fox on the prowl

Outfoxing your competitors with paid search smarts

8 min read
Matt Hessler

One of the best facets of paid search marketing is the incredible tools it offers to allow smaller advertisers to compete with bigger advertisers — especially on Google’s AdWords platform. Sure, those corporate giants have the advantage of larger data sets and may pay for robust tools like Marin Software and Adobe Analytics, but many of the most valuable insights you can get come directly from AdWords — you just need to know where to look!

So to enhance and sharpen our search smarts, we’re going to look at five invaluable insights we can get from AdWords that will help us become both more efficient and competitive in our campaigns to stand up to the Big Boys.

Efficiency insights

As a small business with limited resources, a key component to success is running a super-efficient campaign so you get the maximum return on your marketing investment. You have to dial-in every element in your online ad campaign’s settings — from geo targeting to device type optimization — to get results that really matter. You can't afford the wide margins of larger competitors, but with skill and attention to detail, you can construct a winning campaign. Let’s explore how.

Conversion time lag

One of the most interesting inferences AdWords can provide involves insights into our customers converting behavior. This applies to nearly all campaigns, whether your focus is lead generation or e-commerce. It’s critical to understand the conversion process and psychology of your users. (Note: to do this you will need conversion tracking installed).

In AdWords’ top navigation, click Tools, and then select Conversions. On the Conversions page, click Search Funnels and then select Time Lag.

time lag

In this sample you can see that while a large percentage of users, about 70 percent, convert within the first hour (presumably the first visit), the overall average time to conversion is actually 2.5 days.

How can we put this insight to use?

For one, we can use this information to determine the need for a retargeting campaign. What’s that? A retargeting (or remarketing) campaign is a display campaign that follows users who’ve visited your site or specific pages on your site. This type of campaign can display text or image ads to these users for 30 days or more, reminding them of your brand and increasing the likelihood they’ll return to your site to convert.

Any campaign with a click-to-conversion time lag of more than 24 hours for 10 percent or more users can benefit from retargeting. And if more than about 30 percent of conversions take 24+ hours, you should consider allocating about 25 percent of your PPC budget to a retargeting or remarketing campaign.

Cross-device conversions

In our increasingly connected society, users are searching online from their computers, tablets and smartphones. According to Google:

“Your customers’ paths to purchase are increasingly complex. In fact, nine in 10 consumers start an activity on one device and finish it on another.”

To understand this behavior and adjust your campaigns accordingly, you’ll need to add some extra dimensions to your normal AdWords reporting, at any level; Campaign, Ad group or Keyword. We’re going to add columns to the Campaign view.

Click on the Campaign tab, then select Columns (customize columns) from the drop-down menu. Next, select Conversions and add Est. Total Conv. and Est. Total Conv. Rate. Save your changes.


As you can see, the difference between Converted Clicks and Est. Total Conversions is pretty significant. While there are a number of factors that can contribute to this difference, the most common is Google’s attribution of cross device conversions. For this sample approximately 16 percent of the converting visitors began their search on one device and finished the conversion on another.

Is this number also significant for your campaign? If so, combine this insight with your actual device type conversion data to set your mobile bid modifiers. Check out how mobile bids have been increased by 10 to 15 percent or this campaign to increase results position:


Geographic targeting

Most people who have been running AdWords for any length of time know about geographic targeting. If you have a local campaign and have already set city, or ZIP + radius targeting, this AdWords Data might not be as helpful.

If you’re targeting your campaigns at the state, national or international level, Google provides data that will identify your most productive regions. Just look at Single Campaign or Multiple Campaigns, then click on the Dimensions tab. Select View: Geographic. I’d recommend setting a date range of 90 to 180 days so there’s enough data for you to infer some patterns.


In the example above, you can see a concentration of conversions coming from New York and California. You also notice the specific search results positions in each of these markets. The positions are aggressive in these major markets; you may find that your most active or important markets have lower rankings due to more local competition. If that’s the case I suggest adding more geo targets to your campaign in the Campaign Settings.

Once you’ve created new geos (in this case I’ve added New York City and the state of California), you can then modify the bids for those areas to help you be more competitive.


Competitive insights

So far we’ve plucked information from AdWords that might help us run our campaigns more efficiently; naturally, leveraging these strategies will make us more competitive. But we can do more. Let’s start with using some competitive insights to better our competition — other companies in the search results. It’s time to turn to Google’s Auction Insights reporting.

To review this data, start with your highest converting campaign — that’s the campaign where you want to be the most competitive. Once you’ve selected your campaign, you’ll see your list of ad groups. In the row of options above the table containing your ad groups, you’ll see a selection for Details. Select Auction Insights > All from the Details drop-down menu.

We can use this data set in two different ways to gain both insights and advantages over our competitors.

Ad copy comparisons

Let’s start by looking at the Overlap Rate column. When sorted, the domains with the highest overlap represent the companies we are competing with most often in the search auction.


Now that you know which sites you compete with most often, what can you do about it? I start by running search queries on Google for my top search terms; when I see one of these key terms pop up in a  competitor’s ad, I put them in a spreadsheet so I can compare their messaging and writing my own attention-grabbing copy.

If this seems like going back to the basics with your search campaign, it’s because YOU ARE! Most people create their ad copy when Google prompts them, with very little consideration for their competitors’ messaging.

You can be the smartest, most data-driven search advertiser in the land, but if you can’t write compelling ad copy that catches peoples’ eyes and interest, your campaign performance will always be limited.

Using your top competitors’ copy as inspiration, you can find ways to make your products or services sound more appealing, promote special offers, and use language, punctuation and extensions that will make your ads look different.


In these competing online ads for running shoes, note how the top ad is more eye-catching. It features a star rating, uses funky punctuation and punchy phrases like “Love ‘em,” and includes both call-out extensions and clickable links.

Bidding modification strategies

The second way we can become more competitive using auction insights is in using this information to color our bidding strategies. If you re-sort the same Auction Insights table by Position Above Rate, you can see which competitors appear above you and what percentage of the time this happens. If this is indeed your highest converting content, you’ll want to bid aggressively to maximize traffic and conversions.

The image below shows the results for two different time periods, one month apart. In the first many competitors often outrank this campaign. In the second, after one month of adjusting bids, you see a dramatic change in the number frequency with which the campaigns are outranked.


Finally, this data can be particularly useful for looking at mobile competition — specifically because there are often only three to four ad placements available on mobile devices. If mobile is a high priority for your business, then you’ll need to add one additional dimension to your insights. From the Auction Insights screen, add a segment for Device and learn how competitive your ads are on mobile.


If you’re getting badly out-positioned on mobile devices, consider increasing your mobile bid modifiers within your campaign settings.

Yes, size matters. Sort of.

Size does matter in search marketing. Big companies have more data to use to optimize their campaigns, and they typically employ either dedicated staff or agencies and tools to help give them an advantage. That said, AdWords still offers one of the most empowering platforms that small- and medium-businesses can use to level the playing field against the big players. By combining your industry expertise and understanding of your customers with the rich actionable data that is tucked away in AdWords, your smaller but sharper campaign might just outfox those larger competitors.