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Search engine marketing trends 2019: Are you keeping up?

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If anything is certain in the almost 20 years that Google has sold advertising, it’s that change in its policies and programs is a constant.

Staying on top of these changes — many tweaks, some substantial — makes our job, if not interesting, a challenge.

The work is worth the effort. Search engine marketing can be an invaluable tool for driving visitors to your website (which can then lead to signups, donations, sales, etc.) as well as helping to keep your organization top of mind. According to a study by Internet Marketing Ninjas, the top two results on a nonbranded (that is, generically worded) Google search query gobble up more than 30 percent of clicks; the rate is even higher for branded queries. And SEM has proven as valuable for local businesses as for global brands.

While there are multiple search engines (and thus many platforms vying for your paid search dollars), we usually recommend that clients devote their SEM budgets exclusively to Google Ads — those ads that show up at the top and bottom of a Google search results page. When you break down the ways that people search online, Google owns about 90 percent of online searches. Therefore, we find it’s better to focus on running a strong Google Ads campaign first (using the techniques below), and then look at adding other platforms as you grow and your budget allows.

Late in 2018, Google introduced four new metrics to evaluate your ad placement on a search results page:

  • Impression percentage (at the absolute top) — the percent of your ad impressions that are shown as the very first ad above the organic search results.
  • Impression percentage (at the top) — the percent of your ad impressions that are shown anywhere above the organic search results.
  • Search impression share (at the absolute top) — the impressions you’ve received in the absolute top location (the very first ad above the organic search results) divided by the estimated number of impressions you were eligible to receive in the top location.
  • Search impression share (at the top) — the impressions you’ve received in the top location (anywhere above the organic search results) compared to the estimated number of impressions you were eligible to receive in the top location.

The first two metrics provide a clearer insight on when and where your ads are showing above organic search results, while the second two metrics convey your share of eligible top impressions. Google explains these metrics in further detail here. Ultimately, though, if and where an ad appears on a page is influenced by three main factors: the maximum bid amount a buyer is willing to spend, how keywords selected by the advertiser compare to the query searched by the user, and a metric that Google generates called Quality Score, which measures relevance of keywords to ad copy and landing page quality.

Putting all of the pieces together to achieve the ultimate return on investment for our clients requires an orchestrated search engine marketing strategy.

How do we start the process?

As with any advertising campaign, success with Google starts with a compelling message, convincingly told. Once we’ve identified the subjects that our clients want to advertise using SEM, we research keywords the relevant target audience is likely searching on Google and then group them based on similar characteristics. For example, “dress shoes” might go into a different group than would “sneakers” and “tennis shoes.”

We then write ad copy that speaks to our target audience and forms a tangible connection between the keywords we are bidding on (which hopefully align with what the audience is searching) and the destination page where a user will land after clicking on the ad. After copy is buttoned up, campaignwide settings like targeted locations and daily budget are set. And that’s only the beginning.

For many of our clients we monitor and maintain SEM campaigns monthly, which entails reviewing the performance of individual keywords, ad groups and ad copy, removing underperformers and adding potential keywords based on what is actually triggering the ads to appear. Oftentimes, monthly maintenance is really all that many SEM campaigns need; there are often not enough changes on a daily — or even weekly — basis to warrant more frequent review.

Measuring success

As with any advertising vehicle, SEM comes with its own set of key performance indicators to help gauge its performance. In particular, we look to:

  • The number of clicks — representing the number of times individuals saw the ad and actually clicked through to a webpage.
  • Impressions — the number of times that individuals saw the ad, regardless of whether or not they actually clicked on the ad (SEM occurs on a cost-per-click basis, so in some cases impressions that cost nothing but still help to promote general brand awareness — top of mind — are more than welcome, but too many impressions without clicks will ultimately affect your quality score).
  • Click-through rate (clicks divided by impressions) — the percentage of times individuals clicked the ad when it was presented.

In addition to the metrics already provided in Google Ads, advertisers can connect their Google Ads accounts and their Google Analytics accounts to dive even deeper into what traffic and interactions stemmed from their SEM campaigns. This added layer of intelligence can then be used to further refine the search campaign. For instance, noticing that people from a specific geographic area are more interested in your offering can help you to refine the targeting. Or, identifying that users are particularly interested in certain content on the landing page can guide you in improving the page — and therefore optimizing overall campaign performance.

We provide a campaign performance update to our clients once a month to show overall performance, budget utilization, upcoming reports, changes made and general review notes. Beyond that, many of our clients receive quarterly reports that dig deeper and present not only overall performance, but insight into what keywords and ad copy drove that performance. 

About those changes at Google …

Looking back over the last couple of years, the Google Ads platform has undergone various changes — from adding new fields to adding new ad copy capacity. Here’s a summary of some of the major changes from over the past couple of years and how they affect SEM campaigns today.

More characters: In 2016, Google increased the size of its text ads to include two headlines and description text. Google later increased the total character count available in these text ads even further. This increased size — which now includes three 30-character headlines and two 90-character lines of description text — helps increase visibility and promote more clicks on the ads.

Wondering what to do with all this extra space? When developing ads, remember that the third headline and the second line of description aren’t always guaranteed to show up in the actual ad — so front-load the most important information.

Quality matters more: Mid-2018, Google announced an increased reliance on quality score, a metric it created to help determine where on the search results page an SEM ad will appear, how much a click on the ad will cost, and even whether the ad will appear on the page or not. Thankfully though, shortly after introducing this, Google Ads introduced new fields in the platform to show keywords’ rankings regarding the three aspects of quality score (expected click-through rate, landing page experience and ad relevance). Keywords are now rated as “below average,” “average” or “above average,” making it very straightforward to see exactly how Google determined a particular keyword’s quality score. This makes troubleshooting a low quality score much easier than it was previously — though each factor presents unique challenges in how to help raise the overall score.

If you notice an important keyword with a particularly low quality score, try enabling the three fields associated with quality score components to determine if it’s the ad copy, copy or overall experience on the landing page, or the ad’s expected click-through rate that is bringing the quality score down. The fix may be fairly straightforward and attainable, and can save you from having to remove an otherwise good keyword.

Revised grant standards: At the same time as all of these general changes to the Google Ads platform, the company also increased the standards for nonprofits involved in its Google Ad Grants program, which included increasing the minimum monthly clickthrough rate and setting a minimum quality score for all keywords.

AdWords Express: For busy but ambitious small businesses looking to go it on their own, Google introduced AdWords Express to help automate many of what were manual processes on its original platform. Google also introduced “responsive” ads for mobile devices (note that responsive search ads are still in beta but responsive display ads are out fully). And the platform created the ability to indicate goals such as “sales,” “website traffic” or “brand awareness and reach” by campaign; depending on which setting you choose, Google provides recommended settings for your campaign. For those willing to relinquish at least some degree of control over their SEM campaigns, these new simplified features can be a great timesaver.

New name, new look: Finally, we can’t discuss how Google Ads has changed over the past couple years without mentioning the platform’s big rebranding efforts. In 2018 Google AdWords became Google Ads, the process of which completely altered the look and feel of the platform and likely instigated many of these changes.

As we noted Google continues to make changes to its ads policies, all designed to provide both advertisers and those searching Google with better results. Google posts updates here. We are continuing to monitor how best to use these updates as Google implements them throughout the year; when anything substantial changes in that regard, we’ll link an update to this article.


If this sounds like a lot of work … it is. But this isn’t an avenue to ignore, particularly when you consider the continuing explosive growth in online sales alone and the fact that SEM can help you reach audiences on a broader scale — geographically, 24/7 — than many other forms of advertising.

Perhaps one of the most important factors to remember about SEM is that when done correctly these ads will appear to an audience that is likely to be more receptive to this form of advertisement than other types — after all, they just asked Google for it.

PHOTO by Nick Seliverstov.