Explainer: Google Ads for Apartment Marketing

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Initially published in 2018. Updated in 2022.

Google Ads is a digital advertising platform marketers use to create awareness of their products, drive website traffic, and generate leads. Apartment marketers can improve leasing success by highlighting their communities towards targeted prospects with Google Ads at costs less than other traditional advertising platforms. 

This post intends to provide apartment marketers with a brief introduction to Google Ads, how they work, and how they can significantly enhance leasing performance.

What is Google Ads?

Google monetizes its primary service, the Google search engine, by hosting and displaying relevant advertisements to platform users. Google Ads fall into two primary categories: text ads and display ads.

Text ads associated with the Google Search Network are shown exclusively on search engine result pages (commonly referred to as the 'SERP'). A majority of this explainer will focus on these types of ads.

Display ads—those banners, pop-ups, and videos users see throughout their browsing experience—are a part of the Google Display Network, which includes millions of websites and YouTube.

If someone uses the term 'adwords for apartments,' they are usually referring to digital advertisements on Google that promote an apartment community. 

How does Google Ads work?

It starts with an interaction millions of Internet users are familiar with: a Google search. 

Google SERP 2022 example

Above is the SERP for the query 'apartments in seattle'. Note the small 'Ad' text to the left of each of the top four results on the page. Those signify that an individual or business is paying Google to be featured when a Google user searches for something related to their product. 

Google makes that Ad symbol subtle to counter the same effect that causes us to "not see" a billboard that we drive past every day on our way to work. Internet users see so many ads that they've become good at ignoring them. As such, Google Ads tries to make their ads look less like an ad and more like organically generated search results.

One may assume that Google gives higher placement to advertisers who spend the most money. At first, that might make sense, but that is not how Ads work.

Google Ads would inevitably become dominated by giant corporations that can afford large advertising budgets if the best placement went to the highest bidders.

The trouble with that is two-fold:

  • If small businesses can't win top placement on Ads, they'd eventually abandon the platform.
  • Users will lose interest in Ads over time because they're more focused on creating awareness for name brands and less on giving users the best search results. 

In other words, a straight auction model would reduce advertisers' competition, drive down ads' costs, and lose trust amongst Google's users—a deadly trio for Google's top revenue stream.

To ensure that only ads most relevant to each searcher's query appear, Google invented a metric called "Quality Score." Google looks at the relevance to the keywords an ad is targeting, website user experience, and expected Click-Through-Rate (CTR) to assign a Quality Score to each ad. Google then runs a simple calculation determining which ads rank best for an individual user's search.

Maximum bid * Quality Score = AdRank

The ad with the highest AdRank will get top placement. Note how heavily the formula skews things to favor relevant ads. Google is very interested in ensuring that relevant ads outperform ads with enormous bids because relevant ads are more likely to be clicked. Understanding how this part of Google Ads works is HUGE, as advertisers pay for every click on their ad rather than a lump sum or bid. The more an ad is clicked, the more money Google makes, so they have the incentive to show the best ads. The graphic below further illustrates how Google Ads' business model prevents only the highest bidders from getting their ads placed first.

Google Ads business model

(Source: Wordstream)

In the graphic above, Advertiser IV bid a maximum of $8/per click for a search term, while Advertiser I bid $2/per click. Despite the lesser bid, Google determined Advertiser I's ads to have a higher Quality Score because it was deemed more relevant by various signals. Hence, they achieved a higher Ad Rank. 

An ad's cost-per-click factors both Quality Score and Ad Rank using this formula:

Ad Rank of the ad below your ad / Your ad's Quality Score + $0.01 = Your cost-per-click

Advertiser I's cost-per-click was $1.61, while Advertiser IV's was $8. By Google's standards, Advertiser I's ads will appear more often and therefore generate a higher rate of clicks than Advertiser IV's ads at a lower cost-per-click. That is an ideal scenario for any marketer!

How does Google determine when certain ads appear?

As we've previously stated, Ads in Google Ads are based on the keywords or search terms used by Google's human users.

Suppose an apartment community in Lee's Summit, Missouri, bids on an ad for the search term "apartments in Lee's Summit." That decision complicates things for several reasons.

First, those highly competitive keywords are more expensive and harder to rank for, considering that there may be 100 other apartment communities that also want their ads to appear.

Second, keywords for similar Google searches vary in many different ways. Suppose an apartment community in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is attempting to reach an audience of users actively shopping for apartments locally. Even in a minor metro with no other notable cities sharing the name, there is much ambiguity around the search terms that ultimately affect their placement and cost. Let's examine the search frequency of related keywords someone searching for apartments in Albuquerque may use.

Keyword Average Monthly Searches
apartments in albuquerque 2,900
apartments in albuquerque nm 1,900
albuquerque apartments for rent 880
apartments for rent albuquerque 3,600
apartments for rent in albuquerque 1,000

*Semrush data

Those keywords are a minuscule sample of the variation of terms someone looking for an apartment complex in Albuquerque could use. Semrush found 939 keyword variations for the search term "apartments in albuquerque", accumulating 18,900 average searches per month.

Given all the variations in how people search, Google relies on advertisers by asking them in advance when they'd prefer their ads to appear. Do they want their ads to appear when someone enters a search that includes selected words, like "apartments" and "albuquerque?" Or do they only want their ads to appear on specified searches such as "studio apartments in albuquerque, nm?" Google refers to these as "match types," and there are four match types advertisers can select when setting up their ads:

Broad Match
We use broad matches because Google does an excellent job matching relevant search terms and keywords in our client's ads. By selecting broad match, advertisers tell Google it's okay for one of their ads to appear anytime someone enters a search that includes one of their targeted keywords. Historically, the fear was if advertisers selected broad match on ads targeting the keywords "apartments in seattle," that their ad would appear when someone searched "hotels in seattle." Thankfully, Google's machine learning algorithms prevent those types of occurrences.

Modified Broad Match
Modified broad match limits the range of keywords on which Google could trigger an ad. Advertisers are willing to have their ads appear for the target keywords "apartments in seattle" only if someone's search includes the keywords "apartments"+ "seattle."  Ads can still appear on other relevant searches, including "studio apartments in seattle" or "downtown seattle apartments," because both queries fit the requirements for modified broad matches.

Phrase Match
Advertisers designate the phrase in a search term for Google to trigger their ad. It tells Google to match the phrase "apartments in seattle," meaning an ad may appear when someone searches "apartments in seattle" but not "apartments for rent in seattle."

Exact Match
Ads only trigger when someone searches for the exact keyword phrase or grouping an advertiser has chosen. Note that Google has introduced some automated features in exact match ads that could cause them to appear on searches with typos or other similar situations. 

Various match types allow advertisers to decide when they want their ads to appear, making Google Ads one of the more unique and effective advertising platforms.

Does Google Ads produce results?

Applying guarantees with digital advertising is tricky because every platform is different, and marketers are responsible for establishing strategies that consistently produce positive outcomes. 

That said, there is a simple way to answer the question: Google made $209 billion in ad revenue in 2021. If Ads didn't work on some level, they would not produce that kind of revenue for Google. They make it a priority that their platform is very effective for advertisers. 

How should apartment marketers use Google Ads?

Google Ads is fundamentally different from other traditional mass-messaging forms of advertising.

The trouble is that many apartment marketers look at Google Ads and mentally equate the SERP on a keyword like "apartments in seattle" to a billboard on the side of a busy stretch of interstate. It costs a ton of money to earn top placement on a search term like that consistently—certainly more than a billboard.

A better strategy is using Google Ads to target only keywords relevant or specific to an apartment community. They are relatively low-hanging fruit that provides apartment marketers real value at a fraction of the cost of other highly competitive, high-frequency search terms.

Start with targeting keywords of just the community's name. Setting up an ad to appear when someone searches for a specific community by name in Google will accomplish four things:

  1. That community will take up a larger share of the SERP, which means it is harder for people to find links to web properties that don't point to that specific property. The SERP example below perfectly illustrates this. The top organic result points to the Brookside Apartments at Fallbrook's website. The ad at the top of the page does as well. Plus, the business listing on the right is for Brookside. They dominate the entire page.


  1. Pairing a high organic search placement with a high paid search placement increases the likelihood that users will click one of the two search results.
  2. And here's the best part: An ad pointing to the website for "Brookside Apartments At Fallbrook" is highly relevant to someone searching for 'brookside apartments' on Google. So, the ad's Quality Score will be very high, which makes the cost of the ad very low. When utilized correctly, Google Ads allows apartment marketers to generate highly qualified website traffic at the lowest possible price. 

Targeting community-specific keywords, like its name, is called a "defensive campaign." It defends that community's identity and makes it virtually impossible for competitors to create ads targeting those keywords.

Other campaign types are available in Google Ads to help apartment marketers get their communities' ads to appear. They could include targeting terms relating to a community's location or specific amenities such as 'pet-friendly' or 'luxury.' Think of the varying search terms a prospect may use when trying to find an apartment complex in Google.  

One other campaign type worth mentioning is remarketing ads. Remarketing ads are compelling in helping prospective residents build trust and familiarity with an apartment community they've already established an interest in. Remarketing ads only appear to Internet users after they've visited and taken action on an apartment community's website. They are associated with Google's Display Network. They include photo banners, videos, and other visual elements in ads that appear on millions of other websites beyond the SERP. 

But the first place to start, especially for those newer to the Google Ads game, is to run defensive ads. 

Are there other features in Google Ads that apartment marketers can use to help their ads stand out?

There are! All ads use the same basic ad design template. Still, within that template, there is room for customization, primarily thanks to a feature called ad extensions.

Ad extensions are additional features that can be attached to an ad that allow you to bring in more information or graphic components to the ad. Extensions can let you do a variety of things:

  • Add online review information.
  • Add location information.
  • Add a phone number. (On mobile devices, it will function as a push-to-call button that allows Google users to call your leasing office directly from the search result page.)
  • Add additional links to pages on your site, such as the floorplans pages, amenities page, or contact page.

Google recently added image extensions to ads, which is even more beneficial to apartment marketers for highlighting their communities' exteriors, units, and amenities. A client's Google Ads conversions increased by 105% after we added image extensions to their ads.

Pro tip: extensions also function as a tie-breaker in the event of a tie on AdRank. In that case, if one ad uses extensions and one does not, the one that uses extensions will likely be placed higher.

Conclusion: Should apartment marketers use Google Ads? Yes!

While Google Ads are very effective, it's a tricky question to answer in a general sense. Communities with extremely tight marketing budgets still need to get things like a community website or high-quality photo and video content and may need to prioritize other things before jumping into Google Ads. 

Also, Section 8 communities that are consistently at 100% occupancy and some Class C properties need minimal marketing. Google Ads may be optional for those communities. 

That said, for most conventional multifamily properties, and indeed, for every luxury community, Google Ads makes a ton of sense. There isn't another advertising source that combines the precision and affordability of Google Ads.

Continued reading on digital advertising for apartments

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