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Session-Based Ads: Smarter Than the Average Ad or a Boo-Boo?

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My young nieces were in town for a couple of weeks and I spent a lot of time looking for things to do with them. We used Google to search for children movies and Yogi Bear, and now I seem to be getting quite a few ads pushing children items.

As a Google advertiser, I've had to deal with expanded match inside broad match -- forcing a number of hours building out a long negative keywords list. Now we seem to be trapped in to session-based queries -- if we do a search and continue searching, the previous searches can influence the ad results you see.

How can an advertiser see what's going on? This is the question Google doesn't mind that most people don't know.

But if you do a Search Query Performance Report you can get the actual terms that were used to generate your ad. This is invaluable for building out new lists of terms and negatives.

With this new wrinkle of session impacted ad placement, these reports are needed to become aware of what is happening and determine if you should pull your efforts back to exact and phrase match.

The Wall Street Journal discussed this feature with a number of advertisers who saw it as a waste of money, but one which was hard to stop. One advertiser told the Journal it saw "approximately $3,000 in wasted ad spend of the total $40,000 spent on AdWords."

Remarketing: Bad Deal for Users, Advertisers?

The battle is an extension of behavioral targeting and one that could have the government investigating AdWords soon. The discussion of this web visitor profiling has been around for a couple of years and is building steam. A recent Gallup Poll indicates that U.S. internet users oppose the tracking method.

"With the Federal Trade Commission recently floating its do-not-track concept, and additional legislators piling on with new privacy bill proposal plans, many signs point to passed privacy legislation coupled with increased enforcement capabilities for the FTC when it comes to penalizing violators of potential laws," ClickZ reported.

Google's remarketing "innovation" (as the company calls it) "allows you to communicate with people who've previously visited key pages on your website, giving you a powerful new way to match the right people with the right message."

The premise is "when you combine your keyword campaigns with remarketing, you might see higher conversions for your campaigns overall." But there are no predictive measures put in place. It's just on or off.

Now if the successful connections were highlighted and the losing propositions dropped, it would be a good system. But this doesn't happen and advertisers' spends are lost in Google's testings.

Transparency is Needed

Many would willingly test this process, but the others should have an option.

"Google argues that the ads should be displayed because the user had expressed an interest during the same search session. The advertiser argues that the user had clearly moved on and is no longer a targeted customer," noted Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim.

In a reply to Beal, Google stated there were other match type options -- thus saying if you don't like it use phrase or exact match. Not exactly "the customer is right" type of response.

Google Neglecting Its Core Products?

The Wall Street Journal's report shows they don't fully understand the issues, but they do have an eye on the impact complaints may have on the company's bottom line.

"It's also unclear whether the complaints about session-based clicks will impact the financial might of AdWords, which accounted for most of Google's $24 billion in revenue in 2009. But at least one advertiser has halted his AdWords account after learning of the issue while others have limited the scope of their ad campaigns in order to minimize session-based clicks."

Nicholas Fox, Google's Business Product Management Director of AdWords, told the Journal that there are "edge" cases in which search queries don't "appear to be relevant to the ads, but the context of previous queries indicated that the user would have a strong interest in that advertisers' ad." In addition, he said, "a user must be interested enough in an ad to want to click on it." Also, a small percentage of ad clicks are session-based, he said.

These problems are starting to raise questions about Google's attention to its core products. As eConsultancy stated, "the question now is just how focused Google is on its bread and butter: search. The company's organic search and paid search seem to be generating far more negative attention these days. While some of the issues have existed for a while, and it hasn't always been all positive (click fraud issues have been around for a while for instance), one has to wonder if Google is feeling a little bit too comfortable about the market that keeps the lights on and bills paid."

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