The Hidden Lever In Paid Search Optimization

There have been many articles written about paid search optimization, but there is one piece of the optimization puzzle that continually gets left out. The hidden lever in paid search optimization is prioritization.

Prioritizing optimization opportunities is equally as important as doing the optimization itself. I have seen double digit increases in performance and significant time savings in every program that has implemented a prioritization process, even if they were previously using a fixed schedule for optimization. There is so much work to do on a paid search account that someone could easily spend all of their time making changes that don’t really have an impact.

Doing a regular prioritization audit makes sure that the initiatives with the highest impact get done first and get the most attention. It does take additional thought and effort to prioritize your optimization, but it is well worth it in the end. Here is a four step process I use to perform an optimization audit:

  1. Identify all possible optimization levers
  2. Measure your program against heartbeat metrics for each lever
  3. Scope out the levers that show promise
  4. Prioritize the final list of scoped opportunities

1. Identifying All Possible Optimization Levers

An “optimization lever” is any part of a paid search campaign that we can change to affect performance. The three main groups of optimization levers for paid search are the content, the budgets, and the targeting. All paid search optimization that I have encountered fall into these three areas.

The graphic below shows these three groups along with the levers within each group. If you have used additional levers that fall outside of these groups I would love to hear about them.

2. Measure Your Program Against Heartbeat Metrics For Each Lever

After determining the list of possible levers to optimize, the next step is to do a quick diagnosis of where the biggest opportunities might reside. I do this by choosing a heartbeat metric for each lever and then setting a standard for what is acceptable for that metric.

The heartbeat metric may not be the only metric that is relevant for that lever, but it should be deeper than the overall goal for the program and have diagnostic power to determine how a program is doing in that area.

For example, revenue would not be a good diagnostic metric for any of the levers because it is generally an overall goal that is affected by all pieces of the program. CTR would be a good diagnostic measure for ad copy because it is fairly specific to how well the ad copy is doing.

After defining a heartbeat metric, then we must define a standard for that metric. These standards can be industry standards, or can be a standard agreed upon within your organization. The last step in this part of the process is to compare your campaign’s heartbeat metric against the standards that have been established.

By adding some simple stoplight formatting to the chart below we get a quick first impression of where we should look deeper with our optimization efforts.

3. Scope Out The Levers That Show Promise

Even after a heartbeat chart has been established, we are not quite to the point of having a prioritized list because we are missing a few essential pieces of information. We have an idea of where our problem areas are, but we don’t know how much impact pulling this lever will have or how much effort it will take.

To get these additional pieces of information we have to dig deeper and scope out the potential. This scoping process will be slightly different for each lever, but for now let’s look at landing page relevancy.

To get an initial scope, we can look at all of the landing pages in our campaign and include additional relevant metrics to determine how many tests we may need to run and what the impact may be.

Based on the data in the chart below we might determine that we should run landing pages tests on landing pages A and D.  We know from past experience that doing one landing page test takes about two days of effort to set up and one day to report out the results. So doing two tests will take us about six days’ worth of work. We are also able to estimate from looking at this data that if we improve the conversion rate on either page, then we will see a substantial increase in total revenue in our campaign.

A similar process can be used for other levers, but will require different metrics and different reports.

4. Prioritize The Final List Of Scoped Opportunities

Finally, we are ready to put together a list of prioritized optimization projects. This is simply putting together a chart of the scoped opportunities ranked by their potential impact and how much effort it will take.

You can see in the chart below that the landing page tests we identified should be the third priority because although it will have a high impact, it will take substantially more effort to accomplish than some of the other high impact optimizations.

The hidden part of this optimization process is not a secret campaign setting that magically makes programs perform better, it is the process of prioritizing all of the optimization based on overall impact. Not only does it improve performance because we are focusing on the highest impact initiatives, but it also saves time on wasted effort, and allows us to schedule optimization at separate times so that we can track the impact of each one.

Over time, investing in regular optimization priority audits increases campaign performance at least as much as the optimizations themselves do.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Prior to heading back to school full time, he was a worldwide search marketing manager for Adobe Systems.

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  • Brandt Page

    Love this, here at we are trying to learn more about paid search and how we can help our clients out with this, right now we are doing all phone based lead generation and qualification for our b2b clients.

  • Toni Voutilainen

    Interesting post, thanks!

    It’s in house SM indeed. :) I’m afraid not too many SM agencies would be ready to do this except for their biggest clients.

  • Flow Simple

    I agree, some agencies will focus on optimization tasks in a cookie cutter recipe manner, forgetting that some times you need to tailor your efforts to create maximum impact. So the efforts can be heavy on LPO for one client, and heavy on negative keywords coverage for another. Not an evenly spread effort on each possible lever. But you’re going WAY beyond what most agencies are willing to do already.

    How about let’s start with the fact that in our world there’s so many agencies who collect monthly fees, and don’t bother to report back to their client on performance at all?


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