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How SEO Is Helping Archaeologists Debunk Conspiracy Theories

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How SEO Is Helping Archaeologists Debunk Conspiracy Theories

The opinions expressed within this story are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Search Engine Journal or its affiliates.

You may have heard about “Ancient Apocalypse”, a series in which host Graham Hancock proposes controversial theories about the origins of ancient civilizations.

It spent a week trending in the global top 10 on Netflix, accruing around 24,620,000 watch hours between November 14th and November 20th, 2022.

Netflix lends authority to the show by categorizing it as a “docuseries,” and IMDB classifies it as a “documentary” and “history.”

But online, it’s been shrouded in controversy, and search algorithms might be rewarding good-faith critiques about the show from scientists and educators – as some working archeologists have deemed the show unsubstantiated pseudoscience at best, and dangerous misinformation at worst.

The Society For American Archaeology wrote a letter to Netflix asking it to reclassify and contextualize the show, citing the host’s “aggressive rhetoric,” the show’s “false claims,” and the associations that the theories presented have with “racist, white supremacist ideologies.”

But this is a story about the role SEO plays in the controversy – how scientists and science communicators present their critiques of the show, and how audiences find them.

Search algorithms get a lot of critiques for how they can be used to spread misinformation.

But in this case, I’ve seen support for educators and scientists who have committed to pushing back on popular pseudoscience.

Creators Rebutting “Ancient Apocalypse” Get A Boost From SEO

I first learned of the controversy from YouTube creator “History With Kayleigh,” who, while not an academic or accredited archaeologist, creates educational videos about ancient history and archaeological sites.

She interacted with Tweets from scientists who had responded and “decided to try and write a fair rebuttal to the show,” as she told me.

Kayleigh’s video about “Ancient Apocalypse” isn’t the best-performing video on her channel. Still, it was definitely performing above the average of her recent releases in a short amount of time, at 67,000 views on December 1st.

Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022screenshot of

But then, I took another screenshot of the channel after the weekend, on December 5th.

Kayleigh released a second video, and the first “Ancient Apocalypse: Fact Or Fiction?” had already grown to 104,000 views.

Screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of the

Kayleigh wasn’t the only creator to publish content about the Netflix series.

Dr. Bill Farley, an archaeologist and associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University who runs a small YouTube channel about archaeology in his free time, made one of the earliest YouTube videos critiquing Hancock and the show.

And while his reach is much smaller, his videos about “Ancient Apocalypse” exploded.

A screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022A screenshot of the
Screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of the

Dr. Farley shared screenshots of his YouTube analytics, demonstrating that his first video about Graham Hancock drew more traffic than usual from Google searches.

The below screenshots are from November 22nd, when the video was still around 5,000 views.

For that particular video, the “external” traffic source was around 28%, compared to his channel average of around 10%. A third of that external traffic was from Google.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel
A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

The following screenshot is the overall channel data for comparison.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

He also shared the search terms the video was performing best for within YouTube search.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

I checked in again with his channel on December 5th.

Screenshot of Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of

This first video still gains most of its traffic from search terms. External views on it were about 11% lower on December 5th than they were on November 22nd.

This makes sense with publications picking up the story and filling up search engine results pages (SERPs).

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

The second video has wildly different statistics, being pushed mostly by YouTube’s browse features like recommended videos.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

This time, YouTube seems to have recognized the interest in a trending topic and pushed the video accordingly.

In the first video that he made about “Ancient Archaeology,” Dr. Farley addressed Hancock directly with a critique focusing on the relationship between the theories posed in the show, and white supremacy.

In the second video, Dr. Farley focused on debunking the specific falsehoods in the show.

He told me, “There is a MARKED difference in the reactions to the two videos. In video #1, I mention white supremacy and the history of Atlantean myths with racism. That video has … hundreds of disparaging comments [that] are misogynistic, racist, and homophobic.

The second video also has some comments like this, but many more positive comments or constructive criticisms. This video just spoke directly to some of the falsehoods in the show but does not directly address racism or white supremacy.”

Even with the negative reaction, the fact remains that people watched and engaged with the video, as this screenshot of the video’s engagement statistics shows.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

One could argue that this is a fluke – and that these seemingly successful performance metrics are simply about capitalizing on a trending keyword.

But YouTube algorithms work differently from Google Search.

YouTube uses metadata about videos to estimate relevance, but it also uses user engagement signals such as watch time to test the relevance of videos to particular queries. YouTube’s top ranking factor is viewer satisfaction.

“History with Kayleigh” has a large following already that likely gave her videos a boost. But Dr. Farley doesn’t have a large following, and the reach of his videos comes down to organic discovery.

People Search For Information About “Ancient Apocalypse” And Discover Critique

Other scientists, with small and large followings, have also seen unusually high traffic about this topic on other platforms.

Dr. Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, wrote a rebuttal for The Conversation and noted the popularity of the piece on Twitter:

Screenshot of Tweet by user @FlintDibble on TwitterScreenshot from Twitter, November 2022Screenshot of Tweet by user @FlintDibble on Twitter

I reached out to Dr. Dibble for his perspective. He stated: “I’ve gotten a wide range of responses to my thread. Plenty of abuse, and plenty of praise. Several people clearly found it while searching for more info on the show.

Some, especially within the first week of release, mentioned they were searching Twitter to find reactions to it either before watching or mid-watch.

The people who mentioned finding the thread through a search were all glad for quickly getting a clearer context for the show.”

He shared an example of a Twitter user who went looking for information about the show while they were watching it and appreciated the critique he posted on the platform:

Screenshot of Tweet from user @LUnderstated on TwitterScreenshot from Twitter, December 2022Screenshot of Tweet from user @LUnderstated on Twitter

Dr. Andre Costopoulos, an archaeologist at the University Of Alberta, wrote about the show on his personal WordPress blog and shared his blog analytics with me in late November.

The content he wrote about “Ancient Apocalypse” became the best performing on his website in a matter of days, with Google Search making up the clear majority of traffic.

internal analytics of archeothoughts.wordpress.comScreenshot of internal analytics from archeothoughts.wordpress.com, November 2022internal analytics of archeothoughts.wordpress.com

Overall, this isn’t a huge amount of traffic. What’s interesting here is how the content about the show compares to other content by this creator, especially because the site is relatively small.

Dr. Costopoulos believes that scientists can reach audiences hungry for information if they learn the tools.

“Scientists can use these tools just as well as our pseudo-alters,” he told me, “and often to better effect, because we actually have evidence to back up our claims.”

How SEO Can Be Used To Spread Misinformation

Search algorithms are hotbeds of misinformation.

Dissemination of conspiracies and misinformation has been a hot topic on many different platforms, from YouTube to Facebook.

Google has been reckoning with misinformation and how best to solve it for years.

People who peddle conspiracy theories and pseudoscience know this. They’re expert marketers and storytellers, and they’re good at SEO.

That can make it much more difficult to communicate good science than misinformation. Scientists have demanding jobs outside of marketing and publishing, and their conclusions are often difficult to communicate effectively.

They’re not trained to do it, and academia is slow to adapt to digital trends.

That paves the way for a conspiracy theory to take off with little more than a good story and good marketing.

Dr. Farley said: “By and large, I think academics have no idea how to do SEO (I’m just stumbling around in the dark myself), and misinformation folks are much, much better at it. Academics, frankly, don’t have the time to learn this stuff.

It would be really cool if our universities would help… but I’ve found the media departments at unis are very old school. If I brought this to them, they’d pitch a media statement to the local newspaper.

Our media department is great and has great intentions, but by and large, they’re early in the game on using social media as a media tool.”

So we have a conundrum where scientists, who aren’t necessarily trained in communications and marketing, face off against professional marketers of ideas. And they’re doing it with personal passion projects on top of their existing jobs.

When it comes to organic reach, scientists need allies.

Is Critique Of “Ancient Apocalypse” Having An Impact?

The results don’t seem as encouraging when you zoom out and take a look at the SERPs for “Ancient Apocalypse.”

I opened an incognito window in Chrome and made sure my VPN was turned on (United States location), then searched for [ancient apocalypse].

Screenshot of Google search [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google search [ancient apocalypse]

The results here are a bit of a mixed bag.

The first result is just a link to the show. That’s to be expected.

Immediately below are the video results. The second video result appears to support the show. It had around 60,000 views when I took the screenshot. That’s a significant amount of reach compared to the examples we looked at above.

The third video result has much fewer views but critiques the show.

We can also see, on the information panel, that the critiques from the scientific community may not be having a widespread impact. Audiences review the show well.

Underneath the video results, we do see critiques from The Guardian and Slate. Let’s flip over to the news results.

Screenshot of Google news results for [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google news results for [ancient apocalypse]

These are mostly critiques of the show published on large media platforms. Journalists are helping scientists get their message out.

I checked in again a few days later, using an incognito guest Chrome browser with my VPN turned on (United States location). There was an interesting change in the SERP:

Screenshot of Google search results for [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google search results for [ancient apocalypse]

It looks like Google picked up on the controversy and the newsworthiness of the search. The video results were gone, replaced by a “Top Stories” search feature that appears above the organic results.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

Archaeologists Saw A Boost From SEO With Limited, But Important, Impact

Archaeologists did see a boost from SEO on this topic. But we can see from Google results that the show is popular, and the show’s supporters have a lot of traction too.

The limited effect of this collective effort demonstrates the hurdles facing science communicators. The impact of their critique seems to be a drop in the bucket compared to millions of people who watched the show.

But we shouldn’t discount the success of these scientists and educators, either.

They’re building communities, providing information for people who search for it, and changing minds. When you look closely, you can clearly search algorithms rewarding these creators for their efforts.

Interested users do discover legitimate scientific research when they look into the series. The content is reaching people, and it’s inspiring them to examine the show critically.

This is encouraging news for the overall quality of search.

I think marketers can help here.

SEO professionals have the knowledge and resources to help amplify these messages. Perhaps we could consider it a little bit of search community service.

More resources: 


Featured Image: Elnur/Shutterstock

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Do Higher Content Scores Mean Higher Google Rankings? Our Data Says It’s Unlikely.

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Do Higher Content Scores Mean Higher Google Rankings? Our Data Says It's Unlikely.

I studied the correlation between rankings and content scores from four popular content optimization tools: Clearscope, Surfer, MarketMuse, and Frase. The result? Weak correlations all around.

This suggests (correlation does not necessarily imply causation!) that obsessing over your content score is unlikely to lead to significantly higher Google rankings.

Does that mean content optimization scores are pointless?

No. You just need to know how best to use them and understand their flaws.

Most tools’ content scores are based on keywords. If top-ranking pages mention keywords your page doesn’t, your score will be low. If it does, your score will be high.

While this has its obvious flaws (having more keyword mentions doesn’t always mean better topic coverage), content scores can at least give some indication of how comprehensively you’re covering the topic. This is something Google is looking for.

Google says that comprehensively covering the topic is a sign of quality contentGoogle says that comprehensively covering the topic is a sign of quality content

If your page’s score is significantly lower than the scores of competing pages, you’re probably missing important subtopics that searchers care about. Filling these “content gaps” might help improve your rankings.

However, there’s nuance to this. If competing pages score in the 80-85 range while your page scores 79, it likely isn’t worth worrying about. But if it’s 95 vs. 20 then yeah, you should probably try to cover the topic better.

Key takeaway

Don’t obsess over content scores. Use them as a barometer for topic coverage. If your score is significantly lower than competitors, you’re probably missing important subtopics and might rank higher by filling those “content gaps.”

There are at least two downsides you should be aware of when it comes to content scores.

They’re easy to cheat

Content scores tend to be largely based on how many times you use the recommended set of keywords. In some tools, you can literally copy-paste the entire list, draft nothing else, and get an almost perfect score.

Scoring 98 on MarketMuse after shoehorning all the suggested keywords without any semblance of a draftScoring 98 on MarketMuse after shoehorning all the suggested keywords without any semblance of a draft

This is something we aim to solve with our upcoming content optimization tool: Content Master.

I can’t reveal too much about this yet, but it has a big USP compared to most existing content optimization tools: its content score is based on topic coverage—not just keywords.

For example, it tells us that our SEO strategy template should better cover subtopics like keyword research, on-page SEO, and measuring and tracking SEO success.

Preview of our upcoming Content Master toolPreview of our upcoming Content Master tool

But, unlike other content optimization tools, lazily copying and pasting related keywords into the document won’t necessarily increase our content score. It’s smart enough to understand that keyword coverage and topic coverage are different things.

Sidenote.

This tool is still in production so the final release may look a little different.

They encourage copycat content

Content scores tell you how well you’re covering the topic based on what’s already out there. If you cover all important keywords and subtopics from the top-ranking pages and create the ultimate copycat content, you’ll score full marks.

This is a problem because quality content should bring something new to the table, not just rehash existing information. Google literally says this in their helpful content guidelines.

Google says quality content goes beyond obvious information. It needs to bring something new to the tableGoogle says quality content goes beyond obvious information. It needs to bring something new to the table

In fact, Google even filed a patent some years back to identify ‘information gain’: a measurement of the new information provided by a given article, over and above the information present in other articles on the same topic.

You can’t rely on content optimization tools or scores to create something unique. Making something that stands out from the rest of the search results will require experience, experimentation, or effort—something only humans can have/do.

Enrich common knowledge with new information and experiences in your contentEnrich common knowledge with new information and experiences in your content

Big thanks to my colleagues Si Quan and Calvinn who did the heavy lifting for this study. Nerd notes below. 😉

  • For the study, we selected 20 random keywords and pulled the top 20 ranking pages.
  • We pulled the SERPs before the March 2024 update was rolled out.
  • Some of the tools had issues pulling the top 20 pages, which we suspect was due to SERP features.
  • Clearscope didn’t give numerical scores; they opted for grades. We used ChatGPT to convert those grades into numbers.
  • Despite their increasing prominence in the SERPs, most of the tools had trouble analyzing Reddit, Quora, and YouTube. They typically gave a zero or no score for these results. If they gave no scores, we excluded them from the analysis.
  • The reason why we calculated both Spearman and Kendall correlations (and took the average) is because according to Calvinn (our Data Scientist), Spearman correlations are more sensitive and therefore more prone to being swayed by small sample size and outliers. On the other hand, the Kendall rank correlation coefficient only takes order into account. So, it is more robust for small sample sizes and less sensitive to outliers.

Final thoughts

Improving your content score is unlikely to hurt Google rankings. After all, although the correlation between scores and rankings is weak, it’s still positive. Just don’t obsess and spend hours trying to get a perfect score; scoring in the same ballpark as top-ranking pages is enough.

You also need to be aware of their downsides, most notably that they can’t help you craft unique content. That requires human creativity and effort.

Any questions or comments? Ping me on X or LinkedIn.



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Unlocking Brand Growth: Strategies for B2B and E-commerce Marketers

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Unlocking Brand Growth: Strategies for B2B and E-commerce Marketers

In today’s fast-paced digital landscape, scaling a brand effectively requires more than just an innovative product or service. For B2B and e-commerce marketers, understanding the intricacies of growth strategies across different stages of business development is crucial.  

A recent analysis of 71 brands offers valuable insights into the optimal strategies for startups, scaleups, mature brands, and majority offline businesses. Here’s what we learned. 

Startup Stage: Building the Foundation 

Key Strategy: Startups focus on impressions-driven channels like Paid Social to establish their audience base. This approach is essential for gaining visibility and creating a strong initial footprint in the market. 

Case Study: Pooch & Mutt exemplified this strategy by leveraging Paid Social to achieve significant year-on-year revenue gains while also improving acquisition costs. This foundational step is crucial for setting the stage for future growth and stability. 

Scaleup Stage: Accelerating Conversion 

Key Strategy: For scaleups, having already established an audience, the focus shifts to conversion activities. Increasing spend in impressions-led media helps continue generating demand while maintaining a balance with acquisition costs. 

Case Study: The Essence Vault successfully applied this approach, scaling their Meta presence while minimizing cost increases. This stage emphasizes the importance of efficient spending to maximize conversion rates and sustain growth momentum. 

Mature Stage: Expanding Horizons 

Key Strategy: Mature brands invest in higher funnel activities to avoid market saturation and explore international expansion opportunities. This strategic pivot ensures sustained growth and market diversification. 

Case Study: Represent scaled their efforts on TikTok, enhancing growth and improving Meta efficiency. By expanding their presence in the US, they exemplified how mature brands can navigate saturation and seek new markets for continued success. 

Majority Offline Brands: Embracing Digital Channels 

Key Strategy: Majority offline brands primarily invest in click-based channels like Performance Max. However, the analysis reveals significant opportunities in Paid Social, suggesting a balanced approach for optimal results. 

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How To Use The Google Ads Search Terms Report

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How To Use The Google Ads Search Terms Report

One of the most essential aspects of a profitable Google Ads strategy is reaching the right people, with the right message, while they’re searching.

To do this correctly, you need to know exactly how your ads are doing and what words potential customers are using to search.

This is where the Google Ads search terms report comes in handy.

This report is a goldmine and an invaluable asset to every Google Ads account.

With insights into exact phrases being used to trigger your ads, the search terms report can help:

  • Significantly refine your keyword strategy.
  • Enhance your targeting.
  • Boost your return on investment (ROI).

Let’s get into why the Google Ads search terms report is not only helpful but essential for maximizing Google Ads profitability.

What Is The Google Ads Search Terms Report?

The search terms report is a performance tool that shows how your ad performed when triggered by actual searches on the Google Search Network.

The report shows specific terms and phrases that triggered your ad to show, which helps determine if you’re bidding on the right keywords or using the right match types.

If you find search terms that aren’t relevant for your business, you can easily add them to your negative keyword list repository.

This helps you spend your budget more effectively by ensuring your ads are only triggered for relevant, useful searches by potential customers.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a search term and a keyword:

  • Search term: Shows the exact word or phrase a customer enters on the Google Search Network to trigger an ad.
  • Keyword: The word or phrase that Google Ads advertisers target and bid on to show their ads to customers.

How To Create A Search Terms Report

Creating a search terms report in your Google Ads account is simple, and better yet – it can be automated!

To view your search terms report, you’ll need to:

  • Log into your Google Ads account.
  • Navigate to “Campaigns” >> “Insights & reports” >> “Search terms”

Below is an example of where to navigate in your Google Ads account to find the search terms report.

Screenshot taken by author, April 2024

After running this report, there are multiple actions you can take as a marketer:

  • Add top-performing searches to corresponding ad groups as keywords.
  • Select the desired match type (e.g. broad, phrase, exact) if adding new keywords.
  • Add irrelevant search terms to a negative keyword list.

3 Ways To Use Search Terms Report Data

As mentioned above, there are numerous ways you can use the search terms report data to optimize campaign performance.

Let’s take a look at three examples of how to use this report to get the best bang for your buck.

1. Refine Existing Keyword Lists

The first area the search terms report can help with is refining existing keyword lists.

By combing through the search terms report, you can find areas of opportunities, including:

  • What searches are leading to conversions.
  • What searches are irrelevant to the product or service.
  • What searches have high impressions but low clicks.
  • How searches are being mapped to existing keywords and ad groups.

For searches leading to conversions, it likely makes sense to add those as keywords to an existing ad group or create a new ad group.

If you’re finding some searches to be irrelevant to what you’re selling, it’s best to add them as negative keywords. That prevents your ad from showing up for that search moving forward.

If some searches have a high volume of impressions, but very few clicks, these will take further consideration. If it’s a keyword worth bidding on, it may indicate that the bid strategy isn’t competitive enough – meaning you’ll have to take action on your bid strategy.

If a search term is being triggered by multiple keywords and ad groups, this is a case of cross-pollution of keywords. This can lead to lower ROI because it’s essentially having multiple keywords bid on that search term, which can drive up the cost. If this happens, you have a few options:

  • Review and update existing keyword match types as necessary.
  • Add negative keywords where appropriate at the ad group or campaign level to avoid cross-pollution.

Ultimately, using the search terms report in this way allows you to determine what is performing well and eliminate poor performers.

2. Understand How Your Audience Is Actually Searching For Your Product

Something I often see is a mismatch of how a company talks about its product or service vs. how a customer is actually searching for it in the real world.

If you’re bidding on keywords you think describe your product or service but are not getting any traction, you could be misaligning expectations.

Oftentimes, searches that lead to conversions are from terms you wouldn’t have thought to bid on without looking at the search terms report.

One of this report’s most underutilized use cases is finding lesser-known ways customers are searching for and finding your product.

Finding these types of keywords may result in the creation of a new campaign, especially if the search terms don’t fit existing ad group structures.

Building out campaigns by different search themes allows for appropriate bidding strategies for each because not all keyword values are created equal!

Understanding how a customer is describing their need for a product or service not only helps your keyword strategy but can lead to better-aligned product positioning.

This leads us to a third way the search term report can help your campaigns.

3. Optimize Ad Copy and Landing Pages

As discussed in #2, customers’ language and phrases can provide valuable insights into their needs and preferences.

Marketers can use the search terms report to better tailor ad copy, making it more relevant and appealing to prospective customers.

And let’s not forget about the corresponding landing page!

Once a user clicks on an ad, they expect to see an alignment of what they searched for and what is presented on a website.

Make sure that landing page content is updated regularly to better match the searcher’s intent.

This can result in a better user experience and an improvement in conversion rates.

How Using The Search Terms Report Can Help ROI

All three examples above are ways that the search terms report can improve campaign ROI.

How so?

Let’s take a look at each example further.

How Refining Keywords Helps ROI

Part of refining existing keywords is negating any irrelevant search terms that trigger an ad.

Having a solid negative keyword strategy gets rid of “unwanted” spending on keywords that don’t make sense.

That previously “wasted” spend then gets redirected to campaigns that regularly drive higher ROI.

Additionally, adding top-performing search terms gives you better control from a bid strategy perspective.

Being able to pull the appropriate levers and setting proper bid strategies by search theme ultimately leads to better ROI.

How Understanding Audience Intent Helps ROI

By understanding the exact language and search terms that potential customers use, marketers can update ad copy and landing pages to better match those searches.

This can increase ad relevance and Ad Rank within Google Ads.

These items help with keyword Quality Score, which can help reduce CPCs as your Quality Score increases.

More relevant ads likely lead to higher click-through rates, which leads to a higher likelihood of converting those users!

How Updating Ad Copy And Landing Pages Helps ROI

This example goes hand-in-hand with the above recommendation.

As you start to better understand the audience’s search intent, updating ad copy and landing pages to reflect their search indicates better ad relevance.

Once a user clicks on that relevant ad, they find the content of the landing page matches better to what they’re looking for.

This enhanced relevance can significantly increase the likelihood of conversion, which ultimately boosts ROI.

Use This Report To Make Data-Driven Decisions

Google Ads is an integral part of any digital marketing strategy, often accounting for a large portion of your marketing budget.

By regularly reviewing the search terms report, you can refine your marketing budget to make your Google Ads campaigns more effective.

Using this report to make data-driven decisions that fine-tune multiple facets of campaign management leads to more effective ad spending, higher conversions, and ultimately higher ROI.

More resources: 


Featured Image: FGC/Shutterstock

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