Search advertising helps increase revenue, drive traffic, and boost brand recognition. It works shoulder to shoulder with organic search marketing, which gains traction as search advertising increases sales. And it’s also how, according to Google, businesses receive an average of $2 of revenue for every $1 spent on paid advertising on Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords).
But for pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns to work, they need to be built on stable foundations. A solid PPC strategy is the key to planning, executing, and optimizing paid ad campaigns. Without a paid search strategy, you’re at risk of spending your budget reactively; with a strategy, you can build and refine a targeted, goal-focused ad campaign.
This post takes you through the nine essential steps of a successful PPC strategy, from competitor and keyword research, through Ad Groups and landing page design, to optimization and reporting. No matter how you plan to organize your Google Ads auction bidding, we recommend following the same nine steps.
If you’re new to search engine marketing strategies, check out our post on pay-per-click marketing.
Paid Search Strategy: Planning Phase
1. Define Goals and Budget
Paid search strategies can have a range of goals, such as boosting growth, generating profit, or even driving conversions for channels other than search. How do you know which goals make sense?
First, ensure that PPC goals align with the overall digital marketing strategy. For example, if your overall marketing aim for this quarter is to increase website traffic, the goal of the PPC strategy should be to achieve a high click-through rate to the site. Once that goal is set in stone, the activities that will help you achieve that goal will become apparent.
Second, ensure your paid marketing goals are not actively working against existing organic marketing activities. Check your organic share of voice for keywords you want to include in your paid search budget. Determine how much share of voice you already capture from SEO efforts, and who is capturing the paid traffic here. Analyze carefully before adding keywords that already bring a large amount of organic traffic to your site to PPC campaigns.
Find out more about search intent.
Next, define key performance indicators (KPIs). For example, if the main goal of the PPC strategy is to generate leads, your KPIs should be the number of sales- and marketing-qualified conversions you aim to generate through paid search, plus how much those individual leads should cost. You’ll need to activate conversion tracking in Google Ads for this to work.
Now it’s time to start thinking about budget. Identify how many search terms you plan to bid on and how many clicks you can realistically expect from those per month. The number of clicks depends on multiple factors, including the quality of your ad copy, the strength of your landing page as it relates to the search query, the aggressiveness of competitor bidding, and the percentage of people who click paid ads. One study suggests that 33% of people will click on paid ads if it answers their search query.
Finally, identify a breakeven point between where your paid marketing efforts start producing a positive return on investment (ROI). This means calculating at what point you expect to sell enough to cover your initial investment in paid search. If your campaign fails to break even in the time expected, you may need to reassess.
2. Analyze competitive landscape
Analyzing the competitive landscape teaches you who your main paid search competitors are, what they’re doing that makes them successful, and how aggressive your campaign should be to compete.
If you’re not sure who your competitors are, use Alexa’s Audience Overlap tool to identify sites competing for your audience. You can then jump to the Competitor Keyword Matrix to see both organic and paid keywords from up to 10 of these competitors. Export these competitor keywords and prioritize them based on how well they’re performing for the competition.
The Alexa Keyword Matrix reveals both paid and organic competitor keywords.
Google Ads also has specific features to help you outrank competitors. For example, if you use the Target outranking share feature, Google Ads automatically raises your bids to help you beat a competitor to the top spot. But you can target only one domain to beat at a time, so choose your competitor wisely.
3. Research keywords
All searches, whether paid or organic, start with words typed into a search box. That makes user-centric keyword research the basis of any successful PPC strategy.
You should already have lists of competitor keywords from the previous step. That’s a good start, but it’s not the only way to find PPC keywords. Start off analog, brainstorming broad keyword terms around product features or verticals. A fashion ecommerce site might start off with the broad term “women’s shoes,” for example. You can then use tools like Alexa’s Keyword Difficulty tool to build out this head term with related keywords.
If your site has a search function, export all the searches from the last 90 days, and then categorize them by type. This is a verbatim list of what people search for once they are on your site; it’s worth considering these terms in paid ad campaigns if you have content or can create content that fills the search intent.
Lastly, access your site’s Google Search Console, and identify existing organic keywords with a high click-through rate (CTR). These may well have an equally high CTR when used in paid search campaigns, which will improve your Google Ads Quality Score.
Paid Search Strategy: Execution Phase
4. Define your account structure
Now you’re ready to start executing the paid search strategy. To set up your Google account, you’ll need to define your Campaigns and Ad Groups. Most accounts will have a few broad campaigns, and a set of a few Ad Groups within those campaigns. You’ll set your budget at the campaign-level, and you’ll determine your keywords at the ad group-level.
To define your Campaigns, start by looking through the terms you’ve identified from your keywords research and by identifying the action you want users to take when they click to your site from those terms. For example, if you sell men’s clothing, you might create a campaign for jackets, and the goal of the campaign may be to get searchers looking for men’s jackets to come to your site and make a purchase.
To define your ad groups, look at the keywords that will fit within your campaign to determine how you can further segment the terms. Remember, you’ll set your keywords at the ad group level, so you want keywords with similar search intent in the same ad group.
For example, someone searching the phrase “men’s sport coats” will be looking for something different than those searching “men’s winter coats.” These bid terms won’t lead people to the same destination (more on that below).
5. Write Effective Ad Text
Within your different ad groups, you’ll define your text ads. Effective ad copy is crucial for PPC campaigns: It can increase Quality Score, reduce cost per acquisition, and increase click-through rates. Searchers will base their decision to click on your ad almost entirely on what you write, so it’s worth investing effort in this step.
Familiarize yourself with the search engine’s basic policies around ad text; ads that flout these rules may be removed. Once that’s out of the way, you can focus on writing compelling, click-worthy copy. Follow these best practices:
- Use the target keyword at least once in both the ad headline and the body text.
- Include action terms such as “sign up” at the start of the ad copy so the user knows what to expect when they click. Match these to your PPC strategy goals.
- Include a price or a statistic in the ad copy. Searchers are drawn to ads that make concrete promises; just make sure you live up to these promises on the landing page.
- Lead with the benefits. “Winter jacket for men” leads with product features; try “Stay warm all winter with this men’s jacket” instead.
- Don’t forget about the display URL. Searchers look to URL copy to guide their navigation, so make sure the display URL is user-friendly and descriptive about where they will land.
- Check competitor ad copy and differentiate. Even if you’re both bidding on the same keyword, try to create more compelling, action-led copy.
For a great example of an optimized, keyword-rich paid ad, see the AdScale example below.
Pro tip: If you want to make your ad stand out from the competition, use Ad Extensions. In the example above, AdScale uses both a sitelinks extension and a pricing extension. These extra snippets of information about your business—phone number, location, and pricing, for example—can appear in your text ads.
Test, optimize, and retest ad copy to see what works best; even a small change can affect PPC ROI. Search Engine Journal has some good tips on how to run tests on ad copy.
6. Build PPC landing pages optimized for conversion
Your ads should take searchers to specifically created landing pages. The closer the match between landing page content and search intent, the higher the conversion rate. If you just send all searchers to a generic page—say, your home page—they’ll feel frustrated and bounce. This will negatively affect Quality Score, meaning the ads will have a lower chance of showing up in searches.
Most importantly, keep the messaging and keywords consistent between the ad text and the landing page. Optimizely found that changing just three words to make landing page copy more similar to ad copy increased conversions by 39 percent. Follow their lead by reiterating search terms and your brand’s unique selling point from the ad in the landing page header and body text.
Each landing page should have just one call to action (CTA) based on your key metric from the planning stage. If your objective is to get people to subscribe to a free trial, make that the only CTA on the page.
Keep the design simple and user-friendly. Elements that slow page loading (for example, heavy image files) should be kept to a minimum, forms should contain only the most essential fields, and testimonials or reviews should add social proof. Your only objective at this point is to get the visitor to accomplish the goal of your campaign, so steer clear of anything that could distract them from doing so.
Paid Search Strategy: Optimization Phase
7. Identify Negative Keywords
You can’t just set your paid search strategy to autopilot once you’re done with the execution stage; a successful Google Ads strategy has constant tweaking built into it. That’s what we call the Optimization Phase.
Start by identifying ineffectual keywords using the Google Ads Search Terms report. Look for keywords that show high impressions but low CTR. Consider tagging each as a negative keyword—that just means your ad won’t show up when people search that keyword. By cutting out negative keywords you’ll focus your budget on the higher performing keywords and have a better chance of increasing CTR, which in turn will help boost Quality Score.
Now is also a good time to restrict any campaigns you have running on broad match. Broad match means your ads will appear on relevant variations of your keywords, even if they’re not in your keyword lists. This is a great way to start a campaign, but running broad matches for too long can waste ad dollars. Focus on the terms that are showing a high conversion rate, and restrict them to phrase match or even exact match types.
Remember, allow campaigns to generate a reasonable amount of data before you start tweaking them.
8. Increase ROI
Return on investment for paid search is determined by the goals of your paid search campaign, like cost per click or cost per conversion. Optimizing paid search ROI means paying less and getting the same (or better) results.
Over the short and medium term, improve campaign ROI by distributing your budget better. You can do this by ruthlessly abandoning low-performing keywords, and reallocating budget to high-performing ad groups.
Long term, work on increasing your Quality Score. This could involve improving the landing page experience, writing more compelling ad text, or writing ads that more closely match the intent of the user. Higher quality scores mean the money you spend on ads will go farther, which will go a long way toward optimizing ROI.
Be aware that you should benchmark campaign ROI differently, depending on context. For example, a campaign targeting buyer-intent keywords will have better ROI than a top-of-funnel campaign. The key is to look for ROI lift as you optimize rather than applying blanket benchmarks to various campaigns.
9. Measure and Report
Measurement and reporting should be baked into paid search strategy. If you don’t plan measurement activities, reporting will fall by the wayside.
How you report on ad performance depends on the goal of your PPC strategy. That said, you’ll find most of the information you need in Google Ads reports. Some of the basic reports are as follows:
- Auction Insights: Compares you to competitors. Use this report to plan tactical activities.
- Search Terms: Shows you which terms are getting clicks. Use this report to spot negative keywords and identify keywords for exact match.
- Campaign Performance: Shows performance at the campaign level. Use this report to get a bird’s-eye view of performance over time.
- Ad Performance: Explains how each of your ads is performing. Use this report to find themes around ad copy and calls to action.
If you report paid search results monthly, include increases and decreases month over month, as well as context around those changes. For example, if conversions rose because of seasonality, that should go in the report. Finish up with the projected impact on long-term goals, and determine what activities you’ll do next month to build on (or improve) current results.
A Strong PPC Strategy Equals Better Results
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of bidding and forget to apply strategic thinking to pay-per-click marketing. Take a step back, and invest the time in building solid foundations for paid ads.
Focus on execution and optimization activities that are tightly aligned to considered goals. Remember that successful PPC strategies have testing and tweaking baked into them from day one. This will ensure that you’re able to pinpoint which activities drive revenue and which are costing you money. Your wallet will thank you.
If you’re looking for a tool to help with keyword and competitor research around PPC, sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s Advanced Plan. Our tools can help strategize and set up high-performing PPC campaigns.