6 Reasons Why Your SEM Campaign is Broken (And How To Fix It)

Search Engine Marketing is a powerful strategy for reaching a high-intent audience. If you have SEM experience, you probably knew that already. If you’re new to SEM campaigns, here is a great step-by-step tutorial on how to set up an SEM campaign properly. If you already have an SEM campaign running and you’re starting to wonder about its lackluster performance, you’ve come to the right place.

Maybe performance has never been that great. Maybe your campaign started off performing well, but performance has gradually declined over the years. Either way, you need to know how you can fix your campaign and start bringing in a positive return on your ad spending.

Let’s dive into the troubleshooting aspect of improving SEM results.

Why Your SEM is Broken

Understanding the Bidding Process

As with most digital advertising platforms, Google and Microsoft function as an auction system where the best ad gets the top spot. Determining what qualifies as “the best ad” has a few factors to take into consideration. The first is how relevant your headline and body text are to what the user typed into the search. The more relevant the ad copy, the more likely your ad will land the top spot on the results page.

Landing Page Score

Another key factor is page speed. Within each platform, you can see the landing page score for your campaign. If you’re unfamiliar with the page speed of your current landing page, use this tool. Here’s an advanced tip: for landing page optimization, use Dynamically Inserted Text in your headlines. Platforms like Unbounce are excellent resources to help you do this.

Click Through Rate (CTR)

Another factor that goes into deciding which ad gets the top spot in a search query is Click Through Rate, or CTR. CTR shows Google or Microsoft that an ad is either very relevant or not so relevant to a search query. You can improve CTR by using the ad strength scale in these platforms.

Adding extensions to your ads also helps the CTR. Remember, if your campaign has an ad with a high Ad Strength, CTR, and Landing Page Score, you’re likely to earn a higher impression share. Another way to improve your impression share is to ensure that you’re not underspending, compared to your competition. You can check this by adding the column “Impression Share Lost (Budget)” to your campaign manager.

Sometimes increasing the budget isn’t an option for a business, but this could be a big reason your SEM campaign has declined in performance. With more advertisers launching campaigns every day, your campaign may be getting drowned out.

Google Display Network

Lastly, we’ve discovered that utilizing a Google Display Network campaign can increase the CTR of our search campaigns. A Google user’s awareness of your brand could be the make-or-break factor when it comes to choosing which link to click. “Oh, I have heard of these folks before.” If you’ve seen success with a GDN campaign, we’d love to hear about it.

Now that we’ve touched on how the auction works, we can dive a little deeper into each component of your SEM campaign. The key thing to remember is that the more specific you make your campaign or funnel to the user, the better your campaign will perform. Google and Microsoft have the goal of serving the best ads (or even organic search results) to their users so they find exactly what they are looking for.

6 Reasons Why Your SEM Campaign is Broken (And How To Fix It)

1. Ad Group Structure

When creating a SEM campaign, your Ad Groups are the “buckets” where you separate your campaign into subcategories. You can tailor your message more effectively within each ad group, which in turn increases the success of your campaign by allowing you to show more relevant ads for a search query. Improving relevance within ad groups will raise your CTR, Ad Strength, and Quality Ranking.

For example, if your company sells clothing for adults and children,, you may want to create two separate campaigns for adults and children. Within those campaigns you may want to set up ad groups for “shirts,” “pants,” and “accessories.” A simple structure set up like this allows you to add specific keywords to each campaign and to write more relevant headlines within each Ad Group.

A simple and defined Ad Group structure also helps to eliminate any internal bidding or campaign cannibalization, which means you can get the same number of clicks for less money just by structuring your campaigns properly.

2. Short or Long-Tail Keywords

Keywords are the lifeblood of SEM campaigns. If your campaign is delivering less than stellar performance, it’s most likely because you’re bidding on the wrong keywords. When setting up or managing a campaign, it’s important to make sure you have a good balance of short and long-tail keywords.

The fewer words in a search term, the more broad the results will be. Broad Match keywords may help get your ad in front of more searchers, but they may not be completely qualified customers. Long-tail keywords, where three or more words are included in the search term, can help reach a more defined audience.

If your SEM campaign is bringing in a lot of unqualified leads, your keyword selection could be the issue. Look under your “Search Terms” within the last 30 days to see which words led to conversions.. Make sure you exclude any search query that isn’t relevant to your business.

Also, within your targeted search keywords, make sure you’re utilizing more long-tail keywords, exact match keywords, and phrase match keywords. Having too many broad-match, single-word keywords can cause a lot of unwanted traffic that turns into less-qualified conversions.

At Big Sea, we use SEMrush for keyword research, but Google offers a free tool that can also be useful in identifying great keywords to bid on, which keywords your competitors are bidding on, and can even give recommendations on how to properly structure your ad groups or campaigns.

Moreover, it’s important to look at the Keyword Difficulty (KD) and average cost-per-click (CPC) for each keyword to help predict performance. If you’re working with a smaller budget, choosing terms with low KD is crucial.

3. Ad Strength

In an auction that takes less than a second, Google needs to know which ad to show at the top spot. An ad with an “Excellent” rating for Ad Strength is more likely to appear at the top of the page. This will get more impressions, more clicks, and ultimately more conversions. 

When the majority of ads in an account have an “Average” or “Poor” Ad Strength, we can assume the entire campaign would perform better by just improving the ad. We’ve seen this many times when auditing a new account. After updating the ad strength with new accounts, we can see an almost immediate improvement in performance. Do you know the Ad Strength of your currently active ads? 

4. Tailored Copywriting

The main goal of Search Engine Marketing is to help the user find exactly what they’re searching for. If your ad copy is too broad, you may be missing out on a lot of potential clicks. It’s important to have ad copy that really resonates with your audience. Within a limited character count, the ad copy must explain who you are, what you sell, and who should buy it.

At Big Sea, we have expert copywriters, but you may not have access to someone who can write all of your ads. That’s okay! But you may need to put in a little more work for your campaigns. The more specific you are with your targeting and messaging, the better your ads will perform.

Similar to the Ad Group structure we spoke about earlier, your ads themselves should be specifically related to what the user typed in. Properly structuring your Ad Groups and Keywords can allow you to write ads that are more tailored to the user, which will ultimately get you better results.

We’ve also found great success with Google’s Dynamic Search Ads for our clients. Within Google and Microsoft, you can utilize Keyword Insertion, which dynamically updates your ad text to include one of your keywords that matches the search query. This can be very effective in tailoring your copy to individual users.

Google Dynamic Search Ads have dynamically generated headlines based on the search query. Google can direct the click to a specific landing page that is most relevant to what was typed in. We recommend using a variety of ad types. It’s important to utilize all of the available features of an SEM campaign to get the best results.

5. Bidding Strategies

We have tried to test manual bidding strategies against automated bidding features. We lost every time. Google really knows what it’s doing. The best results will likely come from its automated bidding strategies if your campaign is set up properly.

The two most common bidding strategies we use are Maximize Conversions and Maximize Conversion Value. If you’re advertising for leads, it would make sense to use a Maximize Conversion bidding strategy. If you have assigned values to each of your conversions or are advertising an e-commerce brand, Maximize Conversion Value may get you the best results. Here is a helpful article to guide you through setting this up successfully.

Before updating your bidding strategy, we highly recommend creating a draft, followed by an experiment to test any changes. This will not affect the original campaign. If, instead of creating a draft, you duplicated the campaign to make changes, you would likely encounter internal bidding which will hurt performance. When starting an experiment, make sure you let it run for at least two weeks before making any final decisions. We’ve found great results by testing Manual bidding versus Automated bidding, and the same with Max Conversions versus Max Conversion Value.

If you’re trying to increase your impression share, the Target Impression Share bid strategy is very effective. If you’re confident with your ad copy and landing page offer, try testing this bid strategy out. This will show your ad to as many people as possible, which gives you more opportunities to get the click and conversion.

We’ve found great success with Microsoft’s Enhanced CPC bidding strategies. Before changing your bidding strategy, it’s important to set up a 50-50 test and allow enough time to receive sufficient results.

6. Landing Page Optimization

Small businesses, especially those with a limited geographical reach, rarely create new landing pages for new ad campaigns. We also see landing pages route to the “Contact Page” of a website, but without a clear call to action. It’s important to have a very simple landing page with a clear call to action to get the most conversions.

An easy way to tell that your landing page could be the problem: a lot of clicks and a high CTR for your campaign, but low conversion rate. This indicates that your ads are relevant to the searches, and traffic is coming to the site, but the landing page itself isn’t earning conversions.

A landing page copy picks up the story where your ad left off. Your landing page is an extension of that ad, continuing the journey your users began when they first clicked. Relevant landing page copy shows how your company truly understands the site visitor. This will lead to the most conversions.

Landing page tools are also great at helping you optimize and follow best practices. Landing page builders like Unbounce, Lead Pages, and Click Funnels are quite handy. But you can also create a landing page on your existing website. The more relevant and specific the page, the higher your conversion rates will be.

A newer Google product, Google Optimize, is an amazing tool for creating variations of your landing page so you can test the best versions. You can try out different page set-ups, headlines, and calls to action. Using this tool to optimize the landing page can boost your overall SEM performance by creating hyper-targeting experiences for each individual user.

So, What’s next?

It’s important to remember that there’s more to campaign performance than technicalities and platform tools.

At Big Sea, our best practice is to humanize your SEM approach and its solutions. Behind each “impression” or “click” is a real person looking for a real experience. Remembering this is key to operating a successful campaign–it will make it or break it.

These are not vanity metrics. Hyper-targeted messaging makes people feel seen by tailoring an offer to them. Such an offer is much harder to refuse, making it the basis of a successful Search Engine Marketing campaign.

There are a lot of internal and structural practices that can help the performance of your SEM campaign. But the biggest piece of advice we can give: create campaigns and user experiences that speak to the people you want to connect with the most. When your campaign feels genuine, performance will follow. The moment a new user feels like your brand truly understands their pain points, they’ll convert. Your ads, landing pages, and SEM strategies all work together to create that moment.

We love making those moments for users. If you’re overwhelmed or don’t know where to start with optimizing your SEM campaign, maybe it is time to work with a Search Engine Management partner. Send us a message here and let’s audit your SEM campaign together.