With all of the quality score initiatives that have been implemented by AdWords it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine exactly where your PPC ad will appear on any given search engine results page (SERP). Believe it or not, this quality-based ranking system is a step in the right direction, but this evolution has left some search engine marketers in the dark in regards to best practices for adjusting their ad position (i.e. rankings). There is a tool in AdWords that can remove some of the guesswork, and I’m here to help you use it effectively!

Back in “the day,” before the dawn of the Quality Score, you could bid-to-position which means you could see all of the running bids and then place your ad exactly where you wanted. This allowed for greater visibility in regards to rankings, but this also lead to very aggressive bidding wars. I prefer peace throughout the PPC landscape and I think Quality Score has served as the Sheriff that ran the riffraff out of Dodge (mostly). Now that we all live peacefully, we have to play nice (with Google and each other), but that doesn’t mean you can’t control your own destiny. Admittedly, the Quality Scores does make the ranking algorithm murky to navigate but there is a tool that can remove some of the mystery if you use it correctly: the Position Preference tool.

This is a setting you can activate at the campaign level. In theory, position preference allows greater control over your ad ranking, and it is moderately successful, but there are a few things to know before utilizing this tool. First, let’s go over the basics, and I’ll let Google tell you exactly how to launch position preference (from their help section):

To enable position preferences for a campaign, follow these steps:

  1. Sign in to your AdWords account.
  2. On the ‘Campaign Summary’ page, check the box to the left of any campaigns you want to enable for position preference.
  3. Click Edit Settings.
  4. Find the ‘Advanced Options’ section.
  5. Select the box next to ‘Enable position preferences.’
  6. Click Save Changes.

To set your position targets for your keywords:

  1. Return to the ‘Campaign Summary’ page.
  2. Click the name of a campaign to edit.
  3. Click an ad group within that campaign.
  4. On the ‘Ad Group Details’ page, make sure the Keywords tab is selected.
  5. Select the box next to any keywords for which you want to set position preferences.
  6. Click the Edit Keyword Settings button (located above the keyword list).
  7. On the ‘Edit Keyword Settings’ page, you’ll see a column in the center of the table labeled Position Preference.
  8. Use the pull-down menus in that column to choose the range you want for each keyword, from 1 to 10+. The left-hand number is the highest position you’d like your ad to take. The right-hand number is the lowest position your ad will take. (Remember, these are only preferences, not guarantees.)
  9. Click Save Changes.

Once you’ve set your preferences, you can view them from the main ‘Ad Group Details’ page by clicking ‘Settings’ next to each term in the Settings column. Your position preferences will remain in effect until you edit them or disable position preference for that campaign.

Be aware, position preference will not affect the way your ads are ranked. The usual AdWords ranking and relevance rules apply. Setting a preference for the a position does not mean your ad will be ranked there. Position preference simply means AdWords will try to show your ad whenever it is ranked in your preferred position, and avoid showing it when it is not. What does this mean? It means this tool does exactly what it says: it tells AdWords your preferred ad placement – but AdWords doesn’t have to adhere to your preference (come on, it’s Google, they can do whatever they want!).

Okay, now you know how to turn everything on, let’s talk about actually making it work! Here are some helpful tips when using position preference:

  • Your ad rank is still governed by your bid. We have not eradicated your bid! We’re just adding another layer on to it.
  • Begin with a broad preference, then zero in. Initially, set your preferences with a wide range. If I’m looking for positions 3-5, I would start with a preference of 3-8, and then fine tune as I go.
  • If your bid is too low, your ads will stop displaying completely. Let’s say that you want to be ranked between positions 3-5 (those are the positions with the best ROI for you). If your bid is set too low (below the average bid for positions 3-5), your ads won’t show at all. Let me repeat that: if your bid is below what it costs to be in your preferred positions, your ads won’t show at all. This happens because AdWords is trying to display your ads where you prefer, and if it can’t accommodate you, your ads aren’t displayed. Be aware!
  • Don’t bid $0.10 and expect the world. Like I said above, low bids will cause your ads not to display. So, don’t be silly and place a $0.10 bid, set your preference to #1, and expect the world. That won’t happen. This tool is for honing your placement, not gaming the system (come on, Google is smarter than that!).
  • An extremely high bid can circumvent your preference. There may be a number of advertisers who want to be in positions 3-5. If there are, then someone has to get bumped. If your bid is high enough to put it in a higher position, say positions 1-2, then that’s what will happen. To mitigate this, you need to monitor your ad placement and if it is continually above your preferred rank, lower your bid (but not too much!).
  • Give AdWords enough time to propagate your preferences. Once you set this all in motion, you need to give AdWords enough time to determine how your bid and preference will interact with each. You need to give it at least 48 hours, perhaps 72.

Position preference helps remove some of the guesswork when determining your ad rank but, as you can see, there is still a bit of mystery to solve. In summary, set your preferences to where you want to be; set your bid high enough to get you there; and adjust accordingly. You will get there eventually.