Google ads are PPC ads, which means you need to bid on an ad auction to get a listing in the search results, on YouTube, in the display network, or anywhere else in their structure.
When you put in an ad bid, you’re bidding on an ad auction. However, unlike a traditional auction that happens once and has a fixed set of results, Google’s ad auction is constantly ongoing. It’s a tiny lightning-fast auction every time someone searches Google/YouTube for a keyword with ads targeting it.
Considering Google handles over 5.5 billion searches every day, that’s a lot of ad auctions!
Trying to administer these as real auctions would be infeasible. Instead, it’s all handled by programmatic and algorithmic systems. Your bid, bidding style, and various factors about your ads account and links all factor into it. When a search happens, the auction processes as a simple data query, with the auction winners displayed as ads.
These auctions are silent and constantly happen in the background. That’s fine, but it means you aren’t part of the process beyond establishing the parameters you use to bid. There’s no ad auction report or a results receipt and nothing to indicate where you’re falling in the auction process. If you’re being outbid, Google won’t tell you; you have to figure it out.
The question is, how can you figure it out?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell if you’re being outbid. You need to look for signs of the issue and analyze each situation individually.
Let’s get started!
One potential sign that you may be outbid on your ads is if you’re maxing out your bids on your ads.
When you bid on the ad auctions, you set a cap for the amount you’re willing to spend. Then, Google determines which advertiser is willing to pay the most and picks that one as the winner – so does everyone else bidding on that keyword.
Google charges you the minimum possible to outbid competitors, rather than just taking the maximum you offer. For example, if you bid $3 per click, you’ll often find that you’re only ever actually spending $1.51 per click because your top competitor has capped their bit at $1.50. You pay a penny more to outbid them. How nice of them, right?
So, if you’re maxing out your bid, there’s a chance that someone else has a higher bid cap, so they’re willing to pay more to outbid you.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a sure-fire sign. This support thread shows that sometimes you’ll be outbid even though you aren’t maxing out your bid cap.
That’s because Google’s ad auction isn’t limited to pure money. Otherwise, the most prominent brands could dominate every search result, and smaller businesses would have no recourse.
Google’s ad auction also factors in two other elements.
So, a competitor with a more closely-aligned ad and a better performance history can outbid you, even though they aren’t paying more than you.
So, if your bidding is hitting its cap, it can indicate that you’re being outbid. But, just because you’re not hitting your bid cap doesn’t mean you’re not being outbid. Does that make sense?
Another way you can see if you’re being outbid in Google ads is to run Google searches for the keywords you’re targeting and look at the ads that show up.
If you see ads for competitors over yours – or don’t even see yours – it’s a good indication that you’re being outbid.
Google recommends against this. Here’s why:
When you search for your keywords on Google, Google shows you the ads that would appear. This test gives all of those ads an impression, including your own. Now, you’re faced with a choice. Do you click your ad or not?
If you click your ad, you’re paying for that click from the same IP address and device that manages your account. And, of course, you’ll be billed for that click, even though there’s zero chance you’re going to convert. This practice is a form of ad fraud and can have serious repercussions, ranging from lowering your account quality score to having your ads account banned. If you haven’t reviewed the Google Ad terms and conditions in a while, you can find that page here.
If you don’t click your ad, you’re lowering your clickthrough rate, hurting your overall metrics, making your ad incrementally worse, and impacting all ads on your account. Moreover, Google dynamically adjusts ad results according to user behavior. If you frequently search for your keywords but never click your ads, Google will stop showing them to you, even if they still appear for other people. You might think you have a severe problem when it’s just Google customized search results.
“We know it’s tempting, but it’s best to resist the urge to search on Google.com to check your position. By performing searches that trigger your ad, you’ll accumulate impressions without clicks, lowering your clickthrough rate and preventing your ad from appearing as often as it should. Also, if you repeatedly look for your ad using Google search but never click on it, you might stop seeing it entirely. That’s because Google’s system stops showing you ads that it thinks you aren’t interested in.” – Google.
Doing this once or twice isn’t going to kill your account, but it swiftly adds up when you’re running ads for thousands of keywords and want to check them all.
Still, that can run into both the click fraud and the clickthrough rate issues mentioned above. Some users may avoid some of this by using incognito searches, which removes personalization from your searches, so Google can’t use your account history to tailor your searches. They may also try using different browsers, searching via a VPN, or otherwise anonymizing your traffic. Still, these tactics aren’t foolproof – Google collects far more data than we give them credit for. If your browser, screen resolution, cookies, Google login, and other metrics are similar, changing your IP isn’t going to fool them.
It’s best to avoid interacting with your ads altogether.
What can you do instead? Google offers a tool called the Ad Preview and Diagnosis Tool. This feature simulates the ad auction and generates results without charging anyone involved or accumulating impressions.
It’s essentially a simulated version of the search and will show you your ads and how they will appear for visitors on Google in a safe and compliant way.
When you simulate a search using this tool, competitors who also bid on that keyword will show up, and it’s easy to see your ad position.
The trouble with this is that ads are served on a highly individualized basis. Google considers not just the bid and the account quality score but the keyword variation, the behavior of the user in the past, and a lot more. There are even ad rank thresholds to consider, which can mean your ads won’t even show up despite a relatively open playing field.
In general, it’s tough to make a single determination about how your ads are ranking. There are so many different factors that any two people searching for the same keyword simultaneously can have different results based on their history of searching.
Google doesn’t want to give you a report on your ad position, ad rank, or whether or not you’re being outbid. Truthfully, you’re constantly being outbid and always outbidding the competition, as long as there’s competition for the keyword. Rather than try to explain all of this and disclose information that would allow advertisers to game the system, Google doesn’t reveal it.
This fact might be shocking to some of you if you’ve time-traveled from 2019. Google used to how “average position” in your ad reports. They decided to retire that metric and replace it with four others. The “new” metrics are all related to impressions when your ads are in the top set of results, but they don’t say anything about your position beyond “is above organic results, or not.”
If you can’t see when you’re being outbid, and you can never predict the outcome of an ad auction due to user behavior factors, what can you do to try to ensure the top spot in the ad listing no matter what?
There’s no way to guarantee the top spot aside from setting an astronomically high price. Someone who doesn’t like your brand and has avoided you a lot in the past will never see your ad at the top, no matter how much you spend. Someone who keeps reporting your ads will probably stop seeing them.
That said, you can still do a few things to encourage higher-positioned ads.
1. Bid more. This strategy only works if you’re capping your bid already, and your bid cap is the primary factor holding your ads back. This situation isn’t going to be the case very often. Also, make sure you can afford it if you increase your bid cap. Note that the ad reserve price might be high enough that your bid doesn’t reach it in some cases, and your ads never show. If that’s the case, you’ll need to increase your bid to even have a chance at appearing.
2. Improve your quality score. Your quality score is comprised of your ad’s relevance to the query, your landing page’s experience, and your clickthrough rate. Improve any one of – or all three of – these metrics to improve your quality score.
3. Narrow your keyword targeting. One way to increase relevance and clickthrough rate is to narrow what you’re targeting such that your ads are even more tightly aligned. Yes, this means you might need ten with different narrow targeting options instead of one ad set, but that’s the price you have to pay for relevance.
4. Use ad extensions. Ad extensions are additional information you can include in an ad, like a phone number, location, certain services (like a free delivery), site links for your page, or a price listing. Using these can make your ads more attractive to users, boosting clickthrough rates.
In the end, we’re all just doing the best we can with the data we have.
Google hasn’t shown a “one results page fits all” unified search result since at least 2016. Search results are tailored to everything from your geographic location to your past behavior. You can simultaneously win and lose the ad auction for the same keyword simultaneously because different people with different histories are searching for that keyword.
All you can do is do the best you can. Constantly work to improve your ad quality, clickthrough rates, and targeting. Constant, incremental improvement is the only way to ensure continued success. Only then can you have a shot at “guaranteeing” that you’ll win the ad auctions and won’t be outbid, at least not as often as you could be.