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A Complete Guide To the Google Penguin Algorithm Update

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A Complete Guide To the Google Penguin Algorithm Update

Ten years have passed since Google introduced the Penguin algorithm and took a stronger stance on manipulative link-building practices.

The algorithm has had a number of updates and has become a real-time part of the core Google algorithm, and as a result, penalties have become less common, but still exist both in partial and site-wide format.

 Screenshot by author, May 2022Unnatural links warning in Google Search Console

For the most part, Google claims to ignore a lot of poor-quality links online, but is still alert and monitoring for unnatural patterns such as link schemes, PBNs, link exchanges, and unnatural outbound linking patterns.

The Introduction Of Penguin

In 2012, Google officially launched the “webspam algorithm update,” which specifically targeted link spam and manipulative link-building practices.

The webspam algorithm later became known (officially) as the Penguin algorithm update via a tweet from Matt Cutts, who was then head of the Google webspam team.

While Google officially named the algorithm Penguin, there is no official word on where this name came from.

The Panda algorithm name came from one of the key engineers involved with it, and it’s more than likely that Penguin originated from a similar source.

One of my favorite Penguin naming theories is that it pays homage to The Penguin, from DC’s Batman.

Prior to the Penguin algorithm, link volume played a larger part in determining a webpage’s scoring when crawled, indexed, and analyzed by Google.

This meant when it came to ranking websites by these scores for search results pages, some low-quality websites and pieces of content appeared in more prominent positions in the organic search results than they should have.

Why Google Penguin Was Needed

Google’s war on low-quality started with the Panda algorithm, and Penguin was an extension and addition to the arsenal to fight this war.

Penguin was Google’s response to the increasing practice of manipulating search results (and rankings) through black hat link building techniques.

Cutts, speaking at the SMX Advanced 2012 conference, said:

We look at it something designed to tackle low-quality content. It started out with Panda, and then we noticed that there was still a lot of spam and Penguin was designed to tackle that.

The algorithm’s objective was to gain greater control over and reduce the effectiveness of, a number of blackhat spamming techniques.

By better understanding and process the types of links websites and webmasters were earning, Penguin worked toward ensuring that natural, authoritative, and relevant links rewarded the websites they pointed to, while manipulative and spammy links were downgraded.

Penguin only deals with a site’s incoming links. Google only looks at the links pointing to the site in question and does not look at the outgoing links at all from that site.

Initial Launch & Impact

When Penguin first launched in April 2012, it affected more than 3% of search results, according to Google’s own estimations.

Penguin 2.0, the fourth update (including the initial launch) to the algorithm was released in May 2013 and affected roughly 2.3% of all queries.

On launch, Penguin was said to have targeted two specific manipulative practices, in particular, these being link schemes and keyword stuffing.

Link schemes are the umbrella term for manipulative link building practices, such as exchanges, paying for links, and other unnatural link practices outlined in Google’s link scheme documentation.

Penguin’s initial launch also took aim at keyword stuffing, which has since become associated with the Panda algorithm (which is thought of as more of a content and site quality algorithm).

Key Google Penguin Updates & Refreshes

There have been a number of updates and refreshes to the Penguin algorithm since it was launched in 2012, and possibly a number of other tweaks that have gone down in history as unknown algorithm updates.

Google Penguin 1.1: March 26, 2012

This wasn’t a change to the algorithm itself, but the first refresh of the data within it.

In this instance, websites that had initially been affected by the launch and had been proactive in clearing up their link profiles saw some recovery, while others who hadn’t been caught by Penguin the first time round saw an impact.

Google Penguin 1.2: October 5, 2012

This was another data refresh. It affected queries in the English language, as well as affected international queries.

Google Penguin 2.0: May 22, 2013

This was a more technically advanced version of the Penguin algorithm and changed how the algorithm impacted search results.

Penguin 2.0 impacted around 2.3% of English queries, as well as other languages proportionately.

This was also the first Penguin update to look deeper than the websites homepage and top-level category pages for evidence of link spam being directed to the website.

Google Penguin 2.1: October 4, 2013

The only refresh to Penguin 2.0 (2.1) came on October 4 of the same year. It affected about 1% of queries.

While there was no official explanation from Google, data suggests that the 2.1 data refresh also advanced on how deep Penguin looked into a website and crawled deeper, and conducted further analysis as to whether spammy links were contained.

Google Penguin 3.0: October 17, 2014

While this was named as a major update, it was, in fact, another data refresh; allowing those impacted by previous updates to emerge and recover, while many others who had continued to utilize spammy link practices and had escaped the radar of the previous impacts saw an impact.

Googler Pierre Far confirmed this through a post on his Google+ profile and that the update would take a “few weeks” to roll out fully.

Far also stated that this update affected less than 1% of English search queries.

Google Penguin 4.0: September 23, 2016

Almost two years after the 3.0 refresh, the final Penguin algorithm update was launched.

The biggest change with this iteration was that Penguin became a part of the core algorithm.

When an algorithm transcends to become a part of the core, it doesn’t mean that the algorithm’s functionality has changed or may change dramatically again.

It means that Google’s perception of the algorithm has changed, not the algorithm itself.

Now running concurrently with the core, Penguin evaluates websites and links in real-time. This meant that you can see (reasonably) instant impacts of your link building or remediation work.

The new Penguin also wasn’t closed-fisted in handing out link-based penalties but rather devalued the links themselves. This is a contrast to the previous Penguin iterations, where the negative was punished.

That being said, studies and, from personal experience, algorithmic penalties relating to backlinks still do exist.

Data released by SEO professionals (e.g., Michael Cottam), as well as seeing algorithmic downgrades lifted through disavow files after Penguin 4.0, enforce this belief.

Google Penguin Algorithmic Downgrades

Soon after the Penguin algorithm was introduced, webmasters and brands who had used manipulative link building techniques or filled their backlink profiles with copious amounts of low-quality links began to see decreases in their organic traffic and rankings.

Not all Penguin downgrades were site-wide – some were partial and only affected certain keyword groups that had been heavily spammed and over-optimized, such as key products and in some cases even brands.

A website impacted by a Penguin penalty, which took 17 months to lift.A website impacted by a Penguin penalty, which took 17 months to lift.A website impacted by a Penguin penalty, which took 17 months to lift.

The impact of Penguin can also pass between domains, so changing domains and redirecting the old one to the new can cause more problems in the long run.

Experiments and research show that using a 301 or 302 redirect won’t remove the effect of Penguin, and in the Google Webmasters Forum, John Mueller confirmed that using a meta refresh from one domain to a new domain could also cause complications.

In general, we recommend not using meta-refresh type redirects, as this can cause confusion with users (and search engine crawlers, who might mistake that for an attempted redirect).

Google Penguin Recovery

The disavow tool has been an asset to SEO practitioners, and this hasn’t changed even now that Penguin exists as part of the core algorithm.

As you would expect, there have been studies and theories published that disavowing links doesn’t, in fact, do anything to help with link-based algorithmic downgrades and manual actions, but this has theory has been shot down by Google representatives publicly.

That being said, Google recommends that the disavow tool should only be used as a last resort when dealing with link spam, as disavowing a link is a lot easier (and a quicker process in terms of its effect) than submitting reconsideration requests for good links.

What To Include In A Disavow File

A disavow file is a file you submit to Google that tells them to ignore all the links included in the file so that they will not have any impact on your site.

The result is that the negative links will no longer cause negative ranking issues with your site, such as with Penguin.

But, it does also mean that if you erroneously included high-quality links in your disavow file, those links will no longer help your ranking.

You do not need to include any notes in your disavow file unless they are strictly for your reference. It is fine just to include the links and nothing else.

Google does not read any of the notations you have made in your disavow file, as they process it automatically without a human ever reading it.

Some find it useful to add internal notations, such as the date a group of URLs was added to the disavow file or comments about their attempts to reach the webmaster about getting a link removed.

Once you have uploaded your disavow file, Google will send you a confirmation.

But while Google will process it immediately, it will not immediately discount those links. So, you will not instantly recover from submitting the disavow alone.

Google still needs to go out and crawl those individual links you included in the disavow file, but the disavow file itself will not prompt Google to crawl those pages specifically.

Also, there is no way to determine which links have been discounted and which ones have not been, as Google will still include both in your linking report in Google Search Console.

If you have previously submitted a disavow file to Google, they will replace that file with your new one, not add to it.

So, it is important to make sure that if you have previously disavowed links, you still include those links in your new disavow file.

You can always download a copy of the current disavow file in Google Search Console.

Disavowing Individual Links vs. Domains

It is recommended that you choose to disavow links on a domain level instead of disavowing the individual links.

There will be some cases where you will want to disavow individually specific links, such as on a major site that has a mix of quality versus paid links.

But for the majority of links, you can do a domain-based disavow.

Google only needs to crawl one page on that site for that link to be discounted on your site.

Doing domain-based disavows also means that you do not have to worry about those links being indexed as www or non-www, as the domain-based disavow will take this into account.

Finding Your Backlinks

If you suspect your site has been negatively impacted by Penguin, you need to do a link audit and remove or disavow the low-quality or spammy links.

Google Search Console includes a list of backlinks for site owners, but be aware that it also includes links that are already nofollowed.

If the link is nofollowed, it will not have any impact on your site. But keep in mind that the site could remove that nofollow in the future without warning.

There are also many third-party tools that will show links to your site, but because some websites block those third-party bots from crawling their site, they will not be able to show you every link pointing to your site.

And while some of the sites blocking these bots are high-quality well-known sites not wanting to waste the bandwidth on those bots, it is also being used by some spammy sites to hide their low-quality links from being reported.

Monitoring backlinks is also an essential task, as sometimes the industry we work in isn’t entirely honest and negative SEO attacks can happen. That’s when a competitor buys spammy links and points them to your site.

Many use “negative SEO” as an excuse when their site gets caught by Google for low-quality links.

However, Google has said they are pretty good about recognizing this when it happens, so it is not something most website owners need to worry about.

This also means that proactively using the disavow feature without a clear sign of an algorithmic penalty or a notification of a manual action is a good idea.

Interestingly, however, a poll conducted by SEJ in September 2017 found that 38% of SEOs never disavow backlinks.

Going through a backlink profile, and scrutinizing each linking domain as to whether it’s a link you want or not, is not a light task.

Link Removal Outreach

Google recommends that you attempt to outreach to websites and webmasters where the bad links are originating from first and request their removal before you start disavowing them.

Some site owners demand a fee to remove a link.

Google recommends never paying for link removals. Just include those links in your disavow file instead and move on to the next link removal.

While outreach is an effective way to recover from a link-based penalty, it isn’t always necessary.

The Penguin algorithm also takes into account the link profile as a whole, and the volume of high-quality, natural links versus the number of spammy links.

While in the instances of a partial penalty (impacting over-optimized keywords), the algorithm may still affect you. The essentials of backlink maintenance and monitoring should keep you covered.

Some webmasters even go as far as including “terms” within the terms and conditions of their website and actively outreaching to websites they don’t feel should be linking to them:

TOS linkingWebsite terms and conditions regarding linking to the website in question.TOS linking

Assessing Link Quality

Many have trouble when assessing link quality.

Don’t assume that because a link comes from a .edu site that it is high-quality.

Plenty of students sell links from their personal websites on those .edu domains which are extremely spammy and should be disavowed.

Likewise, there are plenty of hacked sites within .edu domains that have low-quality links.

Do not make judgments strictly based on the type of domain. While you can’t make automatic assumptions on .edu domains, the same applies to all TLDs and ccTLDs.

Google has confirmed that just being on a specific TLD does not help or hurt the search rankings. But you do need to make individual assessments.

There is a long-running joke about how there’s never been a quality page on a .info domain because so many spammers were using them, but in fact, there are some great quality links coming from that TLD, which shows why individual assessment of links is so important.

Beware Of Links From Presumed High-Quality Sites

Don’t look at the list of links and automatically consider links from specific websites as being a great quality link, unless you know that very specific link is high quality.

Just because you have a link from a major website such as Huffington Post or the BBC does not make that an automatic high-quality link in the eyes of Google – if anything, you should question it more.

Many of those sites are also selling links, albeit some disguised as advertising or done by a rogue contributor selling links within their articles.

These types of links from high-quality sites actually being low-quality have been confirmed by many SEOs who have received link manual actions that include links from these sites in Google’s examples. And yes, they could likely be contributing to a Penguin issue.

As advertorial content increases, we are going to see more and more links like these get flagged as low-quality.

Always investigate links, especially if you are considering not removing any of them simply based on the site the link is from.

Promotional Links

As with advertorials, you need to think about any links that sites may have pointed to you that could be considered promotional links.

Paid links do not always mean money is exchanged for the links.

Examples of promotional links that are technically paid links in Google’s eyes are any links given in exchange for a free product for review or a discount on products.

While these types of links were fine years ago, they now need to be nofollowed.

You will still get the value of the link, but instead of it helping rankings, it would be through brand awareness and traffic.

You may have links out there from a promotional campaign done years ago that are now negatively impacting a site.

For all these reasons, it is vitally important to individually assess every link. You want to remove the poor quality links because they are impacting Penguin or could cause a future manual action.

But, you do not want to remove the good links, because those are the links that are helping your rankings in the search results.

Promotional links that are not nofollowed can also trigger the manual action for outgoing links on the site that placed those links.

No Penguin Recovery In Sight?

Sometimes after webmasters have gone to great lengths to clean up their link profiles, they still don’t see an increase in traffic or rankings.

There are a number of possible reasons behind this, including:

  • The initial traffic and ranking boost was seen prior to the algorithmic penalty was unjustified (and likely short-term) and came from the bad backlinks.
  • When links have been removed, no efforts have been made to gain new backlinks of greater value.
  • Not all the negative backlinks have been disavowed/a high enough proportion of the negative backlinks have been removed.
  • The issue wasn’t link-based, to begin with.

When you recover from Penguin, don’t expect your rankings to go back to where they used to be before Penguin, nor for the return to be immediate.

Far too many site owners are under the impression that they will immediately begin ranking at the top for their top search queries once Penguin is lifted.

First, some of the links that you disavowed were likely contributing to an artificially high ranking, so you cannot expect those rankings to be as high as they were before.

Second, because many site owners have trouble assessing the quality of the links, some high-quality links inevitably get disavowed in the process, links that were contributing to the higher rankings.

Add to the mix the fact Google is constantly changing its ranking algorithm, so factors that benefited you previously might not have as big of an impact now, and vice versa.

Google Penguin Myths & Misconceptions

One of the great things about the SEO industry and those involved in it is that it’s a very active and vibrant community, and there are always new theories and experiment findings being published online daily.

Naturally, this has led to a number of myths and misconceptions being born about Google’s algorithms. Penguin is no different.

Here are a few myths and misconceptions about the Penguin algorithm we’ve seen over the years.

Myth: Penguin Is A Penalty

One of the biggest myths about the Penguin algorithm is that people call it a penalty (or what Google refers to as a manual action).

Penguin is strictly algorithmic in nature. It cannot be lifted by Google manually.

Despite the fact that an algorithmic change and a penalty can both cause a big downturn in website rankings, there are some pretty drastic differences between them.

A penalty (or manual action) happens when a member of Google’s webspam team has responded to a flag, investigated, and felt the need to enforce a penalty on the domain.

You will receive a notification through Google Search Console relating to this manual action.

When you get hit by a manual action, not only do you need to review your backlinks and submit a disavow for the spammy ones that go against Google’s guidelines, but you also need to submit a reconsideration request to the Google webspam team.

If successful, the penalty will be revoked; and if unsuccessful, it’s back to reviewing the backlink profile.

A Penguin downgrade happens without any involvement of a Google team member. It’s all done algorithmically.

Previously, you would have to wait for a refresh or algorithm update, but now, Penguin runs in real-time so recoveries can happen a lot faster (if enough remediation work has been done).

Myth: Google Will Notify You If Penguin Hits Your Site

Another myth about the Google Penguin algorithm is that you will be notified when it has been applied.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. The Search Console won’t notify you that your rankings have taken a dip because of the application of the Penguin.

Again, this shows the difference between an algorithm and a penalty – you would be notified if you were hit by a penalty.

However, the process of recovering from Penguin is remarkably similar to that of recovering from a penalty.

Myth: Disavowing Bad Links Is The Only Way To Reverse A Penguin Hit

While this tactic will remove a lot of the low-quality links, it is utterly time-consuming and a potential waste of resources.

Google Penguin looks at the percentage of good quality links compared to those of a spammy nature.

So, rather than focusing on manually removing those low-quality links, it may be worth focusing on increasing the number of quality links your website has.

This will have a better impact on the percentage Penguin takes into account.

Myth: You Can’t Recover From Penguin

Yes, you can recover from Penguin.

It is possible, but it will require some experience in dealing with the fickle nature of Google algorithms.

The best way to shake off the negative effects of Penguin is to forget all of the existing links on your website, and begin to gain original editorially-given links.

The more of these quality links you gain, the easier it will be to release your website from the grip of Penguin.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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Google Dials Back AI Overviews In Search Results, Study Finds

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Photo of a mobile device in mans hand with generative google AI Overview on the screen.

According to new research, Google’s AI-generated overviews have undergone significant adjustments since the initial rollout.

The study from SE Ranking analyzed 100,000 keywords and found Google has greatly reduced the frequency of AI overviews.

However, when they appear, they’re more detailed than they were previously.

The study digs into which topics and industries are more likely to get an AI overview. It also looks at how the AI snippets interact with other search features like featured snippets and ads.

Here’s an overview of the findings and what they mean for your SEO efforts.

Declining Frequency Of AI Overviews

In contrast to pre-rollout figures, 8% of the examined searches now trigger an AI Overview.

This represents a 52% drop compared to January levels.

Yevheniia Khromova, the study’s author, believes this means Google is taking a more measured approach, stating:

“The sharp decrease in AI Overview presence likely reflects Google’s efforts to boost the accuracy and trustworthiness of AI-generated answers.”

Longer AI Overviews

Although the frequency of AI overviews has decreased, the ones that do appear provide more detailed information.

The average length of the text has grown by nearly 25% to around 4,342 characters.

In another notable change, AI overviews now link to fewer sources on average – usually just four links after expanding the snippet.

However, 84% still include at least one domain from that query’s top 10 organic search results.

Niche Dynamics & Ranking Factors

The chances of getting an AI overview vary across different industries.

Searches related to relationships, food and beverages, and technology were most likely to trigger AI overviews.

Sensitive areas like healthcare, legal, and news had a low rate of showing AI summaries, less than 1%.

Longer search queries with ten words were more likely to generate an AI overview, with a 19% rate indicating that AI summaries are more useful for complex information needs.

Search terms with lower search volumes and lower cost-per-click were more likely to display AI summaries.

Other Characteristics Of AI Overviews

The research reveals that 45% of AI overviews appear alongside featured snippets, often sourced from the exact domains.

Around 87% of AI overviews now coexist with ads, compared to 73% previously, a statistic that could increase competition for advertising space.

What Does This Mean?

SE Ranking’s research on AI overviews has several implications:

  1. Reduced Risk Of Traffic Losses: Fewer searches trigger AI Overviews that directly answer queries, making organic listings less likely to be demoted or receive less traffic.
  2. Most Impacted Niches: AI overviews appear more in relationships, food, and technology niches. Publishers in these sectors should pay closer attention to Google’s AI overview strategy.
  3. Long-form & In-Depth Content Essential: As AI snippets become longer, companies may need to create more comprehensive content beyond what the overviews cover.

Looking Ahead

While the number of AI overviews has decreased recently, we can’t assume this trend will continue.

AI overviews will undoubtedly continue to transform over time.

It’s crucial to monitor developments closely, try different methods of dealing with them, and adjust game plans as needed.


Featured Image: DIA TV/Shutterstock

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10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget

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10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget

Many advertisers have a tight budget for pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, making it challenging to maximize results.

One of the first questions that often looms large is, “How much should we spend?” It’s a pivotal question, one that sets the stage for the entire PPC strategy.

Read on for tips to get started or further optimize budgets for your PPC program to maximize every dollar spent.

1. Set Expectations For The Account

With a smaller budget, managing expectations for the size and scope of the account will allow you to keep focus.

A very common question is: How much should our company spend on PPC?

To start, you must balance your company’s PPC budget with the cost, volume, and competition of keyword searches in your industry.

You’ll also want to implement a well-balanced PPC strategy with display and video formats to engage consumers.

First, determine your daily budget. For example, if the monthly budget is $2,000, the daily budget would be set at $66 per day for the entire account.

The daily budget will also determine how many campaigns you can run at the same time in the account because that $66 will be divided up among all campaigns.

Be aware that Google Ads and Microsoft Ads may occasionally exceed the daily budget to maximize results. The overall monthly budget, however, should not exceed the Daily x Number of Days in the Month.

Now that we know our daily budget, we can focus on prioritizing our goals.

2. Prioritize Goals

Advertisers often have multiple goals per account. A limited budget will also limit the number of campaigns – and the number of goals – you should focus on.

Some common goals include:

  • Brand awareness.
  • Leads.
  • Sales.
  • Repeat sales.

In the example below, the advertiser uses a small budget to promote a scholarship program.

They are using a combination of leads (search campaign) and awareness (display campaign) to divide up a daily budget of $82.

Screenshot from author, May 2024

The next several features can help you laser-focus campaigns to allocate your budget to where you need it most.

Remember, these settings will restrict traffic to the campaign. If you aren’t getting enough traffic, loosen up/expand the settings.

3. Location Targeting

Location targeting is a core consideration in reaching the right audience and helps manage a small ad budget.

To maximize a limited budget, you should focus on only the essential target locations where your customers are located.

While that seems obvious, you should also consider how to refine that to direct the limited budget to core locations. For example:

  • You can refine location targeting by states, cities, ZIP codes, or even a radius around your business.
  • Choosing locations to target should be focused on results.
  • The smaller the geographic area, the less traffic you will get, so balance relevance with budget.
  • Consider adding negative locations where you do not do business to prevent irrelevant clicks that use up precious budget.

If the reporting reveals targeted locations where campaigns are ineffective, consider removing targeting to those areas. You can also try a location bid modifier to reduce ad serving in those areas.

managing ppc budget by location interactionScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

4. Ad Scheduling

Ad scheduling also helps to control budget by only running ads on certain days and at certain hours of the day.

With a smaller budget, it can help to limit ads to serve only during hours of business operation. You can choose to expand that a bit to accommodate time zones and for searchers doing research outside of business hours.

If you sell online, you are always open, but review reporting for hourly results over time to determine if there are hours of the day with a negative return on investment (ROI).

Limit running PPC ads if the reporting reveals hours of the day when campaigns are ineffective.

Manage a small ppc budget by hour of dayScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

5. Set Negative Keywords

A well-planned negative keyword list is a golden tactic for controlling budgets.

The purpose is to prevent your ad from showing on keyword searches and websites that are not a good match for your business.

  • Generate negative keywords proactively by brainstorming keyword concepts that may trigger ads erroneously.
  • Review query reports to find irrelevant searches that have already led to clicks.
  • Create lists and apply to the campaign.
  • Repeat on a regular basis because ad trends are always evolving!

6. Smart Bidding

Smart Bidding is a game-changer for efficient ad campaigns. Powered by Google AI, it automatically adjusts bids to serve ads to the right audience within budget.

The AI optimizes the bid for each auction, ideally maximizing conversions while staying within your budget constraints.

Smart bidding strategies available include:

  • Maximize Conversions: Automatically adjust bids to generate as many conversions as possible for the budget.
  • Target Return on Ad Spend (ROAS): This method predicts the value of potential conversions and adjusts bids in real time to maximize return.
  • Target Cost Per Action (CPA): Advertisers set a target cost-per-action (CPA), and Google optimizes bids to get the most conversions within budget and the desired cost per action.

7. Try Display Only Campaigns

display ads for small ppc budgetsScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

For branding and awareness, a display campaign can expand your reach to a wider audience affordably.

Audience targeting is an art in itself, so review the best options for your budget, including topics, placements, demographics, and more.

Remarketing to your website visitors is a smart targeting strategy to include in your display campaigns to re-engage your audience based on their behavior on your website.

Let your ad performance reporting by placements, audiences, and more guide your optimizations toward the best fit for your business.

audience targeting options for small ppc budgetScreenshot by Lisa Raehsler from Google Ads, May 2024

8. Performance Max Campaigns

Performance Max (PMax) campaigns are available in Google Ads and Microsoft Ads.

In short, automation is used to maximize conversion results by serving ads across channels and with automated ad formats.

This campaign type can be useful for limited budgets in that it uses AI to create assets, select channels, and audiences in a single campaign rather than you dividing the budget among multiple campaign types.

Since the success of the PMax campaign depends on the use of conversion data, that data will need to be available and reliable.

9. Target Less Competitive Keywords

Some keywords can have very high cost-per-click (CPC) in a competitive market. Research keywords to compete effectively on a smaller budget.

Use your analytics account to discover organic searches leading to your website, Google autocomplete, and tools like Google Keyword Planner in the Google Ads account to compare and get estimates.

In this example, a keyword such as “business accounting software” potentially has a lower CPC but also lower volume.

Ideally, you would test both keywords to see how they perform in a live campaign scenario.

comparing keywords for small ppc budgetsScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

10. Manage Costly Keywords

High volume and competitive keywords can get expensive and put a real dent in the budget.

In addition to the tip above, if the keyword is a high volume/high cost, consider restructuring these keywords into their own campaign to monitor and possibly set more restrictive targeting and budget.

Levers that can impact costs on this include experimenting with match types and any of the tips in this article. Explore the opportunity to write more relevant ad copy to these costly keywords to improve quality.

Every Click Counts

As you navigate these strategies, you will see that managing a PPC account with a limited budget isn’t just about monetary constraints.

Rocking your small PPC budgets involves strategic campaign management, data-driven decisions, and ongoing optimizations.

In the dynamic landscape of paid search advertising, every click counts, and with the right approach, every click can translate into meaningful results.

More resources: 


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What Are They Really Costing You?

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What Are They Really Costing You?

This post was sponsored by Adpulse. The opinions expressed in this article are the sponsor’s own.

As managers of paid media, one question drives us all: “How do I improve paid ad performance?”. 

Given that our study found close variant search terms perform poorly, yet more than half of the average budget on Google & Microsoft Ads is being spent on them, managing their impact effectively could well be one of your largest optimization levers toward driving significant improvements in ROI. 

“Close variants help you connect with people who are looking for your business, despite slight variations in the way they search.” support.google.com

Promising idea…but what about the execution?

We analyzed over 4.5 million clicks and 400,000 conversions to answer this question: With the rise in close variants (intent matching) search terms, what impact are they having on budgets and account performance? Spoiler alert, the impact is substantial. 


True Match Vs. Close Variants: How Do They Perform?

To understand close variant (CV) performance, we must first define the difference between a true match and a close variant. 

 

What Is a True Match? 

We still remember the good-old-days where keyword match types gave you control over the search terms they triggered, so for this study we used the literal match types to define ‘close variant’ vs ‘true match’. 

  • Exact match keyword => search term matches the keyword exactly. 
  • Phrase match keyword => search term must contain the keyword (same word order).
  • Broad match keyword => search term must contain every individual word in the keyword, but the word order does not matter (the way modified broad match keywords used to work).   

 

What Is a Close Variant? 

If you’re not familiar with close variants (intent matching) search terms, think of them as search terms that are ‘fuzzy matched’ to the keywords you are actually bidding on. 

Some of these close variants are highly relevant and represent a real opportunity to expand your keywords in a positive way. 

Some are close-ish, but the conversions are expensive. 

And (no shocks here) some are truly wasteful. 

….Both Google and Microsoft Ads do this, and you can’t opt-out.

To give an example: if you were a music therapist, you might bid on the phrase match keyword “music therapist”. An example of a true match search term would be ‘music therapist near me’ because it contains the keyword in its true form (phrase match in this case) and a CV might be ‘music and art therapy’.


How Do Close Variants Compare to True Match?

Short answer… poorly, on both Google and Microsoft Ads. Interestingly however, Google showed the worst performance on both metrics assessed, CPA and ROAS. 

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

1718772963 395 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

Want to see the data – jump to it here…

CVs have been embraced by both platforms with (as earlier stated), on average more than half of your budget being spent on CV variant matches. That’s a lot of expansion to reach searches you’re not directly bidding for, so it’s clearly a major driver of performance in your account and, therefore, deserving of your attention. 

We anticipated a difference in metrics between CVs and true match search terms, since the true match search terms directly align with the keywords you’re bidding on, derived from your intimate knowledge of the business offering. 

True match conversions should therefore be the low-hanging fruit, leaving the rest for the platforms to find via CVs. Depending on the cost and ROI, this isn’t inherently bad, but logically we would assume CVs would perform worse than true matches, which is exactly what we observed. 


How Can You Limit Wastage on Close Variants?

You can’t opt out of them, however, if your goal is to manage their impact on performance, you can use these three steps to move the needle in the right direction. And of course, if you’re relying on CVs to boost volume, you’ll need to take more of a ‘quality-screening’ rather than a hard-line ‘everything-must-go’ approach to your CV clean out!

 

Step 1: Diagnose Your CV Problem 

We’re a helpful bunch at Adpulse so while we were scoping our in-app solution, we built a simple spreadsheet that you can use to diagnose how healthy your CVs are. Just make a copy, paste in your keyword and search term data then run the analysis for yourself. Then you can start to clean up any wayward CVs identified. Of course, by virtue of technology, it’s both faster and more advanced in the Adpulse Close Variant Manager 😉.

 

Step 2: Suggested Campaign Structures for Easier CV Management  

Brand Campaigns

If you don’t want competitors or general searches being matched to your brand keywords, this strategy will solve for that. 

Set up one ad group with your exact brand keyword/s, and another ad group with phrase brand keyword/s, then employ the negative keyword strategies in Step 3 below. You might be surprised at how many CVs have nothing to do with your brand, and identifying variants (and adding negative keywords) becomes easy with this structure.

Don’t forget to add your phrase match brand negatives to non-brand campaigns (we love negative lists for this).

Non-Brand Campaigns with Larger Budgets

We suggest a campaign structure with one ad group per match type:

Example Ad Groups:

    • General Plumbers – Exact
    • General Plumbers – Phrase
    • General Plumbers – Broad
    • Emergency Plumbers – Exact
    • Emergency Plumbers – Phrase
    • Emergency Plumbers – Broad

This allows you to more easily identify variants so you can eliminate them quickly. This also allows you to find new keyword themes based on good quality CVs, and add them easily to the campaign. 

Non-Brand Campaigns with Smaller Budgets

Smaller budgets mean the upside of having more data per ad group outweighs the upside of making it easier to trim unwanted CVs, so go for a simpler theme-based ad group structure:

Example Ad Groups:

    • General Plumbers
    • Emergency Plumbers

 

Step 3: Ongoing Actions to Tame Close Variants

Adding great CVs as keywords and poor CVs as negatives on a regular basis is the only way to control their impact.

For exact match ad groups we suggest adding mainly root negative keywords. For example, if you were bidding on [buy mens walking shoes] and a CV appeared for ‘mens joggers’, you could add the single word “joggers” as a phrase/broad match negative keyword, which would prevent all future searches that contain joggers. If you added mens joggers as a negative keyword, other searches that contain the word joggers would still be eligible to trigger. 

In ad groups that contain phrase or broad match keywords you shouldn’t use root negatives unless you’re REALLY sure that the root negative should never appear in any search term. You’ll probably find that you use the whole search term added as an exact match negative much more often than using root negs.


The Proof: What (and Why) We Analyzed

We know CVs are part of the conversations marketers frequently have, and by virtue of the number of conversations we have with agencies each week, we’ve witnessed the increase of CV driven frustration amongst marketers. 

Internally we reached a tipping point and decided to data dive to see if it just felt like a large problem, or if it actually IS a large enough problem that we should devote resources to solving it in-app. First stop…data. 

Our study of CV performance started with thousands of Google and Microsoft Ads accounts, using last 30-day data to May 2024, filtered to exclude:

  • Shopping or DSA campaigns/Ad Groups.
  • Accounts with less than 10 conversions.
  • Accounts with a conversion rate above 50%.
  • For ROAS comparisons, any accounts with a ROAS below 200% or above 2500%.

Search terms in the study are therefore from keyword-based search campaigns where those accounts appear to have a reliable conversion tracking setup and have enough conversion data to be individually meaningful.

The cleaned data set comprised over 4.5 million clicks and 400,000 conversions (over 30 days) across Google and Microsoft Ads; a large enough data set to answer questions about CV performance with confidence.

Interestingly, each platform appears to have a different driver for their lower CV performance. 

CPA Results:

Google Ads was able to maintain its conversion rate, but it chased more expensive clicks to achieve it…in fact, clicks at almost double the average CPC of true match! Result: their CPA of CVs worked out roughly double the CPA of true match.                 

Microsoft Ads only saw slightly poorer CPA performance within CVs; their conversion rate was much lower compared to true match, but their saving grace was that they had significantly lower CPCs, and you can afford to have a lower conversion rate if your click costs are also lower. End outcome? Microsoft Ads CPA on CVs was only slightly more expensive when compared to their CPA on true matches; a pleasant surprise 🙂.

What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

ROAS Results:

Both platforms showed a similar story; CVs delivered roughly half the ROAS of their true match cousins, with Microsoft Ads again being stronger overall. 

 

1718772963 395 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

Underlying Data:

For the data nerds amongst us (at Adpulse we self-identify here !) 

1718772963 88 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024


TL;DR

Close variant search terms consume, on average, more than half an advertiser’s budget whilst in most cases, performing significantly worse than search terms that actually match the keywords. How much worse? Read above for details ^. Enough that managing their impact effectively could well be one of your largest optimization levers toward driving significant improvements in account ROI. 


Image Credits

Featured Image: Image by Adpulse. Used with permission.

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