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Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, March 16, 2007

When things don't click

I’ve mentioned pay-per-click (PPC) advertising many times in passing. It’s my single biggest source of traffic and the only advertising I know how to do. I’m not sure that I’ve ever really explained it. Do you even know what I’m talking about? The rest of this post assumes that you understand the basics.

WTF is Google up to?

Around the end of February, at least a third of my long-established ad campaigns suddenly stopped showing. Keywords that I’ve been buying for a year are suddenly coming up “Inactive for Search.” Words that used to cost five or 10 cents per click suddenly have minimums of $1, $5, even $10. I spent two days rewriting ads, redirecting landing pages, working keywords into product descriptions, deleting the marginal ones...and even (grudgingly) raising my bids on a few of the better performers. It was a lot of work, but once my slimmed-down PPC campaign was back on track I noticed that my competitive position had improved on many keywords. Other users must have fallen to the same bloodbath. Maybe Google’s shakeup wasn’t entirely a bad thing. It prompted me to kill off many inefficient keywords and saved me a little money.

Last week I noticed another round of invalid keywords. Take, for example, Fluxx (and Eco-Fluxx). I’ve been selling these inexpensive products for nearly a year. Their ads cost me 5-15 cents per click. Suddenly, the word “fluxx” now wants a minimum 50-cent bid (for a $12 product? Nope.). “Ecofluxx” wants $1.00 per click, and “fast card game,” which once cost 6 cents, now wants $5.00 per click! The ads land directly on the product pages and mention the product in their text – how can I optimize that any further? I rewrote the product descriptions to include all the spelling variations that I’m bidding on (“eco fluxx”, “eco-fluxx”, “eco fluxx”) My ad and my product page both use the phrase “fast card game”. What the hell changed?

The same thing happened to Chrononauts, another card game by the same company. Six of my seven keywords are ineligible. They want 30-50 cents per click to reactivate them. Bullshit.

Another example: A Life with Wine software. Five keywords that were going for 5-12 cents suddenly want between 10 and 50 cents per click. It ain’t going to happen.

Maybe somebody has bid those keywords into the stratosphere. Sometimes Amazon or Ebay comes along and outbids everybody else, regardless of price, just to own the marketplace. But I don’t think that even the discount giants are stupid enough to bid $5 per click on a $12 product. It must be Google’s algorithm. So, rather than delete valid keywords, I’m going to just hang out and see if they come back on their own. Sometimes they do, just as mysteriously as they went invalid in the first place.

Meanwhile, over at Yahoo….

Around the beginning of the year, Yahoo Search Marketing completely overhauled their interface and their keyword ranking/pricing algorithms. I spent about a week wrestling my campaign into the new interface and rewriting ads – deleting at least a third of the words that I’d been buying. With their 10-cent minimum bid, Yahoo has always been more expensive than Google, so I only advertise my more expensive products there. At least the “upgrade” motivated me to streamline my campaign, just as the Google bloodbath did. It’ll save me a little money over the long haul.

Per dollar spent, Google generates more traffic, but Yahoo brings more conversions.

And now, welcome to MSN….

Last week I started a PPC campaign on MSN, who are offering $200 worth of free clicks. I spent numerous hours transplanting the more successful parts of my Google campaign. So far, there isn’t much traffic. Even though my MSN bids are much higher than the other two sites, I’ve only spent about $5 of my $200 credit.

There is never a shortage of things to hate about Microsoft.

Their conversion tracking is seriously munged. Their tracking code requires you to display a little text link tipping people off that they’re being tracked. Neither Google nor Yahoo do that, but OK, fine, whatever. It’s unobtrusive and I don’t care if my customers know that MSN is watching them. Right now MSN boasts 18 conversions from 9 clicks…and I haven’t had a single sale all week! Typically, less than 1 click in 100 converts to a sale, so two sales per click would be staggering. WTF do they consider a conversion? I can’t tell. Maybe it’s every time somebody puts an item in their shopping cart, regardless of whether or not they check out. Yesterday I turned conversion tracking off. Better to get no information than wrong information, and there appears to be no way to define a conversion.

Their pricing system is also opaque. The amount bid doesn’t match the amount charged. The cost per click is apparently based not just on the bid, but on ad quality and landing page relevance. Thanks to the $200 credit, I’m placing some crazy bids on keywords – 25, even 30 cents per click and beyond. I’d never bid that much if I were spending real money. It’s kind of fun to see what happens with these unsustainably high bids. I suspect that many of their users are doing the same thing, trying to use up their $200 in the allotted two months...and driving some serious bid inflation.

The biggest pisser: they keep rejecting keywords for vague reasons. For instance, the words “Switchable” and “Switchables” (yes, they treat plurals as separate keywords) were rejected for “Inappropriate website content.” Their guidelines say that you can’t promote alcohol, and one new Switchable style is a wine bottle. Did that trigger the rejection? Maybe, but my whole series of generic “wine accessory” keywords were approved. Maybe it’s because “Switchable” is a brand name, against which they do have some poorly defined prohibitions. How the hell can I advertise them without using their name? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they disapprove my Vinylux ads? They also have a rule against “adult content,” and they prohibit “illegal drugs.” Do they consider my smoking accessories to be adult content? Did they find my stash jars or Stoner Trivia game? Who the hell knows? “Night light”, “nightlight”, “nite light”, “nitelight”, “night lite”, “nightlite”, and their plural forms were all approved. But “nite lite” and “nitelite” were rejected for “insufficient content”. Figure that one out. Hardly a day goes by without another “keyword changes required” email from Microsoft.

Yes, there is an appeal process, and no, I have not used it. I shouldn’t have to. I don’t care what ridiculous reasons or poor algorithms they have for assessing keywords. This is a test, and they are failing. Unless something dramatic changes (like a rush of sales somehow being obviously attributable to MSN despite their unusable conversion code), I’m outta there after the $200 credit is used up. The whole campaign is just too high maintenance.

And the last straw: You have to navigate their site entirely by internal links. If you use your browser’s Back button, or hit the Backspace key, you go out to the login screen. Sheesh. The site loads too slowly. Keyword management is done from a different screen than keyword result reports. What a mess.

Future Subjects:

  • The Next New Thing
  • The Sunshop Upgrade

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