Originally published on LinkedIn in October 2018.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege to run digital advertising for dozens of clients representing just about every major industry. Along the way, I’ve worked with bootstrapped startups, billion-dollar companies, franchises, nonprofits, universities, and members of the U.S. Congress.

And, I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Here are my top battle-proven tips that helped my largest campaigns see ROIs of 400-900%:

1. Clicks, Impressions, CTR, and CPC are largely irrelevant

This one might be blasphemy for many marketers, but I’ve found that optimizing for network-level metrics like Click-Through Rate (CTR) and Cost-Per-Click (CPC) can often end up doing more harm than good. 

While there are many benefits to getting a high click-through rate (including a lower CPC), there are scenarios where you actually don’t want that many people engaging with your ad—especially if you’re paying on a per-click basis. If you have a niche audience, for example, you probably want to qualify your potential leads before paying for those costly clicks.

Let’s say you run an agency that only takes clients spending >$10k/mo. on ads. You probably wouldn’t want just anyone searching for “ad agency.” Including your minimum spend requirement can help filter out clicks from companies with smaller budgets:

Adding pre-qualifiers to your copy will almost certainly hurt your CTR, but it will preserve more of your budget for those clicks that really matter – and save your sales team some headache.

Similarly, doubling your clicks and impressions by driving your CPC down from $4 to $2 doesn’t guarantee a better campaign. If, for example, you’re bidding on terms like “small business loans” (one of the most expensive keywords out there, averaging $49.37/click) setting a manual bid limit of $20 isn’t going to double your results. Instead, it’s going to:

  • Optimize for cheaper, broadly matched search terms. Google’s not going to show your ad for “small business loans” for $20 if others are bidding $50. Instead, it’s going to take that keyword and find cheaper, loosely related terms – maybe “what is a loan?,” “small business finance,” or “financial advice.” These less competitive terms will be significantly cheaper, but they’ll bring in a very different audience.
  • Stop trying to serve your ad. If you prevent broad matching by using exact- or phrase-match keyword types, Google will simply stop serving your ad when it loses every auction to higher-bidding competitors.
  • Show your ad on the bottom of the third page, which might as well be the deep web.

Of course, if you are a mass-appeal brand like Pepsi or McDonald’s, then it’s a game of scale, and clicks, impressions, CTR, and CPC are everything.

For everyone else, it’s time to swap out these surface-level metrics with more revenue-focused KPIs, like Return On Ad Spend and Cost Per Lead.

2. Negative keywords make for a positive ROI 

Search engine marketers put a lot of thought into keywords… organizing their campaigns into tightly focused single keyword ad groups, using dynamic keyword insertion to match the language a searcher uses with the copy in the ad, and making sure each landing page uses the right keywords in the right headers to earn a high Quality Score.

Yet, for all the thought that goes into keywords, many of even the smartest campaigns are completely devoid of negative keywords, or search terms that you don’t want your ad to appear for.

In other words, negative keywords offer marketers a way to avoid spending money on clicks that they feel will be wasted.

If you’re selling premium home furniture, for example, you might use ‘furniture’ as a broad-match keyword. This keyword, in turn, will match for related phrases like ‘cheap furniture,’ ‘used furniture,’ and ‘wholesale furniture.’ If these adjectives don’t match your product offering, you can add ‘cheap,’ ‘used,’ and ‘wholesale’ as negative keywords to avoid bidding for any phrase that uses one of these words.

The average campaign I was brought in to look at has about half of its budget going to keywords with which the brand wouldn’t want to be associated. And in more than one case, adding a single negative keyword saved the brand over $10k/mo. in budget.

To see if you’re spending money on the wrong keywords, go into your Google Ads campaign, click Keywords, and then click Search Terms. Here, you’ll see the exact search phrases your ad has appeared for recently. If any of them look off, click the box to the left of the search term and then the ‘Add as negative keyword’ button. After that, you’ll never again waste valuable budget on that term.

For best results, I’d highly recommend carving out five minutes every morning to audit your search terms and add negative keywords. My best performing campaigns (those with a ROAS of >5x) all have hundreds, if not thousands, of negative keywords filtering out those clicks that aren’t worth my budget.

3. Keyword intent is king

In search engine marketing, a keyword has intent if it was likely searched for with the intention to make a transaction. Search phrases like “restaurants near me,” “banks open now,” and “best auto accident attorneys” all have keyword intent because it’s safe to assume the searcher is looking for an answer to an immediate need.

High-intent keywords are almost always a good value, as they are highly likely to convert into customers.

In contrast, low-intent keywords may bring in customers, but they tend to see a much lower conversion rate. If you’re a fitness studio, for example, your first instinct may be to bid on ‘fitness,’ but there’s no telling what the searcher on the other end will be looking for. They could be looking for a fitness studio to join, but they could also be looking for ‘fitness videos,’ ‘fitness inspiration,’ or ‘what is personal fitness?.’ We simply don’t know enough to assume intent behind the original search.

To better focus your ad spend on high-intent keywords, use a combination of negative keywords and phrase/exact-match keyword types to exert a tighter control over what search terms your ad ultimately matches.

4. But location intent is queen

I’ve written a lot about the concept of ‘location intent’ as I believe it’s the single most under-appreciated SEM strategy.

In the previous point, we looked at keyword intent – the idea that what someone searches for says a lot about their likelihood of converting. Location intent is the idea that where someone searches says just as much.

Think of a personal injury lawyer targeting all of Seattle. Her ad may appear to those searching for some variant of ‘lawyer’ from the comforts of their homes, from the law library at the University of Washington, and from the E.R. waiting room at Virginia Mason Hospital. The one searching from their home has keyword intent (they’re likely looking to speak with a lawyer today), but their physical location doesn’t tell us anything – they’re just as likely to be looking for a real estate lawyer than an injury lawyer. The one searching from a law school has negative location intent, as their physical location is a clue that they’re likely researching terms for an exam. The one searching from a hospital, however, is likely to be looking specifically for a personal injury lawyer because we can assume that an injury brought them or a loved one to the emergency room.

In other words, they have location intent — something that can improve conversion by as much as 3x.

Other examples of industries incorporating location intent include recruiters poaching from rival companies by targeting specific corporate campusesauto dealers targeting competitor lots, and real estate companies targeting potential high-income buyers by geofencing only the wealthiest neighborhoods or zip codes.

When it comes to targeting beyond keywords, Google is lagging far behind Facebook, LinkedIn, and programmatic solutions – but being intentional with your location targeting provides a way to combine the power of keyword intent with rich demographic and behavioral targeting.

5. ABT — Always Be Testing

There are a lot of ‘growth hacks’ and ‘best practices’ out there (including this one), but it’s important to recognize that what works for one business may not work for another. And if it is a universal hack, then enough businesses have caught on to it that it’s lost its effect. 

To discover what really works, let data be your north star. Test every ad, bidding strategy, keyword, audience, and landing page until you find what works – and then keep testing to find what works even better.

Launching a Google Ads campaign is the easy bit. It’s the continuous improvement process of ensuring that takes the real effort, but you should never settle for the results you saw last month when you have 30 days’ worth of experiments to lower that Cost Per Lead and grow your Return On Ad Spend.

6. Don’t rely on Google exclusively 

Last but not least, don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Google Ads is a great marketing channel, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. Experiment with different paid channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Bing, Display, Programmatic) and unpaid channels (Organic, Referral, Affiliate) to see what works for your business. Use Google as a benchmark, and see if you can find a channel that outperforms. 

And similarly, don’t rely on Google exclusively to tell you how your campaigns are doing. Google’s a walled garden, with no third-party verification of the metrics its Ads platform reports and ownership of the world’s leading analytics tool (Google Analytics).

I’ve had clients say they only received three calls when Google records seven, and a tool like CallRail or Marchex will provide a more comprehensive picture.

None of this is to say that Google isn’t to be trustworthy, but with the rise of bots and ad fraud, it never hurts to get a second set of eyes on your data by going with an unaffiliated analytics and conversion tracking tool.

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