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:

  • How you can set up conversion tracking in Google Ads as an affiliate publisher
  • How you can set up and retarget relevant audiences for your campaigns
  • How you can set up Google Ads campaigns
  • How to monitor Google Ads campaigns
  • How to optimize and automate Google Ads campaigns (coming soon…)

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.

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 Match Types

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 Budgets & Bids

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.

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.

 

Once you gathered some data you can set your bid adjustments on Target ROAS…

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

Coming soon…

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