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A Real-Life Analysis of Paid Search Ads: Senior Living Edition

While there is no “perfect” way to run a paid search campaign, there are definitely some best practices that should be followed. There’s a lot that goes into a profitable paid search campaign (and some mistakes that can drastically reduce performance, costing you precious marketing dollars) which is why it’s crucial to occasionally take a step back and take a “big picture” view. This allows you to see what competitors are doing and where your campaign strategy might be missing the mark.

As a digital marketing strategist who advertises online to boomers and seniors through paid search, I thought a senior living paid search campaign would be a good example to use for a real life analysis. So, I went to Google, typed in a few senior living keywords, and deconstructed what I found (but didn’t actually click on any of the ads!). Below is my analysis, complete with takeaways that will hopefully enable you to improve your PPC campaign targeted toward boomers or seniors.

While evaluating the below ads, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

  • I am searching on Google from my laptop in Frederick, MD. This matters because my physical location is a factor in determining which ads I see.
  • A generic search like “senior living” is very broad; it can be a successful strategy if other targeting (and exclusion) methods are also thoughtfully and correctly implemented.
  • This analysis is based on ads for senior living communities, and location matters. These points don’t necessarily apply to products or services that don’t have brick and mortar locations.

The First Search: senior living

For my first search, I went with a broad keyword. There are a few things a user might hope to get from this type of search:

  1. Informational results – a general summary of what senior living is.
  2. Local results – a senior living community near you. “Near” is relative, but when doing paid search for senior living, we typically consider a “reasonable driving distance” (depending on the city) to qualify as “nearby.” As a side note, we also consider the level of care involved – for 55+, active or independent senior living, potential residents might be willing to drive farther.

Now, consider the below results you get from this search if you’re physically located in Frederick, MD, and you Google “senior living” (and you don’t type in any location modifiers):


Now, let’s examine each, one by one!

The first ad:


First, the number one rule in paid search is to use the keywords (the searched term) in the ad copy! This ad loses points because I don’t see “senior living” in there anywhere.
Second, Virginia? Well, that’s a big state. Technically, I can drive to Virginia within a half hour, but this ad is not very informative. Where in Virginia are the communities located? We can’t tell from the ad copy.

While the ad does get bonus points for using some ad extensions, I would probably pass by this ad if there were another ad that spoke to me more clearly or was obviously more relevant. Or, on the flip side, if I did click the ad because I was willing to drive to northern Virginia, but clicked to then find out that all of the Virginia communities were outside of my preferred driving range, Del Webb just lost money on an unqualified click. I used up part of their marketing budget because they failed to “prequalify” me before I clicked on the ad.

The takeaway: Use keywords in the ad copy and be specific when referencing location.

The second ad:


With this next ad (B), the ad is using the old, shorter ad copy, so there’s not much to it. It does use my search term in the ad copy, but I can’t tell much else from the ad. As it turns out, this community is actually located in Evanston, IL.

What’s likely happening here is:

  1. The community is getting clicks from all over the country because searchers don’t know ahead of time where the community is located (unless they deduce from the URL, but that’s a stretch) so the community is paying for a lot of irrelevant clicks, or
  2. The ad is showing repeatedly (accruing a lot of impressions) without getting clicks, which isn’t good either. This causes a low click-through rate (CTR), which reduces the quality scores for the advertiser, which increases the cost-per-click that the community has to pay.

Neither scenario is good for the advertiser/senior living community OR the searcher in Frederick, MD.

The takeaway: If you’re using broad match keywords, double-check your geo-targeting. Again, reference location in the ad copy.

The third ad:


With this next ad (C), it uses ad extensions to give us a lot of information. This ad could appeal to someone who is searching generally, or just beginning a search, but it doesn’t speak to location at all. The main reason for the “mad emoji” is because this is one of the major advertisers (a directory) that smaller advertisers often must compete with, which drives up the cost per click for the “little guys.”

The bigger advertisers have enough money to be a little more reckless with their marketing dollars, so they can afford to get less qualified clicks. But for an individual community or small system of retirement communities doing paid search, it’s essential for campaigns to be extremely targeted and relevant to ensure that the ads are being shown to qualified potential residents (and not being shown to irrelevant/unqualified searchers).

The takeaway: Directories will show in paid search results, making you pay more to play – so make sure your ads are high quality and do a good job of prequalifying users!

The fourth ad:


The last ad, (D), is again using the shorter ad format, but it does get a few redeeming points for using a location extension. Here, they have linked the search ad to their claimed Google My Business local business listing. This is helpful to the user because it gives an indication of where the community is located, but the rest of the ad is pretty underwhelming.

Consider this: users first read the left part of the headline, and then the right part of the headline; then, they scan the URL. It’s essential to get the headline right and make it as informational as possible! In this situation, we haven’t learned much from the headline and URL. Speaking of which, what is Riderwood? Could that be a city? It’s likely the name of the community, but it’s a little irrelevant to the searcher in this scenario. That would have been a great place to put /SilverSpringMD.

The takeaway: Link your AdWords campaign to your claimed Google My Business listing.

The Second Search: senior living bethesda md

Now, for this next set of ads, let’s say I’m an adult child searching for my father who lives in Bethesda, MD, and is considering a move to a senior living community, but only if it’s in the Bethesda area. So, from my desk in Frederick, MD, I search, “senior living Bethesda, MD.” Below are the results.


So, what did these ads get right and wrong?

Let’s start at the top.

The first ad:


It shouldn’t be surprising that the first ad (A) gets my winning vote right off the bat. It immediately speaks to my search query, “senior living Bethesda, MD,” and it encourages me to discover the community and see how they are doing things differently. Sounds appealing!

It goes on to use ad extensions to give me additional information, and it even includes a review from the Washington Post (this gives the ad validity, and increases the trustworthiness factor).

As a side note, in this particular situation, sitelink extensions are used to link to various pages of the community’s main website. In some cases, especially with independent living where people want to see photos, floor plans, learn about the amenities, etc., it can work to send paid search traffic to the main site. However, it’s also important to test a landing page (a single page, focused experience with no “navigation” or other distractions, and one single goal in mind – to get the user to fill out the form). What’s important is to test, test, test!

The takeaway: Keywords, location, ad extensions are all properly and effectively used. This ad is awesome.

The second ad:


The second ad (B) is relevant to the search query, “senior living Betheseda MD,” but it’s from another “big guy” directory. Again, the ad does a really good job of taking up “real estate” in the search results with its many ad extensions and it provides a lot of detailed information.

At the same time, though, it’s pretty boring and gets a little redundant. It generally gives me the impression that if I were to click, I’d be in for a lot of work, faced with sorting through a lot of options.

The takeaway: The upside of competing against the “big guys” is that your community or business has the opportunity to stand out and really speak to the user with carefully-crafted ad copy.

The third ad:


With the next ad, (C), let’s just keep in mind that, especially with senior living, it’s really important to consider the audience and subject matter and write the ad copy so that it is respectful and speaks to the searcher. The ad seems to strive to strike an emotional/empathetic chord with the second part of the headline, but then goes on to be enthusiastic in the rest of the ad copy, which seems like a disconnect.

Also, who’s to say that the searcher isn’t looking for his or her own move? In that case, “Mom” just really doesn’t make sense and could even be offensive. This may be more appropriate for a paid search ad for memory care, where it’s more likely to be the adult child searching but, even then, it could be a spouse doing the search, so “Mom” wouldn’t apply. Overall, it’s probably best to avoid potentially alienating users that otherwise may have been drawn to your ad.

The takeaway: Consider your target audience and stay consistent/appropriate with the tone of the ad copy.

The third ad:


For the last ad (D), the headline includes the words “senior living,” but doesn’t speak to location, and the ad repeats the brand name three times (twice in the headline and once in the URL). The “/senior” in the display URL? Not all that helpful, either.

Ah, it’s beautiful and located in Rockville which is, admittedly, close to Bethesda. But there’s no call to action, encouraging the user to click! Overall, this ad just doesn’t do much.

The takeaway: Use the massive amount of space in the new Expanded Text Ads to effectively communicate helpful, relevant information to searchers.

So, there you have it: eight real life search ads – the good, the bad, and the ones that are likely costing communities lots of wasted marketing dollars.

I encourage you to do a similar experiment – put yourself in the shoes of your target audience and Google something you’d expect a prospect to search. What comes up? Is your ad in the mix and, if so, how does it compare? Ideally, it’s good news, but if there’s room for improvement, I hope that these examples have been inspirational for your own paid search campaigns.

Have any questions about how to design your own paid search ads to reach the right seniors? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch online, or at 301-631-9277.

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