Marketing Fail: Merrill Lynch PPC Audit [+ Video Review]

Written by: Chenell Basilio

There are many ways to screw up an AdWords or search engine marketing campaign. You can leave things out, put the wrong kind of information there, not set up tracking, and a million other things.

I wanted to prove to you that no campaign is perfect, and every business needs to be iterating on their current campaign performance. To do this, I’m going to take one of the largest financial companies in the world and show you how many opportunities even they have for improving their digital marketing and website experience.

Big Companies Aren’t Perfect Either

Merrill Lynch is the wealth management division of Bank of America, and was reported to have pulled in $15.2 billion dollars in revenue in 2014. Yes, they bring in BILLIONS of dollars in revenue each year.

They are practically a household name in the U.S. so at this point and one would expect them to have a very polished process for practically everything they do. Yet, as you’ll soon find out, they have a lot of opportunities to improve the user experience of their website and ad campaigns.

Budget Isn’t Everything

I often hear people say that they don’t have a large enough budget to run any advertising campaign, let alone a great one. Merrill Lynch made billions of dollars last year, and even they have a lot of room for improvement.

It’s not solely about the budget, it’s about how much effort you put into creating a great campaign. Often, the smaller companies can be more nimble and respond better to changing trends and user preferences – always look at the silver lining in your situation.

Merrill Lynch’s Mobile Ad Campaign

Here is a screenshot I took of Merrill Lynch’s mobile branded advertising campaign:

 merrill lynch mobile adwords campaign

At first glance it seems to be pretty decent right?

They have their locations included, a phone number, the option to call, and even some sitelinks to drive people to other pages.

merrill lynch google ads campaign

How Many Things Can Really Be Improved Upon? google campaign

Like I said, at first glance it seems like a strong campaign. Remember, a customer doesn’t only care about the first glance, they are going to be interacting with the ad so you have to make sure that the pages on the other end of the ad are also strong.

Let’s take a deeper look at this campaign.

There are two options presented to the user in the sitelinks:

1. Find An Office Near You

2. Find An Advisor

It’s a great idea to offer your users some flexibility and options to help them find you. However, if you are going to offer it, it’s a good idea to follow through on that offer.

In this case, when you click on either link you are taken to this page:

mobile contact form ml.comYes, the page allows you to search by location or by name. However, it could be made easier by including an anchor link that defaults the page to the “Search by Location” section if they click on the “Find an Office Near You” sitelink.

At first glance, I wouldn’t see the location search option, only the Find an Advisor part.

Removing barriers between the user and the information they are looking for will increase the likelihood of them continuing through your site. Adding an anchor link to the page and then changing the link in AdWords can take all of ten minutes, and provide your visitors with a much better experience.

I would also include a line of text in the search box so they know how you’d like them to enter the location information. Should I be entering a zip code, a city name, an address?

contact form mobile

After some experimentation it appears that the search seems to handle all three, but the user wouldn’t know that at first glance.

The phone number they give you to call on the page is not clickable – that’s a mobile experience FAIL and is definitely a missed opportunity.

Back to the search box, I went through what a user would do if they were looking for a location.

Here are the main issues I found:

  • They don’t let you know what kind of input they are looking for (city, zip code, etc.)
  • The map spans the entire page, so when I tried scrolling down the page to see the addresses, it just kept moving the map
  • There is text hidden behind the addresses
  • The distance in mileage has 4 decimal places to the right, which is a little excessive but not a huge issue
  • The phone numbers aren’t clickable in the search results
  • They don’t include a “use my current location” option
  • Why not just use Google Maps for this branch locator?

That was not exactly a great mobile experience. You might be thinking, well there are three nearby locations that Google showed you on the original ad, who cares if their mobile location finder isn’t working?

Here is why it matters:

1. This is the same location finder their organic traffic would need to use. If someone went right to to find a location, they would need to use this service.

2. What if I’m at work or on vacation and wondering where the nearest location is to my home? I’d need to use that application to help me find an office because the search results will show me locations where I am now not where I will be when I need an advisor.

3. Because, why have the option at all if it doesn’t work??

Mobile Branch Page

merrill philly branchI made it to the page for the location nearest me. While this appeared to be the only Philadelphia location, the page title has a “-2” on the end of it which looks a bit unpolished. This isn’t the most important change I would make, however the page would look a bit more professional without it.

Below the page title is a very large, blurry image of a woman. There is no caption as far as I can tell which makes me wonder why this is even here. This image is large enough that it takes up the remainder of the initial screen shown to the user.

For location based pages, a fix could be to put the branch information (phone number, address, etc.) at the top of the page so if someone goes to visit that location they will have that information up front.

An image of the office can help the visitor imagine themselves being at the location, which may help get them there in the first place.

Underneath the large image of the mystery woman, they included a full list of advisors that work in that office. This is a decent idea, but this page might be better utilized by explaining services available, images of the location itself, what this office can help you with, and then a link to a new page that has all of the branch agents listed there.

This page also includes two larger paragraphs that aren’t exactly “scannable” for the user on a mobile phone. There are no bulleted lists, bold or italic fonts, and the text is awfully small.

The Mobile Home Page

After looking at this branch page, I tried navigating over to the home page from the menu at the top of the screen. I clicked “Home” and got this:

merrill lynch error

This is definitely not a good experience for the user. I think you can see what I mean when I say that, regardless of the size of the company, there are always things that can be improved upon.

The Desktop Experience

I’m going to pull up the same pages in a desktop setting so we can see the differences/similarities.

Remember that services page that almost looked like a testimonials page? Here is what it looks like on desktop.merrill lynch services mobile

In my opinion? It looks quite messy.

Again, the headings don’t really stand out, so my eyes are left wandering all over the page confused about what I’m looking at.

I took a few graphic design classes in college and I have a feeling my professor would get a headache from this page. There is trapped white space, inconsistent spacing between the blocks, and just too much going on in general.

I also feel like I’m playing that game, “Unblock Me.”


blocks    unblock me game

Look, maybe this is a page they heavily tested and it’s working for them – it’s hard to believe that, but it wouldn’t be the first time a website test proved someone wrong.

The final thing I’ll be picky about with their ad, is the last sitelink extension: Work With Us.

Work with you? That makes me think I’ll be taken to a career page to get hired by Merrill Lynch. In this case, it’s actually their way of trying to get you as a customer.

The Work With Us pages work great for B2B companies because both parties are actually “working.” I’m not sure this would convert well for a company looking to get clients. But hey, I could be wrong!

The Organic Results

While we are focusing on their Google Adwords campaign, organic search results shouldn’t be overlooked. Many current customers and prospects are going to see these results as well, so it’s a good idea to keep the experience polished and user-friendly.

These links below the organic result are also called Sitelinks, and you have some flexibility over what shows, but not as much as you do with an AdWords campaign. You can “Demote” a sitelink through Google Search Console, but can’t exactly select what Google replaces it with. It’s something you do have to fiddle with a bit, but again, you do have some control over these.

Here are the main results on the Google search results page for the “Merrill Lynch” keyword. organic seo

1. To me, this is a lackluster, non-specific description. Why not call out how many advisors they have, or how many clients you serve as a way to include some social proof? A call to action would be nice here as well. Meta descriptions should include a call to action to get people to click through, while giving them an idea of what the page is about and how it could help them.

2. This description sounds like it was created for a robot, and includes a 7 digit number that makes no sense to the user. It’s important to remember who is going to be seeing this text.

It might make sense to include something like: “Log into your Merrill Lynch account to manage your wealth today.”

3. If you couldn’t tell by now, I am not a fan of this “-2” on the end of the location name. Also, it’s capitalized while the rest of the page titles are not. This can easily be changed by updating the title tag of the page.

4. Who is Peter Rohr and why should I care?

5. Is this one of the six most important pages we should be seeing when searching for Merrill Lynch? If so, capitalize the company names and tell us what they do.

The Desktop Branch Page

merrill branch philadelphia

The blue background on the sidebar not covering all of the information is making my OCD-meter spike to the red. Was it so hard to get it behind the entire length of the text?

Here is the least I would do to this page to at least make sure people understand who this woman is and why she is the featured image here.

desktop branch philadelphia ml

Why QA Testing is Important

Often times, companies set up their mobile pages via a third party company who creates a mobile version, or they have a UX designer create the pages. They often look very nice, but it takes some deep QA (quality assurance) testing by some internal folks and even customer testing to make sure everything is working properly.

This often ends up being a lot shorter process than it needs to be, leaving some bugs in the experience that you wouldn’t know about unless someone takes the time to complain, or you see a large drop in your analytics.

Even if you do great testing at the beginning, as changes are made and as time passes elements of your website will break. It’s a good idea to regularly go through the website as a user would. Even spending a few minutes a week just navigating through the site looking for issues can really help.

I like to set up 30 minutes on my schedule each week for this process alone, and I quickly go through client websites to make sure their experience is functioning in a user-friendly way.

Many of these issues can be found in that short amount of time. There are a lot of seemingly small issues with that mobile site that can truly have a large impact on a user’s experience.

“Set It and Forget It” Is a Bad Strategy

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to an AdWords campaign and websites in general. With the amount of mobile visitors climbing steadily each year, it’s getting more important than ever to make sure your mobile ad campaigns and mobile website is usable and friendly for your visitors.

Otherwise, you are leaving money on the table and potentially hurting your brands image.

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