Make an SEM Audit Part of Your 2017 Goals

    1024 587 Lisa Martino

    As a Google Premier Partner, Smart Panda Labs is often asked to play the role of a third party auditor. This means conducting a thorough review of a company’s existing PPC accounts. The impetus for an audit varies from client to client—sometimes they want insight on how well their marketing team (or agency) is doing. Other times it’s to ensure that changes were implemented correctly and are delivering ROI.

    While the word “audit” can provoke anxiety, audits are generally a good thing. Think of an SEM audit as an overall account health check—one that will inevitably spot new opportunities for optimization. A thorough SEM audit can reveal actionable intelligence directly related to your paid search campaigns, ad groups and keywords. These changes can be made quickly and have an almost immediate impact on a company’s ROI. So, if you haven’t audited your account in a while, make it a goal for 2017.

    Give it Context

    Whether you are the auditor or the auditee, let me get this on the table right away: a properly conducted audit is more than a one-size-fits-all process. An audit requires context (which is why we advise steering clear of automated, templated audits that use web crawling technology instead of humans). A successful SEM audit requires at least a cursory understanding of the industry in which the brand operates. It also requires some historical knowledge of the company’s SEM strategy—what has (or hasn’t) happened so far, and why.

    So, before you go into the audit with guns blazing, you should understand:

    • The KPIs of the PPC account and its campaigns. Keep in mind that the goals for specific campaigns may differ from that of the overall account.
    • Peaks or dips in spend, traffic and conversions. What caused these anomalies? Perhaps there was a TV spot that caused a surge in searches and the client adjusted the budget to capitalize on it. Or, maybe a storefront was having a slow period and needed a boost in foot traffic, so they increased spend on non-branded keywords that focused on driving traffic and not conversions.
    • Settings that may not appear correct at first glance, particularly those hidden advanced location settings. Learn the intention behind those settings before you make assumptions—what looks wonky may serve a purpose.

    A PPC Audit Checklist

    Before we begin an audit, we work closely with the client to establish the context I described above. Then we sit down and create a checklist of elements that warrant review. If you are about to embark on an audit process, here are some key areas worthy of examination. First thing’s first: Make sure you’re looking at a long enough range of time to analyze relevant data (30 days of conversion data likely isn’t statistically relevant). I like to look at 3+ months of data if we’re diagnosing a specific issue; a year’s worth of data is preferable when doing a general audit.

    Default settings: Default settings can make or break a campaign. Here’s a big one: campaigns should run on either the search network or the display network and not on both (oops). Ensure that ad rotation settings (within the advanced settings of the settings tab) reflect PPC goals, e.g., optimized for clicks (the default setting) or for conversions. Location settings are, by default, set to cast a wide net—and usually too wide. They may need adjustment.

    Location targeting: Are the ads targeting relevant, ideal locations—areas where the company has stores or can deliver? Are irrelevant locations excluded?

    Device targeting: Is the campaign targeting the correct devices? Mobile ads should be created for mobile devices, for example, so they are optimized properly. Do you have bid multipliers in place for each device that make sense?

    Campaign structure: Is the campaign naming structure understandable? Are the campaigns numbered (the horror!) or do they have unique names that explain what kind of ad groups I’m going to find? Are Interest Category or Topics campaigns broken out in to their own campaigns or folded in to a general Display campaign? Scrutiny of campaign structure often sheds light on the overall structure of the account and how sensible—or scrambled—it may be.

    Campaign structure: Are the campaigns structured in a way that makes sense? Are your branded keywords in campaigns with non-branded keywords? If someone other than you needed to quickly find a keyword in your account, would they be able to figure out which campaign to go to in order to find it? PPC campaigns should be tightly themed to ensure a more effective campaign, with brand keywords relegated to their own campaign.

    Ad groups: Are the ad groups too wide reaching, undermining the ad copy? They should be tightly themed. We typically recommend three to five ads within each ad group at once, which helps to test ad copy. While many experts will advocate for keyword limits, context matters more than rules. For example, I once administered a successful ad group that had more than 100 keywords in it, because it included two different and equally common spellings of the same term. Splitting the two spellings into different groups would have caused them to compete against each other.

    Ad copy: Do the ads have strong calls to action in place? Are different CTAs being tested against one another? Run spellcheck on ads—typos make ads look like spam.

    Landing pages: Make sure the landing pages to which users are being directed make sense. If the goal isn’t being achieved, is there a better page to land them on? Make sure the ads don’t land potential customers on the home page—this is generally a disappointing user experience. The landing pages should also be checked to ensure they function properly across devices and load quickly.

    Display URLs: The display URL used within the ad copy should be optimized for the relevant keyword.

    Tracking pixels: Have tracking pixels been implemented correctly? Make sure the pixels are sending back all the events and parameters you need to properly track conversions. Tracking may be coming from a web analytics integration (e.g., Google Analytics with AdWords) so be sure to take that into account.

    Quality score: Scores range from 1-10 and are a function of a few variables, including cost per click, on a keyword by keyword basis. The order of paid search ads is no longer only controlled by the highest bid. Relevancy between the searcher’s query, the bidded keyword, ad copy and landing page also play an important role in ad position and how much you pay per click. Check the branded keywords—if the branded name doesn’t score a 9 or 10, there is likely a problem. Nonbranded keywords, especially if set to broad match, typically show up as a very low number. Review the average position column in AdWords or Bing Ads. You may suggest improving the ad relevancy, optimizing landing pages, organizing the keywords into tighter ad groups, pausing keywords or maybe even increasing the CPC bid.

    Disapproved ads: Look for disapproved ads and suggest corrections (there will be an alert on the right-hand side; the policy details bubble will explain why the ad was disapproved).

    Ad extensions: Are you taking advantage of ad extensions? These snippets allow your ad to take up more real estate in the search engine results, making it stand out and expanding past the typical text ad. Each ad extension should be checked for relevancy against the ads, keywords, ad group and campaign.

    Keywords: What match types are being used? Are broad match modifiers being utilized? What about exact match? Is there a logical negative keyword strategy in place to weed out irrelevant traffic? Negatives are a must! And if the year, e.g. “2017”, features in any part of your keyword strategy, make sure it’s the correct one. You wouldn’t believe how often I find keywords of years past in an account.

    Display network and remarketing: If your campaigns are opted into Google’s display network, check to see if automatic placements are performing well and suggest excluding those that aren’t. Ensure banner sizes vary so they can appear in different placements. Are display ads being targeted correctly vis-à-vis topic, contextual, location, language, placements, device, keywords, interests and audience? Pay a visit to the shared library section of the account and review the audiences that are set up for remarketing. Are they all collecting members? Is there an audience set up for each abandonment level? Does the length of the cookies make sense?

    Budget and bid adjustments: Are budgets and bids set too high or low to produce results or maintain goals? In our review process, I look for, and may recommend, setting up bid multipliers based on location, device and dayparting. Bid strategies should also reflect overall campaign goals; use automatic CPC or manual CPC to focus on clicks or CPA bidding to focus on conversions. And, if you’re using bid management tools, remember that you should still be reviewing bids and making manually adjustments from time to time; PPC is never a set-it-and-forget-it marketing tactic.

    While this list is by no means exhaustive, I hope it helps jumpstart your audit process. With the right context, a thorough understanding of business goals and a customized checklist, an audit of your PPC campaign can be a valuable health check for your digital strategy. If you’re looking for a third party to conduct an audit for you, or if you have other SEM goals to meet in 2017, don’t hesitate to reach out to our smart pandas!

    Key Takeaways 

    1. To deliver the best ROI, an audit should be a thoughtful process that’s informed by business goals and KPIs as well as context related to recent changes, settings and peaks/dips in traffic.
    2. A thorough SEM audit can reveal actionable intelligence directly related to paid search campaigns, ad groups and keywords. These changes can be made quickly and can have an almost immediate impact.
    3. As a first step, make sure you’re looking at sufficient range of time to analyze relevant data. It’s unlikely, for example, that 30 days of conversion data will be enough to be statistically relevant.
    4. Areas of a PPC account that warrant review include location targeting, keywords and negative keywords, display URLs, tracking pixels, default settings, disapproved ads and campaign themes.



    Lisa Martino

    Lisa heads the firm’s search engine marketing practice and brings more than 15 years of experience to Smart Panda Labs, where she implements and manages a variety of paid search and paid social campaigns for clients, each with unique budgets and goals. Her areas of specialty include paid search and search engine optimization; paid social advertising on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; display ads; email marketing; CRM; affiliate marketing; direct mail and web analytics. Prior to joining Smart Panda Labs, Lisa was a Search and Auction Media Manager for the Walt Disney Company for over eight years, where she managed extensive, multi-million dollar paid search and paid social campaigns for numerous Walt Disney Parks & Resorts websites and brands. She has also worked in marketing for Cox Target Media/Valpak and American Express. Lisa is a Microsoft Accredited Professional and is Google AdWords qualified in search, display, video, mobile and shopping.

    All stories by: Lisa Martino

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