The Conference

SMX Advanced is one of the top online marketing conferences designed for advanced search marketers. The conference is held annually by Search Engine Land at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, Washington.

The Benefit

SMX Advanced skips the basics and takes a deep dive into search marketing. It is extremely useful for experienced marketers who have been in the industry for a while and are looking to think outside of the box and expand their knowledge. The speakers include a variety of experts across different industries who share actionable strategies, the latest updates in search and how they’re managing them, results from campaign experiments and case studies, and much more.

Key Takeaways

Changes to the AdWords Ad Rank

Google, as they often do, began silently rolling out changes to ad rank at the beginning of May with the expectation of finishing the rollout at the end of the month. As of the time this article was written, the help center has not yet been updated which could mean they’re still finishing the roll out.

  • Ad Rank thresholds – Google is now considering the meaning of a search query to impact ad thresholds, which surprisingly wasn’t a previous factor. Different query categories may have different ad rank thresholds meaning more or fewer ads could show based on the category of the query.
    • For example, a news-based search query may now have a higher ad rank threshold; meaning fewer ads would show. In contrast, a product or service based search query could have a lower threshold with an opportunity for more ads to display on the SERP (search engine results page).
  • Bids might also carry more weight. Key word: might. The weight of the impact could depend on the meaning of the search query or its category which ties into the ad rank threshold mentioned above. Previously, we could use quality score as a tool to help determine where we make bid adjustments. For example, if a keyword has a quality score of 9 or 10 (the highest QS is 10) but a low ad position, it’s obvious that the bid needs to be increased to improve position. Now, even if you have keywords with high quality scores, it’s suspected that this change can still lead to higher CPCs just because the bids are weighted more.

What does this mean for performance? Well, quality still matters but bids are playing a more important role. Google has never released a finite percentage of how each ad rank signal impacts position and it’s arguably the greyest area within AdWords next to quality score. However, due to this update, average CPC and average position could be affected, either positively or negatively, depending on the query and category but it’s still too early to determine any impact.

Quality Score Reporting

On the plus side, referencing the update above, Google has blessed us with historical Quality Score (QS) data as far back as January 2016.  There are seven new columns in AdWords that report on historical QS performance. With a little Excel magic, we’re now able to track QS trends based on when changes were made which could help us down the road in determining the impact of the ad rank update.

Audience Targeting

There was a lot of conversation around determining the right audience targeting strategy to use, how to layer different strategies, and the use of negative audiences. The goal is to move toward people-based marketing by delivering more relevant messages based on where users are in the “buying cycle.”  Google’s data suggests audience-based campaigns convert at twice the normal rate which should make any decision on whether to use any of these methods an easy one.

  • Customer Match – These are lists you can create that contain current customers, past purchasers, conference visitors, white paper downloaders, or any other user who has completed an action that has allowed you to capture their email address. By compiling customer match lists, you can target a specific group of people with a message based on exactly where they are in your funnel. Keep in mind, if the same person is in multiple areas of your funnel, you only want to add them to the list that’s closest to the bottom of the funnel so they don’t get served conflicting messages.
    • For example, if someone has gotten to the checkout page but not purchased and they’ve also viewed a product page, you would want to remove them from the list of product page viewers but keep them in the abandoned cart list so you could potentially show them an ad with a discount on shipping instead of an ad about product benefits.
  • RLSA (remarketing lists for search ads) – You can create RLSA audiences in AdWords or Analytics and add them to your search campaigns to allow you the option to bid aggressively on a specific group of people. For example, people who have visited your site, have not converted, but are still searching for the type of service you offer. You can increase bids on this group by xx% (we suggest 40% or higher) which numerous tests have shown leads to much higher conversion rates and lower CPAs.
  • Similar Audiences ­– Google released similar audiences for Search and Shopping campaigns from beta May 1. By using ‘machine learning,’ this year’s buzzword, similar audiences consider the search patterns of users who have converted on your site and finds other users who haven’t been to your site but exhibit similar search patterns.
  • In-Market Audiences – You may recognize In-Market Audiences from Display and YouTube targeting capabilities but as of May, it’s now available for Search. Yes, May was a busy month. Google’s machine learning (you’ll hear this a lot from now on) analyzes search queries to identify when people are closest to buying and shows them ads most relevant to them. Google provides the following example: “If you’re a car dealership, you can increase your reach among users who have already searched for ‘SUVs with best gas mileage’ and ‘spacious SUVs’.” These people are close to passing or have passed the research phase and are more likely to purchase soon.
  • Additional Pro-Tips
    • Create remarketing lists based on users who clicked an ad on your social campaign so that you can bid higher on them across the Search network.
    • Segment your strategies even more with demographic targeting and test different messaging to these demographics to further achieve people-based marketing.

Exact Match Keywords

Exactly what happened and how we’re dealing with it:

  • Previously, if you had an exact match keyword in your campaign, that meant your ad would only display if that exact keyword was searched in that exact order. Now function words, or words that have no meaning on their own (think: in, of, the, be, that, etc.) can be inserted, changed, or removed from your exact match keywords (e.g. [plumber phoenix] could match to [plumber in phoenix]).
  • Word order can also change. When the word order is changed however, Google says they will not add additional words to help prevent changing any meaning (e.g. [plumber phoenix] could match to someone searching [phoenix plumber]).
  • Not a big deal, right? For most advertisers, no. However, where word order matters, it can be (e.g. “flights from phoenix to new york” is not the same as “flights from new york to phoenix”). Regardless of your industry, it’ll be important to pay closer attention to the Exact (close variant) queries in the search queries report and update your negative keyword list accordingly. Thankfully Google’s changes to exact match will not apply to negative keywords.

Conversion Attribution & Machine Learning

Using machine learning, Google has gone beyond the last click attribution method to provide a better understanding of the full customer journey. As a refresher, last click attribution is currently the default method and attributes the conversion to where the last click happened. The problem with last click, for example, is someone could search a researched-based keyword (think: “cost of a new ac unit”), click an ad, but not convert. That same person could then later search for that company by brand name, click the ad, convert, and the conversion would be attributed to the branded search query. Until now, the advertiser would not know the higher funnel keyword played a role in the conversion path. Without that insight, an advertiser may pause or reduce the bid on a keyword that’s assisting with a lot of conversions.

  • So how do you choose the attribution method that’s right for you?
    • Review the path length to conversion. If the majority of your conversions are coming after the first click, no need to waste your time testing attribution models. Stick with last click.
    • If your conversions are spaced out across clicks and there’s a longer path to conversion, check out the attribution modeling tool. You can use this to compare different attribution models to see how each will affect your conversion data before choosing which model you want to test.

Expanded Text Ad Testing

  • When testing, Google recommended focusing on headlines one and two to start and to really focus on tailoring your ad copy to the question you’re trying to answer for a potential customer. The days of generic ad copy and calls to action are long gone. This ties back into the people-based marketing strategy and the importance of getting to know who’s searching for your services or products and the messaging they respond to best.
    • Pro-tip: If you have the time to manually test, we recommend rotating your ads indefinitely and, once you’ve collected enough data, assessing the winners and losers. You’ll want to first identify what constitutes a win or a loss, but once you do this, you can pause the losers and begin testing other variations. Google will recommend setting your ad rotation to optimize for clicks or conversions but we strongly recommend avoiding that option until your ad groups have generated enough data to let Google’s algorithms work their magic.
  • Also, while it’s important to include a CTA (call to action) in every ad, there are different ways of doing it without always saying “Call Now.” A few examples:
    • Countdowns – impactful for temporary or seasonal offers, class start dates, etc.
    • If functions – allow you to show different ads based on device or audience which may require different CTAs or messaging in general.
    • Ad customizers – these require a little more work and a feed but you can incorporate highly targeting pricing, for example, on specific products or services within ad copy. Pair this with a countdown and you’ve got a golden ticket!

Enhanced CPC Bid Cap

If you’re using enhanced CPC, Google used to cap how much it could increase a keyword bid at 30%. Now there’s no cap. Before you panic, Google is still saying your average CPC will match your max CPC so even if you end up paying three times the amount of your max CPC on one click, it should all average out in the end. This could lead to higher average CPCs if you were previously not averaging the max CPC for that keyword so not necessarily a red flag but something to keep in mind.

Bing Ads Updates – Reportedly coming soon (ish)

  • New ad formats that aren’t in AdWords
  • Sitelink and callout extension suggestions (not in AdWords)
  • Account level extensions (already in AdWords)
  • Day parting bid adjustments (already in AdWords)
  • Automated extensions & price extensions (already in AdWords)
  • Further out – audience targeting (already in AdWords)
  • Further out – more automated bid management (already in AdWords)

Updates in Organic Search

SMX also covers a good amount of SEO (search engine optimization) throughout conference sessions. If there was one major takeaway, it would be this: old SEO strategies are rapidly declining in terms of their effectiveness.

One of the more eye-opening sessions was a visual case study, illustrating the diminishing return on title tags — long considered a critical factor in SEO rankings. Just two years ago, search query keywords were present in title tags roughly 60% of the time. In more recent history, roughly 40% of search results contained the searched query within the title tag. That’s a significant drop.

If Google can veer away from one of the most powerful ranking factors, keywords in title tags,  what’s to stop them from doing this along more minor ranking signals? This is the real ‘meat’ of what SMX organic sessions explored, suggesting that Google’s algorithm is now capable of ranking sites based off of qualitative metrics like content relevance.

The future of SEO lies in the heart of Google’s continued foray into artificial intelligence. Ranking signals are continuing to push more into semantics versus the presence of keywords. While keywords will never truly go away, the content and user experience behind them matters more than ever. While most of us would be satisfied with a simple formula for ranking a website, Google’s smarter algorithm is determined to ensure we’re providing far more than keywords to our audience. It’s ultimately making the web a better place to find answers.

While SEO isn’t the primary focus of SMX, the sessions offered during the conference are a great compliment to the PPC-focused content. In addition, SMX brings out plenty of the big names from the industry including Google’s own Gary Illyes. There was quite the wide range of topics covered during SMX Advanced this year in Seattle. The coffee wasn’t bad either.

See you next time, SMX!