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We Need a Detailed Picture of Click Quality

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Making recent headlines has been a heated debate between a click fraud auditing vendor, Tom Cuthbert of Click Forensics, and Shuman Ghosemajumder, head of click quality at Google.

Who’s giving us the straight goods? Cuthbert, who has recently spearheaded an industry group called the Click Quality Council, claims click fraud is growing, and continues to stick by numbers like 10% and 15%. Ghosemajumder has repeatedly presented much lower numbers.

Both parties get into a bit of a side debate about the unique gclid modifier attached to every Google paid click. But to an outside observer, this does little to illuminate the patterns going on inside individual accounts; especially around Google’s claim that they are proactively refunding virtually all invalid clicks.

You almost feel like you need a fourth-party auditor to help you audit the independent auditors.

The data I am seeing show that Google may (still) be closer to telling the truth than Cuthbert is. Google does proactively refund clicks; clicks in many accounts appear quite normal a high percentage of the time; there are some gray areas.

Interestingly, the data also show there are ways of managing a campaign (professionally vs. haphazardly), and choices you can make about which parameters and techniques to use, that will run you into more or less trouble.

And even when it comes to well-managed, normally running accounts, things can go awry. It’s important to have some kind of monitoring tool for this – although you’d get a good cut at it with some of the other (non-click-audit-oriented, campaign management oriented) third party campaign management tools. A hard-working analyst using good web analytics could gain strong indications based on a granular assessment of "bounce rates" or time spent on site by keyword or ad group, but this methodology is weak and only really indicates that traffic is untargeted, potentially. Better than "bounce rates," as counseled by John Marshall ex of ClickTracks, is to look at "very short visits" (not the same as "bounce rate").

To help sort through the claims, I have been involved in beta testing with PPC Assurance, a product being developed by Richard Zwicky’s team at Enquisite, a startup in the search analytics space.

The first key thing to note about PPC Assurance is the philosophy. "Fraud" is a term that is loaded with affect. Instead of trying every click like we’re in a court, Zwicky and his team take a dry, factual approach to classifying clicks. The methodology they use to track things is not too hard to grasp: the advertiser allows additional PPC Assurance javascript code to be placed on the website, and PPC Assurance gets API access to the paid search account.

In their interface, various screen types are available that illustrate your campaign patterns intuitively using a color coding scheme.

  • First up is "gray" – these are "missing clicks." Essentially: 4-6% of browsers may have javascript disabled so you cannot track these users using this method. If "gray" spikes up very high, though, you’re having website or hosting problems, so this is one to watch. It is not proof of poor quality clicks.
  • Then, there is "green." Clicks you paid for and that fall into the terms of service you agreed to. The vast majority of clicks in any account fall into this category. There may be some irritating gamesmanship (competitors manually clicking, etc.) and some poor quality traffic inside that green area, to be sure, but Google is saying they also try to filter for that stuff. Ultimately the ROI on your campaign will tell you if "green" is putting enough green in your trousers.
  • "Red" is bad. These are clicks you paid for, and that fell outside the terms of service you agreed to with Google. For some reason, even on this simple definition, many accounts have between 1% and 10% of this type of traffic. Even if this is getting up close to 4-5% you may need to look for a refund. But more importantly, you can use a tool like PPC Assurance to see when spikes occurred, on what keywords, from what geographic locales or problem IP’s, etc. The information is so well packaged in their interface already, says Zwicky, that soon you’ll be able to send a refund request with associated data, with a single click.
  • "Yellow" is central to this whole debate. These are clicks that fell outside the terms of service you agreed to, but that Google (Yahoo is coming soon in PPC Assurance, Zwicky assures us) did not charge you for. The first key to the yellow area is that you’re going to be getting fairly accurate information that seems to dovetail with Google’s own claims — in fact, they are proactively refunding a lot of questionable clicks. But another thing you can do is to gain insight into click fraud patterns generally, without much effort. By looking at the "yellow" click data click by click (if you have time), you can see what kind of wacky behavior is going on out there. But no, you didn’t pay for it.

My next point should be reassuring to anyone who manages campaigns for a living. We compared a professionally managed campaign, one we have been working on for three years for a UK retailer, with a well-meaning, but amateurishly managed campaign. See screen shots below. (These were not hand-picked to make this point — they were just two early sites in the PPC Assurance beta.)

The two screen shots below show first a "normal" campaign that had some click quality problems. Some underlying reasons for this include poor keyword selection and misunderstanding geographic targeting. It may also include reckless use of content targeting. Setting geographic targeting very tightly also places a difficult onus on the provider of the clicks, so campaigns that are local in nature can often run into apparent click quality problems because by definition you’re asking for something the provider cannot deliver as accurately.

The next shot shows a "perfect ppc" or at least optimized paid search campaign. In these cases, the campaign was organized on sound principles of granularity, long tail, testing and managing to ROI objectives, careful control of content bidding, and an understanding of basic parameters and settings.

As you can see, the picture as shown by the second chart is not too bad, and unsurprisingly, the "perfect ppc" campaigns have made this client a lot of money over the past three years.

Clicks by Day

Clicks by Day

Disclosure: I have never been paid to talk about Enquisite or PPC Assurance. Their sister services firm, a search marketing firm called Metamend, is functionally separate from Enquisite, but Zwicky founded Metamend and remains involved. My firm, Page Zero, focuses on optimizing paid search campaigns, sometimes refers "SEO" business to Metamend, and vice-versa, and in some cases, we have collaborated on client projects. Metamend staff have imbibed with members of my company at the lobby of the San Jose Fairmont (I won’t tell you what they drink — it’s embarrassing.) If I continue to believe that PPC Assurance is the best click auditing solution for clients, in future I will consider reselling the product for commission.

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