Reach, Relevance and ROI with Google Ads
A conversation with Kristina Cutura
Kristina Cutura was one of the first members of the Google Adwords (now Google Ads) team. Today she maintains a very busy consultancy helping clients optimize their “reach, relevance and ROI” with Google Ads. She has the edge over other SEM experts because she was on the inside. We chatted with Kristina to learn what an insider shares with her clients.
As always, we ask those we interview to share topically-related resources and an assignment. You may view Kristina’s here.
(s)peakeasy: Can you share your path to being a Google Ads expert.
[ Kristina ] I graduated from UCLA with a BA in psychology and was planning on taking a year off before graduate school and becoming a psychology professor at a respectable university. However, during a summer fellowship I became increasingly disgruntled in the world of academia.
I ended up taking a job at a small company in Mountain View — whose search engine everyone in college was starting to use — called Google. I loved the excitement of Silicon valley and my team so much I put my academia dreams on hold.
What were you hired to do at Google?
Google AdWords (now Google Ads) was in its infancy at the time, and I became part of its first optimization team as we worked with engineers to figure out what strategies worked, and helped our top tier advertisers implement them and optimize their campaigns.
“I ended up getting a job at a small company in Mountain View — whose search engine everyone in college was starting to use — called Google.”
Over time, I became more involved in training, developing courses and materials for internal Google employees and external clients and agencies. I noticed that many agencies that claimed to be experts had staff with a limited understanding of Google best practices and had predatory practices with long term contracts that clients could not get out of. I left Google in 2009 understanding that I’d likely consult for a while. I have been at it ever since.
What are the top mistakes you've identified that some of your clients were making with Google Ads?
Unrealistic goals or the lack of clearly defined goals.
Many businesses start out by thinking that they can spend a few hundred dollars and get phenomenal returns right away, but success takes testing and continued adjustments to fine tune a strategy. Not every campaign and strategy you try will work.
After launching any new keywords, ads or other features, you must monitor performance to ensure you’re getting the traffic that you want. Schedule reports to be emailed to you on a regular basis to help you stay on track.
“You can often get better conversion rates from a #2 or #3 ad and it will cost you less.”
Many of my clients are set on appearing on very specific keywords, which may just be too broad or competitive to make sense within a limited marketing budget. The majority of businesses that are new to Google marketing pick broad or even irrelevant keywords that can have multiple meanings.
Single word keywords will not work for the vast majority of advertisers in the Google Ads world. Monitor conversion rates, bounce rates and time on site to ensure your keywords are bringing engaged visitors to your website. Keywords that are too general, such as one-word keywords, can use up a lot of your budget and lower your quality scores.
“The majority of businesses that are new to Google marketing pick broad or even irrelevant keywords that can have multiple meanings.”
Another issue is what I call a vanity problem of wanting to achieve a top position on Google. The #1 spot on Google is often, unfortunately, the most expensive. What's more, not many people are taking the time to read your entire ad so that #1 ad tends to get impulse clicks that may not convert into customers. You can often get better conversion rates from a #2 or #3 ad and it will cost you less.
“Not many people are taking the time to read your entire ad so that #1 ad tends to get impulse clicks that may not convert into customers.”
Most businesses starting out with Google ads have a simple account structure featuring one or a few ad groups with many only loosely related keywords. This practice results in low quality scores and costly clicks. It also does not allow you to customize the ads. Ads that are specific to your keywords get better CTRs and help with your quality scores, reducing how much you need to pay for each click.
You’ve spoken of the relative value of different ad positions. How does Google Ads determine an ad’s position?
Google Ads performs a quality score calculation when deciding where to place your ads, which means that the more relevant your ads are, the less you need to pay to stay competitive. This allows even small advertisers to compete in the online ad auction.
“If you were to set up a Google Ads campaign today, you could be on the first page of Google for your keywords in a matter of hours.”
The relative ad position depends on a combination of your relevance and on the amount of money you are willing to pay for each click. This calculation is one of the key advantages for advertisers using Google Ads.
Other than the quality score and the value it brings to the person performing the search, what other advantages are there to Google Ads vs. other channels for the business working on allocating their marketing budget?
The key benefits of Google Ads marketing are reach, relevance and ROI. The Google Ads network reaches more than 90% of internet users.
If you were to set up a Google Ads campaign today, you could be on the first page of Google for your keywords in a matter of hours. You can track every aspect of your Google Ads marketing campaign, from the number of ad impressions to the number of clicks and leads or sales. This level of accountability makes it especially attractive to businesses who have limited marketing budgets.
Any red flags when deciding to work with a new client?
Making sure that the client has correct expectations is key, be it the results they expect or the type of communication that you will engage in over the course of the relationship. When there seems to be a large disconnect in either of those areas, it may be best to search for a better fit.
“As a marketer, setting expectations and not promising the impossible will help you retain happy clients.”
For example, a recent prospective client had previously worked with six different agencies. They explained that their current Google Ads spend was 80% on residential traffic and 20% of commercial traffic, and they wanted to flip that. However, this client also explained that commercial businesses were not typically looking for their services unless they are a brand new business in need of a network of contractors. Regardless of how your campaigns are structured and run, even the best in the world SEM professional cannot make up traffic that does not exist.
As a business, having reasonable expectations is key to being happy with your results and the professionals you hire. As a marketer, setting expectations and not promising the impossible will help you retain happy clients.
Can you share an example of a client who was eager to adjust their strategy based upon your feedback?
I was recently tasked with optimizing a designer shoe brand’s account. Although they have a cult following and a recognized name, this client was not taking advantage of a branded campaign nor remarketing and other sites were showing ads on their brand. Another issue is that their shopping campaign had bids that were too aggressive and with average CPC’s that could not be profitable.
We optimized shopping bids by category, device, location, and more. In less than a month, return on ad spend jumped 750%.
What trends do you see in Google Ads that you feel are important or that will flame out?
Google continues to add automation to their UI to help advertisers manage in a more scalable way. Examples include conversion focused bidding options that are supposed to take the guesswork out of bidding for advertisers and let Google take over based on historical data. Many of these bidding tools are not quite where they need to be yet and they often underperform but should get better, over time. More intelligent optimization suggestions will continue to be added.
Some are a bust, like the ads Google will automatically add to your ad groups (unless you opt out). They tend to be vague and underperform against manually created ads. My clients across the board dislike this feature.
My hope is that Google will find a way to automate datafeed creation, which is currently a barrier to product listing ads entry for many smaller businesses.
Google Ads made a number of changes in the past 18 months or so. (e.g., enabling users to opt-out of ad personalization, ads360, TrueView and Full-Funnel Video ads, Lead Ads on YouTube, etc.) What recent changes do you feel have had the greatest impact -- positive or negative -- on your clients or the industry as a whole?
The ever growing ad text space that is currently 4 headlines and 2 descriptions + 2 path fields. Ad text characters have gone from 95 to now 270, which has changed how advertisers write ads. What used to be more focused copy can now be more relaxed. The initial reaction is, of course, excitement as businesses have so much space to communicate their value prop. But these new, long ads don’t always perform better.
“Paying for conversions, not clicks, is ultimately what most businesses care about and would want to try out.”
When I do a search now, I find many ads cluttered and confusing especially when you add on all the extensions. It’ll be an interesting challenge for marketers to figure out what to test with so much space. Responsive search ads are Google’s way of automating this testing by combining multiple headlines and descriptions into what Google thinks will perform best. This is an exciting new ad format as it can help test so much at once.
Responsive display ads have been amazing! They get more clicks and conversions than standard banner ads and automate the ad creation process.
Smart shopping campaigns have been a game changer as they optimize for a target return on ad spend and make largely unnecessary manual bidding and adjustments largely unnecessary. The only caveat is that they aren’t great for smaller advertisers.
Do you have a wishlist of what Google will announce in the near future.
My wish is that Google will launch direct response focused bidding. There is currently a pay per conversion display campaign option that allows you to pay for leads rather than clicks. However, in a recent test, all of my client’s leads via this new campaign type were spam.
If Google could make this idea work better, and be applicable to search, that would be a game changer. Paying for conversions, not clicks, is ultimately what most businesses care about and would want to try out. Search has become ever competitive and average CPCs have only increased over the years. It is now cost prohibitive for some to even try search. With social growing and working better over the years, many of my clients are investing what used to be their paid search dollars into social campaigns. However, making search more profitable and allowing clients to pay for leads/sales rather than clicks could help shift that trend.
When you are not working what are you doing?
Reading classic literature and nonfiction, walking my dog, hiking, cooking, yoga, working out, and watching 20/20 and other cold case and murder mysteries.
What are some key questions to ask for someone looking to hire an SEM Manager?
Understand what kind of contract you are signing and if you can get out of it, should you want to. Some agencies do not provide account access to their clients, and I think it’s important to be able to access your Google ads account and be the admin level user on it. It’s good to know how frequently you'll receive reports and updates with monthly being the minimum. Ask how much experience the person who will be managing your account has. Many agencies have an account manager who is very knowledgeable who deals with sales and support but then a junior associate or someone abroad managing your account. I have seen US based agencies outsource certain tasks to cheaper labor abroad. Make sure you understand who will be taking care of day-to-day tasks. It's always a good idea to learn some of the basic concepts of pay per click and grill the person you’re looking to hire to make sure they are proficient. If your agency charges you based on ad spend, make sure they are not recommending new campaigns and budget increases just to inflate their fees. If you expectation is to receive a certain support level (such as a weekly call), make sure that the plan you’re signing up for includes that.
What sites or industry experts do you read routinely?
Search Engine Land has a daily newsletter you can subscribe to that will keep you up to date on all the latest features and trends. Both Google and Bing Ads have their own blogs you can subscribe to, and will email updates with important announcements and product changes.
Are there any online resources / courses / people who you recommend for those seeking to expand and / or formalize their training in SEM?
Google Academy for Ads is a free digital resource featuring courses that will walk you through all the basics and advanced concepts step-by-step. If you are a marketer, this is also where you can also get certified to demonstrate your Google Ads proficiency.
I offer custom training programs for clients agencies and where we deep dive into more specific scenarios based on your unique business needs and individual account performance.
You can read about Google Ads best practices and find many examples and optimization tips in my book Advertising on Google: The High Performance Cookbook.
If you were to give a business an assignment to help them set up or improve their approach to Google Ads, where would you recommend they start?
If you are unsure where you stand, I recommend starting with a review of your competitors’ digital marketing efforts. There are several tools out there that will give you a glimpse at a competitive domain’s paid ad spend and keywords and ads. These third-party tools don’t actually have access to competitor accounts and are not 100% accurate but should be a good starting point to evaluating how your budget and keywords compare. A couple I like are spyfu.com and semrush.com. You can download keyword lists and compare to what you are using as well as analyze ad performance and budget trends over time. If you find that several of your competitors are bidding on some of the same keywords and you are not, consider testing in your account as well, if relevant.