How to Get the Most Out of Your Search Ad Budget

Frenemy: A person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental rivalry. 

If you’re in marketing, you might think of search engine advertising platforms as your “frenemy.” You’re kind of like friends because they distribute your ads, and kind of like enemies because you’re both self-interested. You’re each trying to make the most money possible and that can create conflicting interests. 

“The more profitable experience for search engines is more people clicking on ads. So if your ad is not getting clicked on, then it’s not going to be presented first or as often,” says Lauren Temmler, senior demand generation manager at ZoomInfo. 

You’re in a constant tug-of-war with the search engine — and your competitors — to ensure your ads are showing up at the top of the search results page and driving the highest quality traffic possible. And if people are clicking on your ad but not converting, the search engine is still getting paid and you’re still getting charged. It’s your job to make sure you’re spending that money wisely.

5 Tips to Optimize Your Paid Ad Bidding Strategy

1. Take suggested keywords with a grain of salt

For every list of keywords within your ad groups, the search advertising platform will recommend a similar list of keywords to bid on. This is meant to broaden your keyword selection so more relevant people can find you. 

But the more complicated your product is, the less likely suggested keywords are to be relevant. For example, if you sell recruiting software and you’re bidding on the keyword “applicant tracking system,” a search platform may recommend a keyword such as “how to get a job.” Although related, it’s probably not relevant to your product. Review suggested keywords carefully before you choose to bid on them.

2. Don’t run ads on the weekend 

If you’re a B2B company, prospects are primarily searching for you while they’re at work. To save money, consider only running ads during business days and hours. This way, you’re not serving ads when people are less likely to be interested, and more importantly, your sales team is available to respond quickly and efficiently. 

However, make sure you consider your target audience. For example, if it’s small business owners, they often work every day of the week, so running ads on the weekends might make sense. 

Pro tip: Don’t forget to accommodate different time zones.

3. A/B test … a lot

Testing is the secret ingredient to efficiency — and there is a lot you can test. 

For example, you can test different parts of the funnel. You might split a campaign where half of it targets MQLs and the other half targets opportunities. Maybe the cost per MQL is high, but the cost per opportunity is low, or vice versa. Testing different sets of data helps determine what performs best and where you should invest your money.

You can also test landing pages. Send 50% of those who click on your ad to page A, and the other 50% to page B and compare results. 

“Sometimes it’s as small as changing the color of the page or the CTA copy,” says Conor MacCarvill, digital advertising manager at ZoomInfo. “But the important thing with A/B testing is not to change too much. If you change multiple variables and results improve, it’s hard to tell which variable made the difference. Make changes incrementally.”

This will help improve your quality score, which is a search engine’s indication of how useful your ad is compared to your competitors. It’s measured by click-through rate, ad relevance, and landing page experience. If your quality score is low, your ad will show up lower on a search results page — or perhaps not at all.  

You can also test ad copy, different native languages, branded keywords vs. solution-oriented keywords, and more. Always let a test run for a minimum of two weeks — enough time to get a substantial amount of traffic to analyze.

4. Establish negative keywords

Negative keywords are a list of search terms you exclude from triggering your ads because they’re not relevant to your business and will lower conversion rates.

You can establish negative keywords on three levels: account, campaign, and ad group. Let’s say your company sells industrial refrigerators. At the account level, create a list of keywords that you would never want to show your ads. For example, freezers, mini-fridges, and repair — terms that don’t apply to your business. 

At the campaign level, create a list of keywords for a specific campaign. For example, if you’re targeting restaurant owners, you might want to exclude such terms as homeowner and sale. 

At the ad group level, let’s say you sell black, silver, and white refrigerators. Inside of the black fridge ad group, negative keywords would be silver fridge and white fridge. 

The more negative keywords you can identify and apply, the better. If you don’t define your negative keyword terms, the search engine can show your ads for whatever keywords it sees fit — potentially wasting your money. 

5. Use strong audience data

Marketers often complain that search engines’ native audiences are inaccurate. If that’s the case for your business, you’re better off using your first-party data (tip: use a trusted third-party data provider to segment your first-party data). For example, you can target sales managers or people who have visited your website in the last 30 days. The more accurate the data is, the quicker you’ll reach your target audience and the less money you’ll waste.

Bidding strategies 

Overbidding vs. underbidding 

Deciding how much to spend on keywords can be tricky. Search platforms will quote the average bidding price for each ad group, and buyers choose their maximum cost-per-click and spend per day. 

A search platform might recommend doubling your maximum spend to increase click-throughs. But how do you know if that’s a good move? There are a few factors to consider.

One factor is intent. If a keyword indicates a high intent to make a purchase, you may want to consider overbidding. For example, if people are searching for “ABM software vendors,” you can infer that they are looking to make a purchase — they want a list of companies that sell a specific product. Another factor is audience data. If you’re targeting prospects who have completed demos that are searching for “ABM software vendors,” then you really want to consider overbidding.

You can also bid based on the user’s device. If you don’t have a great mobile-optimized website, consider bidding more for desktop and less for mobile. Don’t waste money on mobile if you know that you’re unlikely to convert those leads.

Branded vs. non-branded keywords

You might feel silly spending money on keywords that include your company name — they’re already searching for you! Unfortunately, if you don’t, someone else will. Don’t risk competitors stealing your high-quality branded traffic. 

“Your branded keyword ad group should always be your best performing one because people are actively looking for you. That might be the kind of campaign you run on the weekends,” Temmler says.

Non-branded keywords are important too. This is where you can gain new market share — people who aren’t necessarily looking for you, but are exploring their options. 

“Identify your top-performing non-branded keywords, isolate them into their own campaigns, and give them the maximum budget to see if you can win the top spot,” says Ethan Caouette, director of search marketing at ZoomInfo. “If so, that’s a scalable approach to all of your top-performing keywords.”

Automated vs. manual bidding 

With potentially thousands of keywords and campaigns in your portfolio, automated bidding is the most efficient way to spend your time and money.

It’s simple: set your target cost per acquisition or return on ad spend, and let the algorithm do the rest. It will adjust the bids based on what the historical return has been. You can also optimize for maximum clicks or conversions depending on your goals.

“At ZoomInfo, we set our automated bidding to maximize conversions. Maximizing conversions with the target CTA enabled is the best bidding strategy right now,” MacCarvill says.

Avoid these common search engine marketing mistakes 

As a marketer, wasting some money is inevitable. The goal is to waste as little as possible. Look out for these common pitfalls:

  • Not having a clear set of negative keywords. This requires a thorough understanding of your persona and industry. What is your target audience NOT looking for? 
  • Keywords that are too broad. The broader your keywords are, the less relevant the traffic will be.
  • Poor ad group structure. If you have too many keywords in one campaign, the ones that get the most volume aren’t necessarily the ones with the best return. Segment your highest value keywords from your highest volume keywords.
  • Not having enough campaigns or not segmenting your campaigns enough. 
  • Not optimizing further down the funnel. “We found a ton of waste where we spent a lot of money on keywords that converted well, but then salespeople weren’t able to close on them,” MacCarvill says. 
  • Not using automated bidding.
  • Using a search engine’s native audiences. Rather, use your first-party data and lookalike audiences. 
  • Not tracking revenue. “It’s hard to pick a bidding strategy if you don’t know what the return is. Know your cost per MQL and cost per demo,” MacCarvill says.
  • Inconsistency. Search engines love consistent data. ”If you’re constantly making changes, that can be havoc-wreaking on the machine learning’s ability to really know your account and gain those efficiencies. Be less reactive and stay the course,” Caouette says.