Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new links and content.
Original Publication Date: October 23, 2017
Average position can be a tricky thing to manage.
There are agencies out there that will promise “to get you to #1 in Google.” Others will bash on your existing account during an audit because your competitors are outranking you.
If these sound like direct quotes from an agency you’re considering or already working with, I won’t tell you to fire them. (At least not yet — and you should probably get in touch with us first. 🙂 )
Throughout my PPC career, I’ve heard too many clients and even so-called “PPC professionals” (gasp) talk about how important it is to be #1 in ad rank.
While it’s frustrating to see so many potentially great accounts underperform because they’re misreading the signs that their metrics are giving them, I get where these pro-#1 pundits are coming from.
We’ve all been raised to think that second place is first loser. However, I’m here to lay that notion to rest right here and now when it comes to PPC.
It’s time to put second (and even third sometimes) on the PPC pedestal on which it belongs. I know it may be hard to initially grasp that concept, but I’m confident that we’ll get there together before the end of this post.
After all, if LeBron can learn to be OK with second place so consistently, I know we can too.
7 Common Myths About Average Position
As mentioned above, average position is often misunderstood. Some claim that it’s one of the most important PPC metrics that you should be tracking.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it should be your golden egg. But I agree that it’s an important means to an end.
After all, average position can determine how much and what kind of traffic you’ll receive. More than anything else, that will determine whether or not this PPC thing makes you money and works for you.
Yes, we should be tracking our average position, but the trick is analyzing and acting on the data effectively.
I can’t stress how important it is to choose the advice you take wisely. So, who better to take advice from than our tour guide for the remainder of this post, the one and only L-Train? (And contrary to popular belief, the L does not stand for “Loser.”)
Now, let’s go ahead and break down some of the most common misconceptions about average position:
Myth #1: The Higher the Position, the Better
This is the most common and most frustrating myth of them all — the belief that the higher your average position, the better your account is performing.
We’ll discuss later on many reasons why not only is this completely missing the point when it comes to choosing proper KPIs. We’ll also cover why the average position metric provided by Google Ads is a distracting lie.
To prove this, we extracted some data from one of our own client accounts. As you can see in the below screenshot, both the CPA and conversion rate improved quite considerably when the average position dropped.
The CPA drop is easier to grasp, as one could assume that if the average position dropped then it could have been a result of lowered CPCs. Also, assuming that the conversion rate remained consistent, CPA was bound to drop.
How, though, can we explain the INCREASE in conversion rate? We’ll discuss this a bit later, once we get to analyzing and optimizing average position. (Don’t you love cliffhangers?) 😉
Myth #2: If I Bid Higher, I’ll Surely Improve My Position
If there’s one trend that we’re quickly learning from this post, it’s that higher is not always better. This same trend applies to your max CPC bid as a higher bid will not assure you a better position.
It may seem from time to time that Google is a big, bad, greedy money sucker that only cares about their profits. While this might not be wrong, they do have a standard of quality to maintain. In fact, they even contract over 10,000 search quality raters to double-check their performance.
It wouldn’t make sense for Google to simply allow the advertiser with the deepest pockets to own their search results. Due to this, Google stresses the importance of ad quality and, therefore, the role quality score plays in ad rank.
Myth #3: Google Controls the World and We’re Helpless, so Who Cares
Ok, this one is kind of true. But only kind of.
Perhaps the one most important thing that I’ve learned in the digital marketing world is that they’re always watching us.
The amount of information that Google knows about us can be quite terrifying. Instead of running away, however, I’ve learned to embrace it.
The reason that Google wants to know so much about us is because they truly want to provide us with the best product possible for us. A product so high in quality and accuracy that it’s as if it was customized exactly for each of us.
So, instead of raising up our arms in defeat, what us marketers can do is help Google by doing our part and making our advertising campaigns the very best they can be. In return, we may find that our average positions will get a boost without the extra buck.
Myth #4: It’s Too Expensive to Compete For Top Positions with the Big Boys
This myth is a bit of a culmination of the other myths we just discussed. If you’re a small ma & pa shop competing against Fortune 500s then, yes, it may be a bit challenging to compete; however, I wouldn’t give up.
If you choose the right keywords to compete against and devise a sound structure in your account, you could be the underdog feel-good story of the season.
Remember, QUALITY MATTERS.
Myth #5: If You’re Not in the Top Three, You Don’t Exist
There’s a common joke among internet marketers —
Question: “What’s the best place to hide a dead body?”
Answer: “On page two of Google’s search results.”
(I would have also accepted “Microsoft Ads” as a correct answer.) (Just kidding, we love Microsoft Ads).
Now, there are some pretty cool benefits to being in the top positions. For one, you appear before the organic listings and above the page fold, meaning you’ll definitely have many more eyes on your ad.
Two, the likelihood of extensions appearing with your ad increase. And three, your ad can appear longer and probably won’t be as truncated.
All those benefits definitely sound very attractive — but once again, it’s all about KPIs. Yes, being on page two of the search results can dramatically decrease your reach. But you can still survive and even thrive without reaching the top three search results.
In the screenshot below, you can actually see that when our average position dropped below the top four, CPA actually decreased and the conversion rate increased.
Myth #6: My Competitors Rank Higher Than Me, So We Need Their Magic
If all your competitors jumped off a bridge, would you jump also?
It’s very important to understand your competitive landscape. Unless you have direct access to your competition’s Google Ads accounts or somehow have a mole planted on their side, however, you won’t really know if what they’re doing is successful or not. It’s much more important to have a firm grip on your own KPI goals and to know what your plan of attack is to achieve them.
With that said, Google does provide auction insights for comparing performance against top competitors for a particular keyword or traffic source.
This allows you to see how you’re competing and make strategic decisions about additional opportunities. And if you notice a spike in CPC or a dip in average position, your auction insights are a good first place to check.
Myth #7: Let’s Just Throw the Keyword All Over the Landing Page
In the old days of digital marketing, “savvy advertisers” would hide text all over the landing page. This was an attempt to trick the search engine into thinking their landing page was the most relevant of them all.
This worked for a while. But you can only fool the geeks at Google for so long before they catch on to you. I’m sorry to inform all you shortcut seekers out there, but today this tactic is obsolete.
It’s more important than ever to create quality landing pages that will convert. Google cares about quality and rewards us for doing the same.
Therefore, proper landing page message match goes far beyond throwing your keyword all over the page.
What is Average Position?
Now that we’ve thoroughly debunked the major misconceptions about average position, we can start talking about how to own it.
Before we get into the nitty gritty about how to manage your average position, however, it’s important that we start with a firm understanding of what it is.
Average position can have a slightly different meaning or behave a bit differently depending on what platform you’re using. For example, one glaringly noticeable difference between Bing and Google ad positioning is the difference in their respective SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).
As of early 2016, Google removed the side ads from their interface and began only serving ads above and below the organic results.
In addition to this, they also made the ads appear more native. We’ll focus primarily on average position as it pertains to Google here, but this doesn’t mean that I’m not a big fan of Bing.
According to Google, average position is a statistic that describes how your ad typically ranks against other ads. This rank determines in which order ads appear on the page.
Since Google updated their SERP, positions 1-8 generally appear on the first page while 9-16 on the second. Since ad rank can fluctuate based on several parameters, average position can also fluctuate and therefore, the average position that appears in your metrics on your Google Ads dashboard can be between two whole numbers (i.e. 1.4).
How Is It Determined?
As mentioned above, the ad rank that determines your average position can fluctuate based on a couple of factors: quality score and max bid. By focusing on these fundamental KPIs, you can blend these factors into an average position that will carry you to a championship season.
While you may need to adjust and optimize quite a bit until you find that special spot, eventually, you’ll get there.
Using a cost-per-click (CPC) bidding strategy, the max bid is the maximum CPC that you’re willing to pay for a click on your ad.
Google does provide advertisers with several automated bidding strategy options. But if your goals are well defined and you know your way around a Google Ads account, manual CPC will give you more control over your performance.
Of the two factors that determine your ad rank, this is the one that is much more controllable and easily adjusted.
Even though adjusting the bid may be very rudimentary, choosing the appropriate bid takes a bit more expertise and know-how. In fact, we wrote an entire blog post about choosing bids.
While some may go as far as to formulate a precise calculation for the appropriate bid, us “simple folk” may prefer the nitty gritty approach. To break it down simply, choosing the right bid is reliant on three fundamental aspects — your campaign type, the cost of your keywords, and the success of your keywords.
To start, we have either the Google Display Network (GDN) or the Search Network. Since bidding and average position work a bit differently in GDN, let’s stick with the Search Network for now.
Still, within the Search Network, different types of search campaigns with different objectives will require different bids.
Whereas a branded campaign may not need to have a very high bid to own the top positions, a top-of-the-funnel prospecting campaign may require a higher bid to be competitive.
Cost of Keywords
Since different types of campaigns behave differently, the cost of the keyword will also behave differently.
The ultimate determining factor of the starting bid you’ll need for your keyword is the competitiveness of that keyword.
Out of the kindness of their hearts (and our wallets), Google went ahead and provided us with several tools we can use to find that correct bid.
First, there’s a friendly reminder that we’re not gonna make it to the first page:
Then, there’s the always trusted bid simulator (sarcasm continues):
And lastly, there’s my favorite of them all, the Google Ads Keyword Planner Tool. (OK, this one actually is my favorite, no sarcasm):
Success of Keywords
Of all the factors that play a role in your max CPC bid, this is the one that you should care about the most. Once again, we revert back to those KPI goals that we discussed earlier. These goals should ultimately be what you’re using when determining the best bids for your keywords.
Unfortunately, to do this properly, you’ll need some data history on that keyword. If it’s a new keyword that you pulled from a search term within your account, you should have a head start on choosing the right bid by analyzing how it performed as a search term.
The second part of determining average position is quality score.
Although this isn’t AS easy and immediate to adjust as the max CPC bid, it’s nothing to fear. By mastering this aspect, you’ll be able to improve your avg. position without ever having to reach into your pockets and increase your max CPC bid.
Quality score can also be broken down into three key factors: landing page experience, expected CTR, and ad relevance.
Landing Page Experience
The landing page experience is a measurement of how relevant your landing page is once a visitor clicks on your ad.
For this reason, it’s important to make sure your landing pages are clear and useful to the visitor. Google grades landing pages as either below average, average, or above average. Clearly, we’d like to push for the latter of those three.
This is a tricky one. On the one hand, yeah, we all love seeing a high CTR. It gives us affirmation that people like the ad copy that we’re throwing at them. On the other hand, do we really want the higher CTR at the sacrifice of wasted clicks?
Believe it or not, there have actually been times in my career that I’ve intentionally tried to lower CTR. I know that sounds absurd, but stay with me here.
What if I were a loan lending company and I had a killer CTR, but all my visitors weren’t qualified? Every other click I received was from someone that didn’t have the credit score that I need. But I don’t want to remove the keyword I’m targeting, as it also does bring quality traffic from time to time.
One solution to this dilemma is stating some of the qualifications you need in the ad copy in order to filter out the bad traffic. This would undoubtedly lower your CTR, but it doesn’t sound so crazy anymore, does it?
Basically, the right formula for CTR is to aim high, but also be clear in your ad copy to make sure you attract the right traffic.
Well, since the expected CTR section above did such a fine job explaining the importance of this, I’ll just leave you with some more tips for mastering ad copy.
Analyzing Your Average Position
Ok, so now we know about the myths associated with average position and we’re educated on how it works. So, what next?
Well, of course, now it’s the part you have all been waiting for… ANALYZING YOUR AVERAGE POSITION. (If you skipped straight to this section, however, I demand you go back to the top and read from the beginning.)
Up until now, we really haven’t discussed how complex average position can be. Average position was a metric we were provided within the Google Ads interface. It shows us where we fall in line on the Google SERP, or so it seemed.
Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not that simple. It never is.
There are many different ways, shapes, and forms to look at average position. But since I have a deadline to get this post out, we’re only discussing several of them. However, I encourage you to see this as opening a new door to analysis — and an opportunity to run with it.
Position by Location
Let’s say your account is performing better in Cleveland, OH, than it is in Oakland, CA. (Unlikely, but let’s just say it is.)
If that’s the case, you may want to increase the bid adjustment in that location to grab a higher average position for Cleveland.
Position by Schedule
The time of the day and day of the week also matter when it comes to analyzing the differences in performance within the account. Looking at these differences and optimizing appropriately will allow you to stay ahead of the game.
Position by Device
Analyzing the average position by device is a bit trickier.
If you call Google support for assistance on this one, they’ll probably advise you to try different attribution models that show the “true” effectiveness of the mobile performance before you pull any budget away from it.
Now I’m not saying that there isn’t any truth to what our friends at Google are saying. Please, though, proceed with caution when it comes to optimizing for mobile.
Position by Audience
Optimizing your position by audience is one of my favorite quick wins when analyzing a Google Ads account and, sadly, it’s often one of the most forgotten.
The other three strategies mentioned above can all be found under your campaign settings. This one is a bit more hidden, however — you’ll find it under the Audiences tab. And to perform this handy hack, you’ll need to set up your RLSA audiences first. But trust me on this one, the work will be well worth it.
Not many things can make me happier than finding an audience that is performing 100% better than the overall campaign performance in an average position of four. UP ‘DEM BIDS! (I know, I’m easily pleased.)
What Position Do You Want?
We know that everything we’ve learned about average position before reading this post was baloney. We get how average position works. And we opened our minds to analyze it on a more granular scale. Now we’re for sure good to go. (Woohoo!)
Wait, what position do I want?
I’m glad you asked. That’s our next section.
Clearly, we understood that our average position should be based on the performance and not placed on some arbitrary ranking system. That’s always the case. Well, not really. There are some exceptions to that rule.
Branded campaigns can create controversy sometimes. After all, if our organic search results already own our branded terms, why even bid on those keywords?
As I am firmly on the pro-branded side, I’ll say that there are many legitimate reasons to bid on branded, but that’s a whole other blog post in itself. (Note to self: write a blog post on branded campaigns.)
Whereas the general rule states that we should set our ideal average position based on performance, I’ll make an exception for branded terms. Branded terms should always shoot for numero uno.
The main reason is that you never want to lose this traffic to competitors trying to steal your lowest hanging fruits. Also, branded terms can boost your organic results and allow for much more efficient message testing.
If branded is too expensive for you to compete, that’s a different issue. As this is your brand name and you should own the domain associated with it, Google will give you a high quality score, which will result in cheaper CPCs.
If this isn’t the case for you, you may want to start by looking at your branded search terms. Or, better yet, reach out to us and we’d be happy to help.
Analyzing and bidding for display positions is not as intuitive as it is for search.
In the Google Display Network, we’re actually bidding on “slots” on publisher sites. Whereas in the Search Network it’s quite clear and easy to understand where your ads are being served based on the avg. position metric provided within your Google Ads interface, the GDN (Google Display Network) does not provide you with an average position.
Instead, the GDN takes your bid to auction. Depending on how competitive your specific targeting strategy is in your particular campaign, your ads will be placed onto various locations of publisher’s websites. You can think of the websites that you get served on and the locations on those websites as your “Display Network position”.
We can optimize based on KPI performance in both the Search Network and the Display Network. However, the form of optimization can vary depending on the type of campaign that you’re running.
As a general rule, however, we want to find the placements that are hitting our goals the best. We can turn those from automated placements to managed placements by placing more aggressive bids on them. This can up the traffic and earn even more valuable locations.
Another key point is that your best performing placements may not have received your ads yet. Keep in mind that your initial bids might be too low when you’re experimenting with GDN bid adjustments.
Bid on Performance
Only one word needed for this one — KPIs.
Let’s get back to the prevailing point of this entire blog post. Bidding on performance is all about KPIs, and for the vast majority of your campaigns, this is the way to go. Whether the pinnacle of your performance is the second position or the fifth position, we always like to rely on data to make our decisions easy.
Best Practices to Manage Average Position
If you thought we were done here, well, sit back down. After all, if this really is the true “survival guide for average position myths”, it needs to be thorough. So, thorough it shall be.
We’re almost there. But before we part ways, since you’ve been a great audience, we want to leave you with some of our very own KB best practices for managing average position.
Top vs. Other
While it definitely is more convenient to simply trust the average position reported in your Google Ads metrics, the top vs. other segments will paint a picture that should help you get to your ideal position faster.
Found under the the Segments tab, this hidden metric compares how your ads perform when shown in the top positions versus other placements.
As you can glaringly see in the screenshot above, when our client was in the top positions, CPA and conversion rates dramatically improved. Although this isn’t always the case, in this particular situation, we’d want to increase bids to improve our ad rank.
Worried about robots taking your job?
This might be a reality we need to prepare for. But in the meantime, while we still have our jobs, let’s use these robots to make our jobs a bit easier.
Automated bidding allows us to take some of the guesswork out of bid management.
Of course, there are some restrictions and best practices that are advised to use when utilizing automated bidding. However, as a general rule, it should be aligned with your own KPIs (ROAS, CPA, etc.).
For our purposes, use the target search page location bidding strategy once you determine which location is most effective for performance. This portfolio bid strategy can be used across multiple campaigns, ad groups, and keywords to target the top of the page or on the first page of Google search results.
After using the top vs. other segment to find where your performance is kicking bootay, using this bidding strategy can help you get to where you want to be.
SKAGs (Single Keyword Ad Groups)
Oh SKAGs, how we love thee.
SKAGs and KlientBoost go together like LeBron James and NBA Championship trophies.
Wait, let’s try that again…
SKAGs and KlientBoost go together like Michael Jordan and NBA Championship trophies.
There’s one fundamental reason SKAGs help us get great results for our clients. They allow us to granulate accounts to the point where we have complete control over performance.
By understanding the Iceberg Effect, we know that what we see above the surface can be much different from what lies beneath.
With SKAGs, we remove the search terms from “beneath” and target them as their own keywords. This enables us to appropriately bid for effective positions with fewer surprises.
Final Thoughts on Average Position
There was a pretty big election not too long ago, and not everyone was thrilled with the results. The first place victor, as you might recall, was not everyone’s first choice. Even LeBron would agree with that.
For many, however, the second-place finisher wasn’t their first choice either. But what if we lived in a world that it didn’t matter what “place” someone finished in, but rather we went with the position that was best for us. Wouldn’t that be a grand world?
Now, I challenge you all to manage your average position with that thought in mind. Forget the desire to always be in first or wanting to outrank your competitors. Let go of the days of blind bidding by simply analyzing one vanity metric.
A new era is upon us. Make way for the new champion in ad position optimization. It’s time to dive deeper into our accounts and take control of what’s really going to drive our results.
I hope that with these tools and processes to managing your average position, you’ll be able to get first place in your boss’ heart by making them more money.
Whether you work at another PPC agency and will use this to explain to your clients why average position is a farce or are managing your own account, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with managing your average positions. Please share below and maybe you’ll make it to first place in the comments. 🙂