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July 6, 2007

PPC Triage – Figuring Out What Ails Your Paid Search Campaign

One of the compelling things about paid search marketing is that it’s extremely easy to start and manage a campaign. Search campaigns can be launched in mere minutes on all the top engines. So not only is it easy to do, it’s quick to have your ads up and running. These two factors can be a mixed blessing, however, particularly if you’re new to search marketing.

One of the hard lessons that advertisers learn when they take the plunge and launch a search campaign is that it’s not always easy to get consistent results over the long term. Even if you came out of the gate with a 2 to 1 ROI or greater, it is not uncommon to see your marketing return dwindle for a number of reasons including increased competition, poorly performing ads, quality score penalties or just a poor understanding of what metrics matter.

Here are a few things to look at when triaging a failing search campaign. Most of these things are easy fixes that can help breathe new life into a campaign and get your perfomance metrics back on track.

Evaluate multiple metrics. It’s easy to look at one metric at a time and jump to conclusions about your campaign’s performance. For example, a rising cost per click (CPC) may indicate that your ads are more relevant to searchers while decreased ad positioning could mean more competition. However, you can get even better insights about problem issues with your campaign if you look at how both metrics are behaving side by side.

Here’s an example of a chart that shows the CPC versus the average position. Note the trendlines in blue and yellow (trendlines are a great way to see how a specific metric trends over time, particularly if there are wide fluctations in performance). This graph tells me that even though my CPC has been going up, my overall positioning has trended down – indicative of a poor quality score. Some actionable items I can infer from this are to:

  1. Take a look at keywords and how they relate to my ad copy – rewrite as necessary
  2. Delete poor-performing keywords or increase their relevance to the ads themselves
  3. Delete poor performing ads. Don’t think about it, just do it.
  4. Evaluate landing pages against the keywords I’m bidding on and my ad copy – is landing page text relevant to the keywords? Am I sending people to a generic home page when I could be linking them directly to a specific page on the site?

Now let’s see what the trending looks like when I compare the CTR versus the average position.

This chart demonstrates that the campaign’s CTR has been going up since April 2006, but the average  position continues to decline. This would indicate that there’s more than quality score at play here – and competition is playing a part in the increased cost of my campaign. The action items I get from this are:

  1. Begin monitoring competitors for all major keywords/categories I’m bidding on
  2. Review past competitive data if it’s available to glean key changes
  3. Focus on keyword expansion and refinement – discontinue terms that are too competitive or expensive to maintain OR make the decision to invest more money per click in order to achieve higher positioning (I would only do the latter if there was a large margin for my client’s product and/or there was wiggle room to increase the current cost per aquisition of the campaign).

Other key features to consider when doing a PPC Triage include:

Landing page analysis and testing. I know this seems like it would be a no brainer, but horrible, conversion-fearing landing pages can sabatage a campaign more than any other single factor. Bad  landing pages are often the fallout of PPC convenience – that is, being able to get a campaign live in one-to-three weeks. My best advice to resolve this is to test, test, TEST your landing pages, Also, read case studies, statistics and anything that you can get your hands on that discusses what makes a good converting landing page and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to redesign and test your new pages. Did I mention you need to TEST your landing pages? Good. Go do it.

Engine-level analysis and testing. Not all campaigns work out well on all engines. We tend to group our campaigns into one keyword-centric bulk without really considering performance at the engine level. When reviewing how you can improve your campaign, take a look at all the search engines where your ads are running. Don’t just look at top-level data (volume, CTR, cost per click) look at your CPA then figure out how you can expand your campaign on engines that have low volume, but good ROI and vice versa. Don’t discount second tier engines such as and LookSmart.

Campaign structure and set up. One of the first things I evaluate when looking at someone else’s paid search campaign is how they’ve set it up on the back end. If I log into Adwords and see that all the ad groups are contained within one campaign called “Campaign #1″ well, I shudder. You have much more control over your budget and targeting criteria if you break up your account into multiple campaigns which contain multiple ad groups. The more ad groups there are in a campaign, the better. Ad groups allow you to customize ad copy for distinct keyword groups and this just makes for a better, more relevant campaign.
Author:  Jackie Dooley is the owner and founder of Jacqueline Dooley Internet Marketing, where she works primarily with agencies large and small as a consultant on a variety of search marketing campaigns. Read more of Jacqueline’s bio here.