How to A/B Test Circles Around Your Competitors in AdWords

Image by Susan Sermoneta via Flickr

I’ve kissed a lot of Google AdWords frogs, and let me tell you, very few immediately morph into royalty. Whether it’s a $2,000 pilot campaign or a six-or-seven-figure monthly ad spend, rarely do I come in contact with paid search accounts that demonstrate a truly organized, rigorous ad copy A/B testing process.

There are lots of reasons for this:

  • Multiple handoffs of management
  • “Legacy” campaigns requested by an executive or built by a long-gone agency
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of focus
  • Complacency with the status quo or a single ad test that blew the village away

You can read marketing blogs until you’re blue in the face.

A/B Test Adwords - Blue Man Group

And you can implement all the widely-accepted AdWords best practices under the sun – but at the end of the day, the only things you can truly know about your particular advertising account are the things you’ve tested into with your own keywords, your own ad copy and your very own landing page and conversion process.

As an SEM foot soldier, you have to take the boots-on-the-ground approach to learn what the very best ads for your business will be. How do you determine the precise blend of ad copy that converts best?

In this post, you’ll learn how to glean ideas from your competitors’ campaigns, understand what an airtight testing process looks like and discover a few handy tools to spy on your competition’s ad messaging.

Peeping On Your Competitors

If you’re not testing ad copy rigorously, you’re losing out on revenue somewhere. Luckily, you probably have a slew of competitors testing stuff all around you, and a lot can be learned from what they’re doing.

After all, they have to spend real dollars to run these ads, which means that many of them have A/B tested the crap out of them.

Lucky for us, we get to observe the results.

A 5-step process for studying your competitors’ ad campaigns

  1. Start with a classic search keyword one of your potential visitors might begin with
  2. Refine the search a few times
  3. At each stage, take screenshots of what the competition is doing
  4. Pay special attention to the advertisers in top positions. What features and benefits are they emphasizing? How are they constructing their ad headline(s)? What types of sitelinks are they using?
  5. Ask yourself: (a) How does my ad measure up? (b) What can I do to make my product stand out in a significant way?

Let’s walk through an example

I’m starting with a generic search, “buy tea online.”


I’ve highlighted in green some of the keywords my competition is focusing on. Here’s what people seem to think is important when trading in tea:

  • Free shipping
  • Breadth of selection
  • Quality, i.e. “gourmet” and “signature blends”
  • Free samples
  • Sitelinks, two of which are 100% price-focused
  • Credibility/social reviews

“Loose leaf” seems important, too, even though I didn’t specify this the first time around, so I’m going to revise my search, deciding that if I’m going to buy bulk tea online I don’t want no stinkin’ tea bags.

It’s also clear that some retailers offer free shipping, so why would I want to pay for that?

My next search is “buy tea loose leaf online free shipping.”

Unbounce _ Clever Zebo guest post - Picture 3

Two of the top advertisers capture the “Loose Leaf” request in the headline, thus scoring a bolded phrase from AdWords (a big win because it often lifts CTR).

The middle ad captures my “Free Shipping” term, too – so that’s in bold. Their sitelinks are all about the selection because I’m now a more qualified visitor and the natural next step is to browse and find what I like to drink.

Finally, they offer me a phone number to call.

Your job as ad copy tester is to dive deep into this process, map out all the possible benefits and technical tweaks you can enrich your ads with and test all of them in a highly methodical manner.

So what should I be testing?

There are a lot of things to think about. The key is to remain calm, focused and process-oriented.

  • Start with large, sweeping ad concepts
  • Make your way down from concepts to details
  • Allow sufficient time for each test to demonstrate statistical significance
  • Don’t test too many things at once in a single ad
  • Measure everything (especially clickthrough rate, conversion rate and your ultimate conversion metric, i.e.the sale, not just the initial lead)
  • Push offline conversion data back into AdWords and optimize ads based on it, if you can (a killer new feature you should take advantage of)

Navigating the Competitive Landscape

You have to remember that all searchers suffer from attention deficit disorder (a critical coping mechanism as we try to find what we’re looking for in the volcano of information that is the internet).

This means, for most of us, that your ad will be scanned for a few seconds alongside your competitors’ ads, and if you’re not offering the very best, you lose.

Take this case study, for example, where Econsultancy tested two slightly different discount offers for a month against high-value non-branded keywords.

Description 1: Get 10 months for the price of 12 when you buy online.

Description 2: Get 2 months free when you buy online.

These really aren’t that different. But #2 significantly outperformed #1 in terms of conversions, because the landscape at the time of the promotion was such that 15% off (or 12-for-10) discounts were more frequent among competitors. The “2 months free” offer stood out and it won, big time.

You should feel good as long as you have several tests running at any given time. If that’s happening, rest assured, you’re improving your campaigns!

Some of your competitors will be in a constant state of testing too and now we know how to peek in and glean insights from what they’re learning.

Finally, here are a few handy tools that help you get a sense of your competition’s ad strategy. These stretch farther than just SEM, but it can be useful to see what messaging they are investing in.

Got an interesting AdWords A/B test that supports or contradicts something in this post? I’d love to hear your viewpoint in the comments.

— Igor Belogolovsky

default author image
About Igor Belogolovsky
Igor Belogolovsky is a Bay Area-based revenue marketer who’s really excited it’s snowboard season. He has optimized more AdWords accounts than he can count. Igor is Cofounder of Clever Zebo, a hands-on marketing agency focused on paid advertising and conversion funnel perfection.
» More blog posts by Igor Belogolovsky