Unicorn DNA: What All the Best AdWords Advertisers Have in Common

Larry Kim
Larry Kim



unicornDo you believe in unicorns? As an AdWords advertiser, you might be surprised to learn that unicorns walk among us, stealing away impressions and outpacing our performance by two, three, or even six times!

AdWords unicorns are fantastical, magical creatures, accounting for the top 1% of all ad clicks in the auction. How do the unicorns do it?

We recently analyzed over 100,000 Google AdWords accounts representing $3 billion in annualized spend, in order to identify the traits and characteristics of these standout advertisers.

What does it take to be an AdWords unicorn?

Our research has given us a pretty accurate idea of the CTRs real advertisers are experiencing. In the following chart, we've plotted the average (expected) CTR in orange, for each of the top ad positions:


For example, the average CTR for an ad in the top position is just under 6%. If you were achieving a 6% CTR, you would consider that good, right? Yet that's only average! Some advertisers consider even 2-4% CTRs decent, but the opportunity to aim much higher is there.

As you can see by the proliferation of blue dots (each accounting for a single advertiser account, not an individual ad) some advertisers are outperforming the average by far. Those in the very upper echelon, seeing exponentially higher CTRs, are clearly doing something right. Even in the third position, we see an advertiser account with an average CTR nearing 18%, while his average competitor in that position is stuck way down at 3%.

This is an AdWords unicorn, winning CTRs six times higher than the average.

In the chart above, you can also see the curve required to outperform the average by two or three times. We call those getting 2x CTRs “Awesome Advertisers”; these account for the top 15% of ads in the auction. The top 5%, which we'll call “Super Awesome Advertisers,” are getting 3x CTRs. The very top of the heap -- the crème de la crème, getting 6x higher than average CTRs and making up the top 1% of ads -- these are AdWords unicorns.

Now that we know what a unicorn looks like, we can deconstruct it and see what these exceptional advertisers have in common, in order to produce unicorn ads of our own:

1) Unicorn Accounts Have High Quality Scores Across All Keywords

Quality Score (QS) is one of the AdWords metrics that correlates most strongly with PPC success. Higher QS generally leads to lower costs per click and costs per conversion, as well as better ad placement. In "How to Save Up to 50% on Your PPC With Quality Score," I explain why spending your time optimizing for QS is definitely a worthwhile investment.


In our analysis, we found that the average QS is just 5.1 out of 10; this is a massive opportunity for advertisers willing to put forth the effort!

2) They Reduce Wasted Spend With Negative Keywords

Again, this is a massive opportunity that is sorely underutilized by advertisers. The top AdWords advertisers are incredibly effective at reducing wasted spend through the use of negative keywords. However, we also know that 25% of advertisers aren't using them at all.

Back in September, we looked at ways to reduce wasted AdWords spend, and it's worth revisiting. Failing to exclude specific keywords in your campaigns results in irrelevant, non-converting clicks.

budget-chart3) They Let Google Do Some of the Work for Them

Oh, those clever unicorns. These guys are winning the lion's share of impressions, literally stealing opportunities for clicks away from their competitors. See the example at right, where the advertiser is appearing for 89% of searches relevant to their ads. That's huge!

They understand that Google really and truly wants to show highly relevant, engaging, quality ads to searchers. If the ads they serve up aren't a good fit, people don't click and Google doesn't make their money. Get Google on your side, serving up more of your ads more often -- and in better positions -- by chasing unicorns and aiming to be way more than average.

4) They Target High-Intent, Long-tail Keywords

The top 1% of AdWords accounts lean toward long-tail keywords with high commercial intent. They're chasing the people who are in the right frame of mind to convert and have indicated as much through their query. They avoid non-specific or informational queries and instead focus on branded and local keywords, where the intent is evident.

5) They Write Ads That Don't Suck

Most AdWords ads just flat out suck. They're boring, unemotional, and not persuasive.

Top advertisers seek out those opportunities, where all of the top ranking ads are similarly boring and sucky. I call this an AdWords Jackpot -- you can walk in there with your killer ad copy and own the results if you can come up with a more emotional, compelling ad.

On that note, try Perry Marshall's Swiss Army Knife structured brainstorming process to help you identify the most powerful triggers for your target market and understand how your brand can tap into them.

Bonus Tip: Cut the Dead Weight – Unicorns Don't Have Baggage

It's a little-known fact, but in any given account, 5% of the ads account for 85% of the impressions. Top AdWords advertisers are skilled in letting go of the underperformers, which they identify through rigorous testing that can have them comparing hundreds of ads at a time.

You don't have to go at this full-time to get to that level of testing, though. Start small and spend a few hours a week testing, copywriting, and optimizing your account.

Remember, unicorns aren't common; only 1 in every 100 will ever reach this status. This means you need to start testing more ad variations, more often, in order to pick winners to build out on.

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