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5 Edgy Paid Search Techniques… and New Ad Units Coming in 2012

Posted February 16th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

Elsewhere, I’ve expressed skepticism that black hat techniques are relevant to the world of paid search. Let’s look at some aggressive techniques that are worth considering – and aren’t necessarily black hat. Let’s call them “edgy.”

Confusion in “hat” debates in PPC arose when some players began calling “edgy” techniques “black hat.” If you’re worried about the cool factor, rest assured that everyone in marketing looks sexy in cowboy hats, whether they’re black or white.

Edgy techniques involve pushing normal campaign management routines to the limits, or inventing new ways to achieve goals outside of the “prescribed” optimization techniques. You may not find these in a Google AdWords certification course.

Surely, you wouldn’t overpay for car insurance if having a contact or a bit of insider knowledge gave you a better discount than your less-savvy neighbor who just tried to haggle with his agent over the phone? That’s business.

Edgy techniques include:

  • Competitive intelligence: Many tools provide additional research opportunities beyond what was once seen as the norm. Two of the best-liked are AdGooroo and SpyFu. Brand name sector research can also come from the likes of comScore and Hitwise; it’s expensive, but may be worth it.
  • Multiple account serving: Google doesn’t want to leave revenue on the table for no good reason. So the rules here have become more flexible. If you have two distinct lines of business that overlap on some keywords, chances are you could show up twice on the page for the same keyword. At one time, Google prohibited this. Here’s a key distinction: it’s black hat if you do it for cookie-cutter businesses that are almost entirely the same, while trying to avoid detection by Google. Eventually, Google will detect it – no matter what you do. It’s as simple as a competitor ratting you out or a Googler making a few purchases. Do it that way, and you risk losing all credibility with Google. Another approach is to work with Google. Under Google’s formal (evolving) policies, there are permitted uses depending on the degree of overlap.
  • Dynamic landing page titles and other forms of automation: If you want to build gigantic accounts and do any number of things to try to improve user response on more granular landing pages, no one is necessarily stopping you. It can work for some businesses, not so much for others. Depending on how unwieldy that same strategy makes your actual account, as measured against your spend and importance in the grand scheme of things, Google is either going to become annoyed with the ambitious scope of your account, or not. Users are either going to convert better, or not. Either way, it’s not necessarily black hat. Before creating more bulk, though, consider whether your business model and strategy have enough meat on their bones to warrant the mega-build, mega-automation approach.
  • Large keyword lists: Avoid the temptation to benchmark the size of your keyword list in the aggregate. Quality campaigns are driven by the logic of their campaign and ad group structure, not the sheer number of keyword variations – but you should be striving to grow your list, within reason. In days gone by, black hat abuses of the fact that it’s free to add keywords were largely driven by affiliates and click arbitragers, who would happily bid low on any potential keyword imaginable, regardless of relevance. That led Google to change many rules, and to institute caps. But former black hat use of big keyword lists doesn’t take away from the fact that you might have a high number of SKUs or a desire to get very granular in the geography of your account setup. In such cases, your account might surpass a formal limitation on the number of campaigns or keywords. If it’s being done for legitimate reasons, ask Google to waive the cap. Just keep your priorities straight.
  • Saying you’re the best when you’re not: Yikes, you can’t even do that. There are guidelines that steer you away from making false or unverifiable claims in ad copy. But of course, there are hundreds of ways to tell a compelling story in ad copy: some bogus, some merely aspirational. Knowing the difference is essential. If you’ve never even read “All Marketers Are Liars” by Seth Godin, which explores the mindset needed to build brand equity by telling a better story, then what are you doing “black hatting around,” staring Google down at every opportunity, when you could be just doing better marketing?

This barely scratches the surface of edgy techniques that may come into play as competition heats up.

Of course, black hats and black-hat-friendly loopholes haven’t vanished.

For example, what if a competitor pretends to be located in 50 cities so they can run geo-specific campaigns? If they “shade” the rules, is it black hat, gray hat, or just annoying because now you have to decide whether to follow suit?

This leads to a broader conversation you’ll have to have with yourself, beyond any single example. With the recent proliferation of paid search advertising features and ad formats, there are tons of settings, tactics, and “things to watch” that can lead the curious search marketer to wonder “what would happen if…”

To take one example, it’s widely rumored that in 2012 Google is going to accelerate its move into the “Groupon space” in a big way with Google Offers. Some advertiser offers, with a bright logo, could be integrated with AdWords ad units… just another potential new ad format rolling out.  (This has nothing to do with unfounded speculation that “get offers” like this is a special type of ad unit with any shelf life. That is indeed a special ad unit, but it’s open to many types of advertisers. In Groupon’s case, it’s going to be tough sledding when Google moves in with the real Google Offers integration.)

Will some advertisers think to overdo the offers so that they qualify for more visibility on a particular keyword query, grabbing attention from advertisers who don’t use offers? Will that be unfair because it compares apples with oranges?

The offers space itself has certainly proven itself to be “edgy” in more ways than one. Some merchants have been so “edgy,” they’ve lost money with every sale (but made it up on volume), without the hoped-for repeat business.

So that’s going to be another tough choice for advertisers to make in 2012. Just as it felt like some click deflation was on the horizon and sound business models had a chance out there in the auction, advertisers are going to have to weigh the group deals loss leader phenomenon as it appears more prominently in Google’s sandbox.

Probably the same advice would apply to pretty much any offers scenario: try to run small tests, or don’t run them at all. Or in Jim Collins’ terminology: bullet, bullet, bullet, cannonball.


An earlier version of this column appeared at ClickZ on June 18, 2010. Reprinted by permission.

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