My Single Best Paid Search Tip: Optimize At Every Step

On occasion, I get asked what my single best tip is for successful paid search marketing. Usually, I try to better understand the context of the query to provide the most relevant answer.

For example, is the person asking me looking for a general approach tip? If so, I may tell them to always be testing or to keep a very granular focus. Sometimes it’s more execution focused, such as a single thing they can do to improve results. If that’s the case, I may talk about quality score, match types, or even query mining.

But certainly, the best advice I can give in almost any situation is what I call step optimization. This is an umbrella approach to my core paid search management methodology with a focus on optimizing every step of the path from account creation to conversion.

With so many best practices, tips, and tricks floating out there around SEM, the amount of things you could be doing to better your account performance can be overwhelming. By focusing on the fact that there are steps in the process, it’s a constant reminder that each step is an optimization project in itself.

Instead of putting all your eggs in the bid optimization basket or the landing page optimization, why not try to affect each step?

Basically, with small positive optimizations across the board, you can end up with big results. Let’s check the math. Say you have an account with:

  • 1,000,000 monthly impressions
  • A 1% Click Thru Rate (resulting in 10,000 clicks)
  • A $1.00 Cost Per Click ($10,000 per month)
  • A 10% traffic rate from the landing page to the conversion form (1,000 users)
  • A 10% final conversion rate (100 monthly conversions)
  • Average Conversion Value of $100 equals $10,000 in sales

Right now, this account is just breaking even. But what if we could positively affect each step in this process?

  • +10% impressions to 1,100,000 monthly imps
  • +1 percentage point increase in CTR to 2% would result in 22,000 clicks
  • A 20 cent drop in Average CPC would be $.80 or $17,600 in traffic costs
  • 5 percentage point increase to 15% of traffic from landing page to conversion form (3,300 users)
  • 2 more percentage point increase to the conversion rate to 12% (396 conversions)
  • Another $20 to the Average Order Value to $120 equals $47,520.

So, yes, the budget jumps from $10,000 to $17,600, but the sales increase from $10,000/mo (breaking even) to $47,200–you’ve more than quadrupled the investment.

Granted, the math is the easy part. How do you actually do it? Testing, optimizing, testing again… It’s not easy, but that’s why you get paid the big bucks, right?

Here are the six main steps to paid search and some food for thought to help you get started.

1.  Account Creation

It all starts here with the right research to build the most comprehensive keyword list that you can. My rule of thumb is that if the keyword has any relevance to the advertiser’s goal, it’s worth testing–you never know what’s going to engage users and drive conversions. Create a wide net to test. It’s much easier to pause poor performing keywords later than try to add new ones mid-campaign.

Ultimately, you’re in a much better situation when you have to trim back to the low hanging fruit veruses trying to push an account that can’t spend it’s budget–you end up buying even less efficient traffic. Bottom line, it’s a numbers game: the more terms you have to test, the more opportunities you have to find those winning keywords.

2.  Placement & Targeting

The engines have many different options when comes to targeting and placing ads. Here’s where I think many people go wrong. They put up the keywords and ads and blast them on a national level and then wonder why they don’t see great performance. Here’s the reality: some parts of the country are going to perform better than others.

Even if its the narrowist of margins…when it comes time to optimize, you’ll want to run more often in the best locations. In addition to geographical targeting, properly using match types are one of the best ways to cast your net either wide or very narrow.

Really key in on your terms and figure out which term and which match type pairing works the best. Overusing broad match can lead to reaching the wrong types of users and ultimately negatively impacting your quality score.

3.  Bidding Optimization

Years ago, Overture (which was Yahoo’s paid search platform) would anonymously show the top five bids for every keyword. One of the top strategies at the time was called gap surfing which was a tactic used to find the best deal with regards to position.

For example, if the first place bid was $1.00, the second place bid was $.98 and the third place bid was $.65, you could hit that killer gap and take over third position for $.66. It lead to bidding wars and that transparency was eventually phased out.

However, the fact remains that for every keyword, there’s usually a nice little gap where a major drop in CPC doesn’t affect your position too much. Try dropping your main keywords by pennies at a time to see if you can start finding those cost efficiencies and exploiting them to your benefit. Sometimes it’s just better to get two clicks for $1.00 each at fourth position than one click at $2.00 in first position. Once again, this is something to test.

screenshot from Overture’s bid results tool circa 2003 showing actual bids…amazing!

4.  Ad Text Optimization

The rookie mistake is to think that you want to write ad text so that everyone clicks your ads. The real trick is to make sure the right people (i.e. the most qualified) are clicking and the wrong people aren’t.

For example, if you’re selling a high ticket item that gives people sticker shock and they end up bouncing off of the landing page immediately, then why not be upfront about the cost in the ad so that only serious browsers waste your budget.

Another example is if you sell bulk pricing. Make sure to mention that in your ad text so that people just looking for one or two of your products don’t click your ads.

Check out your keyword landscape by just searching on your top keywords.  How are your competitors using their ad text? You might learn something that can help you–even if it’s the fact that everyone’s using similar copy so you’ll be able to stand out by doing something different. Don’t be afraid to get personal. What’s better?  “Buy Laser Printer” or “Need a New Laser Printer?”

5.  Landing Page Optimization

A solid best practice that was identified early on in SEM was that you should always send ad clickers to relevant pages, but it’s amazing that many web advertisers still don’t follow this simple, yet powerful rule. Don’t just assume that users will take the time to find what they’re looking for.

When you’re actually buying traffic and paying for each visitor through paid search, you should work hard to make sure that the landing page matches the intent of the intial query and the ad text that brough them to the site in the first place.

Try going through your top keywords and ads and put yourself in the mind of the searcher.  Is the keyword/ad/landing page combination really in sync? Not just relevant…highly relevant.

If the keyword and ad are about snakeskin boots, don’t take them to the boot page–take them to the snakeskin boot page. Of course, testing may end up proving that the boot page (a higher level page) actually does work the best, but it’s not usually the case.

6.  Conversion Page Optimization

This is your bread and butter page. You’ve already captured traffic and paid for users to come to your site.  They’ve reached the landing page and made it here where it’s time to convert them. These are your most important users and you can literally double or triple your sales if you get this right.

A good conversion rate might be 10% or 20% so you don’t have to be a match whiz to know that leaves 80 or 90 out of hundred that you can go after.

Try A/B testing to find the best conversion page and then use testing tools like Google’s Website Optimizer to zero in on the right mix of page elements. Don’t ever stop testing this part of your site until you’ve reached [the unreachable] 100% conversion rate.

Affect Average Order Value by upselling to the customer on the order page either with add-ons to their purchase or other proven, relevant items.

Good luck on your paid search approach. Remember, instead of looking for that single golden bullet of optimization, attack every step of your conversion path where little positive wins can lead to huge gains.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Toolbox


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

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  • alanmitchell

    Hi Josh,

    Some great tips, and a very clear structure for optimization. You’re right that it’s much easier to trim inefficient keywords than to chase after traffic, so trying to cover as many avenues as possible from the outset is always a wise decision.

    For products / services where there is a bit of a buying cycle, I often like to optimize keywords based on their ability to engage visitors and/or encourage them to make a return visit using analytics metrics such as pages/visit and time on site:

    I sometimes find that is keywords are optimized based on conversions only, you might pause the majority of early buying cycle keywords which are performing well at generating interest and awareness.

    Cheers for an informative article.



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