• Navin Lal

The Startup Founder’s Guide to Setting Up Google Ads

As a startup founder, getting users to use your product is something you’ll spend a lot of your time doing early on. There are many different channels to acquire users from but one that’s often overlooked for brand new startups is Google Ads. The conventional wisdom is to hold off on paid advertising until you’ve grown and have the resources for it, i.e. more cash to spend and the ability to hire someone to run your campaign. After all, setting up a paid marketing campaign requires a fair amount of expertise and can burn a big hole in your budget if you get it wrong.

However, there are several benefits to starting paid advertising immediately, the biggest of which is being able to hone in on your messaging so you know how to better position your product across all of your marketing channels. And if you get it right, you will have a steady stream of traffic that requires little time and effort on your part to maintain (and we all know how scarce of a resource time is in the beginning). This post is about our experience setting up our Google Ads campaign and some of the lessons we learned along the way.

Lesson #1: Start with a small daily budget

If you’re like us, the first thing you think of when you think of Google Ads is the ads at the top of the search results. That’s where we figured would be the best place to start. Setting up a campaign is very straightforward. We just followed the prompts and we had our first campaign up and running in minutes. Our plan at this point was to monitor the results and tweak our campaign along the way. However, we were surprised at just how much tweaking we would need to do.

Before we dive into that though, we want to highlight the most important thing we got right which was to set a small daily budget. This might seem like common sense but it’s something we wanted to reiterate. Setting up an optimized, well-performing search campaign takes time. You’ll need to experiment, examine the results, and iterate on it to improve its performance. While you’re doing this you want to make sure you don’t blow your entire marketing budget away if something goes wrong. It’s your last line of defense.

Here’s what happened to us. A few days into the campaign we had a day where we saw a huge spike in traffic from Google Ads. At first we were thrilled, something we tweaked must’ve really made a difference! However, upon closer examination of the results we noticed that nearly all of the clicks were coming from countries in the Middle East (outside of our targeted demographic but more on that later). We looked at Google Analytics and saw that one of these visitors clicked our Sign Up button 24 times. Clearly there was something strange going on. It turns out these were bots designed to drain our marketing budget. This is a pretty common problem for pay-per-click advertising and if we hadn’t kept our daily budget small it could’ve really hurt us.

As a side note, Google actually has an algorithm that’s supposed to detect these invalid clicks and not charge you for them. However, in our case it only flagged about 10% of these clicks. We worked with Google’s customer support team for several weeks going back and forth but we never did get all of our money refunded so it’s not something you should count on.

Lesson #2: Fix Google’s recommended defaults

Here’s a lesson we learned the hard way. Even if you tell Google to optimize traffic for conversions, it’s still going to send you the cheapest traffic that fits your targeting requirements. Your job is to raise the minimum acceptable traffic threshold to something that works for you. But to make this more challenging, Google sets a few settings by default that can drastically reduce the quality of your traffic.

Going back to our bot incident, one of the things that confused us most was that we had set up our ads to only target the United States. Why were we being sent traffic from other countries? It turns out the problem lies with Google’s default location settings. The default location setting recommends that you show your ads to anyone in your target locations or anyone who’s interested in those targeted locations. This means that even if you have a product that you only want to sell to customers in the United States your ads could also show up for users who have merely expressed interest in the United States. Remember, you will always be sent the cheapest traffic that meets your requirements so this can turn into a huge waste of money.

The solution to this is hidden away under Location Options which you can get to by going to Campaigns -> Settings -> Locations. Set it to only target users who are physically in your targeted locations.

This will make your location targeting behave the way you’d expect it to.

The other default setting you’ll want to fix right away is to opt out of the Display Network. You can find this under Campaign -> Settings -> Networks. As we’ll go into more detail on later, Google’s Display Network is vast but largely ineffective. Don’t let money you’ve set aside for search ads get siphoned into display ads. If you want to show display ads set up a display only campaign that’s separate from your search campaign.

While Google may recommend opting into the Display Network, we do not.

Lesson #3: Use multiple ad groups

Now that we had the basics covered and were consistently getting traffic from our target demographic our next step was to try and improve the efficiency of our ads. When we initially set up our campaign we had put together a bunch of keywords related to our product, put them into a single ad group, and created ads that listed our benefits. This worked ok but there’s a better way.

Google uses an algorithm called Ad Rank to determine what ads it shows during searches. The higher the ad rank the more likely your ad is to show and the closer to the top it will be. You can increase your Ad Rank by showing more relevant ads and the best way to do that is to tailor your ads to your keywords. This way when someone does a search they see ads that are closely related to what they searched for.

To do this properly you need to make use of multiple ad groups. Ideally, your ad groups should contain keywords that are similar enough to each other that any of the ads from your ad group could apply to any of the keywords. For example, in our case we knew we wanted to target people searching for “slack apps” as well as “1-on-1s”. Slack apps and 1-on-1s are not necessarily related so the right way to set this up would be to set up one ad group for the keywords related to Slack apps and one ad group for the keywords related to 1-on-1s. Then within those ad groups we created ads that were tailored to those keywords to be more relevant.

This is a simplified view of what the structure of our campaign looked like.

If you want to take it to the extreme you can use single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) but they are notoriously difficult to maintain. In practice we’ve seen that as long as all the keywords in your ad groups are tightly correlated you will get solid results.

Lesson #4: Details matter when it comes to keywords

Keywords are ultimately what trigger your ads to show so taking some time to plan them out can lead to a big payoff. Initially we just jotted down keywords that we assumed would be popular but there’s a better way — using Google Keyword Planner. With Keyword Planner you can enter in your ideas for keywords and get back monthly forecasts for those searches as well as related searches that might be better. It’s a way to be more strategic with choosing the keywords you target and gauge how much of an impact your keywords will have.

Once you’ve chosen your keywords, you should try to stick with Phrase and Exact Match keywords instead of Broad Match keywords. By default any keywords you add will be Broad Match. This means that they’ll match searches that could only partially contain your keywords. For example, say you have a keyword for “apps for managers”. A Broad Match will mean that searches like “task manager apps” or “android apps manager” will also match since they contain one or more of your keywords. Instead you can make it a Phrase Match keyword by surrounding it in quotes (i.e. “apps for managers”) which will make it so the search must contain all the terms and appear in the same order you input them. Or you can be more restrictive with an Exact Match keyword by surrounding it with brackets (i.e. [apps for managers]) which will make it only show up if the search matches your keyword exactly with no other terms present.

Lastly, don’t forget to use negative keywords. These can prevent your ads from showing up for searches that aren’t actually related to what you offer. For example, in the case of our 1-on-1 ad group we added a negative keyword for “sports” to avoid showing up on results related to 1-on-1 basketball.

Lesson #5: Avoid display ads, especially on mobile

We started out by limiting our campaign to just search ads. But now that we had that working we wanted to test using display ads since Google’s Display Network reaches 90% of people on the internet. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it working efficiently. With our initial set up we saw most of the traffic came from mobile apps that bounced pretty much immediately. Our guess is that people were accidentally tapping an ad while playing a game. We tried eliminating mobile traffic from our targeting but the conversion rate from desktop was so low it just wasn’t worth it. Our recommendation if you want to do display advertising is to use Facebook as it’s better suited to the task with its more advanced targeting capabilities.

Lesson #6: Leverage remarketing ads

The final lesson we learned and wanted to share was the power of a remarketing campaign. It is by far the most efficient campaign you can run. If you’re not familiar, the idea behind a remarketing campaign is to target people who have visited your site and demonstrated an interest in your product, whether by clicking certain buttons or by staying for a certain amount of time. While running ads on Google’s Display Network to initially acquire users generally performed poorly, using remarketing to bring them back after they've visited our site performed exceptionally. It’s unlikely for someone to sign up for your product the first time they visit if they’ve never heard of it. But by keeping them aware of your brand you can be there when the moment is right and get them to come back and follow through. These people also have a much higher chance to click your ads since they’re familiar with you so the cost-per-click is significantly cheaper than the cost associated with acquiring a brand new user.

Putting it all together

If we had to do it all over, we would start by creating a document that outlines our plan based on these lessons. It can be tempting to just go into Google Ads and quickly set up a campaign. However, you’ll have much more success if you take the time to plan out your strategy first.

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