Set it and forget it? Not for paid search! Learn how data-informed paid search optimizations can make your specific campaign goals come to life.
Here you’ll find:
- How to set up your campaigns to minimize optimizations down the road
- Key performance indicators (KPIs) to guide your strategy
- Optimizations every paid search advertiser should perform
- KPI-specific paid search optimizations
Optimizing paid search campaigns is like tending a garden.
You can’t just pop some seeds in the dirt and expect a bountiful yield. Even in the best conditions, your plants require consistent nurturing — but if you water too much? Those babies are gonna drown.
Similarly, paid search campaigns require thoughtful optimizations to bear fruit.
And knowing how to build your proverbial garden beds, assess what’s thriving (and wilting), and make adjustments accordingly is essential to pay-per-click (PPC) campaign success.
Let’s get our hands dirty!
What’s paid search optimization?
Paid search optimization is simply the practice of making adjustments to your campaign settings that improve its performance.
Of course, optimizing paid search campaigns isn’t an exact science. If it were, paid search agencies everywhere would cease to exist.
Whether you run Google Ads (FKA AdWords), Microsoft Ads, or Amazon Ads, the PPC optimization process looks more like this:
- Build your campaign (making informed guesses about what will work)
- Launch and let it sit (your campaign collects valuable data here, so don’t touch it!)
- Assess the results (what worked? What didn’t?)
Let’s meditate on that first step for a moment.
The ultimate optimization hack: Revisit your account setup
You’d be surprised by how many PPC campaigns aren’t set up properly.
This leads to a whole lot of wasted time and money, when you could be focusing on more high-level optimizations.
Even if you’re a paid search pro, take a look through this checklist to make sure your campaign settings are in place before making any optimization decisions:
- Ad suggestions –We recommend turning off auto-apply to maintain more control over your ads.
- Content exclusions – Did you exclude your ads from showing on sites that don’t match your brand?
- Customer lists – Do you have a customer list to exclude those users from seeing your ads? Alternatively, do you have a list of prospects to target?
- Campaign/ad group structure – Do you have campaigns set up to target hyper-focused ad groups?
- Conversion tracking – Accurate conversion tracking is essential to effective optimizations and overall PPC success. Is Google Tag Manager installed and firing properly? Are you tracking every conversion type?
- Locations – Do you target geographic regions where people are more likely to convert?
- Languages – Are your ads targeting English only? Or are your ads open to users who might search in English but whose browsers might be set to other languages, like Spanish?
- Demographics – Are you targeting your audience based on their unique demographics, like age and income?
- Devices – Are your ads showing on all device types? Do certain device types fail to bring in conversions? Should you exclude or add a negative bid modifier for devices? Or are those devices early predictors of intent (research on phones, purchase on computers)?
- Ad scheduling – Can your ads appear any day of the week or at any time of the day? Should you limit when your ads appear depending on when your audience is more likely to convert?
- Bid strategy – It’s usually a good idea to start with manual cost per click (CPC) before bumping to maximize clicks, maximize conversions, target cost per acquisition (CPA), or target impression share.
- Keywords – Do you leverage search terms people actually use to find relevant products or services to yours?
- Negative keywords – Do you have a list of keywords you don’t want to match with?
- Ad copy – Does your ad copy match relevant search terms and utilize a call to action?
- Landing pages – Do your landing pages match the ad?
- Extensions (recently rebranded as assets) – Are you using them?
- Remarketing display/RLSA – Create both display and RLSA remarketing campaigns to reconnect with past visitors who haven’t converted (yet).
- Display campaigns – To reach a larger audience segment of potential customers, create hyper-targeted display campaigns to reach potential customers on websites within the Google Display Network where they browse. These clicks tend to be much more affordable and can be great for brand awareness.
- Network performance – Early on, we recommend running campaigns on the Google Search Network and Partner Networks. Over time, you may consider pulling back on the Partner Network if performance is not up to par.
- Data protection contacts – Google will send notices about the Google Ads Data Processing Terms and EU General Data Protection Regulation to your primary contact. If your organization has a data protection officer or an EU representative, add their contact information.
How often should you optimize your PPC campaigns?
Collect enough data first, optimize second.
Paid search is perhaps the most powerful tool in digital marketing because of its machine learning capabilities and bountiful data.
There’s a lot of guesswork involved in the initial setup (what keywords you think your target audience use, what campaign types probably deserve the most budget). But as time goes on — and more users convert — search engines get better at identifying who your target audience is and seek to find more lookalike buyers.
Optimizations are our way of nudging the search engine in the right direction and learning those buyer behaviors more effectively.
But it’s important to remember that the learning process takes time. And if we make too many changes too soon, we can stunt the learning altogether.
Give your campaign about a week or two post-launch before you make adjustments. If your campaign isn’t getting a whole lot of impressions right away, give it more time.
When shouldn’t you optimize your paid search campaigns?
If you make too many changes to your campaigns in a short amount of time, attribution gets a bit complicated.
Making a few strategic optimizations at once (and letting the campaign to sit) allows you to accumulate accurate, readible data. If you don’t know which changes made a positive impact, you can’t recreate your success. And worse, if you don’t know which changes led to a drop in performance, it can be even harder to get back on track.
Similarly, when A/B testing, it’s important to refrain from making optimizations so you can properly isolate what’s working and what’s not.
And finally, is your campaign doing exceptionally well? Make sure to minimize your optimizations. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!)
Before optimizing: What are your goals?
When it comes to digital marketing campaigns, goal numero uno is probably more money in pocket.
And while “spend less, make more” is a perfectly reasonable expectation from your paid search campaigns in the long run, you’ll need to channel more specific metrics to measure success along the way.
Think of it as smaller steps to reach that bigger goal: maybe you’re a startup that needs more brand awareness before you can get more sales. Or maybe you’re a business with a long customer lifetime value (CLV), so a higher cost per acquisition pays off further down the line.
Whatever success looks like for your business at this moment, it’s important to translate those goals into measurable KPIs for your paid search campaign.
Some common paid search KPIs include (but aren’t limited to):
- Impression – The number of times your ad has been seen
- Click through rate (CTR) – The number of clicks per impression
- Cost per conversion – The amount of money spent on a campaign divided by the number of conversions in that period
- Cost per click – How much you pay for a click
- Conversation rate – How often a click or interaction leads to a conversion (number of conversions divided by the number of interactions with your ad)
- Return on ad spend (ROAS) – The amount of revenue generated for each dollar spent on advertising
- Cost per acquisition (CPA) – The cost of turning a lead into a conversion
- Impression share – The percentage of impressions your ads received compared to the number of impressions that your ads could get
Once you identify which metrics matter most to your digital marketing strategy, make sure those goals are defined inside Google Analytics and connected with your Google Ads.
Quality Score: all-in-one optimization
Your Quality Score is a rating from Google that gives a sense of how well your ad quality compares to other advertisers.
The better your Quality Score, the more likely your ad is to appear in front of valuable searchers.
It’s best practice for every advertiser to check in with your Quality Score regularly and make any adjustments to give it a boost. No matter your KPI, a better score will help achieve that goal.
In fact, many of the paid search optimizations you make to improve your score will cover a lot of your optimization bases (like improving your landing page, ad copy, and clearly defining your ad groups).
Optimizations every advertiser should make
Aside from your Quality Score, there are a few pillars to check inside your account on a regular basis for improvement opportunities:
1. Keyword check
To your audience, “keywords” are just the words they use to ask Google a question.
But to advertisers, keywords are the trigger that activates your ad placement — the foundation of your search campaigns, if you will.
We use keywords to organize our campaigns, guide the copy in our landing pages and search ads alike, and identify users’ level of intent. So it’s imperative to review your keyword list semi-religiously to keep up with what your target audience is searching for at every stage of the funnel.
Consider semantic architecture here: The words you use to describe your product or service might not be the way your prospects search for you. Use keyword research tools like Answer the Public, iSpionage, Keyword Planner, and Semrush to assist in this pursuit.
Similarly, keep your negative keyword list updated to save your budget.
At HawkSEM, we use our proprietary platform, ConversionIQ, to identify which keywords convert at high volumes with a low cost and properly allocate the budget to maximize ROAS. You can learn more about it here.
2. Review ad copy, assets, and formats
Check in with your different ad formats and ad copy, then make note of which ads are high-performing and which aren’t.
- Is your copy relevant to the search query?
- Do your ads have a clear CTA?
- Do your headlines include the keyword your ad group targets?
- Will the user catch on to benefits that set you apart with a quick glance?
Make sure to A/B test along the way.
And when it comes to visual assets, keep your imagery and videos fresh and relevant. If you’re an ecommerce business, this means lifestyle images of your products.
This is especially true with Google’s Performance Max, which uses assets and audience “signals” the same way we use keywords — testing, targeting, and segmenting super qualified users.
3. Don’t forget your website
Your landing pages and website should be extensions of your ad. Your visitor should feel comfortable and in the right place as soon as they arrive.
To accomplish this, ask yourself:
- Is your landing page consistent with the ad?
- Is the CTA you mentioned in your ad copy immediately available?
- Does your visitor understand your value proposition?
- Can they easily navigate the rest of your website from here?
And, friends, let’s not forget how deeply SEO and paid search marketing are connected. Improving your user experience and organic search results will directly impact your paid search efforts, trust us.
Budget optimizations are personal.
That said, it’s a good idea to allocate more budget to the campaigns that are performing the best and lower the budget for campaigns that aren’t performing as well (or campaigns that are fresh in the experimentation phase).
Keep in mind some campaigns, like YouTube ads, might not be a high converting campaign on paper but play a big role in the buyer’s journey.
The lesson here? Don’t completely pause or deplete the budget for these campaigns. Know which ad types play what role in your conversion funnel.
Your bidding strategy and optimizations will depend on your unique goals and performance. However, we recommend starting with manual CPC early on.
Google wants you to get as many clicks as possible — but mostly because that’s how they make money. Google cares less about if those clicks come from qualified leads.
So, if you just want to get the most clicks for your budget, you can use the traditional automatic cost-per-click (CPC) bidding system.
But if you want more control over your campaigns and less automation, especially in those early stages, manual bidding is a better option. This option allows you to increase your ad visibility and prioritize high-converting keywords, all while lowering your CPA.
But there’s a catch. Although manual bidding is great when you need more control over bids, this strategy also requires more time and energy to make sure you bid the right amount at the right time.
As we’ve discussed, your specific campaign optimizations will depend on your goals and performance.
If you’re feeling a little aimless at first, we recommend running Google Ads Experiments to A/B test your optimizations because it easily tracks the results for you and tells you whether or not there’s statistical significance.
But in an effort to provide a little extra guidance, we’re going to show you optimizations you might make for some of the most common KPIs in paid search.
Let’s dig in!
Optimizations to increase CTR
Want to get more users a-clickin’? The best optimizations for this KPI come down to your ad copy and keywords. After all, the more enticing your offer, the more likely they are to click.
Here’s how to optimize your campaign to increase CTR:
- Refresh your ad copy with a single and clear call to action
- A/B test your ad copy to find out what works best
- Incorporate ad extensions as a proven way to boost engagement
- Improve Quality Score
- Have a robust negative keywords list to make sure your ads are shown to the most high-intent audiences possible
Optimizations to reduce cost per conversion
Sure, paid search is measured by conversion actions. But if you those conversions cost you more than they’re worth, you might want to focus on lowering your cost per conversion with some of these optimizations:
- Make sure your keywords are relevant to your high-intent target audience
- Keep your negative keywords list up to date
- Review your website and landing pages
- Is it easy to navigate?
- Is there a clear call to action?
- Would a visitor know your value proposition right away?
- Are they consistent with your ad?
Optimizations to reduce cost per click
If you’re getting an abundance of clicks without any conversions to show for it, it’s time to reduce that CPC. Some optimizations include:
- Surprise: Keywords!
- Try long-tail keywords that are more intent-based
- A/B test keyword variations
- Make sure your ads are highly relevant to the search terms
- Lower your keyword bids
- Update your negative keywords
- Try new match types
- Play with your bidding strategy
- Pay extra attention to your Quality Score
Optimizations to increase conversion rate
If you’re getting the clicks and the impressions but lagging on your conversions, it’s probably time to look at your website for some good old conversion rate optimization (CRO). Here’s what to check for:
- Check your landing page design and copy
- Is it consistent with your ad?
- Is it aesthetically pleasing?
- Are your value proposition and CTAs clear?
- Do you focus on the benefits of your solution?
- Do you include social proof, certifications, reviews, badges, case studies, and other tangible sources of trust?
- Is it specific to your target audience?
- Do you feature concrete numbers (i.e. facts and figures)?
- A/B test your landing pages to see which perform stronger
Optimizations to improve return on ad spend (ROAS)
This is a big one, but here are some paid search optimizations to get you started toward a better ROAS:
- Check your website for CRO
- Is your website easy to navigate with a clear CTA and value proposition?
- Is your website mobile friendly and conversion-ready?
- Run remarketing campaigns
- A/B test like crazy
- Put the brakes on any ads or landing pages that perform poorly
- Check your languages and locations
- Are you targeting geographic locations that are going months without sales? Consider excluding those locations for now
A well-organized and high-quality paid search campaign should always be your primary objective when it comes to making optimizations. From there, you can make adjustments along the way that align with your unique KPIs.
If you’re thinking paid search optimizations and management sound like a full-time job, you’re right.
Reach out for a free consultation and see if we can take over the heavy lifting — and give you a bigger ROI.
This article has been updated and was originally published in September, 2022.