Google AdWords could arguably be the best advertising platform ever for small and medium-sized businesses ever, but mastering it to maximize ROI and minimize waste isn't easy.

AdWords be dangerous for the novice advertiser thanks in large part to a dizzying array of options and settings which, when not understood or recognized, can mean the difference between prosperity and disappointment.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, a growing number of advertisers are discovering that they're losing out because of one of Google's broad match features that targets ads based on searches a user performs during his or her Google session.

The problem, some advertisers claim, is that these session-based ads aren't always targeted so well. The Wall Street Journal says that medical professionals who use AdWords to advertise their services are among the hardest hit.

Some, for instance, apparently see their ads displayed on searches that are completely unrelated to their practices. For example, some of the medical professionals the Wall Street Journal interviewed report seeing their ads on searches related to haircuts and limo services. One cosmetic dentist claims that $3,000 of the $40,000 he spent on AdWords since 2009 has been wasted on such ads.

Google, of course, says that these incidents are not reflective of AdWords in general, and that the "overwhelming majority" of advertisers aren't experiencing these issues. Truth be told, advertisers who are experiencing them may still find AdWords to be far more effective than other forms of advertising. After all, there is always some waste in advertising.

Yet the fact that these sorts of issues are gaining Wall Street Journal-level attention highlights the challenges Google has in reaching out to small businesses, something that it is looking to do a lot more of today.

Not only is Google tasked with making AdWords more approachable for business owners who often have little tech savvy and even less time, it has to make sure that features, such as those related to broad matching, aren't causing advertisers to feel like they're losing out.

After all, for small and medium-sized businesses, AdWords is generally a self-serve proposition and Google has little personal contact with its customers. That means that it's real easy for advertisers to leave if they see underperforming clicks that are coming from search queries that seem tenuous at best.

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.

Patricio Robles

Published 13 January, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (6)

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Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media

There is no doubt that the default settings in Adwords tend to encourage spend rather than accuracy but the example case quoted in the Wall Street Journal article seems to me to be more about poor Adwords management than Google getting it radically wrong.

It seems odd (but I won't question it as you see all sorts...) that you can go from searching for dental services to the "penis enlargement" and "[Chinese characters] in nyc Chinatown" searches he mentions. Yes, I am sure it does happen but surely in incredibly low volume?

I can accept that the session based ad serving can cause some poor performance, but you have to question why they are using broad match and, more importantly, what on earth their ad actually says to attract clicks for the phrases above which, to my knowledge, are not closely related to dentistry?

I suspect that they have dumped a lot of broad phrases in one big ad group with a fairly obscure ad, which could lead to the performance they claim. 

You could easily reduce these wasted clicks by having much more focused ad groups (without using broad match) and very specific ad copy.

I think the real issue is that Google makes it very easy to set up a campaign, but is less keen to REALLY help its advertisers improve the performance of those campaigns as that would ultimately reduce revenue (although you can easily argue that a happy customer will continue to advertise for longer so a short term drop in monthly revenue may actually boost longer term sales).

Yes, they offer you 'optimisation reports' but we have yet to see one in all the years that we have been around that actually had any value. 

Of course, that is where PPC management companies can help :-)

over 7 years ago


Matthew David

Its true. Adwords can milk you for every penny you've got if you don't know how to use it. It takes time (which most small/medium business owners dont have) and lots and lots of research. 

A "broad" search is going to pull every keyword you assigned in a user's search. Ex. "dentist" "best" "quality" is going to pull searches for anyone looking for...well...anything. 

The owners should use "Phrase" or [Exact] search - this will narrow down the # of people who search for topics unrelated to their ads.

I recently became Certified in Google Adwords. If anyone has any questions, id love to help.

over 7 years ago


Suriya Kumar P

Before starting anything new we've to learn abt the stuff, once we're confident abt it then only we've to do it by ourself.  otherwise, we should find some one out there to do the job for us who's got some expertise on the stuff.

there's no stand point on blaming google in this case i hope.  cause, they've given enough content on broad match, phrase match kinda stuffs.  as given in the example, the dentist spending about 3/4th of his spend on waste clicks.  if thats real one, then he's to look for some one's help or has to pause the campaigns, stay calm, do some research on the contents provided by google.  then he can initiate the campaign, with the fine tuning! :-)

"If you're not the solution, then you might be the problem!"

over 7 years ago


Tom Atkinson

He should change from broad to "broad match modifier".

From this: cosmetic dentist

To this: +cosmetic +dentist

And yeah, his adgroup structure is probably out of whack.

over 7 years ago

Peter Gould

Peter Gould, Senior PPC Analyst at Epiphany

I agree with the points made above.

Using broad match terms is always a risky practice in Adwords, particularly if you're not an experienced advertiser. Broad match does effectively just allow Google to decide what keywords it believes are relevant to you and will serve results based on these. It may be a cynical view, but it's in Google's best interests to serve your ads as much as possible as that's likely to result in greater numbers of clicks, and thus greater revenue for them.

As Matthew mentions, we also as an agency predominantly use "Phrase" or [Exact] match keywords as this gives us far greater control over the keywords we'll be shown for. 

The only times we'll look to use broad match terms are when we're looking to expand our keywords lists further. You can build a campaign with 20,000 keywords covering every relevant keyword term, mis-spelling and synonym, but there will always be the odd keyword you couldn't possibly think of, and that's where broad match (or more likely Broad Match Modifier since its introduction) can help. That said, it still requires a close eye to ensure the terms don't run wild in the account and spend big. Put them in their own adgroups and keep the bids low so you can restrict their impact - as new viable keywords show in your search query reports, add them in as phrase and exact match terms and repeat.

The above sounds like common sense, but that's only because we invest a lot of time, knowledge and experience into our campaigns, which as others have said, not everyone has. Advertising on Adwords is very easy to get wrong and expensive if you don't have the know-how. However, if you do, the rewards can be big.

over 7 years ago



Thanks for writing this article. And very good points on broad match. Many new advertisers use broad match and waste lots of money. However broad match can be used very effectively with a long list of negative keywords. Lists of those can be found with most keyword tools, with search term reports, and by searching your keywords in Google and looking at other sites that appear and jotting down those which are irrelevant to your own and making lists of negative keywords related to those irrelevant sites.

over 7 years ago

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