23 Most Common SEM Mistakes and How to Avoid Them


Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a fast-paced industry, which means mistakes are bound to happen.  SEM pros make them all the time, and we’re here to help you avoid making them too.

SEM Mistakes: The Basics

The SEM sphere is constantly evolving, and even veteran marketers have to ping-pong from one ad hoc tactic to the next.  

SEM mistakes all fall into two different categories:

Technical and tactical mistakes

Technical Mistakes:

Technical mistakes are easily avoidable. They’re the type of errors that, when caught early on, are a cinch to correct.

You don’t have to be a coding whiz to avoid them. All you have to do is make sure you’re working with the right people/company, that you’re using the right tools, and that you’re making smart decisions around keywords.

Tactical Mistakes

As for tactical mistakes, they’re a little bit trickier. These tend to come from experience, and a lot of that comes from trial and error.

Some tactical mistakes may even make sense at the moment. It’s just that they end up having a counteractive negative effect on your campaign.

In other words, you want to avoid newbie mistakes (technical ones). 

You also want to avoid making tactical mistakes, too.

SEM Mistakes: The Technical Stuff

While the SEM industry is slowly moving away from a super technical market,  there are still some basic things that will trip up even the most seasoned of marketers.   These are the types of mistakes you want to avoid:

Mistake #1: Not Using AdWords Editor

If there’s one thing that’s common to all the SEM pros we talked with, it’s that they all use the AdWords Editor.

“Editing keywords in the regular interface is not only time-consuming: it’s an unnecessary pain in the ass,” says Matthew Barby, Executive Director of AdWords Management at PicClick.

Eddy Balas, Founder of Optimize also says the same thing, “It helps to edit and organize your campaigns [and] produce reports.”

Let’s give credit where credit is due: these guys know what they’re talking about; both have a ton of experience in the industry. And they’re not wrong. “Editing keywords in the regular interface is annoying as hell,” says Robert Brady, Founder of SearchMarketingPro.com.

Since Google has made it so easy to edit keywords in AdWords Editor, you might as well want to take advantage of it.

Mistake #2: Not Using Quality Score to Its Fullest Ability

Quality Score is a metric that determines how much it’s going to cost you to get your ad in front of a user.  It can influence your Cost Per Click (CPC) and how high your ad ranks.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that determine your Quality Score.  For example, the number of clicks you have received from users, your click-through rate, the quality of your landing page, and even the relevancy of your keyword.

Now if you’re an SEM newbie, there’s a chance you would never use Quality Score to its fullest potential.

Case in point: Mike Ramsey was working for a client a while back and he was attempting to optimize for conversions. He knew that increasing his Quality Score would help him do so, but he had no idea how to go about it.

“I didn’t realize that if you’re not bidding on the [most relevant] keywords in your account, your Quality Score is going to take a hit,” Ramsey says.

That means, even if you’re not getting the best conversion rates, your keyword may still impact your Quality Score.

It’s a subtle mistake that you can easily fix by looking at your keywords and making sure you’re only bidding on the most relevant terms.

Mistake #3: Not Using AdWords Conversion Tracking

If you have not been using conversion tracking for your AdWords account, then it’s high time you started. 

“This was a big one for me when I first started,” says Josh Hebert, Director of Paid Search at the RadiumOne. “I didn’t know how to track conversions with AdWords, because it was a completely different method than what I used in Google Analytics.”

“It was an eye-opener for me to discover that I could track conversions right from the AdWords dashboard. At the time, I wasn’t even using conversion tracking,” he says.

Conversion Tracking will help you figure out which of your keywords are contributing to your bottom line. 

It’s not that you won’t be able to figure out which keywords are converting, but Conversion Tracking will show you the exact number of conversions that have occurred.

Mistake #4: Not Using AdWords Campaign Experiments

“This is like getting free testing and results from your AdWords campaign,” says Mike Ramsey. “You can split up a group of users and target those groups with different ads to see which one converts the most.”

“Using AdWords Campaign Experiments, you can create a control group and then target one or more segments of that control group with different variations of the ad,” Ramsey says.

“From there, you can choose to see which one out-performed your original ad and quickly make a few calibrations to the other ads in your account to match the ad that performed well,” he says.

Mistake #5: Not Using Google’s Keyword Research Tool

If you’re not using the AdWords keyword tool, you’re missing out. Not only is it free, but it’s also easy to use.

“If you’re not using the keyword tool that Google provides for free, you’re making a huge mistake,” says Mike Ramsey. “That will allow you to see if there’s demand for a keyword in your niche by showing you the search volume and monthly trends for it.”

It’s important to note that the data you see is only an estimate.  However, if you’re using this tool as a benchmark, you’ll be able to see if there’s a market for your product or service.

“If there are no monthly searches for the keyword you’re targeting, it’s not going to be very effective for your campaign,” Ramsey says. “But if there are a lot of monthly searches, you’ll know that you can probably compete with the other advertisers targeting those keywords and get some click-throughs.”

Mistake #6: Not Paying Attention to Your Ad’s Landing Page

Your landing page is an incredibly important piece of running an effective paid search campaign. Think of it as a direct reflection of your business.

“If you’re not paying attention to your landing page, that’s a huge mistake,” says Ramsey. “Simple, if your landing page isn’t set right, then you’re not going to convert.”

“If you’re not targeting the right set of keywords, you’re not going to convert,” Ramsey says. “If you’re not bidding on the right keywords or if your account is set up wrong, you’re not going to convert. So, if you can’t solve any of these problems, you’re just wasting money.”

You don’t want to be paying for clicks without getting any conversions.

“It’s better to not spend money on paid search than it is to pay for the wrong keywords,” says Ramsey. “It’s better to be spending money on pay-per-click than it is just throwing money at the search engines and hoping that something sticks.”

Mistake #7: Not Planning Your AdWords Campaign’s Budget and Schedule in Advance

The quickest way to go broke with your AdWords campaign? 

Set it and forget it.

“I see a lot of people who just set up an AdWords account, spend their budget, and then figure it out after the fact,” says Ramsey. “You have to have a good plan for your campaign.”

“There are times when you’re going to want more traffic, and that’s when you’ll set a high budget,” he says. “Then there will be slower times when you don’t want to spend as much money so you’ll set a low budget.”

“It’s important to review your account once a week to see if you’re still getting the clicks that you want,” Ramsey says.

“If there’s a certain time of year when you have a high number of sales, you need to set your budget accordingly,” Ramsey says. “Or if there’s a certain time of year when you don’t have many sales, you don’t want to be spending your budget during that time.”

Mistake #8: Not Diversifying Your Ad’s Landing Page

You want to have a unique landing page for every ad you have. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

“Diversify your landing pages,” says Ramsey. “That way you can see which one out-performs the other ones. It’s hard to know which one will out-perform the others unless you have them all up at the same time and running.”

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SEM Mistake #9: Not Diversifying Your Ad’s Destination URL

If you’re directing users to the same destination URLs for all of your ads, you’re not getting the most bang for your buck.

“If you’re sending all of your traffic to the same page, that’s another serious mistake you’re making,” says Ramsey. “You want to send people to different pages.”

“That’s something people don’t pay enough attention to,” says Ramsey. “All the clicks are being sent to one page, and that’s not doing their ad budget any justice.”

Mistake #10: Not Tracking Your AdWords Campaign

Want to know how your ads are performing?

Well, you can start by finding out whether or not you’re getting any clicks at all.

“If advertisers are not tracking their AdWords campaigns, they are losing out,” says Ramsey. “You’re looking for impressions, click-through rates, and whether or not the keywords you chose are going to send qualified visitors to your site.”

“Some people think that it’s okay to just add their statistics into Excel,” he says. “The problem with that is that it’s not an actual measurement of the effectiveness of your keywords.”

While “Campaign History” is still a crucial tool in AdWords, the more advanced features found in Google Analytics make it easier to get keyword-specific data.

“Google Analytics is not an AdWords feature,” Ramsey clarifies. “But it does give you some great information that can help make your AdWords campaign more successful.”

“You can see on your Google Analytics dashboard which keywords are converting and which ones aren’t,” Ramsey says. “You can also look at your AdWords campaign history and then drill down into an individual keyword to see how it performed.”

Mistake #11: Not Using the Exact Match Keyword Modifier

“I see a lot of advertisers who don’t use exact match,” says Ramsey. “The frustrating thing is that they’re using a broad match or modified broad match when there’s an exact match option right there.”

“If your keyword is ‘cheap sunglasses,’ that’s very broad,” says Ramsey. “An exact match keyword should be more specific, something like ‘sunglasses under $10.'”

“The other thing to consider is that when you’re searching for something, your mind doesn’t work in terms of keywords,” he says. “It’s not like you’re searching for ‘cheap sunglasses.”

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“Instead, you might be searching for ‘Where can I buy cheap sunglasses?’ or ‘What are some places that sell cheap sunglasses?'” says Ramsey. “Those searches are all very different, but you can still target them with the exact match modifier.”

“There is a cost associated with using the exact match keyword modifier,” he warns. “But if you choose the right keywords, that cost is usually minimal.”

Mistake #12: Not Making the Most of Your Ad Extensions

Ad extensions are crucial for boosting your ad’s visibility. It can make all the difference between having a highly successful campaign or getting lost in the shuffle.

“With AdWords, it’s about relevancy,” says Ramsey. “Advertisers want to be where the customer is looking, and that means getting good ad extensions.”

“I almost always recommend active view,” Ramsey says. “That’s the one most people should consider using.”

“It’s important to make sure you’re not wasting your money,” Ramsey says. “But the active view is the right choice for most advertisers.”

“From a conversion standpoint, it is worth getting,” Ramsey says. “It will help your ad show up in more places and that will give you a better click-through rate.”

“To me, it depends on the industry,” he says. “For a service business, I would recommend using the Call Extension because it could add value to your ad copy.”

“There’s also something called a site link extension,” Ramsey says. “That’s an opportunity to add another link to your ad, which is great if you have multiple locations or an additional product.”

“It depends on the industry,” he says. “If you’re a retailer, your phone number is going to be a big part of your ad. If you’re a local business, then the Map Extension might be valuable.”

“As long as you have a local presence, you should consider using the Local Extension,” he says. “It will specify your location and usually include a phone number and address.”

“It’s a good idea for local businesses, but it’s also great if your business is seasonal because you can target specific times of the year,” Ramsey says. “For example, you can target ‘Christmas party decorations’ and ‘back to school supplies.'”

“In general, site links are going to be good for any business that has multiple pages on its website,” he explains.

“If you have ten locations, the Sitelinks can show all those locations in your ad,” he says. “It’s also helpful if you have multiple phone numbers or you want to highlight a specific location.”

Mistake #13: Not Testing Your Ad Copy

When it comes to writing ad copy, most advertisers choose to go with what they know. They use the same language that they use on their website and brochures.

“The problem is that your website might not be as well-optimized for AdWords as it could be,” says Ramsey. “You may be saying certain things in your ad copy that you shouldn’t because the keywords aren’t relevant to your business.”

Ramsey says you can avoid this mistake by testing your ad copy. Test the language on your site with AdWords and-if possible-get an AdWords representative to help you write the best possible ad.

“The first thing I recommend is testing different headlines,” he says. “That’s the most important part of your ad.”

“If you’re selling something seasonal, you should test different times of the year so you can see what works best,” Ramsey says. “If you’re selling products to men, test different pictures of men; if you’re selling to women, test different pictures of women.”

“If you sell things that are relevant to people’s searches, then it doesn’t really matter how the ad looks,” he says. “For example, if you sell Christmas decorations and people are searching for ‘Christmas decorations,’ then it doesn’t matter what your ad looks like.”

“On the other hand, if you sell something that people are just not searching for — like a specialized product — then your ad could be the only way to be found,” he says. “In that case, it might be worth changing your ad to show a picture of what you’re selling.”

“If you sell wedding dresses, for instance, your ad might show a picture of one of the dresses,” Ramsey says. “It’s also a good idea to use your company name instead of generic terms like, ‘Wedding dresses.’

“You should always use pictures that show your product,” he says. “If you’re a service business, use pictures that highlight the benefit of your service.”

“In general, people respond better to positive selling,” he says. “If you say, ‘Our product is great,’ that’s a positive selling point and it’s going to convert better than, ‘Don’t buy this product or ‘This is the worst thing ever.'”

“The same goes for negative selling,” he says. “If you say, ‘Don’t buy from our competitors,’ that’s negative selling and it doesn’t convert as well.”

“In general, you want to show the product and highlight why people should buy it,” he says.

Mistake #14: Not Using Negative Keywords

Whenever you’re writing an ad, there are always going to be keywords that don’t apply to your business. That’s why it’s important to use negative keywords.

“A lot of people don’t use negative keywords, but they should,” advises Ramsey. “You don’t want to waste your money on keywords that don’t convert.”

“For example, if you sell kayaks and someone is searching for ‘duck calls,’ you don’t want to show your ad,” he explains.

“You can prevent that by using negative keywords,” he says. “If you search for ‘kayak’ and your ad doesn’t show up, it’s probably because you’re being outbid by duck call vendors.”

Mistake #15: Not Using the Same Keyword in Different Ad Groups

Ramsey says one of the biggest mistakes new advertisers make is grouping too many keywords.

“People often think that grouping their keywords will help them rank higher,” he says. “The problem is that although the keywords may share some common terms, they’re not really being seen as a group.”

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“When you put them together in an ad group, they’re not only competing against each other, but they’re also competing against other higher-ranked ads,” he says.

“If you have five separate ads within one ad group for keywords that are all related, you’ll likely get much better results,” he says.

“For example, if you sell kayaks and your ad group contains words like ‘kayak’ and ‘canoe,’ you should use the same keyword in both ads,” says Ramsey. “That way, you’re ensuring that people see both of your ads, and you can test which one performs better for you.”

Mistake #16:  Using Ads with No Relationship to the Landing Page

Another big mistake that advertisers make is using ads that have nothing to do with the landing page, Ramsey says.

“If you’re selling women’s shoes and you have a landing page that says, ‘Welcome to our site for men’s shoes,’ there’s no way you’ll get sales to that landing page,” he says.

“When people are searching for women’s shoes, in general, they don’t go to a site that advertises men’s shoes,” says Ramsey. “It’s better to have ads related to your landing page.”

“If you’re selling something for people of a certain sex, age or personality type, that’s not the same as selling men’s shoes,” he says. “You want to target ads based on that, not just on a generic term.”

Mistake #17: Not A/B Testing Your Ads

Another SEM mistake Ramsey sees is that advertisers don’t test their ads.

“You should always be split-testing your ads,” he says. “If you aren’t, not only are you going to get a lower ROI according to your testing results, but you’re also going to have a higher cost per click, which will affect your ranking.”

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“For example, if you target ‘women’s shoes as one of your keywords, you should have two ads in your ad group,” he says. “One should be for your higher converting ad, and the other could be the one that converts slightly less well.”

“From there, you’ll have a higher conversion rate and it’ll be cheaper to convert because your ad won’t be as overqualified,” he says. “That will increase your ROI besides helping you rank higher.”

Mistake #18:  Not Paying Attention to Landing Page Design

Another mistake that advertisers make is not paying attention to how their landing page looks and performs, says Ramsey.

“You should always pay attention to how your landing pages look,” he says. “Does it convert well? Is there a piece of text that’s not very easy to read? What about your images?”

“When people are searching for something on a mobile device, if the page takes too long to load, they’ll abandon it,” he says. “For example, if the page takes 15 seconds to load, most people won’t wait for it.”

“The majority of people won’t wait for a landing page to load, especially on mobile devices,” says Ramsey. “You should also make sure that your landing page looks good on all devices.”

“If it doesn’t, your conversion rate will be lower,” he says. “Also, if it doesn’t look good on all devices, Google may penalize you for that.”

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Mistake #19: Not Optimizing for Long-Tail Keywords

Many advertisers also make the mistake of targeting one main keyword and then having a bunch of other keywords that are off-topic, says Ramsey.

“When you’re targeting one main keyword, it’s easy to get people looking for that but who aren’t in the market to buy,” he says. “For example, if you’re targeting the keyword ‘women’s shoes,’ half of your visitors won’t be in the market to buy. It’s better to target more long-tail keywords.”

“If you’re selling women’s shoes, for example, you should have a lot of long-tail keywords, like ‘ankle boots,’ ‘black pumps,’ and so on,” he says. “That way, you’ll get people who are in the market to buy.”

“On long-tail keywords, you’re going after a more qualified buyer,” he says. “So, your conversion rate will be higher on long-tail keywords, which means you’ll get more sales.”

“Plus, having more long-tail keywords will help you rank higher in the search engines,” he says. “If your competitors have only one or two keywords targeted, you’ll rank above them because of the long-tail keywords you’re targeting.”

Mistake #20:  Not Understanding What Your Competition Is Doing

Another SEM mistake advertisers make is not taking the time to really understand what their competitors in the same market are doing.

“You should always check out your competitors’ websites, especially those in the same market as you,” he says.  “What does their site look like? Are they using the same colours as you?”

“You’ll also want to check out what keywords they’re targeting,” he says. “Is it different from the keywords you’re targeting?”

“You should also check to see if they have any ads running that you can beat, or if they’re doing anything else differently than you,” he says.

“If your competitor’s ad is getting better results, you can test out what they’re doing to see if it works better than what you’re currently doing,” he says. “Make sure you’re looking at what your competitors are doing and take necessary action.”

Mistake 21#: Not Having a Clear Call to Action

“Another common SEM mistake is not having a very clear call to action on your landing page,” says Michael B. Smith, president of Synergy Interactive Marketing Inc. in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania.

“You want to have a very clear call to action on your landing page,” he says. “The purpose of the ad is to get customers to click and go to your site, so you also want them to do what they came to your site to do.”

“For example, let’s say you’re selling women’s handbags. On your landing page, the purpose of your ad is to get people to buy a handbag,” he says. “So, you want them to click on the ad, come to your website, and then buy the handbag.”

“You don’t want them just to click on the ad and leave,” he says. “You want them to click on the ad, come to your site, and buy the handbag. If you don’t have a clear call to action, like a ‘Shop Now’ button or a ‘Buy Now’ button, people won’t know what they’re supposed to do when they get to your site.”

Mistake #22: Not Using a Landing Page URL for Your Advertised Keyword

“Another SEM mistake is not using your targeted keyword in your landing page URL,” says Smith.

“Let’s say you’re targeting the keyword ‘tall boots,’ and you run an ad to your website using that exact keyword,” he says. “You should have the word ‘tall boots’ in your landing page URL.”

“For example, if your website URL is ‘www.mywebsite.com,’ you should have the word ‘tall boots’ in your landing page URL, like ‘www.mywebsite.com/tall-boots,'” he says.

“When you do that, you’ll rank higher in the search engines for that keyword, traffic to your website will increase, and more people will know what your business is about,” he says. “You’ll also be able to keep track of what your customers are coming to your site for.”

Mistake #23:  Not Monitoring Your SEM Campaigns and Landing Pages

Another common SEM mistake is not monitoring your SEM campaigns and landing pages, says Smith.

“You should always be monitoring your SEM campaigns and landing pages to see how they’re doing,” he says. “If you just set up a campaign and leave it at that, you might not be getting the results you want.”

“So, make sure you’re monitoring your campaigns,” he says. “You should also be monitoring your landing pages to see how visitors are interacting with them, and if your conversion rate is going up or down.”

“You can use Google Analytics to monitor your landing pages,” he says. “Or, you can ask friends and family members to tell you how they like the design and the content on your landing pages.”

“If you’re using a third-party platform to create your landing pages, you can ask them for the landing page statistics, too,” he says. “Or, you can ask them if they can monitor your landing pages for you.”

About the Author

Tom Koh

Tom is the CEO and Principal Consultant of MediaOne, a leading digital marketing agency. He has consulted for MNCs like Canon, Maybank, Capitaland, SingTel, ST Engineering, WWF, Cambridge University, as well as Government organisations like Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Law, National Galleries, NTUC, e2i, SingHealth. His articles are published and referenced in CNA, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Financial Times, Yahoo! Finance, Hubspot, Zendesk, CIO Advisor.


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