In the landing page optimization world, only a small elite reach peak performance. Those are the multitalented practitioners who have the good fortune of being fueled with data from a decade's worth of testing, and who excel above the pack at sussing out the patterns that matter. From there, they relentlessly follow that logic in every test. (Beyond that, there is the potential for lucky accidents that lead to successful genetic mutations.)
No one has ever died from a mediocre landing page or text ad. But to borrow from Seth Godin via Charles Darwin: in business, mere survival is not enough. Let's live larger.
Testing tiny text ads for superior performance is similar in some ways to testing landing pages. Anyone can play. A small elite "test to win."
So, if I may borrow some terminology from Tim Ash: there are some things you absolutely must not do here ("Seven Deadly Sins"). But let's flip that on its head: pursue these "Seven Heavenly Virtues" of paid search ad copy:
Focus on your core message.Simple ideas work. But it's easy to get carried away. Product description, shipping offer, benefit, testimonial, call to action. If you have a file of ad elements that work, it's tempting to try them all at once. But your ad will confuse people if you cram in four ideas where two will do. That must be because of the nature of the search and navigation process. The main site for persuasion is the website, so relax! Think about perfecting two ideas or elements in your ad, and if you're good, fold in the third.
Love and honor your winning headline. In mature accounts, you should have reached the point where your headlines are optimized. Don't go ripping into ad groups with a huge batch of new ads that disrespect the exalted status of your winning headline. Try new ones, but keep multiple versions of your winning-headline ads running so you don't throw money out the door testing the upstarts.
Real words, please. Maybe if you're a penny-pinching classified ad buyer renting out apartments in the local newspaper, you can get away with "2 br kit w/o deck" and its ilk. But as soon as you abbreviate, you're speaking Greek to searchers. It just doesn't look crisp. You'll find the odd ad that can tolerate that compromise, but it's likely the exception that proves the rule. So by all means, completely rewrite an ad to remove one exciting element if you need to, in order to avoid saying "brkv!" Searchers don't know what "brkv" is.
Test significant contrasts in ads initially, not trivial ones. A/B testing is better than "no testing," but it's mediocre in the wrong hands. If you sequentially test tiny differences in your ads in a series of A/B tests until the cows come home, will you someday achieve direct response nirvana? Doubtful. Consider testing big differences in your ads in A/B or A/B/C tests. Later, consider testing more (eight plus) ad variations at once, as you get closer to perfection. Multivariate testing isn't always possible for volume reasons, and is for advanced practitioners only. But it's sweet when you have the volume and when you know how to make it work.
Use sensible date ranges when analyzing performance. There is too much seasonality in most businesses to let Valentine's Day tussle with March Madness, or to let the August lull face off against Halloween, to say nothing of the more obvious aberrations that occur in December buying patterns. Pick smarter date ranges for comparisons, and make sure the impressions allotted to the ads in the test were roughly even.
Create "evergreen" ads and record-winning principles. In fast-moving industries, it's tempting to change offers (shipping, new promotions, new products) frequently, and sometimes this is done by overwriting all the ads in your ad groups frequently. Of course, this is a must for many businesses that rely on promotions and seasonality. But the marketer's dream is to build up a file of learnings, and you won't get that by running a jumble of ads for a few days at a time, creating too few conversions associated with any ad creative to build up any momentum for analysis. The political and strategic challenge in any fast-moving account is to up the overall proportion of ads and ad principles that don't change, as a percentage of all the ads running in the account. Fast-moving promotions will at least then be able to use versions of well-tested copy.
Look at search-only CTR data. When you have both the search network and placement targeting enabled for the same ad group, your CTRs (define) on ad creatives are typically reported in the aggregate. You need to unearth the "real" CTR data for ad creatives based on search-only response, and make decisions on that basis. Unfortunately the blended CTR data will look all squished together (0.71 percent, 0.68 percent, 0.68 percent, etc.), as content targeting creates a high number of impressions and a low CTR on nearly all ad creative, swamping your search-only data. Hopefully all of the search ad platforms will make this search-only reporting capability more seamless so you can do it in one click, without being forced to segregate content-only campaigns in every case.
If you fail to pay attention to these sometimes-esoteric factors, it's just possible that you may make a living and achieve happy mediocrity -- but you'll surely never reach AdWords Heaven.
Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.