How to Win the Google Online Marketing Challenge

GOMCHA European Winners 2016

1. Introduction

In the past couple of weeks, a few people have approached me asking for tips on how to do well in the Google Online Marketing Challenge. So, I thought I might as well gather some of my experiences in a blog post, and share them with everybody.

A little bit of background: I’ve been the professor of two winning teams (GOMC Europe 2013 & GOMC Europe 2016). Although the most credit is obviously due to the students that do all the hard work (the students at Turku School of Economics simply rock!), guidance does play an important role since most commonly the students have no prior experience in SEM/PPC, and need to be taught quickly where to focus on.

2. Advice to teachers

The target audience for this post is anyone participating in the challenge. For the teachers, I have one important advice:

Learn the system if you’re teaching it. There’s no substitute for real experience. The students are likely to have a million questions, and you need to give better answers than “google it.” Personally, I was fortunate enough to have done SEM for many years before starting to teach it. Without that experience, it would have been impossible to guide the teams do well. However, if you don’t have the same advantage, but you want your students to do well, turn to the industry. Many SEM companies out there are interested in mentoring/sparring the students, because that way they can also spot talented individuals for future hiring (win-win, right?).

3. How to win GOMCHA?

3.1 Overview

That said, here are my TOP3 “critical success factors” for winning the challenge:

  1. Choose your case wisely
  2. Focus on Quality Score
  3. Show impact

That’s it! Follow these principles and you will do well. Now, that being said, behind each of them is a whole layer of complexity 🙂 Let’s explore each point.

3.2 Choosing the AdWords case

First, one of the earliest questions students are going to ask is how to choose the company/organization they’re doing the campaign for. And that’s also one of the most important ones. How I do it: I let each team choose and find their own case; however, I tell them what is a good case and what is not. I wrote a separate post about choosing a good AdWords case. Read the post, and internalize the information.

Update: one more point to the linked post – choose one that preferably has some brand searches already. This helps you get higher overall CTR, and lower the overall CPC.

The choice of a good case is crucial, because you can be the best optimizer in the world, but if you have a bad case, you will fail. An example was a team that chose a coffee company — it was not a good case to choose because it had low product range and relatively few searches. For some reason, the team, which consisted of several students with *real experience* in AdWords, wanted to choose it. Not surprisingly, they struggled due to the above reasons and were easily overshadowed by other teams with no experience but a good case. Therefore, the formula here is: success = case * skills.

By the way, that is one of the most important lessons for any marketing student in general: Always choose your case wisely, and never market something whose potential you don’t believe in.

3.3 Choosing the metrics

Another common question relates to the metrics: What should we optimize for? While there are many important metrics, including CTR and CPC, I would say one is above the others. That is clearly the Quality Score, which seems to be very influential in Google’s ranking algorithm for the competition.

Note that I don’t have any insider information on this, but I’m saying *seems* because of this reason: In 2015, I instructed the teams to focus on a wide range of metrics, including CTR, CPC, and QS. What came out where several great teams that, in my opinion, had better overall metrics than many of the finalists that year (none of my teams were finalists). Last year, however, I switched the strategy and instructed the teams to heavily focus on Quality Score, even at the cost of other metrics. For example, to the team that ended up winning in 2016, I said “your goal is 10 x 10”, meaning they should get 10 keywords with QS 10. They ended up getting 12, and the rest is history 🙂

3.4 Why is Quality Score that important?

In my view, it’s because all optimization efforts basically culminate to that metric. To maximize your QS, you essentially need to do all the right things in terms of optimization, including account structure, ad creation, and landing pages. To get these things nailed, refer to this post. And google for more tips: blogs such as PPC Hero, Wordstream, and Certified Knowledge have plenty of subject matter to learn from. I also have complied an extensive list of digital marketing blogs that you can utilize.

However, do note that all third-party information is to some degree unreliable. Use it with caution, combined with your first-hand experiments (i.e., do what you see working the best in the light of numbers). The most reliable source of information is of course Google, because they know the system from the inside, any of the experts (including myself) don’t. So, use Google’s AdWords help as your main reference.

3.5 Show real impact

The last step, since many teams can score high on metrics, is to show real-life impact. This is pretty much the only way to differentiate when all finalist teams are good. The thing you can do here is, first of all, to meticulously follow Google’s guidelines for the reports to highlight your greatness. As a member of the academic panel, I know some cases have been failed due to not following the technical guidelines, so make sure your output is in line with them. However, that is not the main point; the main point is to show how you brought real results to your case organization. Although not part of the official ranking, if you look at the past winners, most of them have gained a lot of conversions. By knowing that, you can do the math. The reports of the winners from earlier years can be found at the challenge website.

4. List of practical tips

Finally, some practical tips (the list is in no particular order, and not comprehensive at all):

  1. Optimize every day like you were obsessed with AdWords
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask advice from the experts; take every help you can get to learn faster
  3. Prefer using ‘exact match’ keywords
  4. Never mix display campaigns with search campaigns (i.e., avoid ‘display select’)
  5. Avoid GDN altogether; you can experiment with it using a little budget, but focus 99% on search campaigns
  6. When possible, direct the keywords to a specific landing page (not homepage)
  7. Create ad groups based on semantic similarity of keywords (if you don’t know what this means, find out)
  8. Don’t stress about the initial bid price; set it at some level based on the Keyword Planner estimates and change according to results
  9. Or, alternatively, set it as high as possible to get a good Avg. Pos. and therefore improved CTR, and improved QS
  10. Set the bid price manually per keyword
  11. Use GA to report after-click performance (good for campaign report)
  12. Use as many AdWords features as possible (good for campaign report)

Finally, read Google’s materials, including the challenge website. Follow their advice meticulously, and read read read about search-engine advertising from digital marketing blogs and Google’s website.

Good luck!! 🙂

CAVEAT: I’m a member at the Google Online Marketing Challenge’s academic panel. These are my personal opinions and don’t necessarily represent the official panel views. The current judging criteria for the competition can be found at:

UPDATE (May, 2017): Together with Elina Ojala (next to me in the picture above), we had a Skype call with students of Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT). Elina pointed out some critical things: it’s important 1) to be motivated, 2) have a really good team without free riding, 3) share tasks efficiently (e.g., analytics, copywriting; based on individual interests), and 3) go through extra effort (e.g., changing the landing pages, using GA). I added that for teachers it’s important to motivate the students: aim HIGH !! And to stress there is zero chance of winning if the team doesn’t work every day (=linear relationship between hours worked and performance).

Resources (some in Finnish)

2 thoughts on “How to Win the Google Online Marketing Challenge

    1. joolsa Post author

      Hi Theresa! I would probably not get lost to the novelty, but rather focus on getting good core performance (Quality Score!). Testing new features should take max. 15% of the team’s time.

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