My first attempt at using Google Ads (then called AdWords) was in 2011. I remember finding it so exciting to create ads that the public would see quickly – but I also found it to be mysterious. I remember thinking, “What exactly does this mean?… What exactly does that mean?… Does it make more sense to do it this way or that way?” There was so much to learn and explore, and I wanted to understand everything. It’s now 2024, and I’m still trying to understand all of it, not to mention Meta Ads, which I started doing in 2012. In these years, I’ve run thousands of campaigns for hundreds of businesses. I’ve certainly learned some good lessons. This article summarizes some of the best lessons I learned and can share. I hope you find it helpful.

Plan a Good Structure

The structure is as important for ad campaigns as it is for a house. If you start building without a well-thought-out plan for the structure, you’ll probably need to tear it all down and start over.

For good structure, it’s essential to understand the purpose of each level in the nested hierarchy. In Google Ads, that’s campaign> ad group> ad; In Meta Ads, that’s campaign> ad set> ad. Usually, you should create new elements at the lowest level that works. For example, suppose you want to advertise a new service in Google Ads but don’t want to change your daily budget or location targeting settings. In that case, you should probably create a new ad group in an established campaign rather than create a whole new campaign. In Meta Ads, if you want to test a different picture or video in an ad, you should create a new ad instead of a new ad set or campaign.

Good structure helps keep your ads focused well for the audience, helps with quality score and ranking to get more efficient delivery, makes it easier to see what’s happening, and allows your approach to grow and evolve.

Prioritize message clarity

It seems fairly often that I see an advertisement and think, “I have no idea what this ad is for.” As humans, we naturally tend to assume what’s obvious to us must be obvious to others. This leads to poor communication. When creating your ad, make it as easy as possible to understand what’s being offered. It should only take the viewer a quick glance to get the message, not a deep study to decipher. Remove unnecessary words. Rewrite your ad text in as many ways as you can think of to find wording that is the most clear and concise.

Use the carpenter’s rule

The old carpenter’s rule should apply to online advertising: Measure twice, cut once. In other words, double-check your settings in a campaign from top to bottom. One mistake could lead to wasting all of your budget. In Meta Ads, I like to use the “review” tab in the setup panel – especially for the ad set – to check that I’ve chosen my settings correctly. (Look for the review tab at the top while creating a campaign, ad set, or ad in Meta Ads Manager.)

Do remarketing

Remarketing (aka “retargeting”) is when you advertise again to people who’ve had an engagement with your business in the past. They might have visited your website, watched one of your videos, clicked somewhere on your posts or other ads, or are in your database’s list of current customers.

For most advertisers, remarketing should be the core of the entire strategy. The people who took an interest already are most likely to become customers, repeat customers, or referrers. Your remarketing audiences are your warm audiences. Also, remarketing is less expensive than advertising to cold audiences because it’s meant to reach smaller groups of people. Remarketing is the most valuable (and untapped) advertising opportunity for most businesses.

Avoid the Google Display Network (usually)

The Google Display Network is a network of websites, apps, and gaming systems that partner with Google to show ads. The ads show next to content, such as news articles, videos, and other information. Its reach is enormous. In fact, it’s the largest audience-reach ad platform on Earth. It includes websites such as Yahoo.com, CNN.com, Weather.com, FoxNews.com, TheNewYorkTimes.com, and many, many others. It also includes Google-owned properties, like YouTube. Elon Musk recently announced that X (formerly Twitter) would join the Google Display Network so that Google display ads will also appear there.

The GDN is excellent for remarketing but not great for other types of targeting. It’s rife with click fraud, meaning advertisers can get charged for clicks that never occurred by a human. (Website and app owners make money from ad clicks, so they always want more. Bots are sometimes put to work to do the clicking.) Google applies resources to detect and filter out click fraud, but it can never be stopped completely. Use the Google Display Network cautiously – or not at all, unless it’s for remarketing.

Avoid the Meta Audience Network (sometimes)

Audience Network is a network of apps that partner with Meta to show ads. Reportedly, there are around 80,000 apps in the network. It’s notorious for low-quality exposure and engagement, such as accidental clicks. It also has issues with click fraud, just as the Google Display Network does.

If you’re optimizing for results that have a measurable intrinsic value, such as leads or purchases, it can be fine to include Audience Network among your ad placements, since the system will be focusing on those results. If you’re optimizing for a result of questionable intrinsic value (such as clicks or video views), it’s best to select manual placements and uncheck Audience Network in the placement settings.

Search ads are for sweet spots

Running ads in Google searches can yield excellent results for certain types of businesses but can be disastrous for others. Too much aggressive competition for specific keywords is often the spoiler, but there are others.

When a market is over-crowded with advertisers, the auction price for clicks goes up-up-up, making it difficult for anyone to get much return on investment. And since there is only a limited number of searches every day, there’s too much demand for exposure by advertisers without enough placement opportunities (aka inventory). This is a significant problem in many industries. If this is the case with your industry, it might be best to avoid running Google search ads altogether.

How can you find out if this is the case with your industry? Try running Google search ads for a while. Select the option to use keyword match types (in campaign setup), then use brackets around the keywords you input for targeting – e.g., [mortgage company near me]. (The brackets tell the system to interpret your targeted keyword narrowly and not trigger your ad for searches unless someone’s search is very closely related to the phrase.) Once click activity is happening, pay close attention to the cost per click. Does it seem more expensive than you want to pay? The ultimate test is when you have conversion tracking in place, which allows you to measure the number of calls, leads, purchases, or other valuable actions resulting from ad clicks. The most important numbers to help you decide whether your ads can be profitable are:

Cost-per-acquisition – How much does it cost in ad spending to acquire a customer?

Lifetime customer value – What is your average total profit per customer that you acquire?

Every keyword targeted in Google Ads is like its own little marketplace. There are sweet spots for search ads: Keywords that have enough volume of searches, are not overly competitive, have commercial intent (people want to do business, not just get answers), and have clear terminology. When a keyword has these qualities, it’s better positioned for positive ROI.

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Use the search terms report

If you’re running Google search ad campaigns, be sure to check the search terms report. It tells you the exact words people searched that triggered your ad. It’s enormously helpful in several ways, including:

  • It helps you see if the right type (or wrong type) of wording is triggering your ads and leading to clicks.
  • It can give you ideas for how to improve structure. For example, if a particular search is very popular, you might consider creating an ad group to focus on it specifically.
  • It can give you ideas for negative keywords, so that the wrong types of searches don’t trigger your ads.

You can find the search terms report in the menu options under Insights (in the new user interface) or Keywords (in the old interface).

For privacy reasons, Google does not provide all of the search terms that trigger your ads – only some. Still, seeing some is much better than none.

Use negative targeting

Negative targeting is an important part of ad targeting.

Negative keywords in Google search campaigns prevent your ad from being triggered for the wrong types of searches, which can be a huge money-saver. For example, if a photographer doesn’t do weddings, the word “wedding” could be added as a negative keyword.

You also might want to exclude location areas. For example, if you want to target the rural areas of Texas, you could target the whole state but then exclude the biggest cities.

If you have remarketing lists or custom audiences, you might want to exclude them. For example, if an ad is meant to attract new customers, you could exclude a custom audience of your current customers.

Stand out with authenticity

There is so much fakeness in the world of advertising these days. This leaves a great opportunity to stand out by being authentic. Use authentic pictures and videos, as opposed to stock ones. Don’t underestimate the power of your own stories to attract attention and build trust.

More authenticity and transparency = more trust-building

Tracking results is essential

It’s important to have tracking mechanisms to understand the results of your advertising efforts and investments. Some valuable responses to ads are tracked automatically by Google and Meta — such as phone calls from ads, Messenger conversations, etc. – because those actions happen directly on Google or Meta technology. Tracking actions outside of their technology requires some extra help. For websites, the Google Tag needs to be added to send tracking data back to Google Ads; the Meta Pixel needs to be added to send tracking data to Meta Ads.

Website conversion tracking with a “thank you” page

A simple and long-standing website tracking method is to track views of a “thank-you” page. This is the page people see after they’ve completed an action, such as submitting a contact form, subscribing to an email newsletter, or making a purchase. Adding an event/ conversion code to this page tells the ad systems that a desired event took place because of an ad. It works in tandem with the Google Tag or Meta Pixel base code that must already be installed.

Three super-powers that are gained from tracking

There are three important benefits that come from the proper tracking of meaningful events that occur from ad clicks:

  1. You can see the fruits of your ad spending investments in the past.
  2. You can build remarketing audiences based on tracked actions. (For example, you can run a remarketing ad campaign only to people who’ve looked at a certain page of your website.)
  3. Sophisticated optimization powers from the ad systems can be put to work to get future conversions. (For example, you can tell Google or Meta Ads “Try to get website leads at a cost of $28 each.” Or, “Find people who might want to purchase a disco tennis racquet cover.”)

Both Google and Meta have categories for trackable events/ conversions, such as purchase, add to cart, lead, appointment booking, quote request, and begin checkout (among others). In Google, these categories are called “Goals.” In Meta, they are called “Standard Events.” Assigning a relevant category to the event helps the system be more informed about consumer behavior, which improves its ad-targeting abilities. Not only do the ad systems learn and apply knowledge from the activity of your campaigns, but they learn and apply knowledge from the activity of all campaigns run by everyone. This is a lot of hidden power.

Customize and save column sets in reporting tables

Getting the most benefit possible for your ad spend is the goal, so seeing the results clearly is essential. Be sure to customize the columns in reporting tables so you see the most important metrics for your goals, and not the ones that aren’t your focus. After you customize the columns, be sure to save your setting as a preset so you can view it again every time easily. This can easily be done in both Google Ads and Meta Ads.

Also, keep in mind that both platforms provide stand-alone reporting tools that offer more customization and sharing options than the standard reporting tables. They can be put together with visual features, such as tables, line graphs, or bar graphs. For sharing, they can be exported as images, spreadsheets, or documents. They can also be shared as a link or put on a schedule to be emailed to multiple people on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

View granular data with dimensions

In general, data shown in columns are called “metrics” (usually a number), and data shown in rows are called “dimensions.” Dimensions slice the data so you can see the metrics broken up. For example, you might see that 56 clicks came from one campaign. Slicing it by device type, though, might show that 37 of those clicks came from mobile devices and 19 came from desktop computers.

To slice the data by dimension in Google Ads, use the segment option. To slice the data by dimension in Meta Ads, use the breakdown option.

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Strong offers for lead generation

When doing lead generation, it helps to have an offer that grabs attention. Think aggressive – something that stands out. It also helps to use wording that is very clear and concise. This is especially true for Facebook and Instagram ads because you want someone to stop scrolling and take action, disrupting their flow, you could say. It’s different with Google search ads because the person is already taking action to find a product or service (if they have commercial intent). But, of course, a special offer could be effective with a Google ad as well. It might help motivate a click.

What you pay for

With Google Ads, the traditional cost is per click. Ad impressions (appearances) are free, but you’ll be charged when someone clicks. That means that clicks could be a good thing or a bad thing – it depends on who’s clicking and why. It’s important to strategize for getting the right clicks and avoiding the wrong ones. A wide array of techniques can be involved in that process. Some people think a high CTR (click-through rate) is great, but it could be bad. Again, it depends on who’s clicking and why. Some campaign types offer alternatives to PPC (pay per click), such as pay per CPM (pay per 1,000 impressions) or CPV (cost per video view).

(Note: Google recently announced that ads on the Google Display Network will change from a pay-per-click model to a cost-per-impression model in 2024.)

With Meta Ads, the traditional cost is per impression, so the cost is the same whether someone engages with the ad or not. With this system, you don’t need to strategize to avoid some clicks, as you do with Google. Meta calls their cost system oCPM, meaning “optimized cost per 1,000 impressions.” The “optimized” means that the system is delivering your ads with the goal of achieving the result that you specified in your performance goal setting, such as link clicks, sales, leads, add to carts, appointments booked, calls, or other options. Some campaign types offer alternatives to oCPM, such as pay-per-click, or pay-per-video-view.

Don’t trust Google or Meta to guide you

When you use Google Ads or Meta Ads, you are continuously encouraged to do almost everything possible to broaden your targeting and add more ad creative element options. This makes sense for their interests. Google makes money from clicks, so they want you to get as many as possible; Meta makes money from impressions, so they want you to get as many as possible. Both companies prefer that all your budget gets spent every day. Be very wary of the default settings as you create campaigns – also the recommendations that show along the way. Make decisions based on your advertising goals, not what the systems are suggesting. The “optimization score” in Google Ads is a clever gimmick Google uses to intimidate you into doing things their way. Again, think of what is best for your business. Don’t be afraid to go against default settings and recommendations. When in doubt, test it out.

Comply with advertising policies

Both Google and Meta have policies that must be complied with. Going against those policies can get your account suspended, or (worse) you could be banned from advertising. In the past, this has been particularly hazardous on the Meta side, since nobody is supposed to have more than one login to Facebook (meaning you can’t just create another account). Google has been less problematic because people can have any number of Google accounts. However, Google is now implementing an advertiser verification program that will change things, making it more hazardous for suspensions.

Use stories

People love stories. That’s why movies, novels, and TV dramas are so popular. Humans have a natural interest in other humans: their goals, struggles, experiences, accomplishments, and how those things make them feel. Don’t underestimate the power of your own true stories to generate attention, interest, and brand awareness.

“Facts tell, stories sell” is one of the great marketing maxims. They can be informative and instructive and are much more easily remembered than typical ad copy.

What makes a story interesting? If you ask Aaron Sorkin – the Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter – he’ll say the intention and the obstacle. So, someone is trying to accomplish something, but there is an obstacle in their way. This is a formula for attracting and holding the interest of an audience.

It’s usually a great practice to create content that tells the stories of how you started your business, why you started your business, and what some of your biggest challenges were.

Have an unique selling proposition

A unique selling proposition can make your ads stand out from the others. It tells why they should do business with you instead of your competitors. The right unique selling proposition can take your business to higher levels. Great fortunes have been made from great USPs.

To find a unique selling proposition that works for your business, look at your competitors’ ads. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • What could you offer that they are not?
  • Is there a way that your product is different or superior?
  • Does your business have a process that’s unique?
  • Is your pricing structure different and more beneficial to the customers?
  • Do you (or can you) offer a warranty or guarantee that would help you stand out?
  • What’s different about the way you deliver your products or services?
  • Can you offer a free gift as an incentive?

How to get help from Google

The main support hub for all Google services is:

https://support.google.com/

You’ll find many articles, tutorials, and other resources by searching there.

Also, you can click the Help link in Google Ads on the top-right of the screen. That will lead you to several options, including one to contact support.

How to get help from Meta

The main support hub for your Facebook profile is:

https://www.facebook.com/help

If there is an issue with your Facebook profile, there’s a place you can look to see if you have a message from Meta about it:

https://www.facebook.com/support

For help with Meta business-related questions, this is the main support link:

https://www.facebook.com/business/help

If there is an issue with your Facebook page, there’s a place you can look to see if you have a message from Meta about it:

https://www.facebook.com/support (This link is the same as the Facebook profile support inbox. Switch to your page “profile” to see the support inbox for your business page.)

Also, you can click the “?” link in Meta Business Suite or Meta Ads Manager to get help and support options.

A great quote from Ted Turner

Ted Turner, the billionaire media mogul, has a formula for success: Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.

It’s simple but packs a lot of punch. Many struggle with the advertise part: “How do I know if I’m getting anything from it?” The benefits of advertising tend to be cumulative and sometimes mysterious. But we all need to spread the word about what we offer. Advertising regularly in some way should be part of your formula for success.

The importance of frequency

The terms reach and frequency are commonly used in advertising. Reach is about reaching individuals with an ad’s message; Frequency is about reaching the same individuals numerous times with the same ad message. The importance of frequency cannot be overstated. People rarely do business based on the first exposure to an advertisement.

Here is a brilliant allegory about the importance of frequency published by P.T. Barnum in the mid-1800s. He credits the source to simply being “A French writer.”

A French writer says that, “The reader of a newspaper does not see the first mention of an ordinary advertisement; the second insertion he sees, but does not read; the third insertion he reads; the fourth insertion, he looks at the price; the fifth insertion, he speaks of it to his wife; the sixth insertion, he is ready to purchase, and the seventh insertion, he purchases.”