One of the conversations we have had many times over the years with prospective clients concerns the value of Google Ads for apartment communities. Though the problem is not as pronounced as it once was, we still run into a number of people who are suspicious of Ads and don't think that it works, even though we have a lengthy track-record of success using it for a variety of multifamily communities across the country.
The main problem we usually find is that communities have used Ads independently without doing the necessary legwork to learn how to use it most effectively. As a result, their campaigns aren't very successful, they cost them a fair amount of money, and the community gives up, saying "Ads doesn't work anyway."
This response isn't limited to multifamily either. eBay once threw a tantrum about how terrible Ads was only to get absolutely destroyed by Wordstream's Larry Kim, who demonstrated quite clearly that the problem wasn't with Ads itself, but with eBay's poor Ads strategy.
Today we're going to discuss three main problems we see with how communities have used Ads and why those strategies have failed. If you can correct these errors, then you are in a much better position to build successful Ads apartment campaigns.
We need to begin by understanding "quality score."
Before we get into the weeds of Ads and talk about individual things that can hurt you on Ads, we need to talk about how Ads actually works.
Ads is an auction-based system, but it is not a pure auction. If it were, then the only ads that showed up would be those from the companies large enough to simply bid the moon and crowd out all the smaller companies. If that were the case, Google's users would quickly realize that Ads was a platform dominated entirely by big brands and small business owners would never use it and searchers would never click the ads.
To address this problem, Google created a system that can evaluate the quality of ads and that determines ad rank by weighing both the quality and the size of the bid from the advertiser. (WordStream's post on the topic does a great job of explaining exactly how this works if you want something really, really in-depth.)
Here's a simpler explanation before we get into some practical things that cause quality score issues:
Google's definition explains the Quality Score concept best:
Quality Score is an estimate of how relevant your ads, keywords, and landing page are to a person seeing your ad. Having a high Quality Score means that our systems think your ad, keyword, and landing page are all relevant and useful to someone looking at your ad. Having a low Quality Score, on the other hand, means that your ads, keywords, and landing page probably aren't as relevant and useful to someone looking at your ad.
Google's main goal is to provide human users of their search engines the best experience possible. After all, if they fail, they won't have searchers and won't have a business.
Quality score is Google's metric for evaluating the relevance of your apartment ad to the user's search query.
The two main criteria evaluated for quality score are performance and relevance.
Performance refers to the click-through rate (CTR) of your campaigns. Purely on the basis of historical performance, have users been eager or reluctant to click your ad? Google has built their empire on numbers, data, and statistics--the historical success (or lack thereof) of your ads makes a huge difference in your quality scores as you move forward.
Relevance refers to a comprehensive evaluation of several factors. Every time someone searches a keyword phrase on Google, Google is asking itself several questions:
How well does the user's search relate to:
- The keyword phrases you have targeted
- The words that you have included in your ad text
- The text on your landing page
How does Google Ads Quality Score affect the success of your ads?
Google uses Quality Score directly to calculate:
- Eligibility: Is your ad even eligible to show up in response to this particular search query?
- Ad Rank: Assuming your ad is eligible, how prominently will your ad show up in comparison to the other ads? (Ads in the top position get clicked more often.)
- Cost-Per-Click (CPC): How much does it cost you when someone clicks on the ad?
To put this simply, optimizing your Quality Score directly affects (1) how many clicks you get, (2) the quality of those clicks, and (3) how much you pay for those clicks.
Now that we have that done, let's talk about some of the specific problems that can hurt your ad's quality score, thereby hurting your ad campaign's overall effectiveness.
Some ads are hurt by a bad keyword strategy.
Bad keyword strategies can take a few different shapes. In some situations, the issue is that the community is targeting incredibly broad keywords that are going to be really difficult to rank for.
For example, if a community in Denver decided to target the keyword "apartments in Denver CO" they would run into a whole bunch of ILS's that are currently ranking well for that keyword plus communities that are spending a ton of money in order to compete for a short time on such a high-frequency keyword.
The screen capture below shows what we found when we tested that keyword:
What this means is that if you go after that keyword, you are instantly competing against massive national companies with way bigger marketing budgets than you and potentially 1-2 larger local companies.
Additionally, Google is generally going to give the listing service ads a higher quality score because if someone is searching "apartments in denver co" a more relevant result for them would be a listing of apartments in Denver rather than the web page of a single community in the Denver area.
Basically, you're fighting an uphill battle if you go after these keywords and odds are good that you won't see much in terms of results but you will spend plenty of money competing with much larger companies.
For this reason, it is generally better to begin your Ads strategy by targeting less competitive search terms that are easier "wins" for your community, starting with any search terms that include your community name and city, state, or both.
Some problems are caused by a bad landing page strategy.
Related to relevance is the issue of user experience. When Google says "we want relevant content" they are really saying "we want our users to have a good experience with the sites we send them to and one way we make that happen is serving relevant content."
Here's what this means: If I'm a department store and want to set up an ad campaign on "men's dress shoes" as a keyword, what page should I send people to when they click the ad?
- website homepage
- mens clothing section page
- shoes page
- a specific page that only features men's dress shoes
The right answer is the fourth one. When you create an ad campaign targeting a specific thing, anyone who clicks the ad should find what they are looking for on the first page they visit on your website. So if you have an ad campaign built around your community's name, send people who click the ad to the homepage. But if you had an advertisement for three bedroom floorplans, you should send ad visitors to your site to the landing page for the three bedroom floorplan. If someone clicks your Ads ad, don't make them work to find the information they need. That leads to bounces from the site and a lower quality score—which, of course, leads to a higher cost-per-click.
Other ads are hurt by a bad copy-writing strategy.
With your copy writing on Ads, the goal is to offer something concrete and specific. "We have pet-friendly apartments near downtown" is better than "We have apartments in Denver." A similar principle applies on other search verticals. Consider this result page for the search "flowers in st paul mn." There are a number of reasons for these ad rankings, but one factor is almost certainly the copy writing of the ad. The top two results offer a concrete promise "same-day delivery." The ads on the right side, which are ranked lower and will have a higher cost-per-click, are more vague. They offer "fast" delivery but there is no specific promise in the ad.
A good rule to keep in mind with your copy-writing is that concision and precision are your friends. You have to be concise in order to fit your copy into the very small spaces Ads gives. But you also need to be precise about what you offer.
Does making these kind of corrections actually make a difference?
Yes, they make a huge difference! Here's one case study of how we were able to dramatically reduce the cost for one of our clients as we improved their Ads campaigns over time.
In the first month of using Ads with us, here's how they did:
- 1230 clicks
- $1.51 cost per click
- $1857.30 monthly cost.
To be sure, if even five of those clicks turn into leases, then you can argue that that's $2000 well spent. But it's still a hefty price tag, isn't it?
After a month, we started to hone in the campaigns. Here is how the same community did in month two:
- 750 clicks
- $.07 per click
- $52.50 monthly cost
So we had a 40% drop in clicks month-over-month, but that actually is a good thing. The first month of a new campaign is when you see a lot of noise and bad clicks. You haven't taken many steps yet to limit the ad's reach because you don't (yet) know exactly how you need to do that in your specific situation.
By month two, you're adding negative keywords, geographic parameters, changing bid strategies, etc. All these things should eliminate bad ad clicks from people who are never going to sign a lease anyway. So this is a 40% drop in clicks but almost certainly not a 40% drop in leads.
But look at that second number. We have a 95% drop in cost-per-click. Then look at the third. We have a 97% in drop in the overall ad spend for the month. Essentially, we have kept the lead count where it was by eliminating bad clicks. And by making the ads as targeted as they can possibly be, we've reduced the monthly cost to virtually nothing—$52.50 per month. If you can get access to ~700 web visitors who are the right kind of people to target and it only costs you $50 a month... that's as close to a no brainer as you'll ever find in advertising, right?
Strategies evolve over time.
Before wrapping up, we'd be remiss if we didn't say something about the sort of adjustments we're describing in the section above.
Ads campaign building is not an ever-rising movement toward more and more efficiency and better and better results. Rather, it is a finicky job that involves regular peaks and valleys. The process of optimizing Ads campaigns is not "Start really bad and then do these seven simple things over the next month to guarantee superior results." It's not nearly that predictable or fixed.
Rather, Ads is a bit like trying to maintain your balance on a rollicking ship on a stormy day. There are a dozen factors in play, all pushing you in different directions. And how you respond to those conditions on one day will need to be different than your response on another day because the conditions will change.
Here are just some of the conditions that can change as you manage your community's Ads strategy:
- Your traffic needs will change as your occupancy level changes.
- Your traffic needs will change due to seasonality—peak leasing season is a different ballgame than the winter months.
- New competitors could emerge, requiring you to change your strategy to adapt.
- Competitors could disappear as well, also requiring you to change your strategy.
- Communities at different phases in their life will need to use different strategies. A lease-up luxury property will use Ads in ways that a 20-year-old B property would not and vice versa.
The basic point here is that different communities will use Ads differently and the same community will change its use of Ads as their own needs change.
So in learning to use Ads, you are not simply memorizing a single process that always works the same ways and produces basically the same results. Rather, you are learning a set of skills that will help you market your community effectively in a variety of different situations and circumstances.
Ads isn't easy to master. It's an incredibly complicated, incredibly sophisticated platform that has a steep learning curve to it. But once you master it, you have the chance to advertise at a fraction of your former costs to a group of people who are far more targeted than any other group you could reach with any other advertising platform. So it's not just less expensive; it also offers much higher ROI. So even though it is hard work learning to use Ads, the results are more than an adequate repayment for putting in the long hours necessary to master it.