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How to Find Your Competitors’ Backlinks (And Get Them for Yourself)

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How to Find Your Competitors' Backlinks (And Get Them for Yourself)

If you’re looking to build more backlinks to your website, checking how your competitors built and earned their backlinks is a good starting point.

That’s because understanding how they got links can help inform your link building strategy. 

In this post, you’ll learn how to find, replicate, and learn from your competitors’ backlinks.

How to find your competitors’ backlinks

You need an SEO tool like Ahrefs to do this, which is consistently voted top dog in SEO industry polls

Free method (top 100 backlinks)

Head over to our free backlink checker and plug in your competitor’s domain or URL. You’ll see the total number of backlinks and referring domains (linking websites) and the top 100 backlinks (referring page, anchor, and target URL).

Checking backlinks with Ahrefs' free backlink checker

Paid method (all backlinks)

Sign up for Ahrefs, plug your competitor’s domain or URL into Site Explorer, then go to the Backlinks report. You’ll see all their backlinks. In this case, over 80,000 of them. 

Checking backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

If you want to hone in on specific backlinks, such as those from English pages on websites with traffic, use the filters.

Filtering backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Not sure who your competitors are?

Enter your website or webpage’s URL into Site Explorer and go to the Organic competitors report. You’ll see a list of websites or webpages that rank for the keywords as your target.

Organic competitors report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

How to replicate your competitors’ backlinks

It’s impossible to replicate all of your competitors’ backlinks, but there are ways to get some of them (or similar ones) for yourself:

  1. Find and copy their replicable links
  2. Find and copy the link building tactics that are working for them
  3. Find links that you can loot from them

Let’s take a closer look at how to do these three things.

Finding your competitors’ replicable links

Most of your competitors’ backlinks will be extremely hard to replicate like for like, but it’s usually possible to replicate some of them. Let’s look at a few ways to do this.

Find competitors’ directory links

Directory links are far from the most powerful links, but they’re easy to replicate. Many SEOs believe they help with “map pack” rankings for local businesses too.

Here’s the easiest way to find them:

  1. Enter your homepage into Site Explorer
  2. Go to the Link Intersect report
  3. Enter a few competitors’ homepages in blank fields
  4. Set the search mode for all pages to “URL”
  5. Hit “Show link opportunities”
How to use the Link Intersect report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

This will show you the websites linking to one or more of your competitors’ homepages, but not to yours. It’s then just a case of eyeballing the list for sites that look like niche and local directories. 

Results of the Link Intersect report

If you’re not sure whether a site is a directory, click the caret in one of the competing page columns to see the referring page, anchor, and backlink. You can usually tell from this.

Reveal the referring page with the caret

If you’re still unsure, click on the page to check manually. 

Example of a directory link

Replicating these links is usually as simple as signing up for an account and adding your business. 

Sidenote.

Be aware that some directories charge a fee. Don’t be tempted to pay these for SEO purposes, as they won’t be worth it. Only pay if the directory is likely to send you customers.

Find listicles where competitors are mentioned, but not you

If competitors are mentioned in listicles of the best tools/restaurants/whatever your business does, there’s a chance you may be able to get mentioned in that same listicle (and a mention usually comes with a link).

These kinds of listicles are usually easy to spot in a competitor’s Backlinks report. 

Examples of listicles in the Backlinks report

However, the best opportunities come from listicles mentioning multiple competitors because the topic of the page is more likely to be relevant to your business.

Here’s an easy way to find these:

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Content Explorer
  2. Search for “competitor 1” “competitor 2” “competitor 3” -“your business name”
Finding competitor mentions in Ahrefs' Content Explorer

Sidenote.

Using this method, there’s no guarantee that the mentions are linked, but they usually are.

It’s then just a case of sifting through the results and pitching the authors of listicles where it makes sense to add your business. 

Here’s what that pitch might look like for Aweber:

Hey [Name],

Just came across your list of the best email marketing tools and noticed Aweber wasn’t included. Is that because you didn’t like our platform or haven’t tried it?

If it’s the latter, I’d love to hook you up with a free account so you can give it a shot.

What do you think?

[Name]

Note that the email doesn’t explicitly ask the author to add anything to their list. It just asks if they’re familiar with the sender’s tool. This is intentional. It’s easier to ask for inclusion after you win folks over. 

Find competitors’ links from interviews and podcasts

Interview and podcast links are more common in some industries than others, so you may not find any among your competitors. But as they only take a minute to search for, it’s well worth a quick check. 

Here’s an easy way to find them:

  1. Go to Site Explorer
  2. Enter the Twitter profile URL of your competitor’s CEO, CMO, or whoever the most prolific marketer is within the company
  3. Go to the Backlinks report
  4. Filter for results where the referring page URL contains “podcast,” “episode,” or “interview”
Filtering the Backlinks report for interview and podcasts links in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

You then just need to pitch the same interviews and podcasts. 

Find competitors’ guest posts

Guest posting is the third most popular link building tactic, according to Aira’s 2022 State of Link Building report, so it’s probably a tactic that at least some of your competitors are using. 

However, while you can find them in a competitor’s Backlinks report, they can be hard to spot. 

For example, one of the links below is from a guest post and the other isn’t. But there’s no way to tell this from the link profile itself.

Examples of link that is guest post and another that isn't

With that in mind, here’s an easier way to find a competitor’s guest posts:

  1. Go to Content Explorer
  2. Search for topic + author:“name of your competitor’s prolific marketer”
  3. Filter for one page per domain
Searching for content by a prolific guest blogger in Ahrefs' Content Explorer

Most of the results should be guest posts by that person. Replicating them is as simple as reaching out and pitching the same websites.

Finding and copying link building tactics that work for competitors

If your competitors have lots of backlinks from directories, podcasts, interviews, or guest posts, these link building tactics are clearly working for them. So don’t limit yourself to replicating only the exact links they got. Pursue other links from these tactics too.

Here are some tutorials to help: 

Sidenote.

*Most citations come from directories, so building citation opportunities is pretty much the same thing as finding opportunities to get links from directories.

However, there are two more commonly used tactics worth checking for. 

Check for links from journalist requests

Bloggers and journalists often use services like Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and MuckRack to source quotes for upcoming stories—and they usually link to their sources.

For example, here’s someone from “Martha Stewart Living” asking for a quote about how plumbing leaks occur in the home.

Example HARO request

Max Rose from Four Seasons Plumbing was one of the people to respond to this, and he received a quote and backlink from the article in return.

Example HARO link

Here’s how to check if your competitors are building backlinks this way:

  1. Go to Site Explorer
  2. Enter a competitor’s homepage
  3. Set the search mode to “Exact URL”
  4. Go to the Backlinks report
  5. Look for quotes in the “Anchor and target URL” column
Looking for HARO backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

If you spot a few quotes from the same person, like “Max Rose” in this case, filter for that name in the anchor and surrounding text to hone in on these kinds of links.

Filtering for HARO backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

If you see a fair number of links from quotes, there’s a good chance your competitor is actively responding to journalist requests—and that it’s working. So it’s probably worth responding to requests via HARO and similar platforms yourself too.

Check for passively earned links from linkable points

Linkable points are things like facts, statistics, and unique ideas that resonate with the linkerati and attract backlinks. Even if your competitors aren’t consciously using this tactic to earn links, it could still be one of the ways they’re earning them—so it’s worth checking.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Go to Site Explorer
  2. Enter one of the top-ranking pages for your target keyword
  3. Go to the Anchors report
  4. Look for anchors relating to facts, figures, or unique ideas

For example, the Anchors report for a page ranking for “seo copywriting” mentions the “APP” method/formula a few times:

Anchors report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

This is a term coined by the post’s author, and it has earned him some decent links.

Because of this, when we wrote our own guide to SEO copywriting, we decided to coin a similar term in an effort to earn some passive backlinks.

Coined term from our post on SEO copywriting

If we check the Anchors report for our page, we can see it’s earned us a couple of links so far: 

Backlinks we earned thanks to our coined term, via the Anchors report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

This is not astonishing by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re two links we wouldn’t have unless we included proven, linkable points.

We had more success with this method when creating our list of SEO statistics (we documented that process in this link building case study), which has earned links from over 1,700 referring domains in under two years.

Backlink growth to our list of SEO statistics

Finding links you can loot from competitors

Your competitors may have links that no longer make sense for them to have. If you can provide linkers with a better alternative, you can often take these links for yourself.

Here are a few tactics that revolve around this idea:

Broken link building

Broken link building is where you find a dead page with backlinks, create your own resource on the topic, then ask linkers to link to that instead.

For example, this page about SEO tips can’t be found:

Example of a dead page

If we plug that URL into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, we see it has backlinks from 177 referring domains:

This dead page has backlinks from 177 referring domains

If we were to create our own list of SEO tips, we could reach out to these 177 websites and suggest replacing that dead link with a link to our list. 

But how do you find your competitors’ broken pages with backlinks in the first place?

If you have a specific competitor in mind, do this:

  1. Go to Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Best by links report
  4. Add a “404 not found” HTTP code filter
Filtering for dead pages with backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

You’ll see a list of dead pages on their website, sorted by the number of referring domains pointing to them. 

If you don’t have a specific competitor in mind, do this:

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Content Explorer
  2. Search for a topic
  3. Filter for broken pages only
  4. Filter for pages with referring domains (the minimum number is up to you)
Searching for dead pages about a topic in Ahrefs' Content Explorer

You’ll see a list of broken pages related to the topic with at least the minimum set number of referring domains.

Regardless of which method you use, the process from there is the same: 

  • Check what the page used to be – To do this, plug the URL into the Wayback Machine. It needs to be something you can create similar content about.
  • Check the quality of the page’s backlinks – To do this, run a backlink audit in Site Explorer. If it doesn’t have good links, it’s not the best opportunity for a broken link building campaign.
  • Reach out to linkers and suggest they swap the link – To do this more easily, use an outreach tool like Pitchbox or BuzzStream.

301 redirect link building

301 redirect link building is where you look for your competitors’ irrelevant redirects, then pitch a replacement to linkers.

For example, this page about the Google Penguin Update on Search Engine Land has backlinks from 1.2K referring domains:

This redirected page has backlinks from 1.2K referring domains

But, for some reason, it redirects to a page about “Google SEO”:

Example of an irrelevant 301 redirect

This is a problem because people clicking through from those 1.2K websites will end up on a completely unrelated page. For that reason, there’s an opportunity here to pitch a link swap to linkers (same as with broken link building).

But how do you find your competitors’ irrelevant 301 redirects in the first place?

  1. Go to Site Explorer
  2. Enter a competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Best by links report
  4. Add a “3XX redirect” HTTP code filter
Filtering for 301 redirects with backlinks in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

It’s then just a case of double-checking what the page used to be in the Wayback Machine, auditing the quality of the page’s links, creating a relevant replacement, and suggesting it to linkers. 

Run a competitor link analysis

Some of your competitors’ “lootable” links won’t fall neatly into the box of a known link building tactic. The process of finding them is quite nuanced and takes some experience, but you’ll often find unique pitches this way.

For example, say we wanted to build links to our list of Google ranking factors. If we check the top-ranking results for this keyword in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, we see that many of them have hundreds of (potentially “lootable”) backlinks from hundreds of domains: 

Referring domains pointing to the top-ranking pages for "google ranking factors"

When I plugged one of those competing URLs into Site Explorer and checked the Backlinks report, alarm bells started to ring when I saw the anchor and surrounding text for this link:

One of the backlinks to a competing page about Google ranking factors

It claims that bounce rate, dwell time, and repeat visits are ranking factors.

Not true.

Given that this link must be based on advice from the linked (competing) page, I decided to take a look myself. What I found was a page giving lots of dangerously bad advice: 

Many of the factors listed on the competing page are misleading
The highlighted ranking factors are not ranking factors at all.

I’m not sure how much linkers would care, but I think there’s an opportunity here to reach out to all worthwhile prospects, explain that they’re linking to an inaccurate post, and suggest linking to our list of ranking factors instead. 

Even if only a fraction of them care, we win a few links while combating misinformation. It’s a win-win. 

Final thoughts

Finding your competitors’ backlinks is easy. Getting the same ones to your site is less easy. 

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Start by replicating the easy ones, then find and copy the link building tactics that work for them, and finally take any links they no longer deserve for yourself.

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.



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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. 


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Featured Image: Image by Adpulse. Used with permission.

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How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console And How To Fix Them

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How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console And How To Fix Them

Google Search Console is an essential tool that offers critical insights into your website’s performance in Google search results.

Occasionally, you might observe a sudden decline in organic traffic, and it’s crucial to understand the potential causes behind this drop. The data stored within Google Search Console (GSC) can be vital in troubleshooting and understanding what has happened to your website.

Before troubleshooting GSC traffic declines, it’s important to understand first what Google says about assessing traffic graphs in GSC and how it reports on different metrics.

Understanding Google Search Console Metrics

Google’s documentation on debugging Search traffic drops is relatively comprehensive (compared to the guidance given in other areas) and can, for the most part, help prevent any immediate or unnecessary panic should there be a change in data.

Despite this, I often find that Search Console data is misunderstood by both clients and those in the first few years of SEO and learning the craft.

Image from Google Search Central, May 2024

Even with these definitions, if your clicks and impressions graphs begin to resemble any of the above graph examples, there can be wider meanings.

Search Central description  It could also be a sign that…
Large drop from an algorithmic update, site-wide security, or spam issue This could also signal a serious technical issue, such as accidentally deploying a noindex onto a URL or returning the incorrect status code – I’ve seen it before where the URL renders content but returns a 410.
Seasonality You will know your seasonality better than anyone, but if this graph looks inverse it could be a sign that during peak search times, Google is rotating the search engine results pages (SERPs) and choosing not to rank your site highly. This could be because, during peak search periods, there is a slight intent shift in the queries’ dominant interpretation.
Technical issues across your site, changing interests This type of graph could also represent seasonality (both as a gradual decline or increase).
Reporting glitch ¯_(ツ)_/¯ This graph can represent intermittent technical issues as well as reporting glitches. Similar to the alternate reasons for graphs like Seasonality, it could represent a short-term shift in the SERPs and what meets the needs of an adjusted dominant interpretation of a query.

Clicks & Impressions

Google filters Click and Impression data in Google Search Console through a combination of technical methods and policies designed to ensure the accuracy, reliability, and integrity of the reported data.

Reasons for this include:

  • Spam and bot filtering.
  • Duplicate data removal.
  • User privacy/protection.
  • Removing “invalid activities.”
  • Data aggregation and sampling.

One of the main reasons I’ve seen GSC change the numbers showing the UI and API is down to the setting of thresholds.

Google may set thresholds for including data in reports to prevent skewed metrics due to very low-frequency queries or impressions. For example, data for queries that result in very few impressions might be excluded from reports to maintain the statistical reliability of the metrics.

Average Position

Google Search Console produces the Average Position metric by calculating the average ranking of a website’s URLs for a specific query or set of queries over a defined period of time.

Each time a URL appears in the search results for a query, its position is recorded. For instance, if a URL appears in the 3rd position for one query and in the 7th position for another query, these positions are logged separately.

As we enter the era of AI Overviews, John Mueller has confirmed via Slack conversations that appearing in a generative snapshot will affect the average position of the query and/or URL in the Search Console UI.

1718702762 996 How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console AndSource: John Mueller via The SEO Community Slack channel

I don’t rely on the average position metric in GSC for rank tracking, but it can be useful in trying to debug whether or not Google is having issues establishing a single dominant page for specific queries.

Understanding how the tool compiles data allows you to better diagnose the reasons as to why, and correlate data with other events such as Google updates or development deployments.

Google Updates

A Google broad core algorithm update is a significant change to Google’s search algorithm intended to improve the relevance and quality of search results.

These updates do not target specific sites or types of content but alter specific systems that make up the “core” to an extent it is noteworthy for Google to announce that an update is happening.

Google makes updates to the various individual systems all the time, so the lack of a Google announcement does not disqualify a Google update from being the cause of a change in traffic.

For example, the website in the below screenshot saw a decline from the March 2023 core update but then recovered in the November 2023 core update.

GSC: the website saw a decline from the March 2023 core updateScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

The following screenshot shows another example of a traffic decline correlating with a Google update, and it also shows that recovery doesn’t always occur with future updates.

traffic decline correlating with a Google updateScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

This site is predominantly informational content supporting a handful of marketing landing pages (a traditional SaaS model) and has seen a steady decline correlating with the September 2023 helpful content update.

How To Fix This

Websites negatively impacted by a broad core update can’t fix specific issues to recover.

Webmasters should focus on providing the best possible content and improving overall site quality.

Recovery, however, may occur when the next broad core update is rolled out if the site has improved in quality and relevance or Google adjusts specific systems and signal weightings back in the favour of your site.

In SEO terminology, we also refer to these traffic changes as an algorithmic penalty, which can take time to recover from.

SERP Layout Updates

Given the launch of AI Overviews, I feel many SEO professionals will conduct this type of analysis in the coming months.

In addition to AI Overviews, Google can choose to include a number of different SERP features ranging from:

  • Shopping results.
  • Map Packs.
  • X (Twitter) carousels.
  • People Also Ask accordions.
  • Featured snippets.
  • Video thumbnails.

All of these not only detract and distract users from the traditional organic results, but they also cause pixel shifts.

From our testing of SGE/AI Overviews, we see traditional results being pushed down anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pixels.

When this happens you’re not likely to see third-party rank tracking tools show a decrease, but you will see clicks decline in GSC.

The impact of SERP features on your traffic depends on two things:

  • The type of feature introduced.
  • Whether your users predominantly use mobile or desktop.

Generally, SERP features are more impactful to mobile traffic as they greatly increase scroll depth, and the user screen is much smaller.

You can establish your dominant traffic source by looking at the device breakdown in Google Search Console:

Device by users: clicks and impressionsImage from author’s website, May 2024

You can then compare the two graphs in the UI, or by exporting data via the API with it broken down by devices.

How To Fix This

When Google introduces new SERP features, you can adjust your content and site to become “more eligible” for them.

Some are driven by structured data, and others are determined by Google systems after processing your content.

If Google has introduced a feature that results in more zero-click searches for a particular query, you need to first quantify the traffic loss and then adjust your strategy to become more visible for similar and associated queries that still feature in your target audience’s overall search journey.

Seasonality Traffic Changes

Seasonality in demand refers to predictable fluctuations in consumer interest and purchasing behavior that occur at specific times of the year, influenced by factors such as holidays, weather changes, and cultural events.

Notably, a lot of ecommerce businesses will see peaks in the run-up to Christmas and Thanksgiving, whilst travel companies will see seasonality peaks at different times of the year depending on the destinations and vacation types they cater to.

The below screenshot is atypical of a business that has a seasonal peak in the run-up to Christmas.

seasonal peaks as measured in GSCScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

You will see these trends in the Performance Report section and likely see users and sessions mirrored in other analytics platforms.

During a seasonal peak, Google may choose to alter the SERPs in terms of which websites are ranked and which SERP features appear. This occurs when the increase in search demand also brings with it a change in user intent, thus changing the dominant interpretation of the query.

In the travel sector, the shift is often from a research objective to a commercial objective. Out-of-season searchers are predominantly researching destinations or looking for deals, and when it is time to book, they’re using the same search queries but looking to book.

As a result, webpages with a value proposition that caters more to the informational intent are either “demoted” in rankings or swapped out in favor of webpages that (in Google’s eyes) better cater to users in satisfying the commercial intent.

How To Fix This

There is no direct fix for traffic increases and decreases caused by seasonality.

However, you can adjust your overall SEO strategy to accommodate this and work to create visibility for the website outside of peak times by creating content to meet the needs and intent of users who may have a more research and information-gathering intent.

Penalties & Manual Actions

A Google penalty is a punitive action taken against a website by Google, reducing its search rankings or removing it from search results, typically due to violations of Google’s guidelines.

As well as receiving a notification in GSC, you’ll typically see a sharp decrease in traffic, akin to the graph below:

Google traffic decline from penaltyScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

Whether or not the penalty is partial or sitewide will depend on how bad the traffic decline is, and also the type (or reason) as to why you received a penalty in the first place will determine what efforts are required and how long it will take to recover.

Changes In PPC Strategies

A common issue I encounter working with organizations is a disconnect in understanding that, sometimes, altering a PPC campaign can affect organic traffic.

An example of this is brand. If you start running a paid search campaign on your brand, you can often expect to see a decrease in branded clicks and CTR. As most organizations have separate vendors for this, it isn’t often communicated that this will be the case.

The Search results performance report in GSC can help you identify whether or not you have cannibalization between your SEO and PPC. From this report, you can correlate branded and non-branded traffic drops with the changelog from those in command of the PPC campaign.

How To Fix This

Ensuring that all stakeholders understand why there have been changes to organic traffic, and that the traffic (and user) isn’t lost, it is now being attributed to Paid.

Understanding if this is the “right decision” or not requires a conversation with those managing the PPC campaigns, and if they are performing and providing a strong ROAS, then the organic traffic loss needs to be acknowledged and accepted.

Recovering Site Traffic

Recovering from Google updates can take time.

Recently, John Mueller has said that sometimes, to recover, you need to wait for another update cycle.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active in trying to improve your website and better align with what Google wants to reward and relying on Google reversing previous signal weighting changes.

It’s critical that you start doing all the right things as soon as possible. The earlier that you identify and begin to solve problems, the earlier that you open up the potential for recovery. The time it takes to recover depends on what caused the drop in the first place, and there might be multiple factors to account for. Building a better website for your audience that provides them with better experiences and better service is always the right thing to do.

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Featured Image: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

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