12 EASY Signs You Need to Rethink Your Paid Search Strategy

Running paid search campaigns, but wondering if you have the right strategy in place?

Here are a dozen signs to look out for that may indicate the need to rethink your current approach.

1. You’re Constantly Underspending Your Budget

You have a budget of $5,000 per month to spend, but on a consistent basis, you aren’t coming anywhere close to that.

I’m not talking about a one-month seasonal aberration. There could be multiple reasons you’re underspending, including:

  • Your keyword list is too narrow.
  • Your targeting radius is too small.
  • Your ads aren’t showing due to the strength of the competition, low quality score (on your campaigns), or disapprovals you haven’t addressed.
  • There simply isn’t enough search demand. Remember that search doesn’t help you build demand; it simply helps you respond to it. In that case, you need awareness campaigns to feed your search campaigns.

2. You’re Down to Buying Branded Terms Only Because You Don’t See Conversions From Any Other Source

Your paid search campaign is so limited. You or your agency has culled your keyword list down to just branded terms because everything else just seems like a waste of money.

Either every non-branded (but relevant) term is way too expensive to justify the cost of a click or it’s priced fairly, but not once clicks or converts. If this is the case, here are a few potential root causes to examine:

  • You don’t fully understand the user intent on non-branded queries. What is “the why” behind that search and do you know how to answer that “why”?
  • You’re expecting the same result from branded and non-branded terms (see #4 below for more info).
  • You might be sending every paid search ad to the home page of your website (see #9 for more)
  • You might have fundamental issues with how the account is set up. Perhaps you have everything set to broad match or your list of keyword negatives is incomplete.
  • There are other possibilities but start with looking at these basics.

And on the flip side to this extreme…

3. You Refuse to Buy Branded Terms Because You ‘Already Rank for That Organically’ … ‘So Why Waste Our Money?’

This tired argument is bound to come up when you have a new executive who is new to the world of search.

Some of the easiest answers to this question include:

  • You may rank #1 organically for your brand, but that top listing may be well below-the-fold on a desktop search and 3-4 full-screen scrolls on a mobile device (below paid ads, shopping, map listings).
  • Nothing stops your competitor from bidding on your brand. You can stop them from using your trademarked name in the body of an ad, but they can still bid and offer up an alternative.
  • Would you rather have more control over the search results page or less? You pick.
  • You have a greater ability to provide options to that searcher in the form of extensions, specific landing page destinations, (tracked) contact info, etc.

Branded query and result for [salesforce marketing cloud]. Notice the Adobe ad.

4. You’re Expecting the Same Type of Conversion Results From All Keywords

If you have this expectation, you’re set up to fail from the beginning. It just doesn’t work this way.

The stage of the buying cycle plays a very heavy role in which keyword gets search on. For example, let’s look at “virtual meetings”:

  • For this first query, the searcher has been directed to “research some ‘virtual meeting’ options”. The first query made is the most obvious one for someone with no experience in a particular platform would make. The results (note the options and Zoom’s ad):

Search results page for the generic term [virtual meetings].

  • Later in the buying cycle, that same searcher queries “Zoom Meetings” after having done the research online, in addition to receiving a recommendation from a colleague. Note how this search result is designed for someone who has a clear intent of checking out the Zoom platform. In addition to offering direct conversion links, it provides a reassuring third-party validation from a Gartner study:

Branded query for the query [zoom meetings].

5. You’re Using Cost per Click as Your Sole Determining Factor in Whether You Bid on a Term or Not

It can certainly be a factor, but not the only factor. Remember this is an auction. At auctions, the price is determined by what a bidder is willing to pay.

Logically, if someone is willing to pay a higher price, that bidder deems the cost to be worth it.

I’m not saying you should automatically be willing to pay what you feel is an outrageous price, but you owe it to yourself to dig deeper and ask a few questions:

  • Would the cost of this keyword be worth it if I know it’s being shown to the right audience qualified to buy?
  • Is the cost of this phrase high because it’s a highly competitive, but valuable term?
  • Is the cost of this phrase high because my competitors have deep pockets and a strong brand name to support the ad?
  • If you’re looking at the cost of acquiring a new customer (which, you should always be – see #12), does the math work if my conversion rate is good enough?
  • Are you guiding that searcher along a logical path in terms of the messaging in the ad copy, details in the landing page, and compelling calls to action?

6. You’re Only Measuring the Success of Your Campaign on an overall Return On Ad Spend (ROAS)

I understand why you would do this. It’s a simple trap to fall into:

  • ROAS may be the most simple calculation you can make when reporting on results – “what did I spend versus what did I make”.
  • It makes complete sense to stakeholders who live in spreadsheets (I’m looking at you, Finance!)
  • At a glance, it would seem to tell the whole story in one simple equation (especially in an ecommerce campaign).

Here’s why using only ROAS for a success measurement is a bad idea:

  • You’re probably only counting the initial first purchase and not factoring in the lifetime value (LTV) of a customer. Do that calculation and you may find it completely worth it to have a negative ROAS on a new customer given what you’ll make long term.
  • It’s easy to get a positive ROAS on branded terms. Anyone can do that. A ROAS report will tell you to put more focus on those branded terms at the bottom of the funnel. You’ll eventually find you maintain a positive ROI on a shrinking funnel.
  • Sometimes the immediate conversion isn’t the point of an ad. Remember the example covered in #4 (queries of “virtual meetings” in the research stage and “zoom meetings” when the searcher is close to making a decision)? Sometimes your success metric is getting a searcher added to your remarketing list so you can nurture them towards ultimately choosing you. Far too many PPC campaigns fail because those who set them up don’t understand this distinction.

7. You’re Spending Your Entire Paid Media Budget on Text-Based PPC Ads – You See It as Your Only Paid Media Channel

Stop! Just Stop!

Don’t get me wrong. I love PPC. I’ve made a good living doing it, but if you’re relying on it as your only paid channel to drive revenue, you’re in trouble.

Remember that statement back in #1 about search being great for responding to demand but unable to help you build it?

That’s all you really need to know if you ever start thinking it’s a good idea to make PPC as your only paid media channel. It’s not!

8. You’re Measuring Your Program’s Success on Impressions & Clicks

It’s fine to measure impressions and clicks to add context to a comprehensive analysis that includes more important success metrics like post-click activity and conversions.

If the report you get doesn’t go any deeper than impressions and clicks, what can you actually tell me about the success of your paid search program?

Answer: Nothing. You need additional context to both of those metrics otherwise there is nothing actionable with that data.

9. You’re Sending Every Single Paid Search Ad to the Home Page

It’s fine to send some traffic to the home page if it’s relevant to the searcher. Otherwise, don’t do it.

In your ad copy, you’re making a promise to that searcher. Whatever it is your ad copy promises (specific info, third-party validation, discount, how-to, case study, etc.), your landing page needs to deliver. That’s asking a lot of a website’s home page.

In the Zoom meetings example above, the headline links to the home page (which, again, is fine if that page is relevant to the ad), but look at the four extensions below it.

They all point to relevant landing pages that keep the promise they make to the searcher:

All the link extensions point to a different landing page relevant to the user.

10. You Aren’t Using Any Ad Extensions

Here’s how that Zoom ad above would look without the extensions:

Ad with extensions edited out by author to illustrate their added value. (Not an actual ad).

The ad seen in #9 looks like it would generally be an effective one. Without the ad extensions, it becomes a lot less compelling, doesn’t it?

There’s a lot that goes into properly using extensions. For more info, check out Everything You Need to Know About Ad Extensions from SEJ’s PPC guide.

11. You Haven’t Touched Your Ad Creative in at Least a Year

For the record, I’m in favor of “what works”, not “what’s new.” It’s important to always keep that perspective.

As Responsive Search Ads become more widely adopted, the old ways of “one static creative” will be less and less of a standard practice.

However, Responsive Search Ads still require inputs. The combinations of outputs that result from a machine learning system assembling the best mix of headlines and copy are only as good as the inputs.

How we optimize ad creatives has dramatically evolved in recent years beyond simple A/B testing, but you still need to have the type of mindset where you’re always looking to find the best recipe for success.

That means challenging your biases and assumptions to take a chance that you can improve your campaign performance.

For more insights into Responsive Search Ads, check out SEJ’s post covering the original announcement.

12. You Don’t Know What You Should Be Paying for a Conversion

Calculating the Cost Per Conversion is a simple equation an average second grader could do: Total campaign spend divided by the total conversions tracked (back to the campaign in some form).

The hard part occurs away from the Ad Platform interface – calculating what you should be willing to pay for the conversion.

This is where the PPC manager will need help from stakeholders. Some of the things that need to be taken into account are:

  • Definition of the Conversion (example – is it a purchase or free trial?)
  • Customer Lifetime Value
  • Cost of Goods Sold (COGS)
  • Finance calculations like overhead, contribution margin, etc. (this part is important – if Finance doesn’t support your numbers, you’ll probably get nowhere)
  • Retention rates
  • Other potential internal considerations

The point is, understand what you SHOULD be willing to pay for a conversion within your market and you’ll have an easier time setting up your paid search campaign for success!

Starting With This

There’s more to running a successful paid search program than just the 12 items listed here, but this is a good place to start re-examining your strategy and will ultimately set you on a better path.

More Resources:

Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, June 2019