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Google's Ad Preview Tool Gotchas You Should Know

If you're not familiar with Google's Ad Preview Tool, jump over and check it out, as the Ad Preview Tool (APT) is the topic of today's post.

APT provides you more information about your search campaigns than you'd have otherwise. But some advertisers mistakenly believe APT reveals more than it actually does.

I'd argue the problem doesn't rest with Google, but rather with advertisers' mental models of search results pages (SERP s).

OK. APT lets you see a "clean" search results page for a given keyword, Google domain, display language, country, and geography. For example, say you are a US Google advertiser based in NYC. APT lets you check out your local ads in different regions nationwide without leaving your desk.

Some paid search advertisers (or their managers) search on their own company's terms regularly (sometimes obsessively) to check the position of their ad relative to their competition. Google does report daily average position data, but that dry stat doesn't reveal competitors' ranks, and doesn't provide the visceral satisfaction of "making sure myself that our ads are where they should be" by pulling up the "actual" SERP.

But manually searching your own terms from one computer to check your own ads may not tell you the full story.

I mentioned the geography issue above -- sitting in NYC, you shouldn't (and wont) see your San Francisco campaigns.

Also, Google adjusts ad serving based on IP click-through rates. If a given IP or (perhaps even user) shows a statistically significant anomalously high or low CTR for a given ad, Google may stop serving it.

An example: a major retailer with a strong focus in the (sorry for the obfu) widget category spends large sums advertising the single word term "widget" on Google. As a result, their managers often search for "widget" to check their ad and their competitors' ads. Obviously, they seldom click their own ad. Because the CTR on this high-impression ad is effectively zero from within their corporate IP range, Google stopped showing their ad to searchers at the corporate HQ building. This caused some valid concern ("Why aren't we showing up?!?") until explained.

Enter the Ad Preview Tool.

"Hallelujah !", advertisers rejoiced, "a way for us to get to the 'true' SERPs, cleansed of geo effects and individual history effects and all other Google muck. Like the platonic simplicity of GoTo's CPC-displayed-on-SERP approach. Now we can keep an eye on on ads' true rank (and adjust bids to hang in position three). Hallelujah!"

Beyond the parenthetical bid-to-position stupidity (B2P nearly always trashes advertiser profits ), the problem with the prior paragraph is the notion of a true or pure or absolute SERP.

Because in 2008, my SERPs often aren't your SERPs.

Google knows too much about me. Where I live. What feeds I read. What I've searched on before. What certain terms mean to me. Fast: what is a bass? For you, fish or instrument?

Google also varies SERPs to test new ads. Google burns a small fraction of impressions "over-serving" baby ads so as to determine their QS to price ads "correctly". I'd wager this sampling is essentially random over time, users, and data centers. Again, this leads to some differences in SERPs between users.

Which brings me to my main point:

There is no such thing as a platonic or "true" universal SERP for a given phrase.

SERPs vary to some degree by user, by time of day, day of week, by geography, by IP, by Google data center, by user search history. Who knows, maybe by Google market cap and phase of the moon. What is certain is that there are many many factors involved.

Sure, if you set an outrageously high maxbid, say $25 or $50 for "widget" (this time not obfu, just generic) and don't set a campaign budget cap and do have a well-known brand name (thus high CTR) and do have OK ad copy and do have fair prices on your merchandise and and decent selection and do have reasonably usable site, then yes, with very high probability you'll effectively "own" position #1. And that would hold for just every user and every SERP in your geography. (Dell takes this approach for many computer terms.)

Dominating the top may or may not make economic sense, may or may not make branding sense, but you can get there if you want. Just spend enough. OK. In the case of one advertiser determined to outspend all others, yes, the "true" SERP will always have big-spending-advertiser in the first position.

But that atypical. Usually several savvy big-spending advertisers jointly share the top of the page, jostling up and down a slot or two based on bidding algorithms, management ego, whatever. As positions vary by bidding and are filtered through user geography and user search history, there's no "true" PPC SERP in this case. And I'll argue that that is OK.

"But wait," you may be saying, "doesn't APT reveal the True SERP?"

I think not, as APT also filters on the user data (here "user" means APT user, the advertiser). Let's watch this in action.

I turned off cookies (FFox: Tools >> Options >> Privacy >> Uncheck "Accept Cookies From Site" box), logged out of Google, deleted existing cookies (FFox: Tools >> Clear Private Data >> Check "Cookies" box >> Clear Private Data Now") , closed all browser windows, and then opened a new browser. Clean as a whistle. I then went to https://adwords.google.com/select/AdTargetingPreviewTool directly.

In the tool, I specified "plumber" as the keyword, searching on "google.com", language "English", country "United States", "All regions within this country".



One would expect APT to return national search results for "plumber". After all, that's what I asked for, and there are no cookies involved. Here's the result page.


Despite my request, the page is clearly geo-targeted for my town, beautiful Charlottesville VA. Half the paid ads are local ads: position 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8. So Google uses IP data, which we'd expect.

(Aside: I feel sorry for the guy in position 10 who missed the concept of local targeting. Errr, C'ville is 750 miles from Grand Rapids, friend. Here's a sympathy backlink:Grand Rapids plumber )

How about trying APT with hiding our true IP? Turn off and purge cookies, close and restart browser, activate Tor , and back to APT


i am in austria

Hello from Austria! That's where I came out of the onion, it seems. OK. Complete the form ("plumber", "United States", "google.com", etc). and submit:


APT doesn't like anonymous proxies. Banned! Couldn't use APT for about a day. (Unless I was logged in with cookies on, then it would let me through.)

So let's wrap this up. My suggestions:

  • Don't get hung up trying to determine the universal "true" SERP for a given search phrase. It doesn't exist.
  • Realize my SERP might differ a bit from your SERP for the same phrase at the same time.
  • Realize even your SERP for the same same phrase might vary a bit when you re-query in a short interval.
  • If you want to know where your ads are on the page, rely on Google's average position stats. Averages are powerful summaries of the whole population of observations. Use them.
  • If a term is performing above your economic hurdle and it isn't already at the top of the page, spend more and move that ad up! (And then ask yourself why your bidding system allowed it to get out of position...)
  • On the other hand, if a term is performing below your economic hurdle, lower your bid! (And again ask why your bid system overspent on it...)
  • Do use APT to monitor your local campaigns in different geographies.
  • Don't use APT to monitor your national campaigns.
  • To avoid getting banned, avoid the sneaky stuff (using automated scripts to scrape APT, using anonymizing proxies, etcsmile)

Happy Monday, all!

Bonus tip: our Google reps confirmed that the natural results on APT are "authentic", too. A small SEO tidbit there...

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