The numbers may look good… Your clickthrough rate (CTR), cost per acquisition (CPA), return on ad spend (ROAS), etc. may all be in line with your expectations… But, could they be better? Of course, the metrics could always be improved, but are there any simple changes, low-hanging fruit so to speak, that could dramatically affect your performance? Maybe, maybe not.
One way to check is to audit your Google Ads (formerly AdWords) account. Even the best of advertisers have to go back through their accounts and make sure they dotted their t’s and crossed their i’s when they set everything up. We all make mistakes (see what I did there?). Unfortunately, there are far, far too many advertisers that never go back through their settings and things get overlooked. Worse yet, many advertisers don’t go in and make changes to their accounts nearly often enough.
According to a study conducted by WordStream, about 20% of AdWords advertisers do nothing during the month.
From the same study, only 10% of AdWords account managers consistently optimize their accounts on a weekly basis.
Good for the 10%, but those numbers are still absolutely horrendous. One of the reasons I love paid search is because the constant flow of data allows smart marketers to make continuous improvements. It should go without saying, but you will not see these improvements if your account isn’t being monitored and optimized on a regular basis. The sad and ugly truth is that a lot of marketers are asleep behind the wheel. I’m not trying to talk bad about my fellow marketers, I’m just aware of the glaring discrepancy between what should be happening and what is happening.
Long rambling intro aside, this is the first white paper in a series about auditing the different types of AdWords campaigns. In this one, I’m going to walk you through how to audit your search campaigns even if you know nothing about paid search. I call this an audit, but honestly this could also be used as a guide to set up a Google Ads search campaign. I’m starting with search campaigns because they almost always generate the best ROI for my clients and I don’t like spending money when it doesn’t lead to results (imagine that). I’ve provided a table of contents so feel free to skip to the section you’re most interested in or you can start from the beginning. Within each section, I’ll explain what the different options are and what I look for when I audit a search campaign.
Table of Contents
Section 1: Measurement
Section 2: Campaign Settings
Drafts and Experiments
Section 3: Ad Groups
Number of Keywords per Ad Group
Depth and Breadth
Section 4: Keywords
Section 5: Text Ads
Section 1: Measurement
The first thing we’re going to talk about in regards to search campaigns is measurement. If you’re not set up to effectively measure the results of your campaigns, nothing else will matter. Without accurate data your campaigns will never reach their full potential.
Hands down, the most important thing you can do is ensure conversion tracking is set up properly. A conversion can be anything including newsletter sign ups, product sales, or form fills. I am not a programmer, but where I can I will do my best to explain in general terms how to set up the conversion tracking. Depending on the type of conversion, conversion tracking can either be set up by a developer installing code or through event tracking in Analytics. I’m going to go through four different sources that conversions can come through.
Website conversions could be purchases, sign-ups, leads, or a number of other things. The easiest way to track website conversions is by placing your conversion tracking tag in the back end. There are two parts to the tag, the global site tag which should go on every page of your website and the event snippet. The event snippet can either track a page or a click.
If you want to track a page load or a page visit, you should only place the snippet on the URL you want to track as a conversion. These should be pages that can only be reached by completing a conversion action such as receipt pages (e.g. example.com/reciept) or thank you pages (e.g. example.com/thanks-for-your-inquiry).
Event tracking or click tracking also requires you to add the event snippet to the URL where you’ll track the conversion, but there is an additional piece of code you’ll need. This additional snippet will need to be added to the button, phone number, or other elements you want to track conversions from. If you want more information read Google’s website conversion tracking walkthrough.
App conversions are generally either installs or in-app purchases. Tracking these conversions requires much more programming knowledge than I currently possess so I’m just going to direct you to Google’s app conversion guide. If you have an app, but are not tracking conversions you are missing out on a lot of data that could help your marketing efforts.
Phone Call Conversions
Many businesses rely on phone calls so tracking these calls is vital. You can track calls from ads (i.e. call extensions), calls from your website if you have a Google forwarding number, clicks on a number on your mobile website, and lastly by importing calls from a third party system. When you create a call extension, which we’ll be discussing later, Google by default will include calls as conversions. Google offers free forwarding numbers, but they give you very little control.
Other Conversion Sources
The fourth conversion source is perhaps the most versatile because it allows you to import conversion data from other sources. This can be from Google Analytics, Firebase (i.e. Google’s mobile app platform), third-party app analytics, Salesforce, and other data sources or CRMs. This “other” category allows you to track many more conversions than you could otherwise.
I always link Google Analytics and Google Ads, it allows me to further track people along their buying journey. You can also set up conversion tracking through Analytics without a developer’s help. You can not only import Analytics events and ecommerce transactions, but also Analytics metrics such as bounce rate, average session duration, etc. You can use these metrics to further analyze the performances of your ads.
I won’t go into depth on the different attribution models, there are plenty of other articles do a fantastic job breaking down the pros and cons of each one. All I do is check to see what model is currently being used (usually last click) and if there is a model that more accurately captures what’s happening as a result of the ads.
Section 2: Campaign Settings
In this section, I’ll walk you through many of the common pitfalls advertisers make when setting up their campaigns. All too often, they choose the “recommended” settings without further thought. Google even takes this one step further by including warnings whenever you stray from their preferred settings. Many seasoned advertisers are leery about the default settings because Google doesn’t necessarily have your best interests in mind. These recommended settings are generally designed to drive more clicks and hopefully you care more about conversions than clicks. Always remember, Google makes money when someone clicks on your ads — not when you make a sale or get a new customer. Your incentives are not always aligned. That being said, let’s dive into the different account settings.
There are two networks your ads can appear on, the Search Network and the Display Network. The Search Network includes Google itself (obviously), but also Google search partners. Think of search partners as Google’s younger and less popular cousins (aol.com, ask.com, etc.). On the other hand, the Display Network includes more than two million different sites and, according to Google, reaches over 90% of the internet. Wow. The Display Network includes websites, mobile apps, and video sites such as YouTube.
Now that you know what the different networks are, let’s talk about what you want to see when auditing an account. The biggest mistake I see is combining the Search and Display Network in one campaign. DO NOT DO THIS! Google tries to say that this is the best way to reach people because you can reach people while they’re searching for your services AND browsing websites related to your products. While this a way to reach people, it’s definitely not the best. When you need heart surgery do you want to see a general practitioner or a cardiac surgeon? When you want to succeed on the Search Network, do you want to show up on the Display Network too? Not if you want to succeed there. Split up your campaigns so they are specialized. Another common mistake is including search partners and then never evaluating its performance. You’ll need to segment by network in order to know if it’s working or not. For many of my clients running ads on search partners does not make sense, but for some it is worthwhile.
Besides search and display campaigns, there are also video and shopping campaigns. Video campaigns are technically part of the Display Network, but video ads generally perform best on YouTube. Shopping campaigns are part of the Search Network, but rely on product feeds instead of keywords. I will address these campaigns in future white papers.
Some good general guidelines are if you sell a product or offer a service with a lot of search volume, run a search campaign. If you have an ecommerce site, run a shopping campaign. If you need to raise awareness for your brand, service, or product then video or display campaigns may be helpful. And if you have a website, run remarketing ads. Remarketing ads are magical.
This one is pretty simple. Is the budget appropriate? Are you spending the right amount? I set my daily budget by dividing the desired monthly ad spend by 30.4 (because 365 / 12 = 30.417). Yep, that’s it.
Technically this is a subsection of budget, but I feel like it’s important enough to deserve its own section. The options are simple, standard delivery or accelerated delivery. Standard delivery promises to spend your budget evenly over time. You won’t show up every time someone searches for your keywords, but you also won’t run out of budget during the day. Accelerated delivery will attempt to show your ad whenever a relevant search occurs. This means you may run out of budget during the day. Google recommends standard delivery, therefore I am a big fan of accelerated delivery. I generally don’t want my campaigns to be limited and would prefer my ads to show up whenever there is a relevant search. One exception to this is if you are ever limited by budget and you want your ads to run all day long.
There are a number of bidding strategies available, but some are better than others. Much, much better. Here’s a brief explanation of each strategy:
Target CPA — When you know how much a conversion is worth to you, you can set the desired cost per acquisition and Google will optimize your bids to get as many conversions as you can while maintaining that average CPA. This a fantastic bidding strategy if you know your optimal CPA.
Target ROAS — If your products or services have different prices you can track your return on ad spend. A ROAS of 1.00 means for every one dollar you spend in Google Ads you make one dollar in sales. Similar to the Target CPA bid strategy, Google will optimize your bids to get as many conversions as possible while maintaining your target ROAS. If you can track return on ad spend this will probably help you the most.
Maximize clicks — Google will optimize your bids to drive as many clicks as possible within your budget. Pretty simple, generally pretty ineffective. You should care about conversions, not clicks.
Maximize conversions — Google will optimize your bids to drive as many conversions as possible. This is the watered down version of Target CPA and Target ROAS, but is usually very effective.
Target search page location — Google will optimize your bids to help you show up on at the top of the page or on the first page. I have never used this and honestly don’t know why you would.
Target outranking share — If you have a particular competitor that you want to always outrank then this is the bidding strategy for you. All you have to do is enter their domain and the percentage of auctions in which you want to outrank them.
Manual CPC — This is the only bidding strategy that isn’t automated. You manually set your bids for each keyword. For new accounts, this is the strategy I recommend. If you don’t have sufficient historical conversion data many of the other bidding strategies won’t perform as advertised.
Enhanced CPC — Enhanced CPC blurs the lines between automation and manual bids. You still set manual bids, but then Google will automatically adjust your bids based on what they know about the searcher.
Target impression share — As the newest addition to the bid strategy family, there isn’t as much known about target impression share. It is designed to do exactly what it sounds like, maximize your impression share for anywhere on the results page, top of page results, or absolute top of page results. This seems to be a more robust version of target search page location.
Alright, now that you know what the different bidding strategies which one should you be using? As with many marketing questions, it depends. You should choose a strategy that aligns with your goals. Do you want as many leads as possible? Do you want to make as much money from your ads as you can? Or do you simply want to drive as much traffic to your website as you can? These are all things to consider. I’m fine with any of the bidding strategies as long as it was specifically chosen for a purpose. Default settings are almost never the way to go.
You’ll have to click on the additional settings drop-down menu to view the ad rotation. There used to be more options, but there are currently only two options for ad rotation. The first allows Google to show the ad that they expect to get more clicks or conversions. The second option will make the ads rotate indefinitely, regardless of performance. I almost always let my ads rotate indefinitely because I’d rather be in control of my ads. I know that I’ll be making changes to my ads regularly so there’s no need to let Google show the “best performing ad”. There is also evidence to support the claim that the Google doesn’t always show the best performing ads. Overall though the number one reason I choose to rotate indefinitely is because Google warns me “this option is not recommended for most advertisers”. Fantastic, then it’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to be like most advertisers, I want to outperform them.
Your ad schedule is fairly straightforward. Are your ads running at the days and times that they should be? If you’re a plumber and you don’t do jobs on the weekend, then it may be wise to only show ads during the week. If you have an ecommerce store you’re probably fine to show ads 24/7. You may notice that certain days of the week or times of the day get more conversions, have a higher conversion rate, or have a higher ROAS. If so, you may want to adjust your bids, but you would never know if your ad schedule was never set up.
Google allows you to make device specific bid adjustments. You may find you get better results from people on desktop, mobile devices, or tablets. If so your device bid adjustments should reflect that. Although mobile will most likely drive the most traffic, it may not deliver the best results. This is something to keep an eye on and adjust as needed.
Drafts and Experiments
Campaign drafts and experiments are a way to A/B test different settings and changes. You first need to create a draft and then use that draft to create an experiment. The two versions of your campaign will run side by side and when you reach statistical significance you can either apply the changes or end and discard the experiment. Are you wondering if a certain bid strategy will lead to more conversions? Will sending traffic to a different URL lead to more leads? Create an experiment and find out.
Section 3: Ad Groups
Now that you have all of your campaign settings squared away it’s time to move onto ad groups. As a refresher, accounts contain campaigns which contain ad groups which contain keywords, placements, and ads. In order to succeed, ad groups should be specific, not have either too many or too few keywords, and have the right breadth and depth.
One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between my accounts and the accounts I audit, is the specificity and attention to detail, particularly when it comes to ad groups. Far, far too many advertisers create too few ad groups and stuff them full of too many keywords. Ad groups should have separate, distinct themes because ads are created at the ad group level. When you write ads that specifically address the ad group theme (which should be reflected in your keywords) you will achieve a level of relevance that Google loves. When your final URL, your ad copy, and your keywords all share a theme your quality score is going to be excellent. Google rewards you for an excellent quality score. Specificity and relevancy are going to be a recurring theme in this whitepaper.
Number of Keywords per Ad Group
We’ve talked about how important it is to have specific ad groups, a big part of that is the number of keywords per ad group. When I say keywords I’m mean unique search terms (e.g. running shoes, athletic shoes, etc.) and not match types (e.g. “running shoes”, [running shoes], etc.). I’m not going to cover it in this post, but when you’re planning your campaigns you should decide what keywords you want to target. You should break out keywords into related groups and create ad groups for each group of related keywords. If I ever feel like I or another advertiser is trying to stuff too many keywords into an ad group I’ve found it’s best to break the related terms into separate ad groups. It may be more work, but I guarantee an ad group with running shoe keywords and an ad group with athletic shoe keywords will outperform a more generic ad group with both. I typically include one keyword with multiple match types and leave it at that, but some advertisers are proponents of not only single keyword ad groups but single match type, single keyword ad groups. I shy away from single match type ad groups because unless you have only a handful of ad groups or have software to automate it the setup process is grueling and often not worth it.
Depth and Breadth
Deep and wide, shallow and narrow, how do these relate to PPC ad groups? Depending on what you offer, you may want to create a few ad groups that highlight your core offerings or dozens and dozens of ad groups to encompass all or most of your products or services. For example, you could focus on the service that gives you the highest ROI or everything you have in stock.
You could also have generic ad groups such as “Knee Pain” and leave it at that or you could break it down to “Knee Pain Treatments”, “Knee Pain Options”, “Knee Pain Solutions”, etc. As long as the search volume justifies it, I always break down the ad groups to make them as specific as possible. Hopefully by now that doesn’t come as a surprise.
Section 4: Keywords
Keywords are fun. Keywords can make or break your campaigns, and not enough advertisers give them the respect they deserve. At its most basic level, Google Ads is pairing ads with keywords so they are very important. These are some of the main elements I look at when evaluating keywords.
What match types are you using? There are four basic match types: broad, broad modified, phrase, and exact. I haven’t tested it, but rumor is there is a fifth match type. I won’t go into the different match types here, there are plenty of other resources for that, but here’s a brief chart to give you the basics.
|Match Type||How to Write It||Could Trigger Your Ad|
|Broad Match||insert keyword here||put a few words or something somewhere|
|Broad Modified Match||+insert +keyword here||insert my keywords somewhere around here|
|Phrase Match||“insert keyword here”||do I insert keywords here or there|
|Exact Match||[insert keyword here]||insert keywords here|
Different match types serve different purposes. Exact match is great for branded terms, specific products, and keywords with a great ROAS. Phrase match is good for branded terms and for when you’re pretty sure you know what keywords you want to bid on, but don’t quite have it nailed down yet. Broad modified match does the job when there is lower search volume, inconsistent search term wording, or the ad group is newer. Broad match… is far too broad for my liking. I almost never use broad match because it’s hard to predict what search terms will trigger your ads. Broad match can be effective if you have an extensive negative keyword list.
When I’m creating a new ad group I typically start with broad modified and phrase match then move to exact match once I have enough data. For branded terms I only use phrase and exact match. In my experience, broad match eats up too much of the budget without delivering worthwhile results.
When I audit an account I look to see if they’re using different match types. Inexperienced advertisers often only use broad match and the campaigns suffer as a result.
Another common mistake advertisers make is not utilizing negative keyword effectively. Some accounts don’t use any negative keywords at all and others use so many it conflicts with their keywords. Many don’t realize that you can use match types in conjunction with your negative keywords. I like to use phrase match negative keywords because it gives me the most control. Broad match negative keywords can prevent your ad from showing when you actually want it to and exact match negative keywords don’t do enough. Phrase match is a happy medium. How do you know what negative keywords should be added? You can see the exact searches that triggered your ads by viewing the search term report. Look for any searches that indicate they’re not looking for what you offer. Terms such as “DIY”, “YouTube”, “salary”, etc., are generally ones you want to avoid. Unless you run a DIY website, offer YouTube training, or help people compare salaries. Although there are some negative keywords that many advertisers should have, most of them should be industry specific. There is no master negative keyword list that works for everyone.
There are many metrics you can look at, but for our purposes I’m going to focus on keyword average position. Too high of an average position and you’re probably overpaying, too low and your ad may not be being seen. I generally like to have an average position of around 2.0. I know that I won’t get as many clicks as the ad in the first position and therefore my clickthrough rate will be lower (all things being equal), but the clicks and therefore conversions should be cheaper. It’s a tradeoff. If the average position is too high (I start to worry when it gets higher than 3.0) you run the risk of not being seen. Does anyone actually scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the rest of the ads? I know I don’t. Depending on the query and whether Google deems it “commercial” or not, there could be three or four ads showing. For example, when I search for “remarketing” I get three ads above the organic results, but when I search for “retargeting” I get four ads. This tells me Google views “retargeting” as a commercial query and “remarketing” as a non-commercial query (even though they’re the same thing). If you know for sure your keywords are considered commercial queries you can have an average position of between 3.0 and 4.0, but it’s probably safer to keep it between 2.0 and 3.0.
Keyword bids will affect your average position which I discussed in the previous section, but I want to go deeper than that. Should different keywords have different bids? Absolutely. Many people set a default ad group max CPC bid and leave it at that, but different keywords will convert at different rates and therefore some keywords are more valuable than others. Like with most of what I’ve been discussing, this should be common sense but sadly it’s not.
We’ve established different keyword should have different bids, but should different match types have different bids too? There are a few different schools of thought on this, but I always increase my bids for more specific match types. Exact match should have a higher bid than phrase match, which should have a higher bid than broad modified match, et cetera. Tiered bidding has been around for years, but I still believe it is one of the most effective ways to bid on keywords.
Section 5: Text Ads
Search campaigns have always driven the best ROI for my clients and I attribute much of that to how I set up and write my ads. The vast majority of people will click on organic listings and not your ads which means you’re not only competing with other advertisers, but the organic results as well. If you write a bland, generic ad you will lose to someone else more often than not. On the other hand, if your ad directly addresses their search query and their pain points you are much more likely to get their click. Here are a few things you should keep in mind when writing your ads.
What the ad says will have more effect on whether they click on it than anything else. How closely does the ad copy (i.e. what the ads say) match what they searched? How closely does it match what they’re looking for? Going back to my earlier example, if you search for “heart surgeons near me” how likely are you to click on an ad that says “Doctors Near You”? My guess is not very likely. If you’ve created your ad groups right and chosen your keywords carefully, you’ll be able to include the exact term they searched for several times in your ad. I like to put the keywords (which should show up in their search terms) in at least headline one, description line one, and the display URL. The headline is important because it’s the first thing they see. The description is important because you have a lot more room to give information and their search terms appear in bold. The display URL isn’t super important but it makes the ad look more relevant. Notice how this ad from Tiffany & Co. mentions necklaces four times and silver necklaces specifically twice. Is it the best ad I’ve ever seen? No, but it is incredibly relevant to my search. Also notice how “silver necklaces” is bold in the description.
Along with including their search query in your ad copy, it’s important to try and get into the head of the person searching. You know what they searched for (because it triggered your ad), but do you know why they’re searching for it? Do you know what they’re actually looking for? Do you know what stage of the marketing funnel they are in? If they’re in the research stage you should use different wording than you would if they were ready to buy. Again, this should be common sense, but it often isn’t.
I’ve generally seen that ads that approach the character limit (currently 30 characters for headlines and 90 characters for descriptions) outperform ads that are shorter. The longer your ad is the more space you take up in the search engine results page. That generally leads to more clicks. The more space you take up the easier it is for someone to click on your ad (especially if it’s well-written). You can now create three headlines and two description lines (although the third headline and second description are not guaranteed to show), I would strongly recommend testing this new format. As a side note, a generally accepted industry best practice is to use title case with your ads. That is, capitalize the first letter of every word except small ones such as articles or short prepositions. This is an Example of Title Case.
One of the main reasons I love search ads is because you can make incremental changes to the ads whenever you have statistically significant data and see improvements month over month. Over time, you should see an increase in CTR, conversion rate, and other important metrics. This is only possible though if you’re A/B testing (or split testing, for our purposes the terms are interchangeable) your ads. Ad groups should contain at least two ads, when the search volume is high enough you can have more than two but you should never have only one. Having multiple ads per ad groups will allow you to test out different messaging and determine what ad copy leads to the most conversions or clicks.
I’m not going to tell you what components or variations you should test, but here are some options:
• Headlines and descriptions
• Display URLs
• Short ads versus longer ads
• Two headlines and one description line versus three headlines and two description lines
Except for when I’m initially creating the ad group, I try not to change too many things between ads in the same ad group because I want to be able to isolate why one ad outperformed the other. I do A/B testing, not multivariate testing. Here’s an example of my process:
Create two different ads >> Wait until the conversion rate or clickthrough rate is significant >> Analyze what the differences are between the ads >> Pause the underperforming ad >> Duplicate the outperforming ad and change one thing (maybe add a stronger call to action in the first description line).
By running multiple ads and continuously optimizing them you can see better results over time.
Perhaps the easiest way to get better results and boost the all-important quality score is to create ad extensions. There are many different kinds of ad extensions and not all of them make sense for every advertiser, but I always create all relevant extensions. Not all of your ad extensions will show at the same time, but creating as many as make sense gives Google options. Here is a brief rundown of the various ad extensions.
Sitelink extensions allow you to show other pages from your website along with a brief description. These are one of the easiest ad extensions to create and almost every advertiser can benefit from them. Some advertisers don’t add descriptions because it’s optional, but descriptions can only help and they don’t take long to write.
Another staple ad extension, callout extensions give you 25 characters to hit home on features or benefits you want searchers to know. This can be Free Shipping, FDA Approved, 25+ Years in Business, etc. There is no reason not to have three or four of these in every campaign.
Structured Snippet Extension
One of the most versatile ad extensions, structured snippets have a lot of options. These options are amenities, brands, courses, degree programs, destinations, featured hotels, insurance coverage, models, neighborhoods, service catalog, shows, styles, and types. I love structured snippet extensions and create them whenever I can. If I don’t know what category to choose, I use service catalog as a catchall.
Call extensions are another ad extension almost every advertiser should be using. This allows you to have your phone number show up with your ad. People can call you directly from the ad on mobile devices by clicking on the phone number.
Message extensions require much more coordination than other ad extensions. It allows people to message your business directly from the ad, although you need a number that is able to receive and send messages. If your staff can quickly and efficiently reply to text messages this might be a great ad extension to set up.
Location extensions allow you to include your business address alongside your ad. If you have a brick and mortar location this can go a long way to establishing credibility and getting more clicks. You need to connect your Google My Business account with AdWords to use this extension.
Affiliate Location Extension
Similar to location extensions, but instead of the address of your business it would be stores that sell your products.
Price extensions allow you to highlight a few of your products or services. You’ll need to set the language, type, currency, and price qualifier, then write a headline and description.
If you have an app that you want to promote, app extensions may be perfect for you. In order to create an app extension you’ll need a mobile app that can be found in Google Play or the Apple App Store, the Package Name (Android) or App ID (iOS) of your app, and the URL within the app store where you can learn more about and download your app.
With promotion extensions you can let people know about any special sales, events or offers you have going on. This extension doesn’t make sense for every advertiser, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
The last component of an effective ad we’re going to look at is the final URL. This is yet another area that is often overlooked. One of the three components of quality score is landing page experience so you should think carefully about where you’re sending the traffic. The main thing Google is looking for is that your page provides a good experience to users. This means it should be easy to navigate and contain text that relates to your keywords and the searcher’s query. If you can, send people to a specific service or product page that they’re searching for. Make it easy for them and they’re much more likely to convert.
Wow, we’ve gone over a lot. Kudos to those stuck through it and made it this far. I don’t claim to be the best or most knowledgeable AdWords expert, but I have managed literally hundreds of accounts ranging from nursing schools to solar companies, from regional gyms to national franchises, and learned a lot from it. My hope is that you can use this whitepaper to comfortably and more importantly effectively audit any campaign you come across. I don’t fault any advertiser for taking shortcuts and not doing everything in their power to help their accounts succeed. I don’t fault them because that’s excellent job security for me.