How to Optimize Paid Search Campaigns with a SEM Audit

You’ve been staring at your Google Ads account for hours now, and you’re sure there are opportunities somewhere. Yet with so many campaigns in play, it’s near impossible to spot them.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s time to carry out a SEM audit.

By doing so, you’ll gain game-changing insights that can help you fine-tune your SEM strategy and identify the actionable steps you need to take to generate better returns on your investment in paid advertising.

In this post, you’ll learn how auditing your Search Engine Marketing efforts can benefit your business and eight simple steps to make the entire auditing process as simple and hassle-free as possible.

Kim Cooper
Director of Marketing, Amazon Alexa

Single Grain enables us to increase our impact without increasing our headcount

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Why It Pays to Audit Your SEM Strategy

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is a digital marketing strategy used to increase a website’s visibility in the SERPs. SEM generally involves two methods: organic SEO and paid advertising (or PPC).

It’s important to note that while SEO is technically a part of SEM, in many contexts, SEM refers specifically to paid search marketing:

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The goal of SEM is to drive traffic to your website from search engines. This is beneficial because search traffic is usually high-quality traffic – these are people who are actively looking for information, products or services that you offer. The right SEM strategy can therefore lead to increased visibility, more website traffic and, ultimately, more conversions and sales.

Therefore, a SEM audit is a comprehensive review of your paid search account and the individual campaigns within it.

If you’re taking over an account, this in-depth evaluation can be a useful starting point, helping you to take stock of the current state of play, identify your priorities for managing that account, and create a plan of action for what to do next.

Even if you’re not inheriting your ad account, taking time to audit is still worthwhile, as it can help you pinpoint what’s working, what isn’t, and what you could be doing better.

Following the steps below to conduct a SEM audit to discover your biggest SEM challenges makes sense if:

  • You’re not getting the conversion rates you expected with PPC
  • Can’t understand why your top competitors keep outperforming you in paid search
  • You’re spending more on PPC campaigns than you’re making

Dive Deeper: What Is the Difference Between SEM and SEO?

How to Conduct a SEM Audit: Step-by-Step Tutorial

Here are eight beginner-friendly steps to conduct a SEM audit.

1) Gather What You’ll Need

There’s more to conducting a successful SEM audit than simply logging into your Google Ads account and plowing through the data. You’ll first need to get a few things together to ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Along with your ad account, you’ll also benefit from access to Google Analytics data relating to user behavior, landing page performance, and conversions, all of which will prove invaluable for analyzing the success of your PPC strategy and planning your next steps.


Next, pull together any documentation that may help with this process.

We’re not just talking about documentation that directly relates to SEM, such as past audit reports and strategies, but also those relating to broader business objectives, such as your company’s overall marketing plans and business strategy.

The former will give you valuable insights into past performance, which may help you quickly spot obvious areas for improvement.

Meanwhile, the later will help you understand the role of search engine marketing within the broader context of your overall business, which is essential for completing the next part of the audit.

2) Define Your Goals and KPIs

If the goal of conducting this audit is to improve the success of your SEM strategy, then it makes sense to define what that success looks like. After all, how will you know if you’ve achieved your goal if you don’t know what your goal is? What’s more, how will you know what steps you need to take to accomplish your PPC goals?

Defining your goals is like setting a destination on your GPS, establishing where you’re going and how you’ll get there.

Begin by analyzing any existing conversion actions in your Google Ads account (Goals > Conversions > Summary). Do they closely align with your current overall business goals?


Suppose your company’s priorities have changed since the last time you evaluated your search marketing efforts. In that case, some conversion actions may no longer be relevant or useful, ultimately taking away valuable resources that could be better put towards achieving more mission-critical outcomes.

Next, clearly define your primary goal and break it down into specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which will prove essential for monitoring the success of your campaigns.

For example, if your goal is to get more conversions from pay-per-click, it pays to track metrics such as Cost Per Action (CPA), conversion volume, Return on Ad Spend (ROAS), and, of course, your overall conversion rate.

Tracking these metrics will help you measure campaign performance, arming you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions when optimizing your ads on the fly.

Finally, turn your overall goals into realistic, clearly-defined targets. Sure, you want to increase conversions, but by how much and by what deadline?

Turning that goal into a target such as “Increase conversions by 25% by the end of quarter two” can give your SEM strategy greater clarity and focus and ultimately help you create an actionable plan for making it happen.

Dive Deeper: The Only 4 Marketing/Content Marketing KPIs That Really Matter

3) Assess Your Account Structure and Organization

Now that you’ve got your goals in place, the first step to achieving them is making the whole process as efficient as possible.

When you take the time to ensure that your overall account is adequately organized and your campaigns are well-structured, you not only make managing your PPC activities much less of a chore but also optimize performance across the board.

Start by assessing the overall hierarchy of your campaigns and ad groups. Just as you did with your conversion actions earlier, check whether they’re clearly and closely aligned with your current marketing strategies and business objectives.

Next, analyze how your ad groups are organized, ensuring each ad group has a clearly-defined theme, with each ad using closely linked keywords and sharing a similar intent. While you’re at it, be sure to examine any ad extensions you might be running to enhance the visibility of your ads:

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Although they can play a vital role in boosting click-through rates, the only extensions you should have in place are those highly relevant to your campaign goals and well-optimized with the most up-to-date information.

4) Conduct Thorough Keyword Analysis

It’s no secret that keywords are the solid foundation upon which every PPC campaign is built. So if there’s one part of your account audit that you can’t afford to overlook, this is it.

Some things to consider here include:

  • Are the keywords you’re bidding on closely aligned with your campaign objectives and broader business goals?
  • How are your keywords performing in terms of meeting your KPIs?
  • Which keywords are underperforming and therefore need optimizing or taken out of the equation altogether?
  • Do any of your campaigns or ad groups include duplicate keywords, meaning you’re spending more of your ad budget than you need to and potentially preventing you from getting the best performance out of your pay-per-click ads?

You can use Google’s own Keyword Planner to discover new opportunities to build on keywords that could replace those that aren’t currently pulling their weight.


Here, all you need to do is identify your top keywords and add them to the planner. This generates a whole host of additional keyword ideas you could use in your campaigns, along with all of the following data to help you decide which ones are worth bidding on:

  • Search volume
  • Search trends (including quarterly and year-on-year) changes
  • Competition (the number of businesses targeting that keyword)
  • Top-of-page bid cost

Before you move on, it also pays to examine your negative keywords list:

  • Is it still relevant to your campaign? Are any terms mistakenly identified as negative keywords that could prevent you from reaching a particular audience?
  • Do you need to add anything to that list to avoid wasted ad spend?

For example, if we were running a campaign using keywords like “PPC agency” to attract more enterprise clients to our paid advertising agency, we might add “small business” to our negative keyword list.

That way, we’re not blowing through our ad budget every time a small business owner sees our “PPC agency” ad, clicks through, and realizes we’re not what they’re looking for.

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5) Audit Your Creative Elements

With your most relevant and effective keywords in place, the next phase of your PPC audit is to examine how they’re deployed in your Google Ads and consider how well your creative elements serve your paid search campaigns.

First, look at your ad formats. Are they well suited to achieving your current objectives?

For example, if your main focus is to build brand awareness, but you’re relying solely on displaying a text ad within Google search engine results, might you better meet your goals by utilizing display ads with captivating brand imagery and video?

From there, take a look at your ad copy:

  • How effective is it at communicating your USP and value proposition?
  • Are your headings making an impact and catching users’ attention?
  • What about your Calls to Action (CTAs)? Could they do a better job at compelling people to click through to your landing pages?

If you’ve got visual ads running on a display network, look at the design, style, and quality of the images or video you’re using. Do they get the message across? Do they adhere to your brand guidelines?

At this point, consider running some A/B split tests and trying out different takes on your ad copy, CTA or visuals.

This can help you identify which ads produce the best results so that you can allocate your ad budget accordingly and prevent wasted spend on ineffective campaigns.

Dive Deeper: What Is A/B SEO Testing?

6) Evaluate Your User’s Landing Page Experience

Landing pages play an integral role in any search marketing campaign. It’s here where all the hard work finally pays off, where potential customers finally purchase that product or hit that all-important subscribe button.

Of course, that can only happen if each landing page is fully optimized and on-point.

Some questions to ask when you get to this part of your PPC audit include:

  • Are my landing pages in sync with the rest of my search campaigns? Does the ad copy, targeted keywords, and search intent match those of my ads?
  • What about the value proposition? Does my landing page make good on the promises made in my ads?
  • Do my pages deliver optimum user experiences? Do they load quickly? Are they easy to navigate? Can users enjoy a trouble-free experience and complete the desired action no matter their device or web browser?

7) Assess Your Bidding Strategy

Even if you’ve got the most effective, highly-targeted keywords and ad creatives that leave users with no choice but to stop scrolling and pay attention, there’s still the distinct possibility that those ads aren’t producing the ROI you’re looking for.

That’s why it’s essential to analyze your existing bidding strategy to make better, informed decisions that can help you generate maximum value from every penny in your PPC budget.


Look at what each bid strategy you have in place and how effective they are at delivering results.

For example, suppose you’re getting significantly better results from automated bidding than manual bidding. That’s a clear sign that you’re better off switching to a fully automated strategy from now or, at the very least, combining the two, depending on your desired outcomes.

Elsewhere, assess budget-related KPIs such as average Cost Per Click (CPC), looking for hidden opportunities to boost your ROI on paid search.

Finally, don’t forget to take a detailed look at how your PPC budget is allocated to different campaigns.

Are the ads tied to your top priority business goals also your top priority when distributing ad spend? If not, it’s time to change things around so that you can be sure your search marketing efforts are better aligned with the goals that matter most to your company.

8) Implement. Track. Assess. Repeat.

Finally, it’s time to put everything together.

If you’ve followed the previous seven steps to the letter, you should have identified at least a few opportunities to turbocharge your PPC efforts. Now it’s time to determine how you’ll capitalize on those opportunities.

Begin by considering the potential impact of each improvement you want to make. Those optimization tasks that could make the most significant positive impact and produce the most considerable increase in key metrics should be a priority.

Likewise, any “low-hanging fruit” should be picked immediately to give you a couple of quick and easy wins while more intensive or complex optimizations are in the works.

From there, you can begin to lay out the actionable steps needed to implement your changes.

Along with a detailed list of every specific task that needs to be completed, you should also make a note of the following:

  • Who needs to be involved? Think of your UX team for landing page design or your copywriters for optimizing CTAs.
  • Who is responsible for each task? This is different from the previous question.

Before, you were merely identifying your All-Star SEM Optimization team. Now you’re giving them a bib number and sending them onto the field to score.

If sports metaphors aren’t your thing, another way to look at it is that you’re ensuring tasks have been assigned, received, and understood by each team member.

  • When should this be done by? Set a clear, definitive deadline, with scheduled progress reviews along the way.
  • What resources do I need? Here, you’re making sure you’ve got enough budget, the right PPC software, and whatever additional support you need to implement your plan.

Once you’ve done that, be sure that conversion tracking tools and other analytics platforms are fully configured. That way, you’ll have all the data you need to evaluate your changes’ impact.

What do you do with that evaluation? Simple: start all over again.

Analyze what’s working and what isn’t, implement changes, track them, and keep going, continuously optimizing your SEM strategy until every ad group consistently hits a home run.

Key Takeaways: How to Master Your SEM Audit

If you’ve only learned one thing from this guide, we hope it’s that conducting even the most comprehensive SEM audit is far less intimidating and far more manageable than it first appears.

However, we genuinely hope you’ve learned much more than that, and that you can now confidently take away the following key lessons and use them to review, revamp and revitalize your SEM strategy:

  • Your goals determine your auditing journey – Knowing what your business wants to achieve with PPC helps you focus on key priorities throughout your audit and ensure everything is aligned with top-level goals.
  • Audit every component of your account audit – From keywords to CTAs and everything in between, leave no stone unturned to unearth hidden opportunities.
  • PPC Optimization is a continual process – Once you’ve implemented changes to your PPC strategy, monitor them, review the results, and use the same auditing process in this guide to make data-driven decisions on further improvements.

Looking for a way to make this whole process even easier? You’ll find it with these top PPC auditing tools.

If you’re ready to level up your traffic and ROI, Single Grain’s SEM experts can help!👇

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