deletions, there remain 200 active keywords in the group. I’d like to see another 100 or so eliminated.

Perhaps I’ve been doing this too long, if certain keywords irritate me so much that I want to squash them under my foot like ants. If you prefer to treat hundreds of stray, low-volume keywords as precious larvae just waiting to become beautiful, conversion-boosting butterflies, that’s your call. They just happen to make me ornery.

My approach might be altered slightly if attribution models were more forgiving. Some of these could be counted as “research” keywords that contribute to further searches down the road, and eventually, sales. But given that we’re generally evaluated based on strict ROAS criteria, and Quality Score punishes us for low CTR, that’s a nice theory that doesn’t reward campaign managers today. Performance that takes more than a few days to be measurable isn’t something that most clients and bosses are able to reward, especially if they’ve drunk the AdWords-as-Direct-Marketing Kool-Aid.

Beyond a certain point, more keywords won’t lead to more sales. Remember the purpose of testing and improving paid search campaigns: better CPA’s, and increased volume and total profit. If the long tail stuff isn’t helping with that, isn’t it time to focus back on what will help you achieve those objectives?

You’re not off the hook quite yet. Although the long, shot-in-the-dark, or overly specific phrases were not helping the account, that doesn’t diminish the importance of keyword planning and keyword discovery efforts. At a high level, there are probably concepts you (and maybe the tools you use) are missing.

If there are some regional variations on the name for “balsa wood” (hypothetical example: “scatterwood”), or different ways for saying “sailboat” (obviously there are), then you’ll need to incorporate keywords using those concepts, perhaps by testing them in different groups with their own ad copy. It’s a matter of feel: how many significant variations in concept are worth representing in the same ad group, or different ad groups?

But do refer back to the core point here as you do this: the excessive granularity often counseled by busywork-loving “best-practices-robot-people” can actually throw a wrench in the response testing process, requiring you to wait ever longer for a statistically significant conclusion. Just as there is such a thing as too many ads in an ad group, there is such a thing as too many campaigns and too many ad groups. And as I’ve tried to show, too many keywords.

That’s all for this month. Gotta run. Spidey senses tingling. PPC-man, away! Off on another important mission.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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  • http://www.sagerock.com smomashup

    Dunno. I’ve been touting the long tail without a great deal of thought and been using it for years for a lot of things. I agree that it can be a pain and also that there are other more important things to follow up on. However, I can’t say that taking up “too much mental bandwidth” is a viable excuse for ditching the long tail altogether.

    The numbers are where it’s at and that’s where all your PPC decisions need to come from. Sure you might have a keyword that has only brought you 1 click in the past year. That click cost you $1. But your target CPA is $50. You need 50 more clicks to get there b4 it can be deemed as not worthwhile.

    And what about those words that get Zero clicks? Ever seen an account where one of those magically seems to get a click and a conversion? I have. Many times, tho I admit it’s odd. So… $0 for 5yrs followed by $1 and 100% Conversion rate seems like it was worthwhile if we’re talking about CPC ads.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m down for ditching the long-tail too but this argument didn’t convince me to change my ways. Sure, I might wait 10 years for something to become statistically relevant, but that’s how stats work. And if it didn’t cost me anything in the meantime while I ignored it and focused my efforts on the 99% then where’s the harm in that?

  • Andrew Goodman

    It’s a bit of a complex argument, but I’m saying that it does actually cost you. But as you saw from the piece, it was more a question of having a spirited attitude and just plain not liking those words … for what they stand for. Which is low volume and trivial contributions to my clients’ and my goals.

    Returning to ancient philosophy, recall the theory that the perfect republic must have the appropriate mix of logic, base appetites, and “spiritedness for the cause”. (The same is inside people, according to that philosophy.) The logical side must triumph over our basest desires, but without the third part, the “spiritedness for the cause,” we quite literally have nothing to get stirred up about. Call me crazy, but waiting ten years for a keyword to prove its worth on a total of 14 clicks doesn’t get my motor running. And if squashing it like a bug makes me happy, maybe the cause is better off.

  • http://www.delmarfans.com Colbs

    Yea it seems I thought more, more, more.

    I began to drive traffic and spend and more spend.

    I believe this was part of the process for me to understand more about advanced ppc. Because it brought about a new problem…

    Reduce inefficient keywords now and increase conversion rate.

    It was then that I realized that I was emotionally attached to some keywords and they were hard to remove, like a girlfriend that was going to change one day. If I just keep her around a little longer…

    Thats when I started to let Analytics help my decisions. No conversions, high bounce, low time on site GONE!

    I guess that is the first part of where I am at today.

    Thanks for your words.


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