How To Tell If You've Hired A Good Search Agency

Not all agencies are created equal. I’m sure you know this, and I’m sure you’ve seen a wide range in the quality of work produced by various agencies. But as one who knows how a good, quality search campaign should look, I thought I’d point out things you should look for. At nonprofits, every cent counts, so you need to ensure that the work you’re paying for is working for you. Keep reading to learn how to tell whether the agency you have creating your search campaigns is doing well, or if you “better shop around." Don’t have an agency? That’s fine – read on to get basic tips and tricks for setting up a campaign yourself.

A Note on Quality Score

Before I jump right in, I want to explain quality score a little further, as I’ll mention it throughout the next few sections. Quality score is a nonprofit online marketer’s best friend. Basically, if you have a great quality score, you’ll be able to get higher average positions for your ads (and hopefully, thereafter, more clicks) while paying less. In Google’s mind, if you have a high quality score, your ad is overall more relevant to the searcher. How do you get a great quality score? Google takes several things into consideration when calculating it:

  • The relevancy and quality of your landing page (Does it include the keyword in the language? Is the page easy to navigate?)
  • How relevant your keyword is to your ads (more on this in ad copy section below)
  • How relevant your keyword is to what the user searched (more on this in keyword section below)
  • your keyword’s past click-through rate (CTR)
  • your display URL’s past CTR
  • the overall CTR of all the ads and keywords in your account (for this reason, in extreme cases sometimes if you’ve had a terrible account, your agency may suggest creating a whole new account)



Want to learn even more about quality score? Read Google’s official Quality Score article.

Ad Groups

When your agency creates a new campaign, the ad groups should be clearly laid out so that you can see what ad groups belong in each campaign, and what keywords and ads belong to each ad group. Take a look at the ad groups that your agency recommended. Are there any synonyms to the keywords that you see they left out? For example, if the keywords in one ad group are all about wildfires in America, is there another ad group with keywords like “wildfires in the United States,” “wildfires in the US,” or “wildfires in the USA”? You want to make sure that you’re capturing all the different ways people could be searching for phrases, even if there are only 10 people searching “wildfires in the United States” versus 200 people searching “wildfires in America.”

Also, look for synonyms of more technical or industry words that may need to be added. No one will know your organization and industry better than you, and your agency might not be an expert on TomoTherapy cancer radiation treatments (just to name a technical term that I once needed to become an expert on). 

Also, look at the size of each ad group – there shouldn’t be hundreds of keywords all in one ad group. You want to have a small number of keywords in each ad group that very closely resemble each other to help improve your quality score. Do you see any obvious keyword patterns that could be broken out into their own ad group? Wherever you can, break those keywords out. As an example, I would say that “wildfires in the United States” and “United States wildfires” are pretty similar, and could stay in the same ad group. However, if you are seeing things like “wildfires in the United States” and “wildfires in America” in the same ad group, I would break those out.


Look through the keywords the agency put in each ad group. Have they included common misspellings, synonyms, and plurals? Also, make sure they have different phrasings of words. For example, if you want to advertise to people searching for “protect polar bears,” you’ll also want to advertise to people searching for “protect polar bear” (non-plural), “polar bear protection” (different phrasing), “polar bear conservation” (synonym), etc. (Although, in keeping with my statement in the ad group section above, if you’re going into synonym territory, I would put those keywords into a different ad group.) If you see that they’ve left out an entire synonym, I would duplicate the whole “protect polar bears” ad group (once it’s built out with synonyms, plurals, etc.), and just find and replace all “protect” or “protection” words with “conserve” or “conservation.”

About Match Types

Your best bet when you’re starting out a completely new campaign or ad group is to include all three match types of each keyword (and your agency should recommend this). Not sure the difference between the match types? Here’s a quick recap:

  • Broad Match – Your ad will show when a user searches a variation of your keyword. This is the trickiest of the three match types, because it will also match for similar keywords or keywords Google considers a synonym. For example, if your keyword is “support our troops,” your ad could show if someone searched “support our American troops” or something farther off like “help our military.” While this can be a good thing, because it can help you find variations people are searching that you should be advertising on, it can also be a bad thing. For example, at my previous agency we had a client that was advertising on “storm cases,” (high-grade protective cases) that had broad matched to the search query “hurricane glasses,” the tall glasses that protect candles from wind. In Google’s mind, the word “storm” and “hurricane” were synonyms, as were “cases” and “glasses,” but, obviously, we didn’t want to waste impressions or even misguided clicks on people looking for candle accessories.
  • Phrase Match – Your ad will show when a user searches your keyword, even if they’ve added anything before or after. So if the keyword is “support our troops,” your ad could show if someone searched “operation support our troops” or “support our troops America.”
  • Exact Match – This one’s the easiest. Your ad won’t show for any other phrasing other than your keyword. So if the keyword is “support our troops” your ad will only show when someone searches “support our troops,” no more, no less.

I do recommend starting out by including all of your keywords in all three match types, but I want to qualify that statement quickly: Since broad match keywords can be such a wildcard, I would only leave those on for so long. Keep them on until they accumulate a good amount of clicks, and go in and look at the search queries searched by users who clicked your ads. Are they relevant? Add them as keywords. Are they completely irrelevant, and you find yourself in disbelief that someone actually clicked your ad if they were looking for hurricane glasses? Add them as negative keywords. Once you feel that you’ve gotten enough potential new keywords, go ahead and pause the broad match keyword.  Don’t worry – people looking for that keyword phrase will still see your ads through your phrase and exact match of that keyword.

Stop Words

Stop words are words that Google ignores. Back in the day, search engines used to put a little footnote just below the search bar telling you something along the lines of “Google did not include the words ‘and’ and ‘the’ in the search phrase.” Remember that? Anyway, even though you don’t have that nifty notification anymore, Google still ignores certain words when running the algorithm that shows your search results. For example, Google will treat the keyword “wildfires in the United States” exactly the same as “wildfires United States.” Therefore, you don’t need to include both keywords in your list. For a complete list of stop words, see this post from Link Assistant.

Ad Copy

In order to test the ads and see what copy works best, you need at least two ads per ad group (and an ad that works in one ad group doesn’t mean it will work in another). Also, make sure there are specific ads for each ad group. The agency shouldn’t just send over 10 “sample” ads that can be used throughout the campaign (I’m speaking from experience – yikes!). One of the major factors in having a good quality score is the use of your keywords in your ads; therefore, it’s incredibly important to write different ads for each ad group. Google sees ads with the keyword included as more relevant, so it will be easier/cheaper for you to get a better average position. Also, keywords in the ad copy appear in bold on the search engine results page (SERP), making your ad stand out and making users more likely to click.

To give an example, if your ad group is filled with keywords like “support our troops,” try to get at least one of those phrases in the ad copy of the ads specific to that ad group. This is another great reason to have smaller ad groups – it will be easier to get the keywords into the ads, thereby raising your quality score. Ideally, there should be at least one keyword in each ad, and try to mix up the keyword so that you don’t have just one keyword “representing” the whole keyword list for that ad group, if you will.

If you have keywords that are quite long and you’re running into character spaces (like long technical words), consider your stop words. Since Google ignores some of those smaller words, could you get rid of one or two of those words to cut down on characters without sacrificing the user experience? Or sometimes, all you need is to change an “and” to an “&” and now you can fit in a keyword! If you’re really pressed for character limits, try synonyms. Sometimes, shorthand phrases like “mktg” for marketing or “mgmt” for management Google considers synonyms. I’m not promising your quality score (or the user experience for that matter) will be as great as if you used the full long word, but Google will still bold the phrase and it’s great if you’re in a jam. Not sure what common synonyms for a certain word might be? Try this trick: google the word with a tilde in front of it “~mgmt” and see what Google bolds (in my example both MGMT phrases and Management phrases are bolded).

So there you go! A full guide to making sure that both your agency and your Google AdWords account (both paid and grant) are working for you. I know from experience that resources at nonprofits are tight, so make sure that you’re getting the most out of your investments.

1 comment about "How To Tell If You've Hired A Good Search Agency ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Rob Schmults from Intent Media, August 27, 2012 at 2:24 p.m.

    Some great advice in this post. I'd go on to add:
    - How good are they at hitting your target eCPA (normalizing your CPC to a CPM)?
    - What share of traffic is coming at a eCPA 5 points or more above your target eCPA? Costs will always bounce around, but if too much traffic is in this group then they are not aggressive enough at staying on top of non-performing terms (or are trading volume at the expense of your profits).
    - What share of traffic is coming at more than 5 points below your target eCPA? Net of brand terms, these are terms where they may not be bidding aggressively enough (leaving sales on table even as they make it easier for the agency to hit your target eCPA overall). Again, performance will bounce around, so don't leap to judgement on a limited data set.

    Always remember that your search agency will never be better than you allow it to be. The client has a big responsibility to share clear goals and metrics; to be proactive about externalities that will impact search with enough time for the agency to react; and to understand search marketing sufficiently to be an informed thought partner with you agency.

Next story loading loading..