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The complete pay-per-click (PPC) advertising guide

PPC advertisement for soap with performance metrics in the background

After you make a website, you might wonder what's the best way to drive traffic to it. You can explore many different avenues—for example, search engine optimization (SEO) and social media—but pay-per-click (PPC) is one of the quickest ways to get more users to your website.

In this article, we’ll go over the essentials of PPC advertising and how it works, from the best platforms to use and how to conduct keyword research, to optimizing your campaigns.

What is PPC?

PPC is an online advertising model where marketers pay each time someone clicks on their ads via a search engine. Unlike organic methods of driving traffic to a site or webpage such as SEO, PPC focuses on the paid opportunities to get more clicks.

When users type in a search engine query, the search engine results page (SERP) presents them with a list of links. The links at the top of the list are usually PPC ads, and if you click on one of them, the advertiser pays a fee for that click.

Advertisers use pay-per-click ads to gather more leads, increase sales or simply increase awareness about their brand's product or services. Since the goal of PPC ads varies, the ads themselves can either target a set audience or budget or rank based on predetermined keywords.

How does PPC advertising work?

Since tons of companies and brands vie for clicks from the same users, PPC ads aren't as straightforward as clicking and paying. There's a method to it.

Each time a user looks up a query on a search engine such as Google, an auction is triggered for advertisers like you to bid on the ad placement. This auction is based on set keywords and budget. The ad that wins the auction appears on the user's search engine results page (SERP), and if the user clicks on it, only then does the advertiser pay their bid on it.

This whole process is done instantly on every search, so you need to have campaigns ready to enter into ad auctions—this includes creating the ad copy and setting a budget for the maximum you're willing to spend on each click. In the process, you’ll also choose relevant keywords which help determine how high the ad is placed.

Running PPC ads isn't only about creating eye-catching ads that users will click on. You'll also need to ensure that when they land on the desired page, they stay there and act.

ppc ads on the top of the Google search

SEO vs PPC: What’s the difference?

While both SEO and PPC advertising use similar tools (e.g. keywords) to drive traffic, they’re not the same. As we mentioned earlier, SEO takes a free approach to driving each click, such as optimizing content so that it comes up naturally in a SERP. Pay-per-click, by contrast, relies on paid clicks to display ads to users.

The cost isn’t the only difference between SEO and PPC. The amount of time it takes for the advertising method to kick in differs drastically. Since SEO is an organic strategy, you’ll need to build it up over time and it can take months to see traffic come to your site. With PPC, results are based on how much you’re willing to pay, so you’ll see them a lot quicker.

That being said, advertisers shouldn’t choose between paid and organic ads, but rather apply both to their marketing strategy. If you’ve already done the keyword research for your SEO strategy, you can apply them to your PPC campaign as well and increase your chance of ranking on the SERP. On average, SEO advertising converts at a rate of 2.4% compared to PPC at 1.3%, so by using both methods, you can increase your conversion rate even further.

Best PPC platforms

Several PPC platforms exist, but for the most part, when we talk about PPC, we're referring to either Google Ads or Microsoft Advertising (Bing).

Google Ads

Advertising on Google needs no introduction, it's the platform of choice for advertisers who want to present their ads to the broadest possible audience. However, since 86.6% of people turn to Google to search for answers to their questions and to run their ads, it's highly competitive and Google ads can cost more than on other platforms.

Microsoft Advertising

While "Let me Bing that" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, Microsoft holds nearly a 3% share of the search engine market. The audience here isn't as wide, but that also means you'll spend less on clicks. Many advertisers turn to Microsoft Advertising as a secondary platform for their PPC campaign to cover more ground.

Facebook Ads

While we don’t traditionally think of the social network as a search engine, Facebook Ads allow you to run paid campaigns similarly to how you would on Google or Bing. Like Google Ads, you can also target a specific audience with Facebook, and the ads natively appear in users’ feeds. Since Facebook also owns Instagram, you can use this ad platform to run your paid campaigns on both social networks.

ppc advertisement on facebook advertising floral bouquets

Other PPC platforms

Aside from the above three ad platforms above, you might want to consider bidding on platforms like:

  • AdRoll

  • RevContent

  • Bidvertiser

  • Amazon Ads

  • Adblade

  • BuySellAds

Best practices for running PPC campaigns

Below you’ll find some important tips and methods to keep in mind setting up a PPC campaign of your own.

Conduct keyword research

Arguably the most important part of creating your first PPC campaign is the keyword research. To start, focus first on specific terms that are relevant to your niche. Then, slowly start expanding to include less common terms that users still might search for. Useful tools like Google Keywords Planner, Ahrefs and SEMRush can help you save time at this stage.

Be sure to look for short-tail, long-tail and relevant keywords. You want to end up with an expansive list of relevant keywords to target in your campaign. It's common to have a list of hundreds to work with.

Research negative keywords as well, or those you don't want to rank for. Excluding negative keywords to your PPC campaign ensures that you don't waste your ad budget on clicks that won't bring you users with high intent. For example, if you own a small business that sells women's shoes, a negative keyword might be "men's shoes," since you don't want to pay for unnecessary clicks.

Similarly, create a list of branded keywords that users might search for. Branded keywords are search terms that include your brand's name, a competitor's brand name or something similar (including common misspellings). With a brand like Nike, for example, branded keywords would include "Nike sneakers," "where to buy Nike," or even "Nik shoes."

dashboard of ahrefs tool for performing keyword research

Set the right budget

To begin the ad auction process, set a budget for each keyword. Your budget can determine whether or not your ad has a good chance of winning an auction, so research keywords thoroughly to make sure you're paying for those that will most likely garner clicks.

When you decide which keywords you want to focus on, you'll set a budget for each keyword or ad group. This will be the maximum cost-per-click (CPC) amount of each bid. So, for example, just because you set your budget at $1.00 for a specific keyword doesn't mean you'll pay that for every click. You might pay $0.50 most of the time, but $1.00 is the most you'll pay.

Create quality ads

When running a PPC campaign, target the right keywords and ensure your content is relevant to the query. Aside from your maximum CPC, other factors determining whether your ad will show up on a SERP include quality score and ad rank.

Your ad's quality score depends on how useful users have found your ad. The score itself is determined by a few different metrics, including the expected click-through-rate (CTR) of an ad, its relevance to the user's original search query and the quality of the landing page.

The higher your quality score is, the less you're likely to pay per click. Similarly, an ad with a low-quality score can expect to pay more. Search engines often penalize low-quality advertisers, so if you have a low score, your ads may not even show up on a SERP.

How to target your audience with PPC advertising

With the right research and strategy, pay-per-click advertising can help you get target audiences to see your campaigns. Keywords aren't the only way to target your audience in PPC campaigns. You can also target other elements to further define your campaign, like:

  • Device

  • Geolocation

  • Day and time

  • Demographics

  • Previous online activity

By targeting your ads to be highly specific, you have a higher chance of someone seeing your ad at exactly the right time. For example, if you know your audience shops online from their phones in the evenings, and that they're between the ages of 25-45, you can set certain ad parameters to target those customers exactly.

You can also use this strategy when it comes to retargeted ads. This means that if a customer clicks on your paid ad but doesn't make a purchase, you can show them different ad messaging or use another type of advertising, like display ads, to grab their attention.

How to manage and optimize your PPC campaigns

Running PPC campaigns as a "set it and forget it" model won't work; you need to regularly monitor and update your campaign to get the results you want. When setting your goals, choose key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure if your campaign yields desired results.

To measure your ad campaign's success, decide on your goals in advance. Whether it's generating brand awareness, promoting a new product, or driving more website traffic—the metrics you use to gauge your campaign's success will differ. If your campaign doesn't perform as intended, try tweaking the keywords, reassessing your CPC budget, targeting different users or creating new ad groups.

Optimizing your campaign involves trial and error to see what keywords users engage with, what time of the week or day they're most active, what ads cost you the most, and which ones bring you the most traffic. Overall, any advertiser's goal with a PPC campaign is to generate the best results with the lowest cost per click. Optimize your campaign with the following methods:

  • Ensure your ad groups are organized so that you can see if they focus enough on the right keywords. You can also consider if you're using the right type of ad - there are so many, from native advertising to others. Remember to use clear UTM links to properly track your campaigns.

  • Use ad extensions to display products, contact details or anything else that engages audiences.

  • Constantly reassess your landing page to make sure it’s relevant, loads fast and provides an optimal user experience.

  • Run A/B tests using different landing pages for the same ad or different ad copy for the same landing page.

  • Always search for new keywords or variations to use that might have lower competition.

  • Regularly research and add negative keywords to avoid wasting ad budget.

  • Update your match types so that you can include more broad keywords that might have a lower CPC than an exact keyword.

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