Les Hostetler is MMi's Paid Search Insights Lead

Search marketing has always been a bit of an informational black box from an advertiser point of view, and the practice of it has always been a bit of a priesthood – complex, esoteric, shrouded in dense acronyms and performed by people remarkably bad at explaining what exactly we do. Add to this that understaffing is commonplace, turnover is frequent (even outside of a pandemic year, when agency staff cutting may not be swift to reverse), and search accounts have a lot of moving parts all operating in real time. This is incidentally where a Paid Search media audit can help – assuming it is conducted appropriately and that key action items are carried out expediently.

With Paid Search, the meter is always running, after all, so wasted time is wasted money.  That is why it is so important that key items and processes be appropriately documented.  Here are 3 key areas where advertisers should look for good documentation from their paid search team:

1. Document Your Expectations  

Be clear about what you want from your search team… and even more clear about what you don’t. In business, clarity means documented expectations. While not very exciting, having comprehensive and detailed documentation is immensely important, and it starts with having a solidly written scope of work (SOW). Most SOWs are overly vague and written by people who are neither educated on nor thinking specifically about search. This can result in neither party being clear about expectations, “scope creep” for the agency, and ultimately disappointment for the advertiser. The best time to put together a great SOW is at the start of the advertiser-agency relationship, but it is never too late to improve and clarify that document.

It’s also crucial for every paid search advertiser to have a strong Goals and Key Performance Indicator (KPI) document. Search has a lot of opportunities for optimization, but often optimizing for one metric will have the reverse effect on another. Trying to optimize everything results in optimizing nothing, so having a KPI document is important. It sets out your business goals and desired outcomes for search, and it gives clarity to your search team as to how they should both analyze and optimize performance. This document should be a collaborative effort between advertiser and search team.  You know your business considerations and key objectives better than anyone.  A good search team can help translate this into responsible and transparent KPIs.

Another document that will be valuable to you and your search team is a Brand Safety Guide. Having your ad associated with dubious content can be damaging to your brand, so being forthright about what content is unacceptable will help your search team expand account negatives and placement/audience exclusions.

Finally, make sure your search team has internal process documentation that is specific to your account. When people leave, they take all their knowledge with them, and while process documentation can only approximate a search marketer’s experience and expertise, it is far better than having nothing at all.

2. Document the Process

Ensure the search team is being a good steward of the search budget – make sure your search team has internal process documentation that is specific to your account. When people leave, they take all their knowledge with them, and while process documentation can only approximate a search marketer’s experience and expertise, it is far better than having nothing at all.

Remember, that meter is always on.  Ads are being served constantly. But with that immediacy comes a danger: if no one is watching that always-on meter, an advertiser’s search budget may flow away unmonitored.  First, advertisers should ensure that their signed media purchase authorization (MPA) aligns with the search team’s insertion orders (IOs); this ensures that the amount of money budgeted for search is correctly being assigned to the search engines for dispersal.  

Next, every search team should be using – and be able to produce for advertisers at request – a pacing management document. This document automatically pulls budget and spend data from the engines or bid management tools and is invaluable for determining whether individual campaigns and the search account in general is appropriately spending the advertiser’s budget. Without an automated pacing document, a search team relies instead on their own informal checks to ensure the search budget is being spent appropriately. Add to this the fact that Google allows for instances in which up to 2x an advertser's daily budget may be spent, and your potential waste is further magnified.

Your search team should also be regularly running and reviewing search query reports.  Search query reports (SQRs) show actual queries – what someone doing a search typed in the engine – and what keywords matched to that query and resulted in an ad being served. The data within an SQR has declined – recently, Google announced they were truncating SQR data again, to the chagrin of search marketers – but still remains incredibly valuable, and advertisers should insist their search teams conduct regular and comprehensive SQR reviews.  SQRs inform search teams about new query trends and subsequent new keywords that can be included into the search account. Google has famously maintained that 15% of daily searches have never been previously searched, so it’s important to stay on top of search queries.  Conversely, SQRs should also be used to expand the account’s negative list. Negative keywords are a match type in which the search team specifies keywords in which they never wish to serve.  It is crucial that these are actively maintained over time as new queries emerge.

Finally, advertisers should always reconcile their billing documents themselves as a double-check and ask for copies of the actual engine invoices alongside the agency’s billing packet. Spend amounts in search, unlike in most other media channels, are not negotiated so there is no secret sauce or proprietary process to withhold from the advertiser. The search team will have the original invoices and will typically use them to reconcile their monthly spend data, so obtaining them should not be a problem.

3. Document Your Keyword Strategy

Keyword conflicts are common, nearly invisible, and drive up costs.  Search accounts are complex, and contain thousands, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands, of keywords, upon which both the advertiser and their competitors are bidding within the search engine’s auction.

Shortcuts when building initial account structures are common. But search accounts are also living documents: keywords are added and paused, new campaigns launch or elapse, and unless a search team is diligent about checking for some common problems, internal conflicts can and will materialize over time. Advertisers should advise their search teams to watch out for several potential trouble spots:

  • Create ad groups with homogenous match types: regardless of the matching strategy the search team is using, keeping keywords of different match types segregated in their own ad groups is not just a tidy organizational element, but contributes to quality score (Google’s measure of the connection between an advertiser’s keyword, ad creative and site content)
  • Avoid duplicate keywords of the same match type: for every search query, search engines examine all the keywords that are actively bidding on the query or related terms. This typically includes competitors, but if a search team has duplicates within their own campaign structure, then they are now competing in the auction against themselves as well. “But,” some advertisers will say, “… what if multiple brands have a legitimate need to bid on a keyword set?” A great question: in these situations, a keyword governance document is typically required to control internal competition.
  • Ensure the keywords have the proper notations: different match types are denoted in the account architecture by various characters. Exact match keywords are bracketed, for example ( [keyword] ), whereas brand match modified keywords contain plus signs ( +keyword ). Broad match modified keywords are particularly subject to notational errors, which could result in an advertiser’s ad being served on a much wider variety of queries.

Ultimately, working closely with the search team and honest, continuous communication is the best way for an advertiser to ensure their search goals are being met. Communication between advertiser and search agency is important, and having comprehensive documentation makes sure that both sides understand what each should be getting out of the paid search effort. A thoughtfully and thoroughly documented process can further ensure that advertisers are knowledgeable both about their search account and the diligence and energy their search team is bringing to it, and can thereby minimize the incidence of unwelcome surprises.

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Photo Credits: Ivaylow Sarayski and Mathias Rosenthal | Dreamstime