Affiliate Marketing with Google Ads

The ultimate guide on how to scale up your affiliate marketing performance via Google Ads

In this guide I will explain to you:

Whether you are a beginner or not, does not matter. Some aspects will be focused on affiliate publishers because content about setting up Google Ads campaigns properly as an affiliate publisher is scarce at this point. Since I work with a lot of different affiliate publishers and have successfully created and optimized campaigns for multiple publishers, I am able to give you some very relevant insights, which will help you to set up and scale up profitable campaigns yourself.

“Is it allowed to do Affiliate Marketing on Google Ads?”

First of all, let’s get one misconception out of the way, namely that it is not allowed to use Google Ads as an affiliate marketer. While Google Ads has ad policies everyone needs to follow, affiliate marketers can of course still make use of Google Ads and should if they want to get visitors to re-engage with their content.

There are some rules you will have to follow as an affiliate marketer though, but these are defined by the advertisers and affiliate networks rather than by Google. So make sure you read up on the SEA and PPC policies within the affiliate networks, or just get in contact with your merchants to clear things up.
For example advertisers usually forbid the use of brand keywords, but this won’t prohibit you from using keywords related to products, services or your own brand.

Now, having that straightened out, let me point out the utmost important aspect to run profitable campaigns on Google Ads:

Conversion Tracking

You need to know whether and how your campaigns perform on EVERY dimension and not base your decisions on any guesses. So let’s start with the first chapter of this guide, which will explain to you how to set up conversion tracking in Google Ads as an affiliate publisher.

1. How to set up affiliate conversion tracking in Google Ads

Before you start setting up any Google Ads campaigns you need to think about what you would like to accomplish with your campaigns. Do you want people to interact with your content, do you want them to sign up for a newsletter, do you want someone to click on an affiliate link or do you actually want someone to buy a product? Now, you can have multiple goals that you would like to accomplish with your campaigns, but it is essential that you define each one of them first and create a small overview for yourself.

Now a very simple overview of conversions for an affiliate publisher could look like this:

  1. User clicked on affiliate link leading to merchant
  2. User generated a sale on merchant’s website

A lot of affiliate publishers have the misconception that it is not possible to track conversions that happen on the merchant’s website in Google Ads without placing a pixel on their website, but it is actually quite easy once you understand the data flow. You need to consider that advertisers already placed a pixel or code of the affiliate network on their website in order to trigger conversion events. Now, you can make use of that to help you track conversions properly by using the affiliate networks’ API, Postback URL and SubIDs.

Now you might think this is getting too technical already, but I will spear you with the technical aspects, since We Can Track provides a JavaScript tag and WordPress plugin that will handle them for you (you can find more information on how to make use of those here). But this is the process put in simple words:

The idea is to track sessions and clicks from your website and place unique click IDs in the SubID parameters of your affiliate links. The conversions are then collected via APIs or Postback. The SubID values will help to attribute the conversions to the sessions, delivering the necessary information that is needed to integrate the conversion data in tools like Google Analytics, Google Ads, Facebook and more.

The following two dataflow charts demonstrate the dataflow of an affiliate publisher that does not use data attribution and an affiliate publisher that does attribute and integrate via We Can Track.

Data flow without conversion attribution

affiliate-data-flow-without-we-can-track

Data flow with conversion attribution via We Can Track

affiliate-data-flow-with-we-can-track
  • place unique click IDs in the SubID parameters of your affiliate links
  • collect conversions via APIs or Postback
  • attribute the conversions to the clicks and sessions with the help of the SubID values

Once your conversion data was attributed to your traffic data, it can be imported in Google Analytics as Ecommerce Conversion events which are also available as a goal. After linking your Google Analytics and Google Ads accounts, you can then automatically import conversion data registered in Google Analytics in Google Ads. Follow these instructions if you would like to import your conversions within Google Analytics in Google Ads.

If you created click goals you can also import them in Google Ads. I advise to not include them in Conversions though, then they will only be placed in All Conversions. You can then set up a custom metric where you use this formula:

Clickout = All Conversions – Conversions

This way you will have a new column available which will should the number of clickouts your campaigns generated, which you can place next to your conversion column. Click here to see a step by step guide on how to create a Clickout column within Google Ads.

2. How to create relevant (affiliate) website audiences for Google Ads with Google Analytics

I placed audience creation as the second topic, so even before campaign creation, because the sooner you will set up your audiences the sooner you will be able to use them.

Audiences take time to grow, and they need to contain enough users in order for you to actually make use of them in your campaigns. So, after setting up your conversion tracking this should be the first thing you do.

I will explain to you how exactly you can set up these 3 essential audiences:

  • Users who clicked on an affiliate link but did not generate a sale
  • Users who generated a sale
  • Users who did not generate a sale

You can of course narrow down the audiences further by adding more conditions to them, such as landing page, page or exit page.

How to set up an audience in Google Analytics

Here is an example of how to set up the audience ‘Users who clicked on an affiliate link but did not generate a sale’:

  • Go to Admin > Audience Definitions (Under Property) > Audiences
  • Click on ‘+ NEW AUDIENCE’
  • Click on ‘Create New’
  • Click on Conditions
  • Select the relevant conditions that define a user or session where a click occurred
    If you are using We Can Track, you could use the following condition:

Event Category exactly matches ‘WCT’
AND
Event Action exactly matches ‘Click’
AND
Transaction per session = 0

  • Set a membership duration (maximum is 540 days)
  • Give the audience a name
  • Go to the next step and select the relevant Google Ads account as a destination
  • Click on ‘Publish’

To set up all the aforementioned audiences, use the following conditions:

Users who clicked on an affiliate link but did not generate a sale:

Event Category exactly matches ‘WCT’

AND

Event Action exactly matches ‘Click’

AND

Transaction per session = 0

Users who generated a sale:

Transaction per session > 0

Users who did not generate a sale:

Transaction per session = 0

3. How to set up (affiliate) marketing campaigns in Google Ads

Now that you have set up conversion tracking and created your first audiences, we can dive into the campaign creation within Google Ads.

Google Ads offers multiple ways to create campaigns:

  • Via their user interface
  • Via the Google Ads Editor
  • Via CSV imports
  • Via API

Creating campaigns via the user interface takes the longest but is also the simplest approach for beginners.

By using the Google Ads Editor you can more easily copy & paste campaigns, ad groups, keywords and ads. It also allows you to easily make a lot of quick adjustments at once. You should be a little experienced with Google Ads before using the Google Ads Editor though.

The CSV import functionality is by far my most favorite way to create campaigns. When you know your way with Excel or Google Sheet, you can create hundreds of campaigns with thousands of keywords within just 1 hour! (Are you interested in learning more about this? Let me know and I might set up a webinar about it.)

3.1 How to structure a Google Ad Search campaign

Before you start to build your first campaign, you should think about what kind of campaign you want to create and how you want to structure it. Google Ads offers Search, Display, Shopping, Video, Smart and Discovery campaigns. We will focus on search campaigns, since they are the most basic Google Ads campaign type which in many cases also performs best.

In Google Ads a campaign consists of ad groups, keywords and ads. The following graphic visualizes this:

campaign
ad-group
keyword
keyword
search-ad
search-ad
responsive-search-ad
ad-group
keyword
keyword
search-ad
search-ad
responsive-search-ad
ad-group
keyword
keyword
search-ad
search-ad
responsive-search-ad

3.1.1 How many keywords should I use in an Ad Group?

Now, how many keywords should be placed within an ad group is up to the person creating the campaign. It depends on structural preferences but having too many different keywords in just one ad group can be limiting. I always recommend to start with only a few keywords per ad group and create more ad groups. This approach will later-on give you more control since you have more capabilities on ad group level than on keyword level. In general, the keywords within one ad group should be very similar to one another. I often just place one or two keywords within one Ad Group.

If you decide to use multiple different keywords within one ad group, that is of course totally fine. But if at one point certain keywords perform very well, it is best to set up a separate ad group for each well performing keyword.

3.1.2 How many ads should I use in an Ad Group?

Regarding ads, it is easier to give a number. Google recommends to place three ads in search campaigns. Two text ads and one responsive search ad.

3.2 What are Match Types in Google Ads and which one should I use?

When you set up your keywords, you will need to set match types. There are three match types available in Google Ads: broad, phrase and exact.

Broad Match Type
Broad keywords will trigger impressions when people search for keywords that Google associates as similar to the keyword you provided. This match type is great to generate a lot of impressions and clicks in order to gather some data. But in terms of conversion rates, this match type usually does not perform that well if you do not narrow down the audience any further.

Phrase Match Type
Phrase keywords will trigger impressions for users who included your keyword in their search query. So this match type is more specific than broad and while it will generate less impressions and clicks than broad, these impressions and clicks will be more relevant and will most likely perform better in terms of conversion or interaction rates.

Exact Match Type
Exact keywords will trigger impressions when users type in exactly what you defined as the keyword. Now with this match type you will gain the most control and you can be very specific for which terms your ads shall be triggered.
You will generate a lot less impressions with an exact match keyword but the relevancy can be enormous which will lead to higher conversion or interaction rates. If you make use of exact match keywords, you will need to add a lot of keywords to your campaigns in order to generate a lot of traffic.

In general, the more specific your campaigns are the more conversion oriented they are. But in order to get there, you will need to start broader, since you will need data in order to know which keywords perform well and which don’t.

I suggest you start with phrase- or exact-match keywords and use broad-match only if you want to find new keyword terms, unless you narrowed down your audience and you are certain you are targeting users who are interested in your services or products.

3.3 How to find the right keywords for Google Ads campaigns

There are different ways to find the right keywords for your campaigns. I will focus on 5 approaches:

  1. Check your landing page and filter out the relevant keywords
    Simply go through your landing page and check which of the words you used are the most relevant to the readers. What would you search to end up on a page like this?
  2. Take a look at Google Search Console to find out which keywords perform well organically
    Go to Performance > Queries and filter on the landing page you want to promote. Now you will see many search queries that drove traffic to your website organically which you can also use within your campaigns.
  3. Do keyword research with tools like Google Ads Keyword Planner, Ubersuggest, Ahrefs, Semrush, Search Metrics, etc.
    Since you already have a list of keywords by now you can use the most significant ones to search for further alternatives and long-tail keywords that you can include in your campaigns.
  4. Set up a broad-match AdGroup or Campaign
    By using broad-match Google will trigger impressions for search terms it sees fit to the ones you provided it with. Use your most significant keywords for this method, give it an acceptable budget and low cpc bid, and monitor this closely make sure you are not spending too much on this. Let this run for some time until you have enough data to go through.
    To find the search terms that were used to trigger your ads, select the campaign / AdGroup and go to Keywords >  Search terms and select the metrics (columns) you would like to see. Now you can analyse the search terms that were used and pick the ones that performed best in terms of clicks, CTR or maybe even conversions.
  5. You can go on Google and type in your most significant keywords in the search bar, Google will give you suggestions of long tail search queries which you can include in your campaigns.

3.4 Which Budgets & Bids should I use for my Google Ads campaigns?

There are different approaches when it comes to budgets and bids. I usually use a careful approach where I rather start with low bids and budgets and move my way up instead of starting high and moving down. But it could happen that you will miss out on some keyword opportunities with this approach. The starting high moving down approach will deliver a lot more data to you but also cost you a lot more money.

In order to determine an initial bid I take a look at the Keyword Planner of Google Ads, which will give me an indication of what top of page bids are being used.

Example:
Let’s say I want to promote a Lenovo Thinkpad offer and I am allowed to use the term “Thinkpad” for SEA but not the brand keyword “Lenovo”. I can then check in the keyword planner what range of CPCs are being used for “Thinkpad” related search terms.

I would set up 2 different ad groups for the listed keywords.
1. Ad Group for the keyword “thinkpad” with a bid of 10 cents on ad group level.
2. Ad Group for the keywords that contain “thinkpad” with additional terms that define we have a special offer here with a bid of 30 cents on ad group level.

As a daily budget I would use 5 to 10 Euros for this campaign.

Now, already after one day I would check how those settings performed and make adjusted to the bids on keyword level to reach a satisfactory number of impressions for a reasonable price. I will continuously do so and at one point start optimising my bids based on actual conversion data, which I will explain in the optimisation chapter.

Once you gathered enough data you will also be able to automate the bid adjustments by using Target ROAS or Target CPA. You will also find more information about that in the optimisation chapter.

3.5 How to make use of audiences in Google Ads and set up retargeting campaigns

Remember the audiences you created before? Well, now it is time to put them to use.

You can set up pretty broad campaigns or display campaigns and narrow down the visitors you target by setting up target audiences or excluding certain audiences.

3.5.1. The first thing I would do for broad search and for display campaigns is exclude converters:

  • Select the campaign you want to narrow down
  • Click on Audiences > Exclusions
  • Click on the + button > Exclude audiences
  • Go to Browse > How they have interacted with your business > Website visitors
  • Select the converter audience you have created before

With this audience exclusion you can make sure you do not keep targeting users who already bought something. This is especially interesting for display campaigns since you sort of force your ads on people here. For search ads this exclusion is not really necessary (unless it is a very broad search ad) since the user still seems to be interested in the product / service / search term, else he or she would not be searching for it.

3.5.2. Another audience I would use for broad search and for display campaigns is Users who clicked but did not convert:

  • Select the campaign you want to narrow down
  • Click on Audiences > Audiences
  • Click on the + or edit button > Edit audiences
  • Select an ad group
  • Go to Browse > How they have interacted with your business > Website visitors
  • Select the “clicked but did not convert” audience you have created before

With this audience you will only target users who engaged with the content on your website but abandoned the funnel on the advertiser’s website. You can try to get these users to engage with your content again and maybe make them convert this way. Keep in mind, for many websites over 50% of the conversions come from returning visitors.

3.5.3. You can also create a campaign targeting users who are similar to your converters:

  • Select the campaign you want to narrow down
  • Click on Audiences > Audiences
  • Click on the + or edit button > Edit audiences
  • Select an ad group
  • Go to Browse > How they have interacted with your business > Website visitors
  • Select the “Similar to Converters” audience which was automatically created by Google

With this audience you will be able to target users who Google considers similar to your converters based on the user data they collected.

3.6 How to make use of ad placements in Google Ads

For display campaigns you can adjust where your ads shall be placed. Now if your competitor’s website have display ads showing on their websites you can make use of that opportunity and create display campaigns that will show on your competitors’ websites.

First of all you should identify who your competitors are and what websites those competitors have. You can easily find that out by using a tool like Publisher Discovery.

Once you have a list of websites you can go to ‘Placements’ within your display campaign and click on Edit Placements. Select the relevant ad group, after that select ‘Targeting’ and go to ‘Websites’. Click on ‘Enter multiple placements’ and fill in the websites that you have collected.

After saving those placement adjustments, your campaign will only place display campaigns the defined websites.

4. How to monitor Google Ads affiliate campaign performance

There are different platforms you can use to monitor your Google Ads campaign performance. I personally prefer to monitor campaign performance within Google Ads itself, since it allows me to quickly take actions based on the data.

Other platforms you can use to monitor you performance are:

  • Google Analytics
  • We Can Track
  • Data Studio
  • Google Sheets

Monitoring campaign performance in Google Ads

When you have fully integrated your conversion goals in Google Ads, you can monitor your performance within Google Ads. Monitoring your data within Google Ads will allow you to quickly analyze your campaigns’ profitability and you can quickly take actions based on the performance.

Besides conversion data, Google Ads provides significant metrics of which all are of importance to find out details about your campaigns’ performance. Depending on which stage your campaign is, certain metrics carry more relevance than others.

  1. Orientation
    Impressions, CTRs, Clicks, on top rate, CPC, Quality Score, Clickout Rate
  2. Optimization
    Clicks, Conv. Rates, Conversions, Conv. Value, CPC, Cost, Quality Score, Clickout Rate
  3. Scaling
    Value / Cost, Conv. Value per Click, CPC

Now a general metric set up I like to use is this one:

  • Impr. (Abs. Top) %
  • Impr. (Top) %
  • CTR
  • Clicks
  • Clickout Rate
  • Clickouts
  • Conv. Rate
  • Conversions
  • Conv. Value
  • Cost
  • Profit & Loss
  • Avg. CPC
  • Cost / Clickout
  • Cost / Conv.
  • Conv. Value / Cost
  • Quality Score (on levels where it is available)

This set up includes more or less all the information I need in order to find out how the campaign is performing and which numbers could be improved.

How to set up Clickout, Clickout Rate and Profit & Loss columns in Google Ads

If you are going to only make use of Clickouts and Transactions as conversions, then you are able to set up a Clickout and Clickout Rate column.
If you include other conversions like subscriptions or form submissions you could name these columns Soft Conversions and Soft Conversion Rate.

Basically all we will do is remove the transaction conversion data from all the other conversion data in order to differentiate between them in separate columns.

First of all you will need to make sure you integrated all your Google Analytics Goals you want to track within Google Ads under Settings & Billing > Conversions.

Make sure that your soft conversions like clickouts will have ‘Include in “Conversions”‘ set to no while the Transactions conversion action has that set to yes:

For this setup Transactions, Clickout and Direct Clickout will be placed within the All Conv. column while only Transactions will be placed in Conversions column.
Now all you need to do is:

  • go back to your campaigns overview
  • click on Columns > Modify Columns
  • Scroll all the way down and open the drop down called ‘Custom columns’
  • Click on ‘+ Custom Column’
  • Use “All conv. – Conversions” for Clickouts
  • Use “(All conv. – Conversions) / Clicks” for Clickout Rate
  • Use “Conv. value – Cost” for Profit & Loss

Within Google Ads you can also segment based on Conversion Actions. This will help you to give you a clear overview of which conversions your campaigns generated, if you have multiple different ones integrated.

5. How to optimize Google Ads (affiliate) campaigns based on performance

Once you have some campaigns running and they are generating impressions you can start optimising campaigns. I purposefully start with impressions here since these are the first numbers your campaigns will generate. In this chapter I will dive into possible optimisation and automation approaches based on the following metrics:

  • Impressions
  • Quality Score
  • CTR & Clicks
  • Clickout Rate & Clickouts
  • Conversion Rate & Conversions
  • Conversion Value & Cost
  • CPC, CPA, Conv. Value per click & Conv. Value per Conversion

5.1 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on impression data?

What is an impression in Google Ads?

The impression column gives you the number how often your ad was displayed.

Since there are different phases when it comes to Google Ads there are also different aspects that need to be considered. Let’s categorise the different phases as campaign start, campaign progress and campaign upscaling.

Campaign Start: What to consider regarding Impressions for new campaigns

When you start a campaign, you need to make sure that it is generating impressions.

My campaigns do not generate any impressions, what can I do about that?

There are several reasons why your campaigns might not generate any impressions:

  • Your bids are too low
    • Temporarily increase bids to see if that helps
  • Your ads are still under review
    • Check the status of your ads, if it is under review then you will need to be patient.
  • Your ads were disapproved
    • Check the status of your ads, if it is disapproved then you will need to check whether your ads are violating Google Ads’ ad policies and adjust them accordingly.
  • Your target audience is too small
    • Check your audience settings and make sure it is big enough for Google to use it.
  • Your keywords are not searched (might be too specific)
    • Check the search volume of your keywords with Google Ads’ keyword planner. If their search volume is very low, make sure you include many alternative keywords or adjust the match type to either phrase or even broad match.

Campaign Progress: How to increase number of impressions of my campaigns

Now when your campaign has already been running for a while and you would like to increase its reach, there are some ways to increase the number of your impressions. Please consider that more impressions does not necessarily mean more clicks, conversions or revenue. If your campaigns generate irrelevant impressions, they can actually be harmful instead of beneficial, since they might affect your CTRs or generate irrelevant clicks which will drive your costs higher but not your conversions.
Nevertheless, here are some approaches of how to increase the number of impressions:

  • Create new ads which are formulated differently and include alternative keywords in headlines and descriptions.
  • Create ad groups containing your best performing keywords with broad match to collect data on search terms and get inspiration for new keywords.
  • Increase your bids to be placed higher and more often. You need to consider that this will most likely increase the cost of your campaigns and might affect the profitability, so be careful with that approach.

Campaign Upscaling: How to increase number of impressions of my campaigns

When your campaigns have been running for a long time, generating many conversions and being profitable, you can make use of the collected data to improve your ad rankings for relevant users or to target relevant audiences with display ads.

  • Place audiences in all your campaigns as observation audiences. E.g. ‘add users who clicked out’, ‘users who converted’ and ‘similar to users who converted’ and increase the bids for these. This will make sure that your ads will rank higher for users who are most relevant to your website.
  • Create a display campaign that targets the audience ‘similar to users who converted’, this way you can target users who might not have interacted with your website yet but Google considers to be lookalikes from your converters.

5.2 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on Quality Scores?

The Quality Score of your ads is very important to consider since it affects impressions and CPCs.

What is the Quality Score in Google Ads?

The quality score is a score from 1 to 10 determined by Google, expressing the relevance of your keywords.

What aspects are considered in the Quality Score of Google Ads?

Google Ads considers your landing page relevance, meaning whether the keywords you use are actually also being used on your landing page and within your ads. It also considers the experience on the landing page, for example whether the page is user and mobile friendly. Moreover, it considers the expected Click Through Rate, based on historic data and the afore mentioned characteristics.

How can I improve my Quality Scores?

In order to improve your Quality Scores you need to make your landing page and ads relevant to your keywords. This means, try to include the keywords you are using within your campaigns also in your landing page content and within your ad copies. Moreover, simply make sure that the ad and page content really delivers relevant information regarding the search keywords that are being used in your campaigns. Google always tries to make sure that the content they lead users too is relevant, meaning that it is helpful and really something the users are looking for.

5.3 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on CTR & Clicks?

While the number of impressions and the Quality Score have a significant impact on the CTR and thus number of Clicks, there are some practical tips you can consider in order to get your CTRs higher:

Ad Size

  • Make use of ad extensions to make your ads bigger

Relevance

  • Include campaigns’ keywords in ad headlines and ad description
  • Make use of the keyword function in ad headlines and ad description
  • Use Responsive Search Ads to let Google select relevant headlines and descriptions

Sense of Urgency

  • Set a Countdown or Expiration date
  • Promote limited discounts and coupons

Sense of Scarcity

  • State a stock limitation

5.4 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on Clickout Rates & Clickouts?

Next to optimising your campaigns’ targeting, keywords and ads you need to optimise your landing page in order to generate conversions. The higher your Clickout Rate is, the more likely it is that you will generate conversions. Here are some things you can consider to optimise your landing pages:

Relevant Content

The most important thing is that your content is relevant to your readers. Make sure that the pages your lead to from your Google Ads campaigns are really relevant to the keywords you are making use of. Make your content easy to read, make it appealing to the readers eye (e.g. by using pictures) and deliver something that creates an added value for your visitors.

User Experience

Make sure that your readers can easily find the outgoing links and make it clear that they will lead to the offer you are promoting. Do not try to make users click your links by baiting them, this might increase your Clickout Rates but it might harm your overall conversion rates and you might lose potential returning visitors.
In addition, see to it that your outgoing links work and lead to pages that are really relevant to your readers.
For example use affiliate deeplinks that directly lead to the products you are promoting so that your readers will not have to search for them on the merchants’ website.

(more coming soon…)

5.5 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on Conversion Rates & Conversions?

While you can impact the content on your website, you cannot affect the content your users land on after going through your affiliate links. Nevertheless, there are some things you can do that might help to increase your conversion rates.

Content Order

By properly analysing the performance of your content you will be able to identify which products and links generate the most conversions for you. Once you identified your best performing affiliate links make sure to place them high on your landing pages (preferably above the fault).

Funnel Optimisation

Optimising your funnel is one of the most important aspects when it comes to conversion rate optimisation.

Retargeting

Target ROAS

Make use of

Target CPA

5.6 How to optimise your Google Ads campaigns based on Conversion Value & Cost?

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