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Skills, Career Outlook & Tips For Success

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Skills, Career Outlook & Tips For Success

An SEO consultant is a specialist in search engine optimization who works outside of typical contracted employment.

For instance, they may be freelancers who work with their own clients or within an existing team but not as employees.

They might be responsible for a variety of tasks from pitching and closing to contract negotiations, as well as SEO.

And while there are some advantages to having a variety of tasks and the freedom to take on only the projects you want, SEO consulting also has its drawbacks.

This column will help you understand what to expect before choosing a career as an SEO consultant.

Are SEO Consultants Employed Or Freelance?

In the U.K., the answer gets slightly more complicated. The term “SEO consultant” can also describe the job title of an employed SEO that doesn’t really denote seniority or management responsibilities.

Like “SEO specialist” or “SEO advisor.”

This might also be how freelancers with side hustles and full-time jobs describe themselves.

It does, however, also mean an independent contractor like in the U.S.

Projects vs. Multiple Clients

An SEO consultant might choose to work with their own clients and the only person working on their SEO.

They might also choose to take contracts that embed them within an existing team, like joining as additional support to an enterprise SEO team.

Running Your Own Business

The key difference between a career as an SEO consultant and any other type of SEO job is that you will be running your own business.

As an independent contractor, you manage your contracts, pitching, and financial/tax obligations.

Essential Skills

What essential skills do you need to be a successful SEO consultant beyond being a good SEO professional?

Below is an overview of the basic skills for thriving as an independent SEO contractor, other than on-page, technical, and off-site SEO.

Budget Management

You may be used to managing a budget in your employed role to make sure clients’ hours were filled or checking profit and loss for your department.

However, additional, unforeseen costs can crop up when working as a freelancer.

That means you need to be able to manage a budget quickly, or there won’t be enough money left over at the end of each month for you to take home a wage.

There may be ad-hoc costs, such as initial legal advice, and ongoing costs like retaining an accountant.

Any marketing collateral, the cost of hosting and developing a website, those fancy tools we all love to use. You will entirely pay for them.

Without the deep pockets of an agency or brand behind you, all your business expenses will come from the money you have managed to earn as a consultant.

Time Management

Although any job requires a degree of time management, being an SEO consultant means spinning many plates at once.

There is also a lack of structure, support, and resources with an employed role.

Due to this, time management is an ever more important skill.

There will be immoveable business deadlines like legal and financial requirements and calls with stakeholders that other team members can’t cover in your absence.

Getting your invoices out on time could be most important for your longevity as a consultant.

The amount of admin that you need to find time for will increase. You will need to sort through receipts and update budgeting software.

You will need to submit financial details to make your own payroll. Then there are the emails and meetings.

No matter how many you had as an employed SEO, expect a lot as a consultant.

To be successful, you will need to be very adept at planning your time.

Pitching And Closing

From marketing your skills to pitching and closing a new client, you will need to be able to manage the entire cycle of winning new work.

There won’t be a business development team supporting you, so you may need to brush up on your persuasive skills.

Although you are an SEO by trade, I can tell you from first-hand experience that few of your business leads will come through your website even if you rank first for “SEO consultant” in your area.

You will also need to become an expert at marketing yourself in other ways.

That means picking up potential client leads through social media, events, and word of mouth.

Not only will you need to source potential client leads, but you will also need to effectively convert them. That means working on pitch decks, negotiating fees, and securing sign-off.

Contract Negotiations

Although you may have a standard contract template, expect prospective clients to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.

This might also extend to your pricing proposal and service level agreement.

A part of being an SEO contractor is the need to be able to negotiate contracts.

There may be an expectation of a certain level of compromise, especially if you want to work with smaller businesses with limited budgets.

When looking long-term at the next six to 12 months of your proposed contract, you will need to be able to predict how those compromises might affect your profit and quality of life.

A client may want you to work your proposed hours for less money, which brings down your average rate.

They might also expect you to respond to emails outside of your proposed working hours.

Although it might seem tempting to agree to these altered terms to secure the revenue, but long-term, it might not be beneficial for the growth of your business.

Understanding Of Financial And Legal Responsibilities

Being an SEO consultant means being your own boss, owning your own business, and the excitement and freedom it brings.

However, it also means being solely responsible for ensuring you are in full legal compliance.

This means understanding which business laws apply to you in your state or country, but also, if you have clients elsewhere in the world, understanding how their laws affect you.

For instance, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) in Europe governs personal data control.

Even if you are not based in Europe, you may be subject to these rules if your clients are.

How you store information about your clients will need to comply with these regulations.

Being a consultant means no one is above you to take on this responsibility.

It’s all yours. You may be able to afford advice from lawyers or accountants to help you make informed decisions, but the ramifications are all on you if they advise you poorly.

Stakeholder Management

Another essential skill is good stakeholder management.

This includes communicating deadlines, chasing for invoice payments, and ensuring client expectations align.

When you are a consultant, your stakeholders aren’t just your clients.

They are your accountants, lawyers, suppliers, and other consultants you’re partnering with.

In a larger business, these stakeholders tend to communicate with various team members; the finance department, the CEO, the marketing team, and the account managers.

As a freelancer, you are the only point of contact.

The needs of a client versus your accountant’s needs are very different, but will both need prioritizing.

Learning to manage a wider range of stakeholders than you’re used to will greatly improve your success as an SEO consultant.

Fitting In With Teams Quickly

You will not be afforded a long onboarding period as an SEO consultant.

You will have to show value to your clients from day one. This can be a tricky skill to develop.

There will be an expectation that you can drive return on investment straight away, although you will need to learn their processes, procedures, product, and industry.

It is not just about understanding the business; you need to get on reasonably well with your new colleagues.

When working closely with other members of your client’s team, what they think of your work ethic and personality may well impact the length and recurrence of your contract.

Demonstrating ROI

When you join a new company as an employee, you will likely have a probation period – a few weeks to months where the company assesses your fit and competency.

If done well, it will be a time when you can work with your manager to fill any gaps in your knowledge and develop a training plan to make sure you are off to a great start in the company.

As a freelance SEO, you won’t get this.

Instead, you may have a break clause in your contract or simply the option for a client to cancel their recurring monthly contract if they don’t like your work.

A skill you will need to develop early on as an SEO consultant is demonstrating the return on investment of working with you.

This means understanding exactly what you are expected to deliver and making sure it is reasonable.

From there, you will need to report back on your success against these objectives.

Resilience

PsychologyToday defines resilience as “the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life’s adversities and come back at least as strong as before” and is a skill to cultivate.

Being a consultant can be galling.

One month you might have so much work to do that you wonder when sleep will be an option.

Others, you’re nervously staring at your emails, willing a proposal acceptance to come through.

Stability in the flow of work you win can be slow to build.

Then, overnight, a global pandemic can cause it all to dry up. One thing you tend to be short on as a contract SEO is certainty.

A vital skill for an SEO consultant is resilience.

Getting back up when a client unexpectedly ends their contract or there is a conflict with a competitor, is challenging.

Even when everything is going well, there will be the ever-present need to chase invoices that are 60 days overdue.

It can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.

Personal Branding

There is an element of an SEO consultant not only selling their services but also selling the dream of working with them personally.

As a consultant, you will be in a similar position to going for a job interview each time you pitch for work. Your client will need to believe that you are the best candidate for the job.

This may start well in advance of a pitch meeting.

The ideal for many consultants is that they become so well respected in the industry that word of mouth generates leads for them.

Rather than spending a lot of time and energy on marketing, they have clients approaching them.

Some of the most successful SEO consultants have chosen an industry and become experts.

By doing so, they can choose who they work with and charge fees that reflect the value they bring.

If you are looking to become an SEO consultant, it can help to understand your local market, the needs of the businesses who may work with you, and what you can do to be most attractive to them.

This might mean finding a niche and sticking to it for your market. It might mean going after smaller businesses that need the full range of SEO support.

Whatever you want to achieve as a consultant, you will need to be good at presenting your knowledge, skills, and value beyond the initial meeting with a prospect.

Salary Expectations

You may have a pretty good idea of what salaries look like in your country and region, but what about rates for SEO contractors?

Recently, Search Engine Journal conducted a salary survey looking at data points from the SEO industry.

The findings for freelance professionals were particularly interesting.

Search Engine Journal found that SEO freelance consultants earned less than $34,000 per annum on average.

The survey respondents who identified themselves as freelancers overwhelmingly had fewer than two years of experience. This will have heavily skewed their earnings.

With this in mind, take the average reported salary of an SEO consultant with a pinch of salt.

Yours may well be higher depending on location, years of experience, and specialisms.

In the U.K., Glassdoor reports that an SEO freelancer can make £31,540 per year (approximately $41,000).

What you choose to charge per project or per hour will greatly impact how much you take home each year.

You also need to consider how many hours you want to work each week. Together this will help you to identify how much you may be able to earn in a year if your client load is full.

Additional Costs

It is important to remember that you will also need to deduct the costs of running your business from your net earnings.

This may include items from networking group membership to tax and insurance.

Helpful Certifications And Experience

One of the great things about getting into a career in SEO is that there are very low barriers to entry.

There is no university degree you must have or governing body you are expected to be a part of.

On the flip side, there is little for prospective clients to use to measure how good an SEO you are.

Because of this lack of regulation in the industry, there are no standard certificates or qualifications to prove your competency.

Instead, you may need to demonstrate your expertise to prospective clients in other ways.

Helen Pollitt on selling yourself as an SEO consultant.

Demonstrable Experience

Your most obvious way to denote that you are an expert in your field is by showing your experience.

Unfortunately, many clients may equate experience with years in the industry. This isn’t always the case.

Experience With Specific Projects

A consultant may have carried out 20 website migrations during their three years in the industry because they worked at an SEO agency.

Another contractor may have only carried out one during their five years in the industry because they worked in-house for one brand.

A client looking for SEO support for their upcoming website migration might look more favorably at a consultant who has worked for five years in the industry.

They may wrongly believe more years of experience equals better performance.

If you are looking to pitch for a website migration project, as an SEO consultant, you will need to be able to show your specific experience with the facets of SEO the project will rely upon.

Industry-Specific Experience

Another aspect of your experience you will need to showcase is the industries you have worked in.

For some clients, knowing that their consultant understands their market, consumers and products will be paramount.

If you have worked across various industries, highlight them in your marketing and pitching material.

If you have worked within a limited range of verticals, you can speak more about the depth of experience.

You may benefit from showing that you have a wealth of knowledge about those particular industries that would make your learning curve with a new client quick and minimal.

Enough Experience

If you have been around the SEO industry for a while, you will likely have come across forums and threads where inexperienced SEO specialists have landed their first client and are now asking veterans how to do SEO.

This is not a situation that you will benefit from being in.

If you manage to land a client whose SEO needs are greater than you can meet, it will likely cause stress on both sides.

As a consultant, you will need to learn to identify the scope of a potential project quickly and decide if you have sufficient knowledge and experience to manage it.

Awards

As mentioned, no governing body oversees SEO practice, which can validate a consultant’s ability to carry out SEO.

However, there are many award shows and programs that serve in some way as a proxy for this.

The validity of awards is a hotly debated topic in SEO circles.

However, winning one does show that you have been independently judged as carrying out work to a high and impactful standard.

Case Studies

Giving examples of previous work in the form of case studies can help prospective clients to feel confident in your abilities.

It can sometimes be tricky to get sign-off from previous clients to use their data, so you may need to obfuscate it slightly.

Make sure you have permission to share any details, especially if it is from work you did before you became a consultant!

Recommendations And References

Just like you might need to provide for a newly employed role, having referees available to prospective clients can help them to understand what it will be like working with you.

Having a couple of current or previous clients happy to provide references can benefit a consultant.

Platforms like LinkedIn also allow you to request and receive recommendations that can go a long way to instilling trust in your work.

Additionally, although not as impartial, written recommendations on your own website may help convert prospective clients.

Certifications

Although there is no commonly accepted SEO qualification, several tools, agencies, and organizations offer certification in search.

Choosing to undertake their training and examination to receive a certification might seem redundant if you have been in the industry for many years, but it can help prove that your knowledge is current and your understanding reaches a standard.

Additionally, certifications in adjacent areas like analytics, data science, and programming can all help to demonstrate your particular skill set.

Consider certifications in specific SEO and analytics-focused tools.

These can show clients you can use their tool-stack without additional training.

Who Hires SEO Consultants And Why?

There are many types of organizations that would contract SEO consultants. It may be their only SEO resource or to complement an existing team or roster of freelancers.

Small Businesses

Small businesses that can’t afford their own internal resource will often reach out to SEO consultants.

SEO consultants often have lower overheads than agencies and may be cheaper to work with. This can be an appealing alternative to cash-strapped organizations.

Rounding Out A Team

Brands with an existing SEO team may use contractors to bolster their resources or fill a specific skill gap.

For instance, a brand looking to appear in Google Discovery for the first time may want outside advice on how best to do that if their internal team has no experience with it.

Filling A Temporary Gap

There may be a need to increase resources during busier seasons or to cover an extended leave of existing employees.

If an employee leaves the organization, a consultant might fill the gap while hiring a replacement.

Whitelabel

Some agencies may not have SEO provisions but want to partner with a consultant to offer that service to existing clients.

They may also want to test the water of how adding SEO to their services will work before hiring an employee to cover it.

Consultants can offer support without the cost of hiring, training, and employee benefits.

Assisting Agencies

Similar to brands that require temporary help in busier seasons, agencies might require an additional person in their team to bridge employee leave, skills gaps or to consult on specific industry projects.

Agencies can often offer repeat work for consultants for this reason.

Support With Hiring

A very niche project you might find yourself available to do as an SEO consultant is that of hiring support.

So rather than filling a skills gap yourself, you may be a consultant on the hiring of employed SEO professionals.

For organizations with no, or very junior, SEO teams, it can be difficult for the hiring manager to know enough about SEO to make a wise decision.

Consultants can bring their expertise to the recruitment process.

They might also recommend a job description, review CVs, and even conduct interviews.

Setting Up A Department

Along with helping with recruitment, SEO contractors might also help create a department from scratch.

This can be the case when a team is needed, but hiring talent at a senior level is proving difficult or too slow.

The SEO contractor might help create the department and potentially lead it until a permanent senior hire.

Considerations For Becoming An SEO Consultant

Ultimately, there is a lot to consider when moving from employed to contract work. It can be an exciting and liberating move, but it also risks.

No Boss

When you become an SEO consultant, you will trade the structure of a corporate world for the freedom of being independent.

That includes no longer having a manager.

Pros:

  • You are the boss! You get to make decisions that previously would be gatekept by your employer or more senior team members. Now, you are free to make those decisions yourself.
  • There is no one to disagree with your decisions or to say “no” to them. If you think something is worth trying, you do not need to get sign-off from a superior.

Cons:

  • You now have lots of bosses. It’s been said that moving to freelance means going from one boss to every client and stakeholder, essentially being your boss. They can still say no to you. You have more freedom to walk away from the project, but ultimately, you will need to concede sometimes if you want to earn money.

Legal And Financial Implications

You will need to follow laws, taxes to pay, and additional costs to being a consultant that you will need to be aware of.

All of this may affect your finances.

Pros:

  • Any money you make is for you to decide what to do with. The harder and smarter you work, the more you can be rewarded financially. No paying for your boss’s Tesla!
  • You have the freedom to be generous with your money. Your business can offer discounts for charities and free training for schools.

Cons:

  • All legal and financial obligations fall to you. The cost of non-compliance can be high both financially and on your time.
  • Getting the right advice can be costly. You may need to use the services of accountants, tax advisors, and lawyers.

Pick And Choose Projects

SEO consultants have much greater freedom to decide who they want to work with and on what projects.

Pros:

  • As an SEO consultant, there is more freedom to choose who you want to work with and what projects you want to work on. If you don’t enjoy a particular client set-up or disagree with the industry they are in, you can turn down the offer to pitch. This isn’t usually the case when you are working agency-side, for instance, where you might be expected to work with whichever client you are assigned.

Cons:

  • Being rigid in choosing who you work with and what you work on might be more challenging if you struggle to find clients. When employed in-house, you can choose the industry and the company set-up that suits you. In some agencies, you may be allowed to turn down work in certain industries you disagree with. Picking and choosing your projects as a consultant could mean not bringing in enough revenue on occasions.

Helen Pollitt on the freedom and drawbacks of being an independent SEO consultant.

Pitch For Work

You will have to develop your own business pipeline, including generating leads and ultimately converting them. This will likely mean pitching and contract negotiation.

Pros:

  • You won’t be in the situation again where someone has sold “the moon on a stick” and expects you to deliver it. You will be fully aware of your time, resources, and ability limitations and can pitch for work that fits that.
  • There should be greater freedom to showcase your abilities and demonstrate how you can help a prospective client.

Cons:

  • Not everyone enjoys the pitching process. It can be nerve-wracking and distracts from SEO execution’s day job. It’s not for everyone.
  • It can take time to put together winning proposals. They are necessary to keep work coming in but have to balance with the time requirements for actually completing client work.

Set Your Own Fee

Although dictated mainly by the type of client you want to work with and the market you are operating in, you will get to decide how much you charge.

Pros:

  • There may be greater autonomy to decide how much you want to charge for your work. You can essentially set your own salary as long as you can win the work to support it.
  • You can choose exactly how many hours and what work you are willing to do for that fee.

Cons:

  • It’s hard to get the pricing right. You may be tempted to charge what your last agency did for your time, but in reality, SEO consultants may struggle to charge high fees when they first set out unless they have good case studies and examples to back up the quality of their work.
  • Figuring out what to charge and what type of client you will need to sustain can be a bit of trial and error. Some leads may think you are over-priced; others may have been willing to pay more if asked for it.

Benefits

Depending on where you are working, the difference in employment rights for the employed and what you are entitled to as an independent contractor might be vastly different.

Beyond the legal rights you may be granted as an employed SEO, there are also likely additional benefits offered by your employer.

Pros:

  • You have greater freedom to choose the benefits that best fit your lifestyle. You can choose a medical insurance plan that works for your health needs. You can decide if the positives of having a company car outweigh the tax implications of one.

Cons:

  • You will not be automatically entitled to statutory holiday, sick leave, or other benefits afforded by your government to employed workers.
  • Maintaining the standard of living that you had as an employed SEO might be difficult once you go freelance. If you relied on your company’s great dental plan or loved the training budget, becoming a consultant might take some adjustment.

You Only Get Paid If You Issue Invoices

There are no “pros” for this one.

It’s essentially one of the most challenging aspects of being an SEO consultant.

If you can’t work for some reason, such as illness or holiday, you will not be able to bill for work. If you don’t bill for work, then you won’t get paid.

Unlike employment which may still pay you if you can’t work, that will not be something you get as a freelance SEO consultant.

If you can’t send out invoices, or worse, you do, but they don’t get paid, you may struggle to make your own payroll.

Conclusions

SEO consultants’ day-to-day working lives may look very similar to employed SEO experts in terms of work.

However, there are often additional complexities beyond SEO activity that can make it a scary prospect for some.

Taking the plunge into the freelance SEO world can be liberating, however. There is greater freedom in choosing what you want to do and when.

Some choose to dip their toe in consultancy work on the side of their regular job (if allowed by their employer).

This can help with the learning curve of running a business while in the safety of employment.

You may have no intention of leaving employment, but it is always good to keep an eye on the market. You may not want to be an SEO consultant yourself but need to hire one.

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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.

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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