For the record, I DO NOT advocate this method of poisoning competitors’ PPC campaigns but it exists and you should be aware of it. I’ve seen it on a few client accounts and have taken steps to mitigate the damage. It’s an ongoing, evolving problem so you should check regularly to see if you are being targeted.
Here’s the bottom line. Your competitors have a vested interest in seeing your campaigns fail by becoming wildly inefficient and unprofitable. They can get more customers for less money while you pay more for fewer.
How it works
A savvy competitor knows you are bidding on some of the same keywords. In this example, I’ll use “dining room furniture” (phrase match) as the keyword in question for two companies that sell dining room furniture.
You, like a good PPC marketer, set up your campaigns with keywords (i.e. “dining room furniture”) and negative keywords (i.e. “antique”, “plastic” or “zebra print”) to filter out keywords for products that you don’t carry. Normally this would be enough to keep your ads showing for only the most relevant search queries and minimize wasted clicks but it may not go far enough.
Your competitor could use automated search tools (rank checkers, bot nets, or simple scripts) that search for long queries that trigger your AdWords ads hundreds or thousands of times and rarely, if ever, click on them.
Why it’s a problem for you
Eventually, your keywords and ads suffer from unusually low Click-Through-Rate (CTR). The lower CTR results in lower Quality Scores and higher Costs Per Click (CPC).
In plain English: your ads are clicked less frequently than Google expects. Since the big G are not going to make much money that way, they will lower your ads’ Quality Score, which makes your ad rank lower and costs you more per click.
Meanwhile, your competitor has already taken steps to make sure their keywords are not affected. See “How to fix it” below.
How to detect it
Use the Google AdWords Search Query Performance report to identify the search queries that resulted in your PPC ads being triggered and clicked.
In my client’s case, I saw many variations like these:
- 3 piece dining sets kitchen dining room furniture furniture (136 impressions, 1 click)
- wood dining room chairs kitchen dining room furniture furniture (92/1)
- for the home furniture kitchen & dining furniture kitchen & dining sets (111/1)
- for the home furniture kitchen & dining furniture kitchen & dining tables (192/1)
These phrases look odd, and there were dozens or hundreds of variations each receiving a few hundred to several thousand searches per month. They even seem to fall into templates and patterns.
Typically, they have some very similar characteristics:
- Repeated keywords such as “furniture furniture”
- Extremely long-tail phrases that don’t make sense
- Queries that would not normally receive hundreds or thousands of impressions and very few clicks
Obviously, not all high-volume keyword are going to fall into this category. It’s really only the weird ones that you need to watch out for.
How to fix it
Once you’ve run the Search Query Performance report for your campaigns, comb the list carefully looking for query variations that meet the criteria above. Once you figure out the patterns for these queries, they become easier to find.
Extract snippets of those queries and add them to your negative keyword list for each campaign. As an example I added the following:
- [furniture furniture] (exact match)
- [dining furniture kitchen & dining] (exact match)
This will prevent my client’s ads from appearing when the automated search tools repeat these queries over and over. Our Quality Scores rise and our CPC falls. Every time.
My hunch is that your competitors know the keyword phrases and have already added them to their negative keyword list so their ads don’t show up when their bots are let loose. Sneaky, eh?
Taking 30 minutes to tweak your accounts can save you thousands of dollars each month and result in more conversions from your PPC campaigns. Do this once a month to stay on top of changes to their methodologies.
Where to go from here
Just some fun ideas if you are still being affected by these attacks:
- Some simple log file analysis can be used to capture the IP addresses of your website visitors that click on these ads. If you can trace those IP addresses to a competitor, great. More than likely though, they will be anonymized or run through a bot net or proxy server somewhere. After all, if they are devious enough to pull off these schenanigans, they are probably clever enough to hide their tracks.
- Use the AdWords IP Exclusion tool to prevent certain IP addresses from seeing and clicking on your ads.
- Report the activity through AdWords support or contact your AdWords rep for help.
Anybody else out there seeing this? What have you done to fix it? Any other tips?
(CC photo credit: gato gato gato on Flickr)