Thursday, 19 September 2013

The 4 c's of Google Adwords – content, context, clicks and conversions

By Alan Stanley

I manage Eldis – an online platform providing free access to international development research and policy documents. We’re a global service with roughly 45% of our users in developing countries and a strong emphasis on highlighting research produced by the smaller research organisations and networks based in the so-called global “South”. We get about half a million visitors per year.

Like most other online knowledge platforms Eldis relies heavily on Google as a source of traffic to our website (61% last year). And to do this we rely on getting our links into the listings on search engine results pages that appear because of their relevance to users search terms (referred to as natural or organic search).

Recently though, with the support of a small amount of funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, we’ve been exploring the use of Google Adwords (pay-per-click adverts appearing prominently on Google results pages) to help us achieve some of our marketing and promotion objectives. This short article highlights some of what we learned from this process and links to a longer draft learning paper we’ve produced which describes the process we went through in more detail. We’re not experts - we started from pretty much zero knowledge and still have many unanswered questions. So my hope is that this short article might prompt others to share their experience from which we can all learn.

Jargon alert

Working in both international development and knowledge brokering requires a certain natural tolerance (even a slight fondness) for jargon but the world of pay-per-click advertising takes this to a whole new level. Working across a small team of three to five people we discovered that it took a few weeks of meeting fairly regularly before we could even have a fairly straightforward conversation with each other about what we’d been doing! In the end we put together a basic glossary of terms to help us (see the learning paper for the full list).

Matching content to context is key

We experimented with Adwords campaigns promoting three different Eldis services:
We ran similar campaigns in 18 different countries. What clearly generated the most clicks in the most cost effective way was marketing our country specific content (e.g. Bangladesh Country Profile) to audiences in that country (Bangladesh).

This might seem obvious – Google users in Bangladesh interested in climate change are most likely to be interested in information about climate change in Bangladesh – but something called “quality score” also comes in to play. In determining how prominently your ads will be displayed, and what you pay for that position, Google looks at how closely the text on the web page you are promoting matches search terms you have chosen to target and the text of the ad that will be displayed in the search results. A strong match gives a higher quality score which will boost the prominence / reduce the cost of your ad. Our country profiles content clearly performed better in this regard.   

Concentrate on conversions and not clicks

We began our Adwords campaigns with two broad objectives – firstly to boost traffic to our site (overall but also specifically from our priority countries) and secondly to increase the number of regular users (return visitors) using our services.

We soon found that generating large numbers of clicks was relatively straightforward and, with some tweaking of keywords, budget and how much we were willing to pay for each ad, it was possible to steadily reduce the cost-per-click and improve the cost efficiency of the campaigns.

Success! Well, no because as we did this, we were also looking at the behaviour of our new users when they arrived at our site and found that the vast majority left again almost immediately and, worse, didn’t appear to ever come back. So in other words we were paying to bring new users to our site and then disappoint them – hardly good value for money!

This led us to rethink our strategy. Firstly we refocused our campaigns to emphasise quality over quantity - to try to make sure the people that clicked on our ads were likely to be interested in what we were offering rather than just focusing on getting as many as possible within the limits of our budget. Secondly we focused on what we wanted the users to do on our site once they arrived – and re-worked the wording and presentation of our pages to reflect this.

We’re sure we still have a long way to go with this. For example one of our targets is to get new visitors to subscribe to our email newsletter (in the jargon this is known as a goal conversion). By adjusting our keywords and re-writing and re-organising our subscribe page we’ve managed to double the conversion rate. Success! Well, yes but we’re still only getting 6% of new visitors to subscribe (up from 3%!).

Google Adwords - useful but complex and time-consuming

We’ve found Google Adwords to be a useful tool but complex and time-consuming to use effectively. It’s particularly helped us to reach new audiences in countries where, without active partners or contacts, we would have struggled to use more conventional marketing approaches. It isn’t cheap – either in the cost of advertising or the level of staff time required – but we have found it to be broadly cost-effective compared to other approaches we might use. Adwords is highly geared towards the commercial world where success is measured in sales so for a non-profit operation just engaging with it has challenged us to think very differently about our whole approach to producing web-based services – from content to target audiences. That thinking in itself has been valuable and I’m pretty sure we run a better service now as a result.

* Read more about this experiencing in the draft IDS Knowledge Services learning paper “Learning from Google AdWords Marketing” by Viivi Erkkilä, Fatema Rajabali and Alan Stanley. This blog was originally published on the Knowledge Brokers Forum.

Alan Stanley is a Senior Thematic Convenor at the Institute of Development Studies, and manages the Eldis programme and services.