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Keyword optimization routine for search-engine advertising (AdWords)

In this post, I’m sharing a simple optimization process for search-engine advertising. I’ll also try to explain its rationale, i.e. explanation of why it should work. The process is particularly applicable to Google AdWords due to availability of metrics, but for the most parts it applies to Bing Ads as well.

First, take a list of your keywords along with the metrics defined in the following.

Then, sort by cost (high to low). Why? Because you may have thousands of keywords, out of which a handful matter for generating results — the Pareto principle is strong in search advertising. It makes sense to focus your time and effort on optimizing the keywords that make up most of your spend.

In metrics, look at

  • relevance (subjective evaluation)
  • match type –> if broad, switch to exact
  • impression share –> if low (below 70%), increase bid (all else equal)
  • cost per converted click –> if high (above CPA target), reduce bid
  • avg. position –> if low (below 3), increase bid (all else equal)
  • Quality Score –> if low (below 6), improve ad group structure, ad copy and/or landing pages

Relevance is the first and foremost. Ask yourself: is this a keyword people who are interested in my offering would use? Sometimes you may include terms you’re not unsure of, or because you want to achieve a certain volume of clicks. If you are able to achieve that volume with relative ease, you don’t need expansion but reduction of keywords. Reduction is started from the keywords with the lowest relevance – interpreted firstly by the results of a keyword (data trumps opinions) and secondarily by qualitative evaluation of the keywords according to the aforementioned rationale.

A common strategy is to start with broad match, and gradually move towards exact match. Take a look at the search terms report: are you getting a lot of irrelevant searches? If so, it definitely makes sense not only to include negative keywords but also to change the match type. Generally speaking, as the number of optimization cycles increases the number of broad match keywords decreases. In the end, you only have exact terms. However, this assumes you’re able to achieve click volume goals.

Are you getting enough impressions? Impression share indicates your keywords’ competitiveness in ad auctions. If relevance is high and impression share low, you especially want to take action in improving your competitiveness. The simplest step is to increase keyword bid. Depending on the baseline, performance, and SEA strategy, you may want to increase it by 30% or even 100% to get a real impact.

Regarding the goals, you should know your CPA target. A very basic way to calculate is by multiplying average order value with average profit per order, i.e. calculate your margin. The amount equivalent to margin is the maximum you can spend to remain profitable or at break-even. (Of course, the real pros consider customer lifetime value at this point, but for simplicity I’m leaving it out here.)

Average position matters because an ad with a high rank gains a natural lift. That is, you can run the same ad in position 3 and position 1 and get better results in position 1 just because it is position (not because the ad is better). This in turn influences your click-through rate and indirectly boosts your Quality Score which, in turn, reduces your CPC, all else being equal. Other ways to improve QS are to re-structure ad groups, usually by reducing the number of keywords and focusing on semantic similarity between the terms, writing better ad copy that encourages people to click (remember, no ad is perfect!), and improving landing page experience if that is identified as a weak component in your Quality Score evaluation.

This is what I pay attention to when optimizing keywords in search advertising. Feel free to share your comments!

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