4 Paid Search Mistakes You Didn't Know You Were Making

Erik Huberman

Dec 11, 20177 min read
4 Paid Search Mistakes You Didn't Know You Were Making

Growth hacking through unpaid social media was popular several years ago, but as any SEM expert can tell you now, those days are over. You have to pay to play if you want any return for your marketing dollars.

As my team and I prepare to adapt to upcoming changes in SEM, we’re looking at recent Google AdWords data from the first quarter of 2017. AdWords is no longer just the ads we see on the Google homepage, so we included search, dynamic search, shopping, YouTube, the display network, Gmail, and Google Analytics. Here's what we gleaned from our study:

  • All devices saw a significant rise in cost per click .
  • Ad spend on Google Shopping rose 44 percent from the previous year.
  • Fifty-nine percent of paid search traffic happens on mobile.
  • Mobile cost-per-click, specifically, increased 40 percent from the previous year.

In other words, mobile is no longer "on the rise." It's here to stay, and new avenues are taking its place as the next "rising star."

Getting Ready for the SEM of Tomorrow Today

The future we have been looking toward for years — mobile saturation — is here. Google is now creating an  entirely separate index for mobile, and that will become its main algorithm for mobile ads in 2018.

With mobile as the cornerstone, the next new trend will be voice search. We have all seen the funny videos of conversations with Siri, but in reality,  500 million people now use a voice-powered assistant — whether it is Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, or Microsoft Cortana.

It is only a matter of time before all of those eyeballs — or eardrums — are turned into viable ad recipients, as voice changes the game yet again. Voice searches tend to be question and location-specific, which means people will search using real language, not just stilted search terms they have been trained to use on text-based search engines.

It also means skipping ads will be harder to do, and there is likely to be only one or two ads served with any search — as opposed to the five to 10 or more there is today. If you think it is hard to stand out now, wait until the listener gets only one ad, and you have to use that single opportunity to build trust and rapport.

Avoiding SEM Missteps and Mistakes in 2018 and Beyond

The good news is that the search engines make money when advertisers use them for the long haul. Any changes they make to how paid search works will benefit the advertisers who are brave enough to embrace them.

As we move into the future, it is time to double down on some of the basics and let go of our site-specific methods. If you are making these mistakes now, it is time to shift in order to win in the future.

1. Focusing on Keywords or Search Terms

Keywords were once the gold standard for creating ads. Now, with fierce competition, great data, and improved search algorithms, it is better to look beyond keywords to actual search terms.

With paid search, you have full transparency into exactly what the user searched to trigger your ad. Focusing on the search terms will allow you to reverse engineer success by creating a keyword list from your search terms.

The internal marketing manager for a luxury hat brand that had been running AdWords in-house for two years prior to engaging with our agency was quick to communicate its top-performing historical keywords, which he wanted us to focus on. He was right, the keywords in the report were indeed the brand's outright historical best performers. But, with what is typically considered somewhat granular analysis to optimize at the keyword level, key insights are lost. 

Evaluating performance based on the keyword level is a bit like judging a book by its second or third chapter. This client's No. 1 top-performing keyword was “baseball cap.” But the search term — what users actually searched to trigger the ad — was "cashmere baseball cap," which garnered 20 times better returns than the keyword “baseball cap.”

As it turned out, no keyword was set up to specifically capture the search "cashmere baseball cap." By conducting keyword research at the search terms level, we were able to make an immediate and long-term impact on the client's return on ad spend.

Keywords are like a door that allows you access to the inside of a house but don’t show you what exists there. Search terms provide full transparency into what is inside.

Use your understanding of the brand and the ideal customers by putting yourself in their shoes to uncover keyword ideas. Then, based on those perceptions, plug your ideas into a keyword tool like Keyword.io, which will churn out similar keywords and their respective search volume data.

2. Sweating the Competition

By now, we all know the trick about paying for placement when a user searches for our competitors. It can be annoying when it happens to us, though.

Thankfully, Google’s quality score is designed to protect your brand. It typically won’t matter whether your competitor is bidding $100 a click for your brand name because the website it is driving the user to is not your site.

If you launch your own branded campaign bidding on your branded terms, your quality score should be significantly higher than your competitor's, as you are in fact the brand the user is searching for. This will likely give you a stronger impression share (the percentage of time your ad serves when a user searches for one of your keywords) than your competitor’s ad.

While your quality score isn't the end-all, be-all of metrics, improving it can help.

According to  recent research, a one-point increase in your rating will decrease your cost per conversion by 13 percent. Conversely, a decrease of one point increases your cost per conversion by the same amount. If you waste your budget bidding on incorrect keywords, tweaking your quality score isn't likely to salvage the campaign.

3. Blending in With the Crowd

Why does your brand exist? Why should the searcher care about your used car lot more than the used car lot down the street? Users spend — maybe — five percent of their time on the actual search engine. Make sure you stand out in that brief window.

Ad extensions offer a slew of ways to provide additional information in your search ads: price via price extensions, value propositions via callout extensions, your array of offerings via structured snippet extensions, and many more.


The primary competitor of a boutique designer sunglasses brand we worked with was spending nearly $10,000 per month on our client’s brand name. Our client was not running a branded search campaign at the time and originally viewed the situation as a bit of a lost cause, as its total monthly paid search budget was roughly what its competitor was paying for only its branded keywords.

We reassured the client that although its competitor was indeed driving up the CPCs for our branded terms, we still must think about how Google’s quality score works. We estimated that with just $3,000 in spend per month for our branded terms, we would achieve an impression share of at least 50 percent, even with the competitor spending so much more money per month on the same branded keywords.

After building a branded campaign according to best practices, such as utilizing all logical ad extensions, precise keywords derived from our search terms report, and A/B testing landing pages and ad copy, we cracked 75 percent impression share for our client in just four weeks.

The more pertinent info you can provide users, the more prequalified they will be prior to clicking on your pay-per-click search ads. Also, your campaign’s quality scores typically have a strong positive correlation with the number of ad extensions the campaign contains.

4. Trying to Attract Everyone

Think of your audience as three concentric circles: In the very middle, you have your bull's-eye — the keywords your ideal customer will be searching. In the middle circle exists valid, somewhat qualified users. Lastly, the outside circle can be considered more of your top-of-funnel prospects. With proper nurturing and additional brand education, they can become valid prospects.

Every penny of your paid search efforts should focus on the inside circle. If you don’t know exactly what keywords, search terms or targeting the inside circle is comprised of, then 100 percent of your budget needs to be allocated to research and uncover your bulls-eye.

Employ the beta/alpha campaign structure where your “beta” campaigns act as your “test” campaigns, or your “R&D” campaigns are designed to uncover which search terms work. Beta campaigns contain broader targeting.

Once your search terms have statistically significant data, build out your “alpha” campaigns, which contain SKAGs (single keyword ad groups), and use only exact match keywords with tightly aligned ad copy. With your alphas, you will only be spending money on those bull's-eye keywords.

SEM is an exciting industry that will see a major overhaul in the next several years. Winners will keep evolving with the industry and attack every new change with creativity. And, trust me, there will be winners.

Author Photo
Erik Huberman, one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, is founder and CEO of Hawke Media, one of the “Top 50 Startups in LA” and one of the “Top 10 Happy Places to Work.” Hawke Media is a leading outsourced digital CMO agency for companies including Evite, Bally Total Fitness, Verizon Wireless, Eddie Bauer, Red Bull, and many other large and small brands. Erik and his team provide a full sales, marketing, and e-commerce team without the overhead. As a serial entrepreneur and a brand and marketing consultant for eight years, Erik previously founded, grew and sold Swag of the Month and grew Ellie.com’s sales to $1 million in four months. Erik is also available to be a keynote speaker.