Paid Search Fire Drills: Common Oversights, Harsh Consequences

The easiest fires to put out are the ones that never started. If you’re managing a paid search campaign, whether in-house or on the agency side, you have no doubt witnessed your fair share of paid search fire drills.

Sometimes the causes of these “emergencies” are external by nature and difficult to predict. Ad hoc reporting, budget changes, or a shift in program goals are just a few examples of events that can unexpectedly divert our attention away from what we thought we would be doing that day.

These events cause us to be reactive, consume an awful lot of energy, and distract us from actually managing and optimizing the campaign itself — which might explain the lack of sleep most media managers are accustomed to.

We have spent a lot of time at our company recently discussing the cause of these fire drills and the negative impact that they can have on account performance and employee morale. While after 11 years in digital marketing I’m convinced that some of these “emergencies” are unavoidable, I am optimistic that many can be controlled with proper foresight.

I’d like to share with you some of the completely avoidable fire drills that I have either seen firsthand, or have discussed (usually over beers) with fiends or colleagues in the paid search space. The details in the examples below are fictitious, but the events themselves have been repeated throughout our industry for as long as it has been around. Avoiding these oversights could make your life, and those around you, a little easier.

Keyword Insertion: Manage with Extreme Care

  • The fire drill: You just unintentionally served a competitor’s brand name in your ad copy.

Keyword insertion can be a great paid search tactic. When used in the right circumstances it can increase your CTR, relevancy to the search, help improve Google Quality Score and lower your CPC. Fantastic right? Not always.

Let’s say you’re bidding on the keyword “business loans” on Phrase Match and using Keyword Insertion within the headline of your ad. There are multiple trademarked company names with the word “loans” as part of the name itself.

It’s absolutely conceivable that a consumer conducts a brand search for the company “ABC Business Loans” and your ad is triggered. If you’re using Keyword Insertion in the headline, you could easily be unintentionally serving a competitor’s name in your ad — and this will certainly cause a fire drill.

Trademark infringement is not a path you want to go down, so if you’re using Keyword Insertion be sure you put in some safety mechanisms. An easy solution is to Negative Match your competitor’s brand terms in your account. This is a best practice used by many, and will prevent your ad from showing on those queries in the first place. Go that route to avoid the issue from ever occurring.

Balance Broad Match with Negative Match

  • The fire drill: You just served an ad on a ridiculously unrelated keyword

It’s amazing how often I see this when reviewing an account that we’ve just taken over. The careless use of Broad Match and its impact on account performance has been well documented. And certainly this in itself will cause problems that could be avoided (here’s more information on best practices around keyword match types.)

Outside of performance there is a simple embracement and credibility factor that occurs here and usually works something like this:

  • You manage an account for a self-storage company.

  • You’re feeling the pressure to increase volume, and begin bidding on the term “storage” on Broad Match (which wouldn’t be a recommended approach in the first place, but it’s being done in campaigns all across the country).
  • The CMO of the company is searching for a “media storage cabinet” on Google and sees a paid search ad for her self-storage company. Needless to say, she isn’t very happy.
  • Your supervisor receives the phone calls and is embarrassed by the oversight.
  • Your phone rings… and you know the rest of the story.

In any instance where you use Broad Match, Negative Matching should follow close behind when building out your ad groups and campaigns (look within the Campaigns > Keywords tab in AdWords at the bottom of the page). Give a lot of thought to the possible combinations of keywords that you don’t want your ads to show for, and add these.

Once you launch, utilize Google’s Search Query Report. It’s a fantastic report that will help you uncover undesirable keywords to Negative Match against (as well as desirable keywords to add to your account on Exact Match). This too can be found within AdWords in the Campaigns > Keywords tab shown below.


Attribution: When 1 + 1 = I Don’t Know

  • The fire drill: You’re double counting orders or leads

You’ve heard the saying “the person wearing two watches never knows what time it is,” right? It’s so very true in our industry.

I can think of many instances over the years where we’ve on-boarded a client who has been tracking and reporting on their paid search program using a third-party tool like Marin or Kenshoo, but reporting other channels such as organic through an analytics package like Omniture or CoreMetrics. In some cases with different cookie windows, there is inconsistent URL tagging and even inconsistency when reporting on first-click or last-click attribution between the two systems.

Issues involving incorrect attribution cause some of the worst fire drills, and for good reason. Once the validity of the data comes into question all hell breaks loose.

If you’re operating under a situation as described above, it’s entirely possible that your paid search program is receiving credit for sales/leads that are also being credited to organic search. When working in a multi-channel digital environment keep the backend reporting as clean as possible by sourcing your data out of a unified system with consistent rules on attribution.


This only scratches the surface of oversights that can hurt program performance, wreak havoc on your work life — and are within your control to avoid.

If you have other examples, feel free to share in the comments section of this article. Your seasoned experience can help newcomers avoid the costly mistakes that you have seen or heard in the past.

Related reading

mighty morphin power rangers
hp Google