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How to Use HARO (And Alternatives) to Get Killer Backlinks

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How to Use HARO (And Alternatives) to Get Killer Backlinks

HARO link building has taken the SEO industry by storm over the last few years. But today, actually getting results is hard work. HARO is oversaturated, and results are not guaranteed.

So should you still try to get media coverage this way? Absolutely! There are tons of links up for grabs. Not just any links. Super high authority links that can drive traffic, leads, and sales. 

But how do you get ahead of the competition? As someone who has had great success using earned media platforms like HARO as a means of building top-notch links over the years, I’m going to give you my tips and tricks on how to get killer backlinks using HARO and alternatives.

But first, let’s get familiar with everything HARO can actually do for you.

Help a Reporter Out, or HARO from Cision, is the best-known platform for journalists’ requests. You receive daily emails filled with opportunities across topics like marketing, lifestyle, business, etc. 

But how does it work? First, you should sign up as a source.

Sign up on HARO

After you sign up, you’ll get three emails a day—at 5:35 a.m., 12:35 p.m., and 5:35 p.m. ET from Monday to Friday.

The emails will be broken down into different categories. Here’s an example of an email you’ll receive:

Example HARO email

Each request will have a title and an outlet in brackets. You’ll want to browse through the email and find relevant topics that you can contribute to.

Once you’ve given the service a spin, it’s definitely worth considering upgrading to a paid HARO account. There are many additional features that become available, which can give you a competitive edge when pitching.

Here’s a quick rundown on HARO Premium.

There are four subscription levels available (including the free option):

HARO pricing plans

For most purposes, the Standard account at $19 a month will be more than sufficient.

The first advantage of a paid subscription is you can set up a profile/bio that will be automatically inserted into your pitches.

The bio includes links to web properties and social media. These all help to build credibility and authority when pitching to journalists.

You can also add details on your specific areas of expertise and any publications you have previously been featured in.

HARO bio example

As with the free account, you can subscribe to opportunities in specific verticals. But with a paid subscription, you can also set up alerts for media requests that match specified keywords. You can even get SMS alerts if you are in the U.S.

In the example below, I have subscribed to the “Master Haro,” “Business and Finance,” and “High Tech” emails. I have also set up an alert for the keyword “SEO.”

HARO alerts

From now on, I’ll get an email alert like this whenever new media requests include the keyword “SEO”:

Specific emails from HARO containing "SEO"

Another nice feature is the ability to browse and respond to queries directly through the online interface.

HARO platform example

You can even search queries by keyword.

HARO queries filtered by keyword

As you can see, the paid HARO accounts offer a nice bunch of extra features to help you secure media mentions.

How to use HARO for link building

When it comes to using digital PR, and in particular earned media techniques, there are a few things you need to take into consideration to be truly successful at building high-quality links:

  • Take your time
  • React quickly
  • Choose wisely
  • Focus on the right things
  • Craft quality pitches
  • Use the right platforms

Let’s take a look at these more closely.

Take your time

Here’s the thing about reactive PR: It’s a long game. Although you can gain incredible backlinks from super high authority websites like Forbes, The New York Times, WebMD, etc., this process isn’t instantaneous. 

You have to remember that, with the nature of reactive PR, journalists are posting queries often before writing their content. So they need to filter through all of the responses to find a relevant one, get an article written and edited, as well as get it published. 

All before you can get the glory of that one mega link

Depending on how far in advance they prepare their content calendar, it can easily take six to eight weeks to see these queries published. That’s why when working with clients, I always tell them to expect to wait a minimum of six weeks to start seeing a steady flow of links. 

But it is really important to be working away continuously in the background so that once you do start seeing movement, you’ve already built up a steady pipeline to maintain continued high-quality link acquisition. 

React quickly

Journalists can get even thousands of responses to each query they post. Platforms like HARO are incredibly saturated with agencies and freelancers offering HARO link building services, and they are all trying to land killer links.

For two reasons, being as quick as possible when responding to queries improves your chances of being successful.

First, you stand a better chance of being seen by a journalist. 

As journalists get so many queries, they will often stop reading new responses if they have already found what they are looking for. So even if you craft an amazing pitch, it may not be opened if someone else has beaten you to the punch. 

Secondly, because of the high volume of responses journalists get, many are setting same-day deadlines for queries to avoid being bombarded with irrelevant pitches. 

Recently, more and more queries are coming through with an end-of-day PST deadline. If you skip a day or don’t check for new queries until late afternoon, you could miss out on the chance to be featured on your dream site. 

That being said, it can be difficult to reply to journalists quickly if you are relying on others (like clients or co-workers) to give expert commentary. Here are some things you can do to help you respond to your most relevant queries as quickly as possible:

  • Gather soundbites from your experts Keep copies of all of the commentary you have previously sent on behalf of your clients. If a similar query comes up, you can send a quality response without needing to go back to your clients.
  • Use your client’s website for info – Similar to the point above, when working with a client, I’m always sure to gather some great speaking points from the content already available on their “about” page and blog that I can paraphrase as a quick response.
  • Set up filters and alerts – By using email filters and alerts, you can ensure you are being notified quickly about only the most relevant queries. That way, you don’t need to waste time reading every query in every email.
  • Use a paid HARO account – Again, this is similar to setting up an email filter. But a paid HARO account allows you to select the types of queries you want to be notified about. So you’ll only receive emails with queries that are relevant to you. Higher-tier plans even allow you to get the queries a bit sooner.

Choose relevant queries

First, make sure you meet the journalist’s requirements and are qualified to answer a specific query before wasting your (and the journalist’s) time. 

TIP

Only answer queries that are highly relevant. As journalists get so many queries, they blacklist emails they consider “timewasters.” 

One mistake I see time and time again is people focusing on certain metrics rather than the queries they are most qualified to answer. In doing so, they hinder their chances of success. 

Here’s one I’ve heard a million times before: “I only want dofollow links above DR 60 on a site in my niche.”

Here’s the thing: If you aren’t getting results that contribute toward your marketing objectives, these are simply vanity metrics.

With any earned media coverage, you should strive to achieve at least one of the following:

  • Get exposure to the target audience
  • Gain valuable link equity to help your content rank better in organic search
  • Convert referral traffic

That’s why it is important to establish a clear strategy with reactive PR. Using competitor analysis and truly understanding your target audience can allow you to focus your efforts on acquiring links that most offer value and increase the return on investment (ROI). 

Filter domains worth pursuing

It is important to ensure any queries you respond to are for sites you actually want to be published on. You should check that the site aligns with your personal and professional viewpoints and is of high quality.

Use Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to check out the website’s traffic and backlinks. 

By simply plugging the potential site from the HARO query in Site Explorer, you can bring up a quick overview of the site’s metrics, including the Domain Rating (DR) and traffic. 

Overview 2.0 from Ahrefs' Site Explorer

So for this example, the metrics look great, with high authority and a huge amount of organic traffic. But we also want to take a look at the site’s backlink profile. Avoid anything that looks like it’s full of spam links. You can check this in the Backlinks report in Site Explorer:

Example of a backlink profile

Lastly, head over to the site and check out some of the most recent posts. Make sure the content is high quality and offers value to the reader. 

The more you work with HARO, the more you realize there are a number of sites that essentially create an entire piece of content solely by collecting HARO responses. They are full of external links to sites (diluting that all-important link equity) and have questionable quality. 

There is no point in getting links on a site in your niche solely because it is above a certain DR. Instead, aim to receive a link on a site that has huge visibility, has value to your target audience, and drives relevant traffic and qualified leads to your website with quality content. 

Craft quality pitches

When it comes to HARO link building, it’s all about being pitch-perfect. Writing pitches that journalists want to include in their content is the key to success. 

Here are some tried and tested proven techniques for writing pitches that convert into published links.

Work with multiple personas

My personal top tip when using HARO is to work with multiple personas. 

Many people make the mistake of only pitching journalists on behalf of the CEO or founder of a company. But most companies have experts across multiple departments, such as the HR manager, chief marketing officer, head of content, and so on.

This not only gives you the opportunity to go after more queries, but it also gives a face and a voice to integral team members, building trust with potential customers. 

Add value

Pitches must be unique. Ask yourself if each sentence is required and if it adds value for the journalist.

Be mindful of what is already ranked on the search engine results pages (SERPs) for the topic and consider how you may add value that goes beyond what is already out there. Think outside of the box and try to offer something different while still showcasing your expertise.

Showcase your personality

Every pitch is dependent on you, the subject matter expert. Your quotes should inform and entertain the journalist. When sharing your knowledge, use analogies and your personal viewpoints. 

To connect with the journalist and their audience, write in a direct and casual style almost as if you were speaking to a friend. Be sure to also deliver your expertise in a non-patronizing way.

Keep it short

Journalists receive literally thousands of pitches for each inquiry. They definitely don’t want to read “War and Peace.”

Unless there is an occasion where you need to give exceedingly technical details, your pitch should generally be between 200 and 300 words.

Make sure your pitch covers what the journalist requested in the inquiry and addresses the topical subject.

Take time to include the essentials

Reading a journalist’s inquiry fully and taking the time to include some key essentials will make the difference when it comes to success. Here are my top things to consider:

  • Subject lines: Remember, journalists will skim their inboxes for the most relevant queries. Always include the title of the query, the person pitching, their role and company, and their experience. Example: “RE: How to screw in a light bulb – John Doe – Engineer at Phillips – 15 years of experience screwing in light bulbs.”
  • Personalize your pitch: Always include the journalist’s name where possible. More often than not, you can establish an ongoing relationship with them and become a go-to source outside of HARO. So taking the time to personalize your pitch makes a difference.
  • Intros and outros: Always include a short introduction that explains who you are and why you’re an expert on the topic you are pitching. Also, be sure to sign off by letting the journalist know you’re happy to answer any additional questions should they need to follow up. And add that you’ll be happy to share their article on social media when it goes live.

Pitch-perfect template

Here is my template for the perfect pitch:

Hey [JOURNALIST NAME],

[INTRO PARAGRAPH]
[PITCH]
[SIGN OFF]

As the pitch is the focus, it is important to ensure you answer different types of queries with different pitch styles. Let’s look at some examples of the different types of queries and publish-perfect pitches.

Advice queries

Query: How to respond when a date cancels on you

Pitch: The best response is to remain calm and relaxed and say something like “Thanks for letting me know” and leave it there. I wouldn’t at this point suggest another date for several reasons. They’ve canceled on you, so I’d leave the ball in their court to suggest another date. If you’re the one trying to rearrange, you run the risk of coming across as desperate and needy.

Business queries

Query: Challenges faced in building your business

Pitch: The top challenges I faced were fund management and hiring suitable people. The first staff I hired only stayed for about three weeks, as they found the job repetitive or realized it was just not for them. Finding people who live and breathe your mission is challenging. It took time to filter candidates to avoid the same thing happening again.

Product selection queries

Query: Choosing a gaming PC

Pitch: As an avid streamer on Twitch and a lover of gaming since I was a kid, here are my thoughts: PC gaming is in a class of its own. If you’re going to invest in a new gaming computer, here are some important things to consider before you start your search. 

Budget: You have got to start with your budget, of course! You may be surprised to find that a custom-built gaming computer may not be out of your reach, so keep that in mind! 

Graphics card: High-end graphics cards are rare, so it’s probably best to purchase a mid-range card and adjust your game settings accordingly.

RAM: When it comes to memory, it isn’t too expensive right now. So I’d suggest you go for at least 8 GB. 

Storage and audio coms: Other things to consider are storage and audio coms. If you plan on playing online multiplayer games, you will also need a quality headset with a microphone.

Product recommendation queries

Query: Best travel duffel

Pitch: The Patagonia Black Hole Duffel is made for any type of trip. I’ve put mine through the paces, taking it on surf trips to Central America, having it during ski trips in the Rockies, and even using it as a giant cooler by packing it full of ice. It has never ripped, torn, or complained about how much stuff I’ve jammed inside it. 

Another cool feature: This bag folds up into its front pocket for easy storage when not in use.

Use the right platforms

As mentioned previously, HARO has become incredibly saturated over the last few years. This means there is significantly more competition, and it takes a lot more time and dedication to land solid links. 

Even those of us who have been doing HARO link building for a long time are lucky to get a success rate of around one link for every six pitches these days. For those with less experience, that’s going to look more like one link for every 10 or 12 pitches. 

That means if you’re hoping to get 10 links per month, you’re probably going to need to send at least 100 pitches to see success. 

But here’s the issue with that. As this technique is reactive, that means we can only respond to what journalists post. It’s not like guest posting, where we can find sites we want and pitch them our ideas for a new article. 

Getting 100+ relevant queries on one platform is difficult, so the best option is to use multiple outlets. Because newer platforms have less competition, often meaning you can get success from fewer pitches. Also, because there are more available queries.

I’m going to talk you through my tried and tested favorite HARO alternatives, the pros and cons of each one, as well as my top tips for success. We’re going to look at Terkel, Help a B2B Writer, and PressPlugs.

Free and paid

Terkel is aptly named after Louis “Studs” Terkel, a writer and broadcaster who spent his career striving to give a voice to everyday people. It has a mission to offer a platform for small businesses to have their expertise shared across the biggest global outlets. 

Terkel is an all-in-one platform that offers high-quality queries from some of the biggest platforms worldwide. 

How does Terkel work?

First, you will need to head over to Terkel and sign up for a free account. This will allow you to answer five queries per month with basic information about the websites you’re pitching. 

You will need to set up a profile that includes a high-quality headshot and your social links, as these will be a contributing factor as to whether your answers get used by journalists. 

You can also select the different types of queries you want to respond to, such as marketing, business, lifestyle, etc. 

Once set up, you will find everything you need within the Terkel platform. There’s no messing around with emails here; the current open queries are all listed under the “Questions” tab.

Terkel queries

You can also answer queries directly on the platform itself.

Terkel answer box

Terkel has its own algorithm that calculates a source’s expertise based on the number of pitches they send and how many of those are successful. With that, each user is assigned an “expertise score,” which can help Terkel match sources with relevant queries.

That way, it only needs to send emails to let you know about the most relevant queries as and when they appear rather than on a set schedule. That’s why with Terkel, it is really important to only answer relevant queries. If you don’t, it can hinder your expertise score.

As an SEO geek, I also love that Terkel uses Bing’s API to pull in suggested keywords and displays these while you’re pitching, helping you meet search intent. 

Terkel offers free and paid options. With the free version, you can send up to five pitches a month from a basic selection. 

With the paid option (which is very affordable), you get unlimited pitches, exclusive opportunities, as well as additional information about the sites (which you can filter), such as DR and the type of link attribute.

Pros

One of my personal favorite features of Terkel is the “Track your answers” system. 

Basically, the team at Terkel preapproves every query before sending the most relevant from the best experts to the journalists. This is a huge benefit for publishers (as they aren’t being bombarded with irrelevant pitches), and it also offers instant feedback.

Especially when you compare your pitches, which have been selected by the Terkel team, against those that have been used by journalists. You can use these comparisons to see where your pitches have fallen short and adjust your strategy moving forward. 

Cons

The only thing that currently lets Terkel down for me is the fact that it is still a new platform, meaning there are fewer publishers on it than on others.

This is not a huge problem for a small business wanting to get the word out about itself. But for a full-time PR freelancer or an agency, it means you usually need to use Terkel in conjunction with something else to meet the number of links you need.

However, this likely won’t be an issue for long as more publishers sign up with Terkel by the day. 

Tips for success

What better way to get a top tip than to find out from Terkel directly? I spoke with Brett Farmiloe, founder of Terkel, who gave this advice:

Quality comes first. We define quality using the “E-A-T” acronym. To be successful on Terkel, make sure you’re answering questions that speak to your expertise. Use your real identity so that publishers can trust your insights. And focus on being the authority of a specific area.

Free

Help a B2B Writer is a new platform that works in a similar way to HARO, sending daily emails with available opportunities across a number of different niches. 

With Help a B2B Writer, the queries are often from super high authority, well-known B2B SaaS brands based in the U.S., such as Zapier. This is great for anyone working with small and medium B2B businesses. 

How does Help a B2B Writer work?

You’ll need to start by registering as a source and selecting the types of queries you are interested in, such as social media marketing, SEO, etc.

Register as a source on Help a B2B Writer

From Monday to Friday at 3 p.m. BST, Help a B2B Writer emails sources with journo requests that look like this:

Journo request

Help a B2B Writer is completely free. The platform proudly clarifies this: “Sources don’t need to pay anything to be on the list; it’s free for writers to submit requests.”

Pros

Something that makes Help a B2B Writer unique is that you can let the journalist know where you want them to link to. This is unlike HARO, where links are always to the homepage of your website. For this platform, you can specify an individual page, a portfolio, or a social channel.

This is great for helping to build topical authority. For example, if I’m quoted in an article about affiliate marketing and I link back to a page on my website on the same topic, this helps to build topical authority better than a general link to the homepage.

Cons

Help a B2B Writer is a relatively new platform, and I am still testing the waters. To date, I have seen queries from some amazing sites, but I have also seen a number of pitches published in articles without any links and, in some cases, without even a mention. 

It seems a lot of the writers posting queries are using the responses to essentially write entire articles rather than using responses as a source for expert commentary as intended. 

Keep that in mind when responding and try to go for as many opportunities as possible (where relevant, of course). But also, don’t be shy about reporting writers who are abusing the platform in this way. 

Tips for success

Help a B2B Writer recommends using screenshots and data where possible to back up insights: 

Screenshots and unique data are for writers what catnip is to cats. We love it. Not only does it save time, it helps writers illustrate points with enriching add-ons, like relevant data and visuals.

Paid

PressPlugs is one of my favorite resources for earning high-authority placements for the clients I work with in the U.K. The platform has received queries from journalists working for some of the biggest U.K. publications, including Metro, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail

Like Terkel, PressPlugs is a platform that hosts its own journo requests. 

Notably, it is a paid platform. But as someone who works with U.K. clients, I find the small monthly fee is worth the number of opportunities available.

How does PressPlugs work?

You’ll need to start by signing up for a seven-day free trial in order to gain access to the platform. 

PressPlugs' free trial

Once you have an account, you can log in to the platform and access the available media opportunities, which you can filter by category, deadline, or even journalist.

PressPlugs' media opportunities

When you find an opportunity that looks relevant to you, you can simply click on it to expand and see the full details.

Request details of an opportunity on PressPlugs

Pros

One of the great things about PressPlugs is that each request details the name of the journalist as well as their direct email. If you’re a PR pro, you can take this information and start building up a database that you can use to pitch relevant ideas and creative campaigns.

Cons

The number of emails you receive from PressPlugs is beyond excessive. You are likely to miss important emails if you keep these turned on. For me, I have to disable the email notifications (one email for every new query posted!) and work directly on the platform. 

This platform is designed specifically for U.K. publications. So if you are a U.S. company, this platform may not offer as much value for you as some of the others. 

Tips for success

I spoke with Tracy Nolan, co-founder at PressPlugs, to get her top tips for success when using the platform. She had this advice:

Always treat journalists with respect and only go after opportunities where you are a good match. Speculative long shots are not helpful and will mean the journalist will be more reluctant to look at future pitches. Always play the long game and be as helpful as you can.

Final thoughts

Unlike most link building tactics, HARO and other earned media platforms are excellent ways of generating high-quality backlinks and press mentions. Just keep in mind that they require a bit of patience, and you’ll need to provide high-quality responses to the inquiries.

Nevertheless, for the level of effort required compared to the potential gain, it’s definitely worth your time.

Got a favorite I didn’t mention? I want to know! Of course, if you have any questions, ping me on Twitter.



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Google Dials Back AI Overviews In Search Results, Study Finds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Declining Frequency Of AI Overviews

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

This represents a 52% drop compared to January levels.

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

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

Longer AI Overviews

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

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

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

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

Niche Dynamics & Ranking Factors

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

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

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

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

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

Other Characteristics Of AI Overviews

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

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

What Does This Mean?

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

AI overviews will undoubtedly continue to transform over time.

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


Featured Image: DIA TV/Shutterstock

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10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget

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10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget

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

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

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

1. Set Expectations For The Account

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Prioritize Goals

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

Some common goals include:

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

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

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

Screenshot from author, May 2024

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

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

3. Location Targeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Ad Scheduling

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

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

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

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

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

5. Set Negative Keywords

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

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

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

6. Smart Bidding

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

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

Smart bidding strategies available include:

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

7. Try Display Only Campaigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Performance Max Campaigns

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

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

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

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

9. Target Less Competitive Keywords

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

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

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

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

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

10. Manage Costly Keywords

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

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

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

Every Click Counts

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

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

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

More resources: 


Featured Image: bluefish_ds/Shutterstock

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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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