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11 Paid Search Rules You Should ALWAYS Follow


Even though Paid Search advertising (also called “Pay Per Click” or “PPC”) has existed since February of 1998, the core fundamentals are still frequently overlooked. Here’s a list of 11 basic best practices that should always be followed:

1. Define Goals and Set Strategy.

Most marketing initiatives without specific defined goals and strategies are destined to fail. Paid Search initiatives are no different. Before constructing any PPC accounts, answer these two questions:

  • What is your target market? Are you marketing to male homeowners in Arkansas between the ages of 25-40? Or everyone in the US who has a credit card? Different audiences require different messaging. Your target market(s) must be defined to create appropriate, targeted messaging.
  • What is your business trying to do? Maximize action volume in a lead-generation account? Maximize profit or ROI in a revenue-based account? Increase brand awareness? These are different conversions goals that require different strategies. Set conversion goals that make sense for your target audience and budget.

Strategies that aren’t working can almost always be changed, and goals can be adjusted if necessary…just make sure both are locked down BEFORE account launch. Don’t just say, “Hey, let’s try this Pay Per Click thing!” and wander  into the abyss without a plan. That’s bad juju.

2. Use Conversion Tracking to Quantify Results!

A high-level marketer at a large company once told me this: “Pay Per Click is a terrible investment. We spent a boatload of money with no sales. It was a bloody shambles.” When I asked if his company used conversion tracking to quantify conversion goals, he responded by asking, “What’s conversion tracking?” As an online marketer, I couldn’t help but wince. By no means was this person incompetent, but without a conversion tracking platform you can’t quantify results, so of course it seemed like a waste of money!

Uncle Sam wants YOU to use conversion tracking.

If you take away nothing else from this list, take away this: the ability to easily quantify results is what makes Paid Search so powerful. Yet if you aren’t tracking revenue or user actions (account signups, whitepaper downloads, sales…whatever user acquisition action that’s vital to your business) you can’t garner insight needed to optimize ROI. Period.

Tip #1: If you’re only running a Google Adwords account, Google Conversion Tracking is an excellent free tool that’s quick and easy to set up. A Google Analytics account can be linked with your Adwords account very easily, which allows further conversion insight for your paid ads PLUS insight into non-paid traffic.

Tip #2: If you’re running on multiple engines or integrating with other marketing initiatives, there are a wide variety of tracking and web analytics platforms available. Overdrive’s Search Marketing Map lists a number of these platforms, as well as many other useful PPC resources.

3. Choose Your Keywords Wisely, Not Widely.

This is arguably the most basic and important aspect of PPC management. Many PPC advertisers bid on every keyword under the sun. While doing so can work, depending on the size of your budget and your conversion goals, it is generally more effective to select keywords that are more targeted and descriptive – that is, “hotels reno nevada” vs. “hotels.” Generally, multi-word or highly descriptive keywords do not generate as much traffic, but are usually more targeted and therefore typically generate better cost-per-action, and/or better profit/ROI. Oh, and if you’re selling access to a library of technology whitepapers, don’t bid on “asbestos.” Sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it.

4. Structure Accounts, Campaigns, and Ad Groups Efficiently.

This is all too often overlooked. Structuring PPC accounts efficiently is critical because doing so enables good segmentation, strong budgetary control, helps boost Quality Scores, and affects the ability to write targeted ads. If you have multiple accounts within an engine, particularly Google, you can utilize an overarching organizational scheme called the “My Client Center,” or MCC. This allows multiple accounts to be bundled into one “master” account for greater management and optimization efficiency. Here’s a visual representation of a well-structured PPC initiative from MCC level to keyword level, using a generic Online Travel Agent (OTA) as an example:

Deciding whether to segment individual products/services at the account or campaign level is usually determined by the size of the budget. If you have a big or midsize budget and are marketing multiple products/services, create an MCC and dedicate a single account to each product or service. Small budget initiatives, even if you’re marketing multiple products/services, generally don’t require multiple accounts – in which case you don’t need an MCC. For small budget accounts, segment each product/service at the campaign level. Whether your budget is big or small, it’s perfectly acceptable to have more than one campaign in an account for a single product/service.

Budget settings live at the CAMPAIGN level, NOT the account or ad group level. Generally, the fewer campaigns, the easier it is to control daily spend. However, minimizing the number of campaigns in an account can limit segmentation ability. There must be a balance between controlling daily spend and maximizing segmentation. Finding that balance can sometimes be tricky, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

Ads live at the AD GROUP level, NOT the CAMPAIGN or ACCOUNT level. It’s very difficult, neigh impossible, to write good ads for an ad group that contains dozens of different keyword categories. For example, the keyword “painting supplies” is more general and probably requires different messaging than the more specific keyword “paint brushes.” Thus, “painting supplies” and “paint brushes” should live in different ad groups. Bucket your keywords into ad groups where you can easily write targeted and relevant ads, based on the keywords in the ad group. Don’t lump all your ad groups into a single campaign, and don’t lump all your keywords into a single ad group:

Don’t Do This!

5. Write Ads at the Ad Group Level, Not the Account or Campaign Level.

The whole reason for grouping your keywords into tight buckets at the ad group level is so you can write ads that are relevant to each keyword bucket. Once your keyword buckets at the ad group level make sense, it’s much easier to write targeted ads. It’s sometimes ok to run one generic ad in every ad group as a test variable, but always run at least one ad in each ad group that is specific to its associated keyword list.

Also, consider testing Dynamic Keyword Insertion (DKI). DKI is a very simple formatting syntax that is inserted into the headline or description line of an ad. When a user queries a string of keywords on a search engine, DKI inserts the EXACT query the user searched for directly into the ad. That’s hot.

As the messaging more precisely matches the user mindset, ads that utilize DKI usually garner higher click-through-rates (CTRs) than ads that don’t. Higher CTRs help boost Quality Scores, which help keep costs-per-click (CPCs) down, which helps lower cost-per-action (CPA) or increase profit. You can achieve strong CTRs without using DKI, but DKI certainly helps. To start, use DKI in at least 1 ad in each ad group. But don’t go overboard by using DKI in every single ad.

6. Use Relevant Landing Pages That Give Users Clear Direction.

Don’t just send traffic to your homepage. Why? Two reasons: first, homepages have too many navigation paths and can direct users away from the desired action. Second, homepages rarely contain the best content for a Paid Search initiative. Send users to the specific page where they’re most likely to take whatever action you want them to take, and TELL THEM what action to take. You have less than two seconds to show your prospects what they want. If you don’t, someone else will.

This tells users exactly what to do, where to do it, and exactly what they’ll get.

Adhering to this principle is very easy: if you’re selling beach chairs, direct users to a page where they can buy beach chairs and use a good call-to-action to tell them to buy beach chairs. If you want users to watch a particular video, send them to the page where that video lives and use a strong call-to-action to tell them to watch it.

7. Mind Your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Once your account is launched it’s very easy to lose sight of your original conversion goals. In particular, many people get sidetracked by raising Cost Per Click bids in order to increase their Average Ad Positions and/or Click-Through-Rates. Always remember – higher ad position doesn’t necessarily equate to higher performance.

It’s usually not a good idea to jack up your CPC bid from $0.50 to $5+ to get the #1 position…especially because engines’ algorithms don’t guarantee you’ll get high positions just because you’re bidding high. With rare exceptions (like in a brand awareness initiative), your conversion goals should always, always, always, be your #1 optimization priority…not impression volume, click volume, average position, or even Click-Through-Rates. Never forget that fact.

8. Test, Test, Test!

A well-managed PPC account is nothing more than a series of never-ending experiments. So don’t just plan your next test; create a “testing roadmap” and plan your next 5 tests. Run ads that are identical, except for one difference; the two description lines are the same, but the ads have different headlines or different display URLs. Or the headlines, display URLs, and one description line are all identical, but one description line is different. When a large enough data sample size accumulates, pause the underperformer and write a new ad with a new test variable.

The same is true of landing pages; run an A/B test with two pages that are identical, save for one variable….perhaps the content is the same on both pages, but one page has a different body text color. Once you get the hang of this, try multivariate tests – they enable you to test multiple variables on your landing pages simultaneously, thus expediting the testing process. If you need help with deciding which variables to test, Google has a great free tool called the Google Site Optimizer than can assist in building your experiments.

Bill Nye is sad when you don’t experiment.

Always remember – just like any 8th grade science experiment the keys to good testing are to isolate a single test variable, let a strong data sample size accrue, optimize based on the result, and move to the next test. Determining how large a data sample size should be before making optimization decisions is dependent on how quickly data accumulates within your account. Some accounts accrue data faster than others, which is usually a reflection on the size of your budget. If your account accumulates data slowly, be patient. Don’t make an optimization decision prematurely.

9. Paid Search Can Do More Than Just Drive Qualified Web Traffic.

Yes, the primary goals in running a PPC account are to drive leads, sales, revenue, and/or profit. But that’s not all PPC can do; when managed properly it also increases brand awareness, provides insight into user behavior, and helps to understand levels of user engagement…both online and offline.

There are many ways of utilizing PPC to obtain a macro-level view of consumer behavior and engagement. One tactic to gain such insight is to utilize unique, PPC-specific  800#’s (where appropriate and possible) in your ads, on your landing pages, and throughout your entire site. Doing so will allow you to track offline conversions. Furthermore, PPC-specific 800#’s open another quantifiable channel and provide an alternative to users that seek information online but would rather do business by phone. Don’t underestimate or neglect this – even today there are many users that may not take certain actions online but will if they’re speaking into a phone.

“Yes, hello. I got this number from your ad on the Google.”

10. Don’t Forget About Content Networks.

What’s a Content Network? Simply put, a Content Network is a group of websites that are partnered with a search engine or engines. PPC ads are eligible to serve on these partnered websites. Google and Yahoo (soon to be Microhoo/Ying) both have very large Content Networks that include millions of websites. Google recently renamed their Content Network; it’s now called the “Display Network.” Don’t let the naming confuse you – even though “Content Network” and “Display Network” are different names, they’re the exact same thing.

Content is very different from Search. As it pertains to user engagement, Content is similar to a standard media buy; users passively view ads while they’re browsing websites’ content. In this regard, the difference between Content and Search is pretty logical: users generally browse websites for their content, not the ads. Conversely, on Search users directly query what they immediately want. This is why Content click-through-rates are usually very low in comparison to those of Search. Fortunately CTR isn’t really a factor in Content Quality Scores, so low Content CTRs shouldn’t negatively impact CPCs or conversion metrics.

In regard to ad serving ability, Content has a major advantage over Search: Search currently permits only text ads. Content ads can be text, videos, or images. Graphic ads often stand out more than text ads – especially in content-rich websites – which helps improve user engagement. That’s not to say text ads are ineffective in Content, because they can be very successful. It’s a good idea to test a mix of text, video, and image ads to see which are the most effective for your business model.

Search = Golfers, Content = Football Teams

Content campaigns are treated differently by the search engines than Search campaigns, so Content best practices differ from those of Search. Search keywords are like golfers; keywords are treated individually by the engines because an individual keyword is what triggers an ad. Content keywords are more akin to an individual player on a football team; engines assign themes to keyword buckets at the ad group level, making an individual Content keyword a cog in the wheel. This is why keyword-level data is not available in Content…because engines look at keyword buckets, not individual keywords. Search = individual golfers. Content = football teams.

Setting ads to serve in Search versus Content is determined at the CAMPAIGN level, NOT the ad group or account level. So if you choose to experiment with Content, make sure your Content campaigns are separate from Search campaigns. If your budget is limited, start with Search only. If you find that your target keywords are very expensive (higher than a $5 CPC is a reasonable benchmark), or aren’t generating much traffic in Search, you may want to test Content campaigns. Content CPCs are generally much lower than in Search, and often generate traffic when Search doesn’t. If you have the budget to serve on both Search and Content at the same time, don’t be scared to do so.

Conversion rates in the Content Networks are generally lower than those of Search but CPCs are also generally lower, which often makes running Content campaigns worthwhile. If you do choose to experiment with Content, don’t just shut it down after two days if it’s not turning a profit. Just like Search, Content takes time to optimize. Stay the course.

11. Use Negative Matching!

Negative matching should be used rigorously for both Search and Content campaigns.

For Search campaigns, this issue is twofold: users queries that are irrelevant to your business can not only run up clicks that have no chance of converting, but can also depress CTRs…which hampers Quality Scores, which increases CPCs.

Let’s say you’re a big luxury hotel chain that’s bidding on the broad matched keyword “hotels.” Your target market probably isn’t searching for “cheap hotels,” but because you’re bidding on “hotels” as a broad matched keyword, “cheap hotels” is running up your costs with no conversions. Furthermore, “hotels” is a very general keyword that generates a very large number of impressions from users outside your target market, which drags down CTR. Negative matching the keyword “cheap” prevents your ad from serving whenever “cheap” is included in any user’s query. This not only resolves the cost issue, but also helps boost CTR…which helps keep Quality Score high and CPC down.

Rigorous negative matching will improve conversion metrics.

Search Query reports show the exact user queries that have generated clicks. Run these reports regularly and negative match queries that aren’t relevant to your business or are performing poorly. Unfortunately, Search Query reports do NOT reveal queries that generate impressions but no clicks – even though these queries aren’t driving up costs, they’re decreasing CTRs…which negatively impacts Quality Scores, which hurts CPCs.

Fortunately, there is a myriad of keyword tools available that provide insight into traffic volumes for search queries that might trigger your ads. Use them vigorously and you’ll be rewarded with higher CTRs, higher Quality Scores, lower CPCs, and improved conversion metrics. Overdrive Interactive’s Search Marketing Map lists several free keyword tools.

Negative matching is much more straightforward in Content campaigns. Run Placement Performance reports regularly to see which websites (also called “placements”) are performing poorly, and negative match underperformers. CTR has minimal effect on Quality Scores in Content, so don’t worry about it. Just focus on conversion goals.

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