Top 5 Misconceptions of Search Advertising

For anyone that has spent time working in digital marketing, the variety of views on strategy, best practices, etc. that one comes across is staggering. I began working in the field in the summer of 2008. Times were different back then. There were legitimate debates about how much budget to allocate between Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. In fact, I’d often recommend approaching Google AdWords second or third when it came to search advertising efforts, as the other engines (usually Yahoo!) provided more accessible low-hanging fruit. Now, I focus almost entirely on AdWords for one primary reason: the breakup of the Bing–Yahoo! search alliance. The layer of complexity added, plus the further dilution of each channel’s individual traffic, has made advertising there a nonstarter—unless I have a massive budget and hands-on assistance. There was enough value during the search alliance days that I’d always copy Google campaigns into Bing at a minimum, but the value has all but evaporated now that they’ve split (as with anything advertising related, your mileage may vary).

When I was just getting my feet wet, I encountered numerous experienced professionals, from SEM ad ops all the way up to the C-suite, that held very strong opinions as to how it really works as opposed to what Google et al. said or documented. For my top 5 misconceptions, I’ll begin with some more mundane “business as usual” opinions that I’ve seen considered as facts, and then work my way toward the tin-foil-hat-wearing opinions I’ve also heard. Without further ado, here are my top 5 search misconceptions.

Misconception #1: There are a correct number of ad groups per campaign or a correct number of keywords per ad group, so always/never do x

  • The issue here is that a best practice is being presented as the only way to do something. For example, a common best practice is to have only one keyword per ad group. This is to ensure the keyword, ad copy, and landing page are all as relevant to each other as possible. And that’s true, to a point. It’s absolutely a great way to handle high-volume/high-value keywords, but the utility of this strategy falls quickly as you get to the long tail. For example, having an ad group for every SKU is a reasonable strategy in retail; however, each SKU could easily generate several relevant keywords. Does it make any sense to have those keywords in separate ad groups that all go to the same landing page? (Hint: the answer is no.)

Misconception #2: Search campaigns create business on their own

  • This is an especially prevalent view among marketers with limited or no digital marketing experience. They hear somewhere that “Google is the future of advertising” and that “you need to be there or you’ll be left behind.” This somehow gets translated into “we can double our company overnight just by buying keywords!” or some other such nonsense. Search campaigns are primarily useful after people are aware of your product. For example, buying “fidget spinner” as a keyword before it became a viral hit would have accomplished nothing because no one knew to search for it. And expecting to get discovered via “toy” or some similar query is optimistic (or really expensive) if you’re just getting started.

Misconception #3: Search is the only channel that works for direct response marketing

  • A variant of the second misconception, this is often the perspective of the grizzled veterans of search marketing, people that have been at it since the old days (you know—7 to 10 years ago). Search was often the bedrock of a successful ecommerce company’s digital marketing spend back then, and that made a lot of sense. With the ability to cleanly link spend and revenue, you knew if your campaigns were working or not. Display was always tricky to value and social was still in its infancy, so search was a clear winner. That’s just not the case anymore. Assuming your customers are searching on to look for you is no longer a valid starting point. App downloads and B2B are common cases where other channels, mobile ad platforms and LinkedIn specifically, are often more valuable than traditional search.

Misconception #4: Savvy marketers can always find tricks to make money using Google AdWords

  • A combination of the previous two misconceptions, this is easily the most frustrating. There was a time (i.e., the really early days of AdWords) when you could print money through various exploits in the system and the ability to “outsmart” Google. This is no longer true, and this misconception is especially prevalent today among search veterans that have been promoted out of the day-to-day work. They either don’t realize those days are gone or still insist there’s a way to “beat” Google. Then you end up with marketing directors that have been regaled with stories of the good old days and expect you to be able to replicate those successes. When you can’t, since it’s not possible, you’re left with the slow, painful process of explaining that none of those tactics work anymore. The sooner everyone can let go of this mindset, the sooner good marketers can get back to the nitty-gritty of making successful marketing campaigns.

Misconception #5: Google is going to use your data against you to make sure you pay as much as possible for a click

  • This is my absolute favorite misconception. While not as common now, this was something I came across constantly years ago. The thought was that if Google knew what you made on your sales, you’d magically end up paying more because they knew you could “afford” it. Thus, you should never install conversion tracking. You should also make your campaigns and ad groups as confusing as possible, so that no one at Google could figure out what you were trying to do. Realistically, Google has no reason to single out one advertiser for unfair treatment. Yes, the auction is designed to maximize Google’s revenue, but not at the expense of a fair auction. Industry research* estimates that Google will bring in over $70 billion in ad revenue in 2017. The largest single advertisers are still a drop in the bucket compared to that total. Having a functioning and trustworthy ecosystem is far more valuable to Google than trying to milk extra dollars from any client. My favorite analogy is that Google is the casino: they don’t need to cheat to win. And if they are caught cheating, it would do irreparable damage to the company.

The root of these misconceptions is in not appreciating just how fast the industry changes. There is no guarantee that what is true today will still be true six months from now. It’s what makes digital advertising both so challenging and so rewarding for those willing to do what it takes to succeed in an ever-changing industry.