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How To Identify And Reduce Render-Blocking Resources

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How To Identify And Reduce Render-Blocking Resources

Identifying and reducing resources responsible for blocking the rendering of your web page is a critical optimization point that can make or break your page speed.

It can be so critical that it can pay dividends to your site’s page experience metrics (and your user’s satisfaction) as a result.

In 2021, the average time it took to fully render a mobile web page was 22 seconds. In 2018, it was 15 seconds.

Clearly, this is a substantially higher number than Google’s recommended time of 2-3 seconds. It’s also substantially higher than it used to be.

What could be causing these issues with render-blocking resources?

What is driving this increase in overall page render speed?

One interesting trend to note is that there has been an increasing reliance on third-party fonts compared to system fonts. Using third-party fonts as a resource tends to interfere with the processing and rendering of a page.

With system fonts, the browser does not have to load anything extra, so it doesn’t have that additional processing step as a result.

Screenshot from Web Almanac, January 2022

This reliance across industries is likely to impact this rendering time. Of course, this is not the only cause of this issue with render-blocking resources.

In addition, Google’s own services tend to have a significant impact on rendering time, such as Google Analytics or using a third-party Facebook pixel for tracking purposes.

The desire to rely on such technologies is not necessarily terrible from a marketing perspective.

But, from a render-blocking resources perspective, it can cause significant increases in page load time and how Google (and users) perceives your page.

The ideal solution is to make sure that your page loads for user interaction as quickly as possible.

It’s also a possibility that poor web development practices in use by web developers today are to blame.

Either way, this is something in every website project that should be addressed as part of your Core Web Vitals audits.

Page experience, however, is not just about how fast the entire page loads.

Instead, it’s more about the overall experience of the page as measured by Google’s page experience framework, or Core Web Vitals.

This is why you want to work on improving and optimizing your page speed for the critical rendering path throughout the DOM, or document object model.

What Is The Critical Rendering Path?

The critical rendering path refers to all of the steps that it takes in order to render the entire page, from when the browser first begins receiving data to when it finally compiles the page at the final render.

This is a process that can take only several milliseconds if you optimize it right.

Optimizing for the critical rendering path means making sure that you optimize for the performance of rendering on many different devices.

This is accomplished by optimizing the critical rendering path to get to your first paint as quickly as possible.

Basically, you’re reducing the amount of time users spend looking at a blank white screen to display visual content ASAP (see 0.0s below).

An example of optimized vs unoptimized rendering from Google.Screenshot from Google Web Fundamentals, January 2022

There’s a whole process on how to do this, outlined in Google’s developer guide documentation, but I will be focusing on one heavy hitter in particular: reducing render-blocking resources.

How Does The Critical Rendering Path Work?

The critical rendering path refers to the series of steps a browser takes on its journey to render a page, by converting the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to actual pixels on the screen.

An example of Critical Rendering Path.Screenshot from Medium, January 2022

Essentially, the browser needs to request, receive, and parse all HTML and CSS files (plus some additional work) before it will start to render any visual content.

This process occurs within a fraction of a second (in most cases). Until the browser completes these steps, users will see a blank white page.

The following is an example of how users may experience how a page loads according to the different stages of the page load process:

How users perceive page rendering.Screenshot from web.dev, January 2022

Improving the critical rendering path can thus improve on the overall page experience, which can help contribute to improved performance on Core Web Vitals metrics.

How Do I Optimize The Critical Rendering Path?

In order to improve the critical rendering path, you have to analyze your render-blocking resources.

Any render-blocking resources may end up blocking in the initial rendering of the page, and negatively impact your Core Web Vitals scores as a result.

This involves an optimization process of:

  • Reducing the quantity of resources that are critical to the rendering path. This can be done by using a defer method for any possible render-blocking resources.
  • Prioritizing content that is above-the-fold, and downloading important media assets as early as you possibly can.
  • Compress the file size of any remaining critical resources.

By doing this, it’s possible to improve both Core Web Vitals and how your page physically renders to the user.

Why Should I Care?

Google’s user behavior data reports that most users abandon a slow site after about 3 seconds.

In addition to studies that show that reducing page load time and improving the page experience leads to greater user satisfaction, there are also several major Google updates on the horizon that you will want to prepare for.

Identifying and optimizing render-blocking resources will be critical to stay on top of the game when these updates hit.

Google will be implementing page experience on the desktop in 2022, beginning their rollout of desktop page experience in February and finishing up in March.

According to Google, the same three Core Web Vitals metrics (LCP, FID, and CLS) along with their associated thresholds will now be linked to desktop ranking.

Also, Google is working on a brand-new possibly experimental Core Web Vitals metric, taking into account maximum event duration, and total event duration.

Their explanation of these factors they are considering are:

Maximum event duration: the interaction latency is equal to the largest single event duration from any event in the interaction group.
Total event duration: the interaction latency is the sum of all event durations, ignoring any overlap.

With many studies linking reductions in page load times to improvements in valuable KPIs (conversions, bounce rate, time on site), improving site latency has become a top-of-mind business goal for many organizations.

SEO professionals are in a unique position to guide this effort, as our role is often to bridge the gap between business goals and web developers’ priorities.

Having the ability to audit a site, analyze results, and identify areas for improvement helps us to work with developers to improve performance and translate results to key stakeholders.

The Goals Of Optimizing Render-Blocking Resources

One of the primary goals of optimizing the critical rendering path is to make sure that the resources that are needed to render that important, above-the-fold content are loaded as quickly as is humanly possible.

Any render-blocking resources must be deprioritized, and any resources that are preventing the page from rendering quickly.

Each optimization point will contribute to the overall improvement of your page speed, page experience, and Core Web Vitals scores.

Why Improve Render-Blocking CSS?

Google has said many times that coding is not necessarily important for ranking.

But, by the same token, gaining a ranking benefit from page speed optimization improvements can potentially help, depending on the query.

When it comes to CSS files, they are considered to be render-blocking resources.

Why is this?

Even though it happens in the midst of a millisecond or less (in most cases), the browser won’t start to render any page content until it is able to request, receive, and handle all CSS styles.

If a browser renders content that’s not styled properly, all you would get is a bunch of ordinary text and links that are not even styled.

This means that your page will basically be “naked” for lack of a better term.

Removing the CSS styles will result in a page that is literally unusable.

The majority of content will need repainting in order to look the least bit palatable for a user.

Example of CSS enabled vs CSS disabled.

If we examine the page rendering process, the gray box below is a representation of the browser time needed to get all CSS resources. This way, it can begin constructing the DOM of CSS (or CCSOM tree).

This could take anywhere from a millisecond to several seconds, depending on what your server needs to do in order to load these resources.

It can also vary, which could depend on the size, along with the quantity, of these CSS files.

The following render tree shows an example of a browser rendering all the files along with CSS within the DOM:

DOM CSSOM Render Tree.Screenshot from Medium, January 2022

In addition, the following shows an example of the rendering sequence of a page, in which all the files load in a process, from the construction of the DOM to the final painting and compositing of the page, which is known as the critical rendering path.

Because CSS is a render-blocking resource by default, it makes sense to improve CSS to the point where it doesn’t have any negative impact on the page rendering process at all.

The Official Google Recommendation States The Following:

“CSS is a render-blocking resource. Get it to the client as soon and as quickly as possible to optimize the time to first render.”

The HTML must be converted into something the browser can work with: the DOM. CSS files are the same way. This must be converted into the CSSOM.

By optimizing the CSS files within the DOM and CSSOM, you can help decrease the time it takes for a browser to render everything, which greatly contributes to an enhanced page experience.

Why Improve Render-Blocking JavaScript?

Did you know that loading JavaScript is not always required?

With JavaScript, downloading and parsing all JavaScript resources is not a necessary step for fully rendering a page.

So, this isn’t really a technically required part of page render.

But, the caveat to this is: Most modern sites are coded in such a way that JavaScript (for example the Bootstrap JS framework) is required in order to render the above-the-fold experience.

But, if a browser finds JavaScript files before the first render of a page, the rendering process can be stopped until later and after JavaScript files are fully executed.

This can be specified otherwise by deferring JavaScript files for later use.

One example of this is if there are JS functions like an alert that’s built into the HTML. This could stop page rendering until after the execution of this JavaScript code.

JavaScript has the sole power to modify both HTML and CSS styles, so this makes sense.

Parsing and execution of JavaScript could be delayed because of the fact that JavaScript can potentially change the entire page content. This delay is built into the browser by default – for just such a “just in case” scenario.

Official Google Recommendation:

“JavaScript can also block DOM construction and delay when the page is rendered. To deliver optimal performance … eliminate any unnecessary JavaScript from the critical rendering path.”

How To Identify Render-Blocking Resources

To identify the critical rendering path and analyze critical resources:

  • Run a test using webpagetest.org and click on the “waterfall” image.
  • Focus on all resources requested and downloaded before the green “Start Render” line.

Analyze your waterfall view; look for CSS or JavaScript files that are requested before the green “start render” line but are not critical for loading above-the-fold content.

Example of start render.Screenshot from WebPageTest, January 2022

After identifying a (potentially) render-blocking resource, test removing it to see if above-the-fold content is affected.

In my example, I noticed some JavaScript requests that may be critical.

Even though they are critical, it’s sometimes a good idea to test removing these scripts to test how shifting elements on the site affect the experience.

Example of web page test results showing render-blocking resources.Screenshot from WebPageTest, January 2022

There are also other ways to improve such resources.

For non-critical JavaScript files, you may want to look into combining the files and deferring them by including these files at the bottom of your page.

For non-critical CSS files, you can also reduce how many CSS files you have by combining them into one file and compressing them.

Improving your coding techniques can also result in a file that’s faster to download and causes less impact on the rendering speed of your page.

Ways To Reduce Render-Blocking Elements On The Page

Once you determine that a render-blocking resource is not critical for rendering content above-the-fold, you will want to explore a myriad of methods that are available in order to improve the rendering of your page and defer non-critical resources.

There are many solutions to this problem, from deferring JavaScript and CSS files to reducing the impact that CSS can have.

One possible solution is to not add CSS using the @import rule.

Make Sure Not To Add CSS Using The @Import Rule

From a performance perspective, even though @import appears to keep your HTML file cleaner, it can actually create issues with performance.

The @import declaration will actually cause the browser to process a CSS file more slowly. Why? Because it is also downloading all of the imported files.

Rendering will be entirely blocked until the process completes.

Indeed, the best solution is to use the standard method of including a CSS stylesheet using the <link rel=”stylesheet”> declaration in the HTML.

Minify Your CSS And JavaScript Files

If you are on WordPress, using a plugin to minify your CSS and JavaScript files can have a tremendous impact.

The process of minification takes all of the unnecessary spaces within a file and compresses it even further, so you can end up with a nice performance boost.

Also, even if you are not on WordPress, you can use the services of a well-qualified developer in order to complete the process manually.

This will take more time but can be well worth it.

Minified files are usually much lighter than their former counterparts, and this means that initial rendering will complete much faster.

In addition to this, after the minification process, you can also expect the download process to be faster, because less time is necessary to download non-render blocking resources.

Use System Fonts Instead Of Third-Party Fonts

While third-party fonts may appear to make a site “prettier,” this is not exactly the case.

While it may look amazing on the surface, these third-party font files often take a longer time to load and can contribute to your render-blocking resources problem.

Because of the external files, the browser has to make external requests in order to download these files to render your page, which may result in significantly higher download times.

If you’re on a team that has less than ideal development best practices, then it could stand to reason that you have many third-party font files that are not necessary for rendering your site.

In which case, removing all these unnecessary files can improve your render-blocking resources significantly and contribute to your overall improvement in Core Web Vitals.

Using system fonts, on the other hand, only keeps the processing within the browser, without external requests.

Also, there are likely system fonts that may be very similar to the third-party fonts you are using.

Improve Your Coding Techniques And Combining Files

If you’re working with code yourself, you may (or may not … no one is judging here) find that techniques are less than optimal.

One example: you are using inline CSS everywhere, and this is causing processing and rendering glitches within the browser.

The easy solution is to make sure that you take all of the inline CSS and code them properly within the CSS stylesheet file.

If another developer’s code is not up to par, this can create major issues with page rendering.

For example: Say that you have a page that’s coded using older techniques rather than modern and leaner ones.

Older techniques could include significant code bloat and result in slower rendering of the page as a result.

To eliminate this, you can improve your coding techniques by creating leaner and less bloated code, resulting in a much better page rendering experience.

Combining files can also improve the situation.

For example: If you have eight or 10 JavaScript files that all contribute to the same task, you can hire the services of a developer who can then combine all of these files for you.

And, if they are less critical JavaScript files, then to further decrease the page rendering problems, these files can also be deferred by adding them to the end of the HTML code on the page.

By combining files and improving your coding techniques, you can contribute significantly to better page rendering experiences.

Key Takeaways

Finding solutions to reduce render-blocking resources have been an SEO audit staple for a while now. It’s important for several reasons:

By reducing render-blocking resources, you make your site faster. You can also reverse engineer your site to take advantage of elements that will play into Google’s overall page experience update.

You also put yourself in a position to take advantage of a boost you will get from Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics.

Core Web Vitals are not going away. They have become a critical optimization point in order to facilitate the fastest potential rendering times possible within your current framework.

With new Core Web Vitals metrics being introduced in the future, making sure that you’re up-to-date on existing metrics is always a great idea.

Finding and repairing render-blocking resources also ensures that you continue keeping your website visitors happy and that it’s always in top shape for prime time.

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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.


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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.

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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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