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6 Insights to Maximize Your Google AdWords Strategy


Every year, The Financial Brand analyzes the cost, competition and click-through rates for paid search ads in the banking industry. Google AdWords is one of the biggest, the most expensive — and arguably one of the most important — tools in the financial marketer’s toolbox. Here’s what you need to know now.

1. Your Budget Is Not a Static Variable

In 2013, The Financial Brand began tracking how much financial institutions spend on their Google AdWords campaigns. In 2015, we’ve seen banks and credit unions increase their AdWords budgets an average of 8.3%. But that doesn’t mean everyone increases their investment every year. In fact, more than half the financial institutions in our study (56%) actually decreased their AdWords budget.

Among those banks and credit unions cutting their budgets, the reduction was significant — slashed by an average of 70%. However, among the 44% of institutions who pumped more money into Google AdWords in the past year, the average increase was similarly substantial — up by an average of 63.8%.

Key Insight: Many financial institutions who dive into paid search lack the experience to understand how their strategy and decisions will affect their budgets. What happens is that they end up paying way more than they should — and learning an expensive lesson along the way. Budgets allocated for Google AdWords campaigns are highly fluid, and need to be managed accordingly. You need to monitor your clicks and conversions carefully, because you could very easily be spending too much… or not enough.

Institution2015 Monthly AdWords Budget ($)2014 Monthly AdWords Budget ($)Net Change% Change
USAA $2,885,187 $1,970,925 $914,262 146.4%
Wells Fargo $1,254,122 $2,101,514 -$847,392 -59.7%
PenFed $1,154,714 $40,978 $1,113,736 2817.9%
Chase $1,010,354 $949,897 $60,457 106.4%
BofA $865,136 $882,993 -$17,857 -98.0%
AmEx $862,660 $1,063,779 -$201,119 -81.1%
HSBC $844,564 $727,853 $116,711 116.0%
Schwab $772,136 $804,814 -$32,678 -95.9%
SunTrust $706,602 $215,261 $491,341 328.3%
PNC $478,082 $422,355 $55,727 113.2%
Ally $381,933 $626,155 -$244,222 -61.0%
Navy FCU $374,419 $266,962 $107,457 140.3%
Citizens $281,980 $374,310 -$92,330 -75.3%
BMO Harris $262,682 $389,507 -$126,825 -67.4%
First Tennessee $225,478 $130,988 $94,490 172.1%
First Niagara $147,803 $75,193 $72,610 196.6%
Bank of the West $91,623 $127,896 -$36,273 -71.6%
Huntington $84,414 $47,214 $37,200 178.8%
1st Bank $68,458 $147,692 -$79,234 -46.4%
Banner $40,659 $6,138 $34,521 662.4%
Fifth Third $35,396 $79,445 -$44,049 -44.6%
PSECU $20,653 $183,767 -$163,114 -11.2%
Frost $16,336 $121,419 -$105,083 -13.5%
MidFirst $6,875 $38,192 -$31,317 -18.0%
Bank of Arizona $4,631 $90,901 -$86,270 -5.1%

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2. Keep a Close Eye on The Number of Keywords in Your AdWords Campaigns

In the past year, exactly half of the banks and credit unions studied by The Financial Brand cut the number of keywords they used in their Google AdWords campaigns, while the other half increased their keywords.

Among institutions who cut back on the number of keywords they manage, the average reduction was huge: 60.7% fewer search terms than in the prior year. For instance, USAA was using over 23,000 terms in 2014, but slashed that number down to only 3,400 in 2015. Bank of America and HSBC both cut the number of keywords by 43%.

However, one in five institutions in our study increased the number of keywords they manage by over 200%. PNC went from 9,800 to over 38,000 in the past year. Similarly SunTrust shot up from 6,283 to 32,741 — an increase of 421%.

Key Insight: The quickest way to inflate your Google AdWords budget is to go bananas with too many keywords. Most big banks are managing AdWords campaigns that use over 10,000 keywords — that’s a lot, and way too many for most smaller, community-based institutions. Just because a keyword worked for you last year doesn’t mean it’s still working for you today. People’s search behaviors change over time, along with the costs for those keywords. Bottom line? If you have too many keywords, you might be spending too much. But if you don’t use enough keywords, you could be leaving money on the table. Finding the right balance is tricky.

BankKeywords Used in 2015Keywords Used in 2014Net Change% Change
PNC 38,459 9,807 28,652 292.2%
Wells Fargo 34,639 35,405 -766 -2.2%
SunTrust 32,741 6,283 26,458 421.1%
Chase 32,693 25,187 7,506 29.8%
Schwab 22,690 11,833 10,857 91.8%
AmEx 21,683 16,409 5,274 32.1%
BofA 15,308 26,970 -11,662 -43.2%
Citizens 10,376 9,807 569 5.8%
HSBC 8,994 15,811 -6,817 -43.1%
Navy FCU 8,410 4,874 3,536 72.5%
Fifth Third 8,322 892 7,430 833.0%
Ally 7,556 5,107 2,449 48.0%
First Tennessee 5,852 1,876 3,976 211.9%
PenFed 5,560 8,710 -3,150 -36.2%
USAA 3,430 23,247 -19,817 -85.2%
Frost 3,242 5,846 -2,604 -44.5%
BMO Harris 1,977 1,601 376 23.5%
Huntington 1,915 1,091 824 75.5%
1st Bank 659 1,256 -597 -47.5%
Banner 526 20 506 2530.0%
First Niagara 489 739 -250 -33.8%
Bank of Arizona 346 487 -141 -29.0%
Bank of the West 280 574 -294 -51.2%
PSECU 280 1,260 -980 -77.8%
MidFirst 124 467 -343 -73.4%

3. Look at Your Budget and Keywords Separately

One third of financial institutions in our study reduced both their Google AdWords budget and the number of keywords they manage. But an almost equal number (28%) increased both variables. One in six institutions increased their budget but cut back on the number of keywords they manage, while a quarter reduced their budget and increased the number of keywords.

Key Insight: It’s a strategic mistake to lock your budget for paid search with the number of keywords you manage. If your CFO tells you that you’re spending too much on Google Adwords, you shouldn’t just come back with cuts to both the budget and keywords used. For instance, you might need to cut your budget while increasing the number of keywords in your campaign — e.g., replacing a few expensive search terms you ditched with clusters of other similar terms where there’s less competition. Similarly, you may choose to increase your budget but maintain the same number of keywords — e.g., allocating more money for your strongest performing search terms.


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4. Manage The Search Terms You Use Carefully

The good news? It looks like the cost for most search terms in the banking industry are going down — an average decrease of 27.7% per keyword since last year. Out of 20 search terms tracked by The Financial Brand, all but four cost less, with many terms costing less than 50% than they did one year ago. For instance, the cost for “checking account” dropped from $25.80 per click in 2014 to under $10 in 2015. Conversely, the cost for “mobile banking” nearly doubled, shooting up from $3.24 to just over $6 per click, a statistic that should surprise virtually no one in banking considering the meteoric rise of the mobile channel.

The bad news? Keywords in the financial sector are among the most expensive terms you can buy in the world of paid search. One study found that the top three most expensive Google keywords are financial — “insurance” (#1), “loans” (#2) and “mortgage” (#3) — with some advertisers paying over $44 per click for these terms.

Key Insight: You can refine the targeting for your search terms to maximize impact and minimize waste. For starters, you can control what time(s) your ads are shown (called “dayparting”). And if you’re a smaller, community-based institution, you can limit your campaigns to a specific geographic region to ensure you aren’t paying for ads outside your market (called “geotargeting”). You can even target ads to users on specific devices — desktop computers, tablets and or smartphones.

Search TermsCPC in 2015CPC in 2014Net Change% Change
business loan $18.02 $16.41 $1.61 9.8%
business checking $12.83 $23.26 -$10.43 -44.8%
refinance $12.06 $13.32 -$1.26 -9.5%
savings account $10.25 $18.70 -$8.45 -45.2%
home loan $9.72 $10.97 -$1.25 -11.4%
checking account $9.55 $25.80 -$16.25 -63.0%
cd rates $8.65 $12.29 -$3.64 -29.6%
credit score $8.38 $8.94 -$0.56 -6.3%
home equity loan $8.29 $10.19 -$1.90 -18.6%
mortgage $6.35 $6.38 -$0.03 -0.5%
credit card $6.13 $7.88 -$1.75 -22.2%
mobile banking $6.08 $3.24 $2.84 87.7%
mortgage rates $5.39 $6.95 -$1.56 -22.4%
personal loan $4.73 $4.63 $0.10 2.2%
motorcycle loan $4.26 $4.88 -$0.62 -12.7%
auto loan $4.24 $4.71 -$0.47 -10.0%
debit card $3.59 $6.59 -$3.00 -45.5%
boat loan $3.57 $2.12 $1.45 68.4%
car loan $3.53 $6.26 -$2.73 -43.6%
credit union $0.44 $4.33 -$3.89 -89.8%
direct deposit $0.44 $4.70 -$4.26 -90.6%

5. Massage Your Campaigns To Maximize Both Clicks and Conversions

It’s tempting for some financial marketers to dismiss Google AdWords as ineffective — e.g., “We tried it, and no one clicked on our ads.” The problem isn’t the platform, it’s your ads. You need to be constantly testing and refining your campaigns. For example, in one single campaign for the search term “auto loans,” you might run three or more different versions of ads — one that asks a question, another with an irresistible offer, and a third testing a powerful call-to-action like “compare rates now for free.”

Some financial marketers get plenty of clicks, but they aren’t seeing the number of conversions to justify their AdWords investment. If you’re having a tough time converting clickers into customers, then your landing pages probably need some work. If you’re pointing your ads at generic pages like, you are going to see far fewer conversions than you would if you used custom landing pages for your AdWords campaigns. Your keywords need to match your ads which need to match your landing page.

Key Insight: If you’re going to spend a ton of money on a Google AdWords strategy, you need to be optimizing your campaigns. This means testing. Invest the energy into developing multiple versions of ads and have them point at different landing pages.

6. Use Retargeting To Leverage Your AdWords Campaigns

Once you get someone on your site, you can use retargeting to follow them around the web. If a user clicked on your Google AdWords campaign for “auto loan,” you can set a cookie on their device that allows you to put more ads for auto loans in front of them. You can run ads on your own website, so that the next time that user comes back they are presented with more auto loan messaging, or you can use a third-party retargeting platform to display auto loan ads while they are browsing other sites on the web.

Key Insight: Consumers typically need to be exposed to a marketing message more than once before they take action. If you’re paying upwards of $5 per click to get people to your website, then leverage that investment with retargeting.

(*Note: All data collected in 2013, 2014 and 2015 using

Jeffry PilcherJoin over 1,500 of the brightest minds in banking at The Financial Brand Forum 2017 for three days loaded with the big ideas, strategic insights and latest innovations that are transforming the industry today. Hurry, the countdown is on! The conference kicks off May 17th. Don't wait, register now!

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  1. Hi – just letting you know your math isn’t right for percent change in the first table as it’s calculating percent of and not percent change. The other two tables are calculated correctly for percent change.

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