Optimize your Non-branded Search Campaigns in Six Steps

Search engine marketers lucky enough to work on campaigns for well-known brands rely heavily on branded search terms that convert well and cost relatively little. Branded search terms are often the stars of digital marketing, because they provide brands and agencies a way to prove the effect of large-scale traditional awareness campaigns.

Non-branded search marketing, by comparison, can be tough. It’s more expensive and typically has lower conversion rates. So why do it at all? Well, because your competitors are. And, unless you’re a brand like Pepsi or McDonald’s, there’s a portion of your ideal audience who is preparing to buy, but doesn’t know your brand—those are the consumers you want to reach.

Branded and non-branded strategies serve two different objectives. While branded terms consistently provide ROAS (return on ad spend), non-branded terms cast a wider net, boost impression share, get your brand into the consideration set, and lead to new acquisitions that otherwise would have gone to a competitor.

The non-branded “pool” is exponentially deeper than the branded pool, so there are some critical concepts to grasp prior to jumping in headfirst and blowing your budget.


  • Safely test your non-branded terms using consumers who know you.

Authors for both Search Engine Land1 and Search Engine Watch2 cite Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RSLA) as a top tip for testing non-branded terms. RSLA allows you to target your search ads to searchers who have already been to your website. You can assume these searchers are lower in the sales funnel and easier to convert because they know your brand, making them prime testing for key phrases before serving them up to “strangers.” Only take top-performing key phrases over to your traditional non-branded campaigns.


  • Go beyond the product name: People don’t search that way.

It’s tempting to just use a handful of industry-familiar product name variations as your key phrases. As a garage door manufacturer, for instance, you might instinctively begin with the phrases garage doors, insulated garage doors, and faux wood garage doors, and call it a day. However, consumers at different points in the research process don’t always search this way.

Consumers will often search for solutions to a problem, common symptoms, how-tos, and FAQs before specifically searching for a product. Thinking in this way will help you to identify niche key phrases that may have lower traffic, but often have less competition. Some examples for our garage door manufacturer:

  • How much does a garage door cost?
  • Broken garage door
  • How to fix a garage door opener
  • How to paint a garage door
  • How to replace a garage door
  • Drafty garage
  • Cold garage fixes
  • How to insulate a garage
  • Types of garage doors
  • Wooden garage door dealers
  • Make garage doors secure



  • Localize, even if you’re not local.

Thought leaders have long been shouting the power of localization from the rooftops. Not only does the localization of paid search campaigns raise conversion rates and lower cost per lead,3 it’s one of the easiest ways to create niche relevancy in your ad creative. Google reports that searches conducted with “local intent” have increased 34-fold since 2011,3 so why, as a digital marketer, wouldn’t you capitalize on this trend?

At Balihoo, we meet marketers all the time who perceive local paid search (where the targeting, ad copy, and landing page are all customized to the city or zip code level) as being too difficult to execute. And it is—unless you automate. A platform like Balihoo can absorb your list of locations and their attributes, and spit out tens of thousands of local search campaigns overnight.


Brands without brick-and-mortar locations are also benefiting from localizing their non-branded search campaigns. How does that work, you ask? Smart brands, even ecommerce brands, are focusing their non-branded paid search efforts on geographical regions where their brand name is more recognizable. This can be uncovered through brand lift surveys, or simply by looking at geographies with higher than average purchase rate per capita.


  • Learn from your competitors: It’s not cheating, but it feels like it.

If your competitors are already bidding on non-branded terms, chances are they’ve learned a thing or two along the way and have subsequently changed their creatives or key phrases. You can sneak a peek at who has bid on your key phrases in the past, what they have spent each month, and what their ad copy said using tools such as SEMRush Keyword Ad History or Google AdWords Auction Insights.


Screenshot courtesy of SEMRush



  • Use branded search terms to help build unbranded keywords

Brooke St. Marie, a digital services specialist at Balihoo, recommends extending the time you already spend analyzing branded search queries to your non-branded keyword set. “When I see a desirable search query in a customer’s branded ad groups, I create it as a keyword on the unbranded side. If it’s not desirable, I add it to the negative keyword list. This process kills two birds with one stone.”

For example, you may see that “Acme handheld hammer” is driving clicks to your branded ad groups. If this is a keyword you never realized was a popular search term, it makes sense to test it out in your new un-branded campaigns as “handheld hammers.”


  • Measure separately from branded terms

Remember when I mentioned that branded and non-branded terms serve different objectives? To get a clear view of how each strategy is performing independently, you should report them separately against those objectives. Otherwise, you’re muddying your view and not giving yourself credit for the unique strategies applied to non-branded terms.


  1. Search Engine Watch, Brand vs. Non-Brand: Measurement Is Key, 2015
  2. Search Engine Land, The Key To Optimizing Non-Branded Paid Search Campaigns, 2015
  3. Report: Why a Local Search Strategy is Critical for National Brands, Balihoo, 2016