The Secret Power of the AdWords Search Terms Report

AdWords Targeting - Katniss Everdeen
Katniss knows how to hit her target. So should PPC marketers. Image by Murray Close via Lionsgate.

AdWords is a hideous beast of an application, but it has one tremendously simple core principle:

The secret to success on AdWords is NOT getting your ads in front of the MOST people, it’s getting your ads in front of the RIGHT people.

In fact, AdWords has a feature built into it that’s designed specifically to reward you for showing your ads to fewer people. It’s called Quality Score.

The biggest component of Quality Score is Click-Through Rate (CTR) which is the percentage of people that click on your ad after seeing it.

In this post, I’m going to show you a super simple process for increasing your CTR, boosting your Quality Score and lowering your CPC (Cost-Per-Click) by using an AdWords feature most marketers have never even heard of.


Match types in 60 seconds

The simplest way to boost CTR is to target your ads more narrowly through better keyword targeting, and in order to do that you first have to understand match types.

When you create a search campaign in AdWords you choose “keywords” to bid on. Once you enter your keywords you can choose from one of 3 “match types”:

  1. Broad match – indicated by one or more words written without any other punctuation eg. ladies shoes
  2. Phrase match – indicated by one or more words written in double quotes eg. “ladies shoes”
  3. Exact match – indicated by one or more words written in square brackets eg. [ladies shoes]

When you bid on these “keywords” you’re really bidding for a place on the page of results that someone sees when they type a search into Google. These are called “search engine results pages” or SERPs.

If you bid on the broad match keyword “ladies shoes,” you’ll be bidding on the SERPs for tens of thousands of different search terms. For example:

  • ladies evening shoes
  • shoes for women
  • sling back pumps

If you bid on the phrase match keyword “ladies shoes”, you’ll be bidding on the SERPs for fewer different search terms, namely those that contain the phrase “ladies shoes” in that order and with nothing in between. For example:

  • ladies shoes petite sizes
  • cheap ladies shoes

but you will NOT be bidding on the SERPs for the terms:

  • ladies evening shoes
  • shoes for ladies

If you bid on the exact match keyword [ladies shoes] you’ll be bidding on the SERP for exactly one search term, namely:

  • ladies shoes

That’s how match types work. As you can see, your targeting becomes exponentially more narrow as you go from broad, to phrase to exact match.

Why broad match ruins your quality score

Broad match sounds great, right? You get to bid on heaps of different SERPs with no effort.

In reality, you end up bidding on SERPs for loads of queries which are only tangentially related to your business (or completely unrelated).

Every time someone sees one of your ads and doesn’t click, your click through rate goes down. This means your quality score for that keyword goes down, and you pay more per click.

At the same time there are people out there who will just click on anything without really determining if it’s relevant to them or not.

So not only are you getting a lower click through rate and higher cost per click, you’re wasting money on clicks from people who were never going to buy from you anyway.

The Search Terms Report to the rescue

Fortunately, AdWords has this neat feature called the search terms report. Most people I talk to, even if they have have been using AdWords for quite a long time, have NEVER looked at the search terms report and when they do, it blows their mind.

First, here’s how to get to your search terms report:

  1. Click “all online campaigns” on the left
  2. Click the keywords tab
  3. Choose “keyword details”
  4. Choose “all”
  5. Witness the fitness

Here is a screenshot demonstrating how to get there:


AdWords Targeting - Search Terms Report

These things you’re looking at are not “keywords”, they’re “search terms.” These are the search terms whose SERPs you’ve been bidding on with your keywords.

If you’re using broad match keywords you will see a range of irrelevant search terms in here. If you’re using phrase match you’ll see fewer irrelevant search terms, and if (hypothetically) you were bidding only on exact match keywords then you would only see search terms here that exactly matched your keywords.

So how can the Search Terms Report save my business?

There are two very simple things you can do to immediately improve your click-through rate (and thus quality score) and reduce your cost per click using the search terms report.

1. Put the best search terms into their own ad groups

Start by downloading your search terms report and opening it up in the spreadsheet application of your choice.

Now order in descending order by the impressions column (or conversions if you’re tracking them – if you’re not, you should be, but that’s a topic for another article).

For each of the search terms that are most relevant to your business and that have the most impressions, create a new ad group with exactly one keyword and one ad in it.

Got that? One ad group, one exact match keyword, one ad.

Use the search term in the headline of the ad (you may have to edit it a bit to make it fit or to make it grammatically correct) and try to include as many of the words from the search term in the rest of the ad.

Here is an annotated screenshot with an example from one of my own campaigns to sell my AdWords eBook:

AdWords Targeting - Ad Groups

Depending on how many search terms you have this can be pretty time consuming but it’s worth the investment.

2. Block unwanted SERPs with negative keywords

As you scroll down your search terms report, you’re going to see a bunch of search terms whose SERPs you obviously do not wish to appear on.

A classic example is people looking for “jobs” or “careers” in your industry.

Match types work just the same for negative keywords as they do for positive keywords, so for example if you see that you have a bunch of search terms like:

  • jobs selling ladies shoes
  • careers in ladies retail
  • ladies shoes sales jobs

You could choose to add 2 phrase match negative keywords:

  • “jobs”
  • “careers”

It’s also worth noting that you’ll sometimes want to use exact match negative keywords. A great example of this is the single word search term for whatever you sell.

If you sell ladies shoes, you’ll probably find that you get a lot of traffic from the search term [shoes] by itself, and it will typically have a terrible ROI.

You don’t want to block out any query that contains the word shoes, so you can’t use a phrase match negative keyword. In this case you’d block:

  • [shoes]

You should generally never use broad match negative keywords. If you do you’ll most likely end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

You can add negative keywords to ad groups, campaigns, or to negative keyword lists which you can re-use between multiple campaigns. Google’s own support documentation has good information on how to do this.

The Result

You don’t have to take my word for it. Below are 7 screenshots from different clients in different industries. Some are on very small budgets and some on very large ones.

They all show the same trend. As you go from broad match, to phrase match to exact match 3 things happen:

  1. CTR increases (the biggest component in Quality Score, remember)
  2. CPC decreases
  3. Position increases








In all cases we have done nothing more than target our ads better by analysing the search terms report: no copywriting voodoo, no hacks, no split testing, no magic. Just smarter keyword targeting.

— Iain Dooley

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About Iain Dooley
Iain Dooley runs a full service digital marketing agency called Decal Marketing, which specializes in AdWords training. They can manage your campaigns or teach you how to find and dominate an AdWords niche for your business in just 3 hours. If you’d like to see a concrete, repeatable strategy to run your AdWords campaign you can buy his eBook “Your First 3 Months on AdWords.”
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