What to do when your Search Ads aren’t converting

Last updated: March 7, 2023

Aaron Rudman-Hawkins

Aaron Rudman-Hawkins is a dynamic digital marketing expert and a driving force behind The Evergreen Agency's success. With a passion for technology and a deep understanding of the ever-evolving digital landscape, Aaron has become a trusted name in the industry.

Read Aaron's bio here

We’ve all been there, you set up a Search campaign, it looks great on paper, you’ve taken your time getting it just right, yet it launches and weeks later nothing, it’s not converting.

Now what? What do you do next? This is the exact topic of this guide, as we feel it will resonate with, and be invaluable to so many brands out there.

We’ll share with you what we do and give you real-life practical examples of the things we’ve done, the changes we’ve made and the decisions we’ve made, along with our reasons why.

There are six fundamental steps we take when we want to understand why our search ads aren’t converting, and they are:

Step 1) – Check your conversion tracking
Step 2) – Split your brand vs non-brand Search ads
Step 3) – See what the search terms report is telling you
Step 4) – Analyse the competitor metrics
Step 5) – Calculate your budget vs spend
Step 6) – Review your bid strategy

Let’s get into it, shall we:

Check your conversion tracking

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we first need to double and if necessary triple check your conversion tracking is set up correctly, as without this in place and working well, we’ve no hope of improving our conversion rate and getting our ads converting more frequently.

Some key questions to be asking yourself:

  • What have we got set up as a conversion?
  • How is that conversion being measured?
  • Is that conversion being tracked from Ads into Google Analytics?
  • Is that conversion goal categorised correctly in Ads?
  • Is that conversion goal flagged as Primary or Secondary (as appropriate)?
  • Does that conversion goal have the correct attribution model (Google is now heavily recommending data-driven and it’s what we use most of the time)
  • Do we have all of the right conversion goals active and tracking?
  • Do we have any conversion goals active that we should pause?

Those are just a few of the questions to be clear on when it comes to your conversion tracking setup. This isn’t an in-depth conversion setup guide, there are plenty of those online, so do some Googling if you are unsure, or speak to your devs, but make no mistake, having accurate conversion tracking in place is vital for your success.

Without accurate conversion tracking in place, you are driving blind.

Split your brand vs non-brand search ads

The next step to improving your account performance and gaining more conversions is to split your brand vs non-brand search ads. Many of you reading this will already have done this, so the question is: Have you?

If yes, good work. In 9/10 accounts that we see, the brand terms will be converting and the issue often lies with your non-brand terms, so we need to analyse them separately. If you aren’t even converting on your brand terms, then maybe there is a fundamental issue with what you’re selling (unless of course you are selling, but haven’t got conversion tracking set up, which is why step 1 is so vital).

If not and it’s all clubbed together right now, then that is something to do immediately. Branded search will almost always skew your data, it will often inflate your numbers, particularly your conversion rate and so best practice is to have separate campaigns for brand searches vs those for your products, product categories and/or services.

Once you have split the search ads into brand and non-brand, you’ll be able to see more precisely what is and is not converting. We’ll assume for the moment that your non-brand search campaigns are not converting, as well as you’d like and if that is the case, the next thing to check is your search terms.

See what the search terms report is telling you

The second tip for improving your conversion rate is to understand what kinds of traffic your ads are bringing in.

  • Are they relevant?
  • Are they the sort of keywords you’d want to be appearing for?
  • Are they buying terms or information terms?

The quality of your search terms report will go a long way in helping you understand your conversion rate performance. If the clicks aren’t relevant, they aren’t buying terms nor are they the kinds of terms you’d want to be appearing for – then is it any wonder your search ads are not converting?

So, what do you do in this case?

Find the route cause(s) of your search terms headache and cull it (add it to your negative keyword list).

A very easy and effective way to review your search terms is to enable an additional column in your search term report called: Keyword. This will bring up the keyword you are bidding on in an additional column next to your search term (if you order the columns as such) and allow you to see the culprit keywords that are bringing you irrelevant traffic.

We have seen it many times where a single keyword can bring in dozens and even hundreds of search terms that we’d rather not have.

Our Paid Media team!

The question then becomes: Is it the keyword or the match type?

Sometimes the keyword is the right one, but the match type is too broad. Other times the keyword itself is just not right and so you need to pause it and trial others. As ever, it’s all experimentation and using common sense (and gut feel) when analysing the data.

Once you have gone through the search terms, the next step we take is to look at the competitor metrics.

Analyse the competitor metrics

Hopefully you are already familiar with the competitor metrics, if not we’d strongly recommend you turn them on within your campaigns, as they’ll give you a fantastic insight into how your search ads are performing from a visibility standpoint.

Our go-to competitor metrics that we always enable are:

Search Impr. Share – This estimates how often your ads appeared vs the total times they could have appeared (if budget and quality score weren’t an issue). This metric shows you the frequency your brand is showing up in the search results based on your keywords, targeting and other settings.

Search lost IS (rank) – This estimates how often your ad didn’t show due to a poor Ad Rank (Ad Rank is a calculation by Google that we cannot see of your bid, your ad and website quality score, as well as the context of the search).

Search lost top IS (budget) – This estimates how often your ad didn’t show anywhere above the organic search results due to low budget.

Search abs. top IS – This estimates the percentage of your search ads impressions that were shown in the most prominent search position (right at the top of the page basically).

Search lost abs. top IS (rank) – This does the opposite of the above and tells you the percentage of your search ad impressions that were not shown as the first ad above the search results due to poor Ad Rank.

Click share – This estimates the percentage of clicks you received on the search network divided by the estimated maximum number of clicks that you could have received.

This isn’t all of the competitor metrics, but it represents the ones we use most often when reviewing this invaluable data and analysing how to get our clients’ campaigns converting at a higher rate.

What you’re looking for when analysing the above is relatively straightforward. You want to understand how your search ads are performing, so some key questions we ask ourselves are:

  • Are our search ads appearing prominently on a regular basis?
  • Are we losing out on impressions/clicks due to poor ad score?
  • Are we losing out on impressions/clicks due to budget?
  • Have the search ads competitor metrics changed significantly over time? This would indicate your competitors are proactively making changes, so you may need to delve deeper into the data.

You should be able to gain some useful insights from these competitor metrics, which will help you determine what may need to be done to improve your search ad conversion rate.

Calculate your budget vs spend

The next step we take is to look at our budget on a per-campaign basis and compare what we could have spent vs what we have actually spent. You can easily work this out if you calculate the total possible spend based on your daily limit and multiply this by the number of days you wish to calculate – say for example, the past 7 days or 14 days or 30 days.

In theory Google will also tell you there is a budget issue with the handy big red label that says “Limited by budget”, however we wouldn’t rely solely on this, as it’s well known for not being accurate. We also certainly don’t follow the recommendations that pop up along with this notification advising to change the budget to its recommended figure.

We have seen recommendations in our client accounts that suggest increasing daily budgets from £500 per day to over £3,000, and anyone who has been in PPC for more than five minutes knows that would cause all sorts of issues if it was done.

Our Head of Paid Media working

Instead, what you want to know is:

  • In reality what are you spending on average each day?
  • Are you meeting/exceeding your daily budget?
  • If yes, which campaigns? Cross-reference this with the competitor metrics to see what the search volumes are telling you.

The conclusions we tend to draw at this point are:

  • Is the budget realistic for the size of the market? Yes/No.
  • Are we getting enough data flowing into that campaign to test performance? Yes/No.
  • Is the budget realistic when we consider the Avg. CPC? Yes/No.
  • Are we competing often enough within the results? Yes/No.

If the answer to just one of these questions is no, then we start to look more fundamentally at what needs to change at the account level, maybe we need to re-think the campaign focuses, or reduce the number of campaigns to allow more budget on fewer campaigns, so we can more effectively test, rather than spread ourselves too thin.

There is often more than one solution here and it’ll be different each time, the purpose of me explaining some of the questions we ask, is to get you thinking when analysing your own account.

Review your bid strategy

Having analysed everything in the first five steps, we typically have lots of ideas for how we can get our clients’ search campaigns converting at a higher rate and we hope you do too.

One of the biggest changes you can make to your search campaigns and one we can make when we need to, is to review the bid strategy

Found within each search campaign under settings, you have four automated bid strategies and one manual bid strategy to choose from:

Automated bid strategies

  • Maximise clicks
  • Maximise conversions
  • Maximise conversion value
  • Target impression share

Manual bid strategies

  • Manual CPC

For Search campaigns we tend to use either Maximise Clicks, Maximise Conversions or Manual CPC for our client campaigns and I’ll explain why, to give some context on when and how each of these might be useful for you in order to improve the conversion performance.

Maximise Clicks – If the search terms report is looking good (relevant), if your competitor metrics look healthy (at least 40-50% for impr. Share and 20% for Click Share), then this can be a great strategy to drive more volume into the campaign. Maybe Google just needs more data and time to learn what a conversion is for your brand.

The very driver for this strategy is to maximise the clicks into your account and sometimes, particularly when we need increased clicks, so we can test and measure, this is a great strategy to deploy, at least as an interim measure.

Maximise Conversions – For this strategy to work well, you need to be feeding Google as much data as possible. If your search ad campaigns are only generating a handful of conversions across a month, then we’d recommend avoiding this campaign strategy. To maximise this strategy you need lots of conversions, this way you can get the best out of the algorithm by instructing it to optimise for more people like those who have already converted.

Manual CPC – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we love to do things manually. Why? Because it gives us the most control to flex our PPC muscles and optimise the accounts how we see fit. Here at Evergreen, we aim to get most of our clients’ search ad campaigns onto manual strategies as the end goal and I can honestly say, as it stands today the vast majority are and their conversion data is outperforming the automated strategies every time.

Manual strategies take more work, they require more expertise, but they also give you the most autonomy to manage bids at the keyword level and give you the freedom to optimise your campaigns to the greatest degree we have available to us. You can go for a manual strategy at any stage in your campaign lifecycle.

To boil it down to its simplest form:

  • If you need more data flowing into the campaign, opt for Max Clicks (at least for a few weeks and measure the difference in performance).
  • If you have conversion data flowing and you want more, opt for Max Conversions for a couple of months and measure the difference in performance).
  • If you want more control, so you can test, experiment and you know what you’re doing, opt for Manual CPC and measure the difference in performance).

As ever, there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing the right campaign strategy, it comes down to what the data is telling you combined with your gut instinct and experience.

Wrapping up

Those are the six steps we take when analysing what we need to do when our search ads aren’t converting. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every possible metric you should check, but we know through experience that if your search ads aren’t converting, the fundamental reasons why will rest in at least one of these six factors and so we encourage you to take a look through you campaigns and see what you can find.

Remember, make changes slowly and steadily, not all at once, otherwise it’s difficult to measure what worked and at all times, follow the housekeeping recommendations that we shared in our Advanced Google Ads for Ecommerce brands guide.

For more useful Paid Media guides and resources, make sure to check out our blog and sign up for our Evergreen newsletter!

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