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Year in Search 2020 | Interview with Julie Friedman Bacchini

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PPC hubbub asked the leading industry experts 3 questions about what they thought about 2020 and what might happen for Search in 2021. Today we talked to the legend that is Julie Friedman Bacchini.

Julie Friedman Bacchini is the president of Neptune Moon, LLC. In the PPC game since literally the beginning, she has truly seen it all. She and her blog appear regularly on many top influencer lists, including the PPC Hero Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts. She has presented on PPC topics locally and at industry events such as Hero Conference and SMX East. A frequent industry webinar and podcast guest, Julie is also the host and current organizer of #ppcchat – a hashtag and weekly chat dedicated to paid search topics – on Twitter.

 When she’s not working or tweeting, she is hanging out with her husband, young daughter and crazy dog and probably enjoying some wine.

1. What did you love about Search in 2020?

This was a tough year for everyone and everything, and paid search advertising was no exception. I think the most positive thing to come out of 2020 for paid search is a return to the basics. Sometimes we can get really caught up in trying to be doing the newest or latest thing, even when there is no real business case to do so. With so much uncertainty and decimated budgets in a lot of industries, paid search pros had to get creative in finding ways to get clients’ ads through to people. 

Things we’d done that reliably worked in the past were often out the window in 2020. While I have not enjoyed anything about the pandemic itself, I do like having to be creative in what I’m doing and how I am thinking about things for clients. I have not experienced this level of disruption since the 2008 financial crisis. Having lived through that as a paid search pro, I was fortunate to have some experience to draw on when trying to figure out how to navigate paid search in 2020. 

I’ve said before that if you don’t like constant change, then this industry might not be the best fit for you… well, this year certainly had change on steroids! I don’t like this level of change, and certainly don’t want to experience it regularly, but it is motivating when you have no real choice but to figure out new ways to do things on the fly. 

I was also excited to see newer platforms like Snapchat and TikTok making headway into the digital ads space. Anything that might fracture the great duopoly of Google and Facebook is welcome in my book!

2. What did you hate about Search in 2020?

I think the thing that I most loathe about search in 2020 was the loss of data and transparency from platforms like Google Ads. Choosing to no longer show upwards of 30% of search queries due to “user privacy” is a big problem for a lot of advertisers (for some accounts the percentage of now invisible queries is over 80%). It hits smaller advertisers particularly hard, so making this move in the middle of a global pandemic was just extra callous.

Google Ads made another significant change in data transparency when it came to location data this year too. It flew under the radar with all the outrage over the search query data loss, but it is a serious data loss too. Prior to this change, you could view a report that would show the physical locations of your paid search visitors. I did a gigantic audit of a locally focused business with many locations and the wasted spend I found in the previous incarnation of the location report was staggering. If I had been doing that same audit at the end of 2020, I would only have been able to see paid search visitors’ “matched location”. On its face, it sounds like a “matched location” and a “physical location” should be the same, right? Well, I went back and compared what I could see before and after the change in these same accounts – the data loss was enormous. When coupled with ever loosening geographic targeting settings (like having “people in or regularly in my targeted locations” as the tightest targeting option), advertisers are no doubt losing money and can’t pinpoint it geographically now. Again, this disproportionately impacts smaller and local businesses. In a pandemic.

When you combine this kind of data obfuscation with being forced to use more and more automation that is based on immature machine learning, it kind of sucks.

3. What do you think 2021 will bring?

It is always fun to look back on these “what do you predict for the coming year” posts at the end of that year! Predicting what will happen in PPC is never easy, as the industry and platforms can grow and change so much in any given year! This year seems extra hard to predict with all of the external factors that made 2020 such a hot mess still very much in play. 

But, I will try…

I think the march toward greater and greater automation will continue in Google Ads. That train has definitely left the station and is picking up speed. I am not anti automation – though it may seem like I am sometimes. I am against automation that benefits the platform way more than the advertiser on balance. I would not be surprised to see responsive search ads (RSA) become the only ad format available for new ads in Google Ads. I would also not be surprised to see keyword match types collapsed into what will essentially be broad match modified. We are already kind of there with the extremely liberal interpretations of what a “close variant” is now, Google Ads is just letting us feel like we have some control by letting us choose match types.

Big Tech regulation is going to make for an interesting next couple of years too. We have already seen platforms starting to scramble to take preemptive actions to hopefully stave off major legislative regulation. I think regulation is coming. I think the major platforms do not want to have that happen, so they will continue to make changes to their policies and try to wrap themselves in the banners of privacy (Google Ads and Apple) or being a champion of small business (Facebook). Ultimately, I think their efforts will fail. And while I think some regulation is necessary at this point, I am concerned that the people making said legislation won’t understand how anything really works and potentially create more problems than they solve.

I know one thing for sure though. Rapid change will continue in 2021. We had all best get ready to continue to be nimble and flexible. Practicing some deep breathing probably wouldn’t be the worst idea either!

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