Brand safety is an increasingly important concern for advertisers, and digital media is at the forefront of those concerns. The complex and machine-driven nature of how a lot of digital media is bought creates an environment in which the advertiser often has no idea where or the context in which their ads are being served. This complexity is compounded by the fact that each impression occurs on an individual device or browser, making brand safety and suitability detection like a game of whack-a-mole.

Brand safety and context concerns are obvious to advertisers who buy programmatic display ads, where the buying process is hard to sort through and the eventual placement of the ads can be difficult to determine. But for Paid Search, in which ads are shown in response to someone asking a question in a Search engine, is brand safety still relevant?

Is brand safety still relevant in Paid Search?

Absolutely. Paid Search is a biddable media, and ads are served in response to someone asking a question on a Search engine – viewability is certainly not the issue here that it can be with programmatic display, and at first glance, it may seem that brand safety concerns are similarly not an issue. And to an extent that’s true: context for Paid Search ads isn’t a concern. What can be a concern, however, is the nature of the questions that are prompting an ad to be served. Put another way, does the query result in the ad appearing on a suitable Search Engine Results Page with expected (and complimentary) recommendations.

This is an issue due to something called match type. Search engines and Search marketers use match types to control the relationship between what a person types into a Search box (called a “query”) and the keywords the advertiser considers important to their business. It is essentially a decision or setting that Paid Search buyers make when they set up a campaign. There are four match types:

Match Types

Exact - Only when the query exactly matches the advertiser’s keyword

Phrase - When the query contains the advertiser’s keyword, but has other words either before or after

Broad  - When the query contains any words matching or related to the advertiser’s keyword

Negative - When the query contains a word for which the advertiser has stated they do not want to serve ads

There are strategic factors for selecting various combinations of match types for specific keyword groups based on the category, objectives, and budget. The last two match types – broad and negative – are where brand safety begins to be a concern for Paid Search advertisers. Google defines broad match as: A keyword option that allows your ad to show when someone searches for that keyword, variations of it, as well as other related topics. The broad match keyword "bicycle bell" can cause your ad to show if someone searches for variations and related searches like “cycling accessories,” “blue bicycle helmets,” and "bell reviews for bikes."

Broad and Negative Match Types 

Google has a lot of interpretive freedom when deciding what queries are valid to serve on a broad match keyword, resulting in the least amount of control over ad serving that an advertiser has relative to the other match type settings. So why would an advertiser ever use broad match? Broad match is typically used by advertisers to find new and/or increasingly popular keywords. Advertisers realize that a list of keywords continually evolves in response to changes in what Search engine users are asking, and broad match allows the advertiser to both serve ads on those queries and discover new keywords they can add to their Paid Search account. Competent Paid Search marketers will routinely examine Search query reports, which detail the actual search as typed into the engine and compare it to the keyword that caused an ad to be served. If a particular query continually recurs or demonstrates high-performance potential, the advertiser will turn that query into an exact or phrase match keyword and begin serving ads specifically to those queries at a cheaper cost.

Negative match type is often the counterweight against broad match’s liberal interpretation of relevance. Negative match keywords are keywords that the advertiser has set to stop an ad from being served – keywords for which the advertiser is saying they never want to show an ad. Most Search marketers will, when creating a new Paid Search account, apply a pre-built set of negative match keywords, and these sets usually contain a standard list of profane, sexual, and/or derogatory terms. Additional terms may be added on a category or advertiser-specific basis. But where broad match is used to find new, potentially valuable keywords to add to the Search account, negative match is used to ensure that ads aren’t served against queries that will place the ad in an unsuitable environment.

Avoiding Brand Safety Issues

The relationship between these two match types is where the bulk of brand safety issues in Paid Search transpire. If an advertiser’s Search team is not being persistent about controlling this relationship, ads will be served against unwanted and undesirable queries. To avoid brand safety issues, advertisers should make sure their Search marketing teams are:

  • Carefully monitoring their use of broad match keywords
  • Examining Search query reports on a regular basis
  • Routinely adding new negative match keywords

Google often says that 15% of daily searches are keywords or phrases that have never been searched before, and while that seems unlikely, one can’t argue with the idea that at least some brand-new searches are taking place each day. Because it is strategically appropriate for many advertisers to purchase certain keywords on a broad match, it is imperative that they carefully and dynamically manage their negative keyword lists. Only ongoing review and consistent optimization will ensure that an advertiser’s Search ads are only shown in response to relevant, desirable queries.