Over the last few years, I’ve been impressed with Google’s constant march toward AdWords transparency and filtering. Think about all the free tools they’ve launched designed to help advertisers understand and profit from their AdWords campaigns. Highlights to me include: Google Analytics, Google Conversion Tracker, IP-address filtering, site-targeting and site-exclusion, Website Optimizer, dayparting, and geotargeting. This seems to be a concerted and very smart business strategy: If you have the best traffic, you should flaunt it.
So it came as a bit of surprise this week when my co-worker Hilary informed me that Google’s very-useful negative keyword creation tool (a part of the overall keyword creation tool) had disappeared from the AdWords user interface. To me, this could be a short-term Q4 revenue play, or it could be part of a larger strategy that puts Google at odds with search marketing agencies.
What Did The Negative Keyword Creation Tool Do?
Before delving into my analysis, let me explain what this tool does. Google and all other search engines allow you to not only buy keywords but specifically not buy keywords as well. For example, if I was buying keywords to sell a Prince Tennis Racket, and I bought the keyword “Prince,” I wouldn’t want to show up on searches like “Prince and the New Power Generation” or “Prince Albert in a Can,” but I would want to show up on “Prince Tennis Racket.” Adding negatives like “-Power Generation”, “-Albert”, and “-Can” would allow me to filter my traffic to avoid these non-relevant searches. And as Google’s “matching algorithm” increasing expands the reach of my keywords, it’s important to be just as thorough in excluding keywords as most advertisers are in including keywords.
Indeed, I often tell aspiring search engine marketers that the game is no longer “he who has the most keywords wins” but rather “he would applies the most filtering to his best keywords wins.” In today’s Google search results, you can no longer expect to be the only advertiser when you buy a six or seven word keyword phrase. Instead, Google will just broad match the most-relevant generic keywords to show up alongside you. So you should try to buy those generic keywords, but you should also try to apply as many negative keywords as possible to those generics, to prevent the situation described above – marketing tennis and paying for funk music fans.
Until last week, Google made it very easy to research and add these negative keywords to your campaigns. All you needed to do was go to the keyword tool, type in your generic keywords, and select “suggest possible negative keywords.” The tool would then spew out a few hundred related terms and you could click on each term and instantly add them to a specific Ad Group or to an entire campaign. Since the tool was using Google’s search algorithm to come up with related terms, you could feel confident that you could build a comprehensive list of negative keywords in minutes.
When Tools are Removed, Who Loses?
But now that tool is gone. It disappeared after Google’s most recent system upgrade. Adding negative keywords is still possible, just a lot more painful. Now you have to research your own list of keywords, and then go to your campaign settings and manually upload your list. Experienced search marketers I’m sure will feel that this isn’t really that hard a process, and indeed, it is not. It took me about five minutes to teach my newbie team member the alternative way of adding these keywords.
Then again, a lot of the free tools that Google has released in the last few years, have also been ‘no duh’ tools for experienced online marketers. Google Analytics, for example, was released years after most marketers had already invested in far more sophisticated Web analytics tools. Conversion tracking is nothing more than a very rudimentary pixel tracking method – also around since the last century.
In other words, removing an easy-to-use filtering tool will only end up negatively impacting novice AdWords advertisers, who don’t know the alternative ways to get the same effect. As I noted above, such a move seemingly flies in the face of Google’s concerted attempts to level the playing field between the savvy marketers and everyone else. What could possibly be the rationale behind it?
I thought about this for a while and I really couldn’t come up with a very good answer. Indeed, I have two possible theories and I’d love to hear other opinions.
Theory #1: Google Wants to Make More Money in Q4
If Google signs up a lot of new merchants for the holiday season, and Google downplays tools that filter traffic and encourages merchants to ‘go all out’ on the big generic keywords, this could be a short-term windfall for Google. After all, these less-savvy advertisers wouldn’t actually understand that their purchase of the keyword “nightstands” would also have them showing up on searches like “one nightstands.” The result would be more clicks, and more money for Google.
Of course, the long-term result would be dissatisfied advertisers who got a lot of untargeted clicks. If and when Google’s competitors catch up to Google in terms of quality and tools, Google could pay the price for doing anything that reduces the quality of the advertiser experience on their site. And because this would directly contradict all the other pro-transparency moves Google’s made, I can’t believe that this explains the reason for downplaying negative keywords.
Theory #2: Google Wants To Manage Your Campaigns for You
So that leads me to Theory #2. Google wants advertisers to ‘set it and forget it’ when it comes to their online campaigns. This essentially means telling Google how much you want to pay for a conversion, setting a monthly budget, and letting the Google advertising machine do the rest. Google’s recent launch of their Conversion Optimizer supports this theory – just set a cost per acquisition and let Google figure out the right bid.
You could extend the same logic to decreasing importance of negative keywords. Just tell Google how much you want to pay per conversion, give Google some general keywords that work for you, and let Google do the rest. The assumption would be that over time Google’s system would filter out your bad keywords, simply because they didn’t meet your cost per acquisition metrics.
There are other tools Google has recently launched that support this theory, including the Ad Text creation beta and campaign optimizer (which suggests keywords and campaign improvements). Add Conversion Optimizer, Ad text, and campaign suggestions together, and you could have the foundation of a completely automated Google program – all you need to do is pay the credit card bill. In such a model, negative keywords are way too hands-on.
If theory #2 is true, the chasm between search marketing experts and search marketing novices will increase significantly over time. The experts will continue to use the AdWords API, desktop editor, and any advanced tools that still remain in the user interface. The novices will increasingly rely on Google’s automation to do all the work for them, putting their faith in Google to deliver the highest ROI. I could even see Google creating two user interfaces, one with the bells and whistles experts want, and the other with rudimentary reporting that novices desire.
Theory #2 also puts Google into direct competition with search marketing agencies. If Google really can create an automated system that delivers ROI for advertisers, what’s the value of search agencies? Right now, I ask that hypothetically, because I know that Google isn’t anywhere near building technology that can beat out the best agencies (combining technology and people). Still, if Google continues to get better at their tools, more and more advertisers will be willing to trust Google and save the 5% to 10% they currently spend outsourcing their campaigns.
Much Ado About Nothing?
I may be totally creating a conspiracy theory out of nothing here. It may just be that Google did some user experience testing and concluded that most users didn’t like or use the negative keyword creation functionality. Google is, after all, all about as much white space as possible on their pages! Maybe I’m just overthinking every Google move.
Then again, Google has a lot of smart folks at Googleplex, and Google doesn’t make changes to AdWords on a whim. Search agencies make a lot of money these days, and I sense Google doesn’t like seeing middlemen making money off their platform. Stay tuned.