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Hack 81. Get the Most out of AdWords

Guest commentary by Andrew Goodman of Traffick on how to write great AdWords.

AdWords ( is just about the sort of advertising program that you might expect to roll out of the big brains at Google. The designers of the advertising system have innovated thoroughly to provide precise targeting at low cost with less work—it really is a good deal. The flipside is that it takes a fair bit of savvy to get a campaign to the point where it stops failing and starts working.

For larger advertisers, AdWords Select is a no-brainer. Within a couple of weeks, a larger advertiser will have enough data to decide whether to significantly expand their ad program on AdWords Select or perhaps to upgrade to a premium sponsor account.

I'm going to assume that you have a basic familiarity with how cost-per-click advertising works. AdWords Select ads currently appear next to search results on (and some international versions of the search engine) and near search results on AOL and a few other major search destinations. There are a great many quirks and foibles to this form of advertising. My focus here will be on some techniques that can turn a mediocre, nonperforming campaign into one that actually makes money for the advertiser while conforming to Google's rules and guidelines.

One thing I should make crystal clear is that advertising with Google bears no relationship to having your web site's pages indexed in Google's search engine. The search engine remains totally independent of the advertising program. Ad results never appear within search results.

I'm going to offer four key tips for maximizing AdWords Select campaign performance, but before I do, I'll start with four basic assumptions:

  • High click-through rates (CTRs) save you money, so that should be one of your main goals as an AdWords Select advertiser. Google has set up the keyword bidding system to reward high-CTR advertisers. Why? It's simple. If 2 ads are each shown 100 times, the ad that is clicked on 8 times generates revenue for Google twice as often as the ad that is clicked on 4 times over the same stretch of 100 search queries served. So if your CTR is 4% and your competitor's is only 2%, Google factors this into your bid. Your bid is calculated as if it were "worth" twice as much as your competitor's bid.

  • Very low CTRs are bad. Google disables keywords that fall below a minimum CTR threshold ("0.5% normalized to ad position," which is to say, 0.5% for position 1, and a more forgiving threshold for ads as they fall further down the page). Entire campaigns will be gradually disabled if they fall below 0.5% CTR on the whole.

  • Editorial disapprovals are a fact of life in this venue. Your ad copy or keyword selections may violate Google's editorial guidelines from time to time. Again, it's very difficult to run a successful campaign when large parts of it are disabled. You need to treat this as a normal part of the process rather than giving up or getting flustered.

  • The AdWords Select system is set up like an advertising laboratory; that is to say, it makes experimenting with keyword variations and small variations in ad copy a snap. No guru can prejudge for you what will be your "magical ad copy secrets," and it would be irresponsible to do so, because Google offers such detailed real-time reporting that can tell you very quickly what does and does not catch people's attention.

Now on to four tips to get those CTRs up and to keep your campaign from straying out of bounds.

7.4.1. Matching Can Make a Dramatic Difference

You'll likely want to organize your campaign's keywords and phrases into several distinct ad groups (made easy by Google's interface). This will help you more closely match keywords to the actual words that appear in the title of your ad. Writing slightly different ads to closely correspond to the words in each group of keywords that you've put together is a great way to improve your click-through rates. You'd think that an ad title (say, "Deluxe Topsoil in Bulk") would match equally well to a range of keywords that mean essentially the same thing. That is, you'd think this ad title would create about the same CTR with the phrase "bulk topsoil" as it would with a similar phrase (e.g., "fancy dirt wholesaler"). Not so. Exact matches tend to get significantly higher CTRs. Being diligent about matching your keywords reasonably closely to your ad titles will help you outperform your less diligent competition.

If you have several specific product lines, you should consider better matching different groups of key phrases to an ad written expressly for each product line. If your clients like your store because you offer certain specialized wine varieties, for example, have an ad group with "ice wine" and related keywords in it, with "ice wine" in the ad title. Don't expect the same generic ad to cover all your varieties. Someone searching for an "ice wine" expert will be thrilled to find a retailer who specializes in this area. They probably won't click on or buy from a retailer who just talks about wine in general. Search engine users are passionate about particulars, and their queries are highly granular. Take advantage of this passion and granularity.

The other benefit of getting more granular and matching keywords to ad copy is that you don't pay for clicks from unqualified buyers, so your sales conversion rate is likely to be much higher.

7.4.2. Copywriting Tweaks Generally Improve Clarity and Directness

By and large, I don't run across major copywriting secrets. Psychological tricks to entice more people to click, after all, may wind up attracting unqualified buyers. But there are times when the text of an ad falls outside the zone of "what works reasonably well." In such cases, excessively low CTRs kill any chance your web site might have had to close the sale.

Consider using the Goldilocks method to diagnose poor-performing ads. Many ads lean too far to the "too cold" side of the equation. Overly technical jargon may be unintelligible and uninteresting even to specialists, especially given that this is still an emotional medium and that people are looking at search results first and glancing at ad results as a second thought.

The following example is too cold:

Faster DWMGT Apps

Build GMUI modules 3X more secure than KLT. V. 2.0 rated as 

"best pligtonferg" by WRSS Mag.

No one clicks. Campaign limps along. Web site remains world's best-kept secret.

So then a hotshot (the owner's nephew) grabs the reins and tries to put some juice into this thing. Unfortunately, this new creative genius has been awake for the better part of a week, attending raves, placing second in a snowboarding competition, and tending to his various piercings. His agency work for a major Fortune 500 client's television spots once received rave reviews. Of course, those were rave reviews from industry pundits and his best friends, because the actual ROI on the big client's TV branding campaign was untrackable.

The hotshot's copy reads:

Reemar's App Kicks!

Reemar ProblemSolver 2.0 is the real slim shady. Don't trust 

your Corporate security to the drones at BigCorp.

Unfortunately, in a nonvisual medium with only a few words to work with, the true genius of this ad is never fully appreciated. Viewers don't click and may be offended by the ad and annoyed with Google.

The simple solution is something unglamorous but clear, such as:

Easy & Powerful Firewall

Reemar ProblemSolver 2.0 outperforms BigCorp

Exacerbator 3 to 1 in industry tests.

You can't say it all in a short ad. This gets enough specific (and true) info out there to be of interest to the target audience. Once they click, there will be more than enough info on your web site. In short, your ads should be clear. How's that for a major copywriting revelation?

The nice thing is, if you're bent on finding out for yourself, you can test the performance of all three styles quickly and cheaply, so you don't have to spend all week agonizing about this.

7.4.3. Be Inquisitive and Proactive with Editorial Policies (But Don't Whine)

Editorial oversight is a big task for Google AdWords staff—a task that often gets them in hot water with advertisers, who don't like to be reined in. For the most part, the rules are in the long-term best interest of this advertising medium, because they're aimed at maintaining consumer confidence in the quality of what appears on the page when that consumer types something into a search engine. Human error, however, may mean that your campaign is being treated unfairly because of a misunderstanding. Or maybe a rule is ambiguous and you just don't understand it.

Reply to the editorial disapproval messages (they generally come from Ask questions until you are satisfied that the rule makes sense as it applies to your business. The more Google knows about your business, in turn, the more they can work with you to help you improve your results, so don't hesitate to give a bit of brief background in your notes to them. The main thing is, don't let your campaign just sit there disabled because you're confused or angry about being disapproved. Make needed changes, make the appropriate polite inquiries, and move on.

7.4.4. Avoid the Trap of "Insider Thinking" and Pursue the Advantage of Granular Thinking

Using lists of specialized keywords will likely help you to reach interested consumers at a lower cost per click and convert more sales than using more general industry keywords. Running your ad on keywords from specialized vocabularies is a sound strategy.

A less successful strategy, though, is to get lost in your own highly specialized social stratum when considering how to pitch your company. Remember that this medium revolves around consumer search engine behavior. You won't win new customers by generating a list of different ways of stating terminology that only management, competitors, or partners might actually use, unless your ad campaign is just being run for vanity's sake.

Break things down into granular pieces and use industry jargon where it might attract a target consumer, but when you find yourself listing phrases that only your competitors might know or buzzwords that came up at the last interminable management meeting, stop! You've started down the path of insider thinking! By doing so, you may have forgotten about the customer and about the role market research must play in this type of campaign.

It sounds simple to say it, but in your AdWords Select keyword selection, you aren't describing your business. You're trying to use phrases that consumers would use when trying to describe a problem they're having, a specific item they're searching for, or a topic that they're interested in. Mission statements from above versus what customers and prospects actually type into search engines. Big difference. (At this point, if you haven't yet done so, you'd better go back and read over The Cluetrain Manifesto to get yourself right out of this top-down mode of thinking.)

One way to find out about what consumers are looking for is to use Wordtracker ( or other keyword research tools (such as the one that Google offers as part of the AdWords Select interface, a keyword research tool that Google promises it's working on). However, these tools are not in themselves enough for every business; because more businesses are using these keyphrase search frequency reports, the frequently searched terms eventually become picked over by competing advertisers—just what you want to avoid if you're trying to sneak along with good response rates at a low cost per click.

You'll need to brainstorm as well. In the future, there will be more sophisticated software-driven market research available in this area. Search technology companies such as Ask Jeeves Enterprise Solutions are already collecting data about the hundreds of thousands of customer questions typed into the search boxes on major corporate sites, for example. This kind of market research is under-used by the vast majority of companies today.

There are currently many low-cost opportunities for pay-per-click advertisers. As more and larger advertisers enter the space, prices will rise, but with a bit of creativity, granular thinking, and diligent testing, the smaller advertiser will always have a fighting chance on AdWords Select. Good luck!

Andrew Goodman

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