Search engine marketing (SEM) is the worst-kept secret in digital advertising, especially for small or growing businesses.
If your customers use the internet, they use Google. If they use Google, they’re seeing, clicking, and buying from SEM. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, success with Google Search Ads isn’t as simple as Google itself.
Below, we’ll break down how Google Search Ads work, why they’re effective for so many businesses, and how they can be effective for your business.
What are Google Search Ads?
Google Search Ads are a form of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising that appear above and around organic search results—also known as search engine result pages (SERPs). Search ads usually include a headline, a few lines of text, a directional URL, and little else. As Google’s focus on advertising increased over the years, the space for ads has increased with it.
Given that Google owns more than 90% of search engine market share worldwide and processes something like 70,000 search queries every second—or about 5.8 billion daily searches and 2 trillion global searches annually—it’s safe to say that your audience is within Google Search Ads’ reach.
Difference Between Google Search and Display Ads
Before we get too deep into Search Ads, let’s briefly discuss what they’re not. Google’s two main channels for ads are the Search Network and the Display Network.
Search Network ads appear when a user types a query into the search bar. Someone asks Google for search results, in other words, and the ads come along for the ride.
In contrast, Google’s Display Network reaches custom audiences with ads while they’re browsing other websites, partner sites, mobile sites, and apps to increase the chance of a conversion. (Basically everywhere but search results.)
Ads on the Display Network typically convert at a lower rate than Search, as the users who see the former aren’t specifically searching for your offer. Because Search Network users demonstrate a higher intent level by searching for your key terms, Google Search Ads can have a more immediate effect on your campaign results.
Why are Google Search Ads effective?
Google has been the top dog in search ads for some time now. The overwhelming market share mentioned above is a big part of it, but here are three more reasons why Google Search Ads are so effective:
1. User Volume
We mentioned Google’s market share above, but not how that translates into the number of potential users who might see your ads.
Because of Google’s ubiquity in the marketplace, Search Ads offer more than 246 million unique visitors, 3.5 billion daily interactions, and an estimated 8x return on advertising budget. And if that’s not enough, in 2018, Google advertising generated 1 billion direct connections from customers to businesses every month.
Do the numbers above seem intimidating? Are you worried about getting lost in a sea of similar sellers?
Don’t stress. Google Search Ads is effective because you can target specific keywords, queries, and users to put your ads in front of those most likely to click.
There are lots of targeting layers that you can mix and match. Search Ads can appear based on a user’s location, the time of day, the device they’re using, or a combination of the above. You can base your targeting on demographics, show specific ads to people who have checked your offers out already, and much more.
Over time, you can refine your targeting parameters based on your ads’ performance to boost conversions and reduce customer acquisition costs. To learn from your campaigns and make those improvements, however, we turn to the final key to Google Search Ads…
If targeting is the peanut butter in your PPC sandwich, tracking is the jelly.
Google Search Ads offers lots of different ways to track conversions and ad performance. You can see how often your ads appear (impressions), how often they get clicks, and how often those clicks lead to a conversion or sale.
And that’s just the beginning. With tracking in place, you can study micro-conversions on your landing pages to see what actions users take when they do (or don’t) convert. You can see if users start filling out your form but stop halfway through, how many visitors leave immediately after reaching your page (bounce rate), how long they watch your on-page video, and more.
Tracking your Google Search Ads also provides opportunities to test variations of your ads and landing pages to further improve your campaigns, but that’s a subject for another post.
Bidding in Google Search Ads
To decide which ads appear at the top of a SERP, Google runs an auction every single time a query triggers paid ads—which, again, is just about every search result. Each auction considers three components:
1. Maximum cost-per-click bid for the keyword
This is the amount you’re willing to spend each time your ad is clicked.
2. Keyword quality score
The value (1-10) that tells the advertiser how relevant Google thinks your keywords, ads, and landing pages are in combination.
3. Ad extensions and their relevance to the ad and keyword
Ad extensions like sitelinks, phone numbers, and location information can give your ad more real estate on the search results page—and positively impact your quality score and cost-per-click if they’re useful.
Types of bidding strategies
Broadly speaking, there are a few different bidding strategies for Google Search Ads. In all of them, you set a monthly budget, and Google provides recommendations and estimated results based on businesses similar to yours.
The most prevalent bidding strategy is automatic bidding, which lets Google adjust your bids up or down depending on how likely the system thinks it is that a user will click.
As the default setting for new Search Ad campaigns, automatic bidding leaves control over your bids in Google’s hands and is a good-enough way to keep your ads in front of users and your budget under control.
If you’d rather be in the driver’s seat, however, Google Search Ads also offers manual bidding, in which you can set bids at either the ad group or keyword level. Individual bids at the keyword level give you the most granular control, while ad group-level manual bids set the same bid for all the keywords or placements within that ad group.
Finally, Google Search Ads also offers several preset flexible bid strategies. These cover options like targeting a specific return on ad spend or spending more to outrank a competitors’ ad. (That last one can be fun.)
With these strategies, you can continue to automate your bids while allowing for real-time adjustments based on goals and performance.
Before you get into the nitty-gritty details of setting bids, however, you’ll need a big-picture understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish with your ads.
Choose your bidding style according to your campaign goals
When you’re setting bids for your Google Search Ads, it’s important to consider what you’re trying to accomplish first. The goals of your campaign should define how you’re bidding, not the other way around.
For example, if you’re trying to raise brand awareness, impressions or views might be more important to you than an eCommerce vendor chasing sales. But if you increase bids to chase more sales, your cost per conversion might become unsustainable.
Establishing your campaign goals first makes it much easier to select an effective bidding strategy for your Google Search Ads.
Keyword targeting in Google Search Ads
Keyword match types are the parameters that can be set on keywords. They help control which searches on Google can trigger your ad.
Google Search Ads offers four types of keyword targeting, and each can connect you to potential members of your audience. The right type of targeting for you, however, depends on the goals of your campaign.
1. Broad Match
Broad match is Google’s default match type. It allows Google to display your ads for search terms that are related to the keywords in your account but aren’t a perfect match. While this method is great for generating traffic, it doesn’t necessarily lead to good results.
Broad match campaigns can run afoul of the Iceberg Effect, where too many search terms match up to each keyword. This can lead to your ads appearing in front of users who have no intent to click.
In the example below, we found 132 broad match search terms for one keyword—“file for bankruptcy”—and most of the searches didn’t match up with the high-intent users the ads were meant for:
Does anyone else see the irony in wasting money on bankruptcy ads, or is it just me?
If left unchecked, broad match can drain your campaign budget and bring conversions to a crashing halt, which is why we prefer the other three targeting methods, starting with…
2. Broad Match Modifier
Broad match modifiers give you more control than broad match, but more freedom than phrase match. They allow you to specify certain search terms that must be included in order for your ad to be displayed.
By adding a “+” sign in front of one or more keywords, you can specify certain search terms that must be included for your ad to be displayed. This is a useful way to start weeding out unrelated searches (much more on that later) while still reaching a general audience.
3. Phrase Match
Phrase match type shows your ad in search results when a person searches your keyword phrase in the correct order. It can still display for searches that also include additional words, but if there are extra words in the middle of your phrase, your ad won’t show up.
Phrase match is more flexible than exact match, but it allows Google to exercise more discretion than broad match or broad match modifiers.
4. Exact Match
Exact match only shows your ad to customers who are searching for your precise keyword or phrase, or a close variant.
This match type will give you the highest relevance, but the lowest reach, and works best if you want your ad to be served for a specific keyword.
Exact match targeting will never produce as much traffic as the other forms listed above, but the traffic it does generate is extremely targeted. Because users are searching for an exact term related to your offer, you’ll have a significantly higher chance of converting.
The secret ingredient: Negative keywords
All of the keyword match types above will help you connect with the right searches. But what about the searches that you don’t want to show up for?
That’s where negative keywords come in. Negative keywords help improve your targeting by filtering out unwanted clicks that won’t turn into conversions.
Negative keywords at the account, campaign, and ad group level will help you avoid wasteful spending on irrelevant keywords and increase your ROI, especially when using broad match.
Reasons for negative keywords can include:
- Preventing overlap with other ads, groups, or campaigns you’ve already built
- Google thinks certain words are related to your offer (but you don’t)
- High search volume with low to zero conversion intent
You can create negative keyword lists at multiple levels within your Google Ads account to improve performance.
For example, negative keyword lists at the universal level include words and phrases that are entirely unrelated to your ads, your campaigns, and your goals. You can also create more specific negative keyword lists for multiple selected campaigns, specific campaigns, ad groups, and individual keywords.
Negative keywords are especially important if you’re using multiple match types for the same root keyword as part of the SKAGs technique, which we’ll cover in the next section.
The (super) secret sauce: Single Keyword Ad Groups
Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAGs) are our favorite technique for Google Search Ads. In fact, if there’s one tactic we can share that will make the biggest difference in your new or existing PPC campaigns, it’s SKAGs.
As the name implies, SKAGs have just one keyword per ad group, though you’ll include multiple match types of that keyword in the group.
Most importantly, SKAGs reduce your discrepancy ratios from search to keyword and keyword to ad, which ensures your ads are relevant to the search—in other words, the opposite of The Iceberg Effect. You’ll also be able to create highly specific ad copy around your keywords.
Creating your first SKAG
Once you’ve downloaded Google Ads Editor and created your Google Ads account (if you haven’t already), there are four basic steps to start building your own single keyword ad groups.
Choose your keyword and apply modified broad match, phrase match, and exact match in the ad group.
Set the same initial bid amount across match types. As performance data starts to come in, you can adjust the bids to improve your campaigns.
Put the keyword in the headline and path/URL to make the ad more relevant to the searcher. This can also improve CTR, raise quality score, and other benefits. The subheadline and the description are up to you.
This is where SKAGs get fun. You can copy-and-paste your ad groups in Google Ads Editor so you don’t have to rewrite or re-do much of the busywork. Once you manually create the first SKAG, you can clone them and apply your list of root keywords.
Note: If you’re already running Google Search Ads and creating ad groups for all of your keywords isn’t feasible right away, pick out some of your top-performing search terms and create SKAGs for them. That way you can ensure a portion of your budget is dedicated to showing ads for those terms.
Types of search ads: Definitions, limits, and purposes
Standard search ads have specific parameters. These are the hard-and-fast (though recently expanded) limits to your Search Ads’ real estate (the space it can occupy on a SERP).
Length limits include …
- First Headline: 30 characters
- Second Headline: 30 characters
- Third Headline: 30 characters
- Description 1: 90 characters
- Description 2: 90 characters
- Path (2): 15 characters each
That said, there are a couple of variations you can create within Search Ads to make your ad groups and campaigns more effective.
Responsive Search Ads
Standard Google Search Ads show the same headline and description each time your ad appears. But as we stated earlier, one of the perks of digital advertising is testing variations of your ads to see which performs better with your audience.
Responsive Search Ads give you the ability to test multiple versions of your headlines and ad copy within Google Ads. You provide up to 15 headlines and four descriptions for one responsive search ad, and Google selects a maximum of three headlines and two descriptions to display in different orders and combinations.
Responsive search ads offer the same performance metrics as standard text ads, and you’ll be able to see all of the ad combinations that were shown using the headlines and descriptions you entered. These versions are auto-tested until the best-performing combination appears.
Google Shopping ads or Product Listing Ads (PLAs) go beyond text-only ads by showing your product names, images, and prices in Google search results—in other words, showing your offers to users before they reach your website.
You’ll have to give up some creative control if you choose this route instead of standard Search Ads, however, as Google Shopping doesn’t offer keyword targeting.
Instead, your shopping campaigns have to be created within the Google Merchant Center, which operates the product feed that shows Shopping ads.
All that said, these ads can be highly effective for eCommerce vendors who don’t want to put all of their eggs in Amazon’s basket. And users who click on your ad already knowing what your product costs and looks like are much likelier to buy, so investing some advertising dollars in this type of ad can pay off if you’re selling products.
Dynamic Search Ads
You can think of Dynamic Search Ads (DSAs) as a middle ground between Shopping Ads and Responsive Search Ads.
Like Responsive Ads, Google generates DSAs based on the text and information you provide. And like Shopping Ads, DSAs don’t pull content from the standard Search Ads system. Instead, DSAs use your website or a product feed from your business.
Finally, DSAs help to fill in the spaces between your specific ads and other searches you might want to show your offer on. Google can match user words or phrases to your existing text and create a tailored ad based on that search. And you can also add negative keywords to DSA campaigns to minimize appearing in unrelated searches.
Google Search Ads are a crucial component of any digital marketer’s toolbox. Understanding how they work—and how to make them work for you—can generate significant ROI and positive results for your business.