Actively Optimising and Managing a Google AdWords Account
Sometimes we ponder a lot, prior to writing a blog post. This is one of those posts where we thought a lot about whether we should even write it, before doing so. We’re going to provide a comprehensive guide to how you can actively optimise a Google AdWords account. Or, to put it another way, we’re about to reveal some of the best secrets of the trade. Gulp.
Why are we happy to do so? Firstly, we believe that writing often leads to learning. In composing the post, we considered our own processes and carried out some research around the edges. That’s already led to us tweaking the way in which we work. But we also believe that it’s important that clients understand the work that we undertake: when you pay your agency a management fee, what do they do for you? Could you undertake the work yourself?
This post explains the detail that’s involved in actively optimising and managing an account. It sets out the differences between passive management and active engagement in making improvements. Enjoy!
AdWords changes over time
Google AdWords, as the main money-spinner for a multi-billion dollar business, is a pretty important platform. It’s also one that’s changed a lot over time.
In the beginning, it was very much presented as a self-service means of advertising. If you had a product or service to sell, then you would create your account, specify a few keywords, create some simple ads and…away you would go. It was simple and pretty effective from the outset.
But AdWords has changed over time. Part of that has been about tweaks and improvements to the platform, driven by Google. There also, almost inevitably, has been an increase in the number of advertisers over time and hence in the level of competition to be faced.
Big brands, in particular, have considerable help with their Google AdWords advertising, whether that be from in-house teams or dedicated agencies. What this means is that the self-service approach to AdWords has become less effective over time.
Indeed, we see this every week when we are approached by prospective clients: they will often have created AdWords accounts themselves, but will have seen costs rise and performance decline over a period of months or years. That’s down to increasing competition and also because of default account settings, which often work against the advertiser.
The changing nature of the platform, the interface and the wider marketplace, make it far more difficult to maintain a steady course, with minimal interventions. Just look at the number of changes being commented on by the likes of Search Engine Watch, Wordstream, PPC Hero and via the official Inside AdWords channel.
Active optimisation is the order of the day, for those advertisers seeking to maximise the level of return on investment. But how, precisely, should you go about making those improvements?
Tracking: the basis of a great AdWords account
“We’re just not getting the expected results from AdWords”
We hear that a lot from prospective clients, before we bring them on board. It’s a statement that’s usually followed by us asking:
“How are you tracking the effectiveness of your campaigns right now?”
Then we generally get a response that is somewhere on the following list:
“We don’t really track it as such, but sometimes people mention to us on the phone that they found us online, or via an ad”
“We tried to setup conversion tracking. We’re not really sure if it’s working”
“Most people phone us, so it can’t be tracked”
“We have Analytics installed. We’re not too sure on how to use it”
“Well, business is just quiet right now, so we don’t think AdWords is working”
Here comes a top tip: You need to have conversion tracking in place. It’s a must-have. It doesn’t matter what products or services you’re selling. It doesn’t matter how potential customers or clients make contact with you. You simply must be able to track what’s going on.
If you don’t have tracking in place, then you’re throwing money down the drain. That’s true, even if you believe that you’re getting a return from your Google AdWords advertising. Let’s take the example of a B2B consultancy firm. In the past 30 days, their AdWords account tells them that:
- They have spent £4,000
- This has produced £40,000 of business
This looks like it’s a fantastic result, doesn’t it? That investment of £4,000 has produced an excellent return. They don’t have tracking in place and they’re not actively managing the account, but it’s not holding them back, or is it?
Tracking might reveal that the £40,000 of business comes from just £300 of spending within the account and that this has been the case over a period of months. What’s more, they might also discover that they aren’t getting maximum exposure on the keywords that are working for them because the majority of their budget is being diverted to areas of the account that aren’t producing results. Tracking can make a huge difference.
Types of tracking
There are a number of options available to you for tracking:
Website action tracking
Probably the most common form of tracking around, this type of conversion tracking can be used to monitor actions that take place on your website.
Two of the most frequent uses of this type of tracking are for retailers monitoring direct sales and for advertisers that want to keep track of incoming leads. The latter might typically be recorded by the tracking of form submissions.
We mentioned above that keeping track of phone calls can be a cause of considerable concern. Advertisers may believe that it’s not possible to keep track of incoming calls, but this needn’t be so: there is the ability to track phone calls that have been received as a result of Google AdWords advertising.
App installation and activity
Want to know when someone installs an app, or behaves in a particular way within an app? This is a specialised area of tracking, but it can be applied both to Android and iOS mobile apps.
Offline conversion tracking
What happens when the conversion process starts online (with a click from an AdWords ad), but the deal is closed offline? In these circumstances, it’s possible to record those offline conversions and then import them back into AdWords. This isn’t functionality that we use very often, but it does exist.
Getting everything tracked
What type of tracking should you be using? Our simple answer to this is that you should be tracking absolutely everything that you can. In order to do that, you’ll need to think carefully about interactions that you have with both prospective and existing customers.
Depending upon the type of business that you run, it’s likely that contact will consist of at least one or more of the following:
- Incoming emails
- Telephone calls
- Contact form submissions
- Signups to free demos and webinars
- Access to other gated content, such as whitepapers
- Newsletter signups
- App downloads and installation
- Live chat discussions
- On-site purchases
If any of the forms of contact that are listed above are used by your potential customers, then we would suggest that you should be tracking every applicable action. The more data that you have available to you, the better. In fact, given the choice, we would always over-track, rather than under-track.
Implementing conversion tracking
How do you implement conversion tracking? Ideally, you hand over the appropriate code and instructions to your web developer, but that may not be possible. Even if it is, there’s real value in understanding the process. We previously listed the four main categories of tracking options. Now, we’re going to look at the implementation of each, starting with the most common form:
Website action tracking: basic
If you have an on-site form and want to record the number of times that it is completed, or you sell directly via an e-commerce store and wish to track sales, then basic website action tracking is what you need.
Within your AdWords account, you need to select the Tools menu and then choose Conversions.
You’ll then be presented with the main Conversions screen:
Click to add a new conversion and you will find that you are presented with 4 further options:
Select Website to move through to the setup process, where you are presented with a range of options:
This is purely for your own reporting purposes, so you should select a conversion name that is going to be meaningful to you and that describes the conversion type. You might opt for Newsletter Signup, Contact Form Completion or Completed Sale (as examples), depending upon the circumstances.
In order to calculate whether advertising is really producing positive results for your business, it makes sense to associate a value with the conversion type. You can choose from the following options:
Each time it happens, the conversion has the same value
This is an option that we would primarily use if an action didn’t necessarily have a specific, defined monetary value, but where we wanted to offer an indication of its importance. So, for example, each newsletter subscriber might be evaluated as being worth £2 to the business. Alternatively, each incoming lead might be assigned an equivalent value of £30. We can choose a set figure here.
The value of this conversion action may vary
A fantastic option for online retailers. If the value of the conversion varies (due to variations in purchase price, or depending upon the exact products that are placed within the online shopping basket), then you can assign a variable figure here. As we’ll explain later, you can actually pass the value of any sale direct from your store checkout to Google AdWords. This is an amazingly powerful option and one that we would recommend using.
You’ll also note that there is the option here to enter a default value, for circumstances where the real value of the conversion can’t be passed back. If you don’t enter anything in this box, then it is set to £1 (we think that’s called the “default for the default option!”)
Don’t assign a value
You can also choose not to enter a value at all. If you opt to do so, then your conversions will still be “counted”: it’s just that no value will be assigned to each conversion.
Let’s say that someone clicks on your ad and goes on to make 3 separate purchases on your site. Should that count as 1 conversion, or as 3?
If you believe that it should be 1 conversion, then select One. If you believe that this should count as 3 conversions, then select Every.
This is the subject of some debate at the moment, but the default conversion window is set to 30 days. At its most basic level, what this means is that a conversion is recorded if a purchase is made within 30 days of the original click. This can be a little confusing, so let’s go through a worked example:
Someone clicks on one of your Google AdWords ads, reaching your site as a result. But they don’t go on to make an immediate purchase there and then. It may be that they don’t have an urgent need to buy, or are wishing to compare offers available elsewhere. However, they return to your website via another route (maybe a Google organic listing, a bookmark or even via social media) within 30 days and do make a purchase. With a 30-day conversion window in place, this would be counted as a conversion and recorded against the keyword that the individual originally clicked on.
Is this appropriate to your business? It is possible to extend (or to shorten) the available window, to capture data in the manner that is most applicable to your own business. The maximum window available is 90 days.
In most cases, we tend to stick with the 30 day default setting, which we find works pretty well, but it may not be appropriate in your specific circumstances.
View-through conversion window
The view-through conversion is something that only applies to ads that are displayed on the Display Network and it differs considerably from the standard conversion window. There’s some good news here if you don’t advertise on the Display Network: you won’t need to worry about this setting, since it won’t apply to your campaigns!
If you do advertise on the Display Network, then a view-through conversion comes into play when an individual sees your ad, but doesn’t click on it. They do, however, later make a purchase from your site. By default, if this happens within 24 hours, then it would be counted as a view-through conversion.
You can alter that window to anywhere between 1 and 30 days.
You may wonder why such activity would be counted as a conversion in the first place. The answer here is that there is an argument to suggest that the mere display of an ad may be assisting in building awareness of your brand (or even of specific products). The view-through conversion attempts to quantify this. If you’re not convinced that this has merit, then you can always exclude this conversion type from your reporting, as you can do with all conversions that aren’t relevant to your business.
This is primarily used for your own reporting purposes and you should choose the category that best reflects this specific conversion action. You are provided with a drop-down list of options to do so.
Include in “Conversions”
An option that initially might be thought to have little more than an aesthetic impact, but which is actually rather more important.
Google AdWords reports display a Conversions column, which is then also used to show various other metrics (including allowing a calculation of cost per conversion). The option here enables you to decide whether or not this specific conversion type should be included within the Conversions column count. If you decide to exclude this particular conversion type from that column, then it is still accessible within a separate, less visible count: All Conversions.
So why would you wish to exclude any conversion type from being counted as standard?
The answer to this question comes from the realisation that not all conversions are equal. As ever, this may be best investigated by using a worked example:
Let’s think about the example of an online retailer. With an active e-commerce store, their primary aim within their Google AdWords advertising is to drive sales and they setup conversion tracking accordingly, ensuring that every sale is tracked. The order values are passed back into AdWords and each conversion is included within the standard count. So far, so good.
But there are a number of secondary actions that the advertiser wishes to record too. Sometimes potential customers arrive on the site and don’t make a purchase, but they do signup to the newsletter mailing list because they want to be informed about future promotions and product launches. Since every newsletter signup has value for the retailer, this is also recorded as a conversion.
However, when optimising the account, the retailer is primarily interested in generating sales. If both sales and newsletter signups were recorded within the Conversions column in standard AdWords reporting, then this might actually make the optimisation task more difficult. The danger here is that confusion may enter the equation: bids might be increased on keywords, in an effort to improve their visibility, where the account indicates that those keywords produce conversions.
Without appreciating that conversions aren’t all equal, the optimisation effort could soon become skewed. Rather than increasing visibility for keywords that actually produce sales, too much budget might end up being targeted at keywords that only ever seem to produce newsletter signups and thus represent lesser value conversions.
There’s another element to be considered here too, which is the impact upon automated bidding activity. There are a number of bidding strategies that include an element of automation, meaning that the advertiser is required to make fewer interventions. Target Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) and Enhanced Cost Per Click (CPC) bidding both rely on the conversion data, in order to set automated bid levels. What this means is that, if you are using such strategies, you need to be absolutely certain that you are providing accurate, meaningful conversion data. If you include absolutely everything within the Conversions column, then you need to be aware that the system will automatically take all of that data into account. We happen to think that there are plenty of reasons for avoiding automated bidding, but we do appreciate that many advertisers are tied to such an approach. For those who do rely upon such strategies, great care needs to be taken when considering what to include within the Conversions column.
Installing code on your website
Once you’ve created your conversion action, Google displays some code that needs to be inserted onto your website. The associated instructions state that you should copy and paste the code into the area between the body tags of the page where you want to install tracking.
This is a step that can sometimes cause advertisers difficulties, so we’ll carry out a closer examination of what’s involved.
If you are seeking to track a form submission (such as a contact form or a newsletter signup), then the conversion is completed and should be recorded once a form has successfully been submitted and received. Typically, this would mean placing the conversion tracking code within the page that is displayed to confirm receipt of the submitted details.
Depending upon the software that you are using to generate your forms, it may be that you don’t direct visitors to a separate “thank you” page that confirms safe receipt of their details. If you simply provide a pop-up message, for instance, then you may need to work with your web developer to integrate the code successfully.
Some websites are constructed in a manner that diverts the visitor, after a successful form completion, to a standard page. This might, for example, be the homepage. In such circumstances, you would not wish to place the conversion code on the homepage because this would result in it being triggered whenever anyone visited your homepage. As you can see, this would lead to inflated an inaccurate conversion data being provided.
We generally find that the best solution in the case of the latter situation is to divert users to a dedicated “thank you” page. This additional step is usually relatively simple to achieve and ensures that appropriate conversion data can be received.
What happens when you are looking to track sales? In most cases, it’s possible to include the order value in the information that’s passed back to AdWords and there is real value in doing so. As you’ll see, if you selected the option to say that each conversion may have a different value, the code snippet to be inserted into your website includes reference to a variable called google_conversion_value. By default, this is set to £1.
However, you can (and should!) dynamically insert the actual order value, as made available within your online shopping cart software. Relatively simple integration is available for leading platforms, including Magento, Woo Commerce, Shopify and Bigcommerce. Even if there isn’t a standard plugin available for your own platform, a good web developer can usually get this part of the code implemented within a few minutes. The value of having that conversion data passed back into AdWords cannot be overstated.
Tracking phone calls
What about if you want to track incoming phone calls? There are three main methods of achieving this, which are:
- Tracking calls made from call extensions, or from call-only ads
- Tracking calls made from a phone number on your website
- Tracking clicks on the phone number that’s shown on your mobile website
The first two of these options requires the use of a Google call forwarding number, which is only available in some countries of the world. Fortunately, this is available in the UK.
Calls from ads
When a call is made from an ad (whether that be from a call extension or from a call-only ad), the call can be tracked using a Google call forwarding number. As with on-site tracking, you can assign a value to this type of conversion, together with an appropriate conversion window.
Once you have setup the conversion type, you need to do the following:
For call extensions, you simply edit the extension that you wish to change, selecting A Google forwarding phone number and use call reporting when prompted for Show my ad with. Don’t forget to also Count calls as phone call conversions on the Advanced tab and to choose the name of the conversion that you’ve just created.
The process is very similar for call-only ads, but you edit the relevant ad directly, prior to choosing the same options as would be the case for a call extension.
Calls from your website
In order to track calls from your website, you first create the conversion type, in much the same way as you do in the case of other conversions. However, once you have done so, there is an important further step.
You’ll need to insert some code (provided by Google) into your website. The purpose of this code is to dynamically replace your business phone number with a Google forwarding number, which is shown only to those visiting your website having clicked on a Google AdWords ad. It’s clever stuff and best implemented by a web developer, unless you have confidence in working with raw HTML and your chosen CMS package.
Checking the installation
You can use Google Tag assistant (a free download for Chrome) to carry out an automated check on your installation.
Viewing the incoming data
Once you have conversion tracking correctly implemented and those incoming conversions start to flow, how do you go about using that data to your advantage?
Firstly, it’s useful to know how to ensure that all available data is visible to you. Many AdWords users don’t realise that the standard AdWords screens can be customised, allowing you to add (and remove) columns from standard views.
So, from the main AdWords campaigns screen, you can click on the Columns drop-down and then choose to Modify Columns.
Choose the Conversions category and you’ll see that you have a wide range of additional columns that you can add. There’s also the opportunity re-arrange the column ordering, to suit your tastes.
For a fairly standard campaign setup, we would usually ensure that Conversions, Cost per Conversion, Conversion Rate and Total Conversion Value are set to be visible. We would ensure that this was the case at campaign, ad group and keyword level. The advantage of setting up the standard screens in this way is that you will have that conversion data available to you as you work through the different levels of the account.
You only need to setup the column selections once, as you are able to save your preferred selections.
Working with the conversion data
Having the incoming data visible throughout the account is a great first step, but now you need to actively work with this information. There are a few golden rules that we tend to follow, when optimising an account:
- You need to have enough data. Have you failed to achieve a sale as a result of 5 clicks on a particular keyword? That’s not enough information to tell you that the keyword is performing poorly: you need to accrue enough data, prior to jumping to any conclusions
- Work at a granular level. Conversion data at the campaign level may be interesting as an overview, but you won’t understand the account performance until you drill down to look at individual products and keywords
- Great performing keywords won’t always remain that way. Changes to pricing, competitors, seasonal trends and the like mean that the picture will constantly be changing
- Increase exposure on best performing keywords. This will often mean increasing bidding, but you can afford to do so, if you can be sure that it will generate a positive ROI
- Pull back on poorly performing keywords. Trust the data.
- The Search Terms report is your friend. Use it to identify additional keyword opportunities and to add in new negative keywords.
Active management of an account using conversion data enables you to reduce spend in the areas that aren’t working and to channel your budget into the most valuable parts of the account. When we say it like that it sounds simple. It’s certainly a lot easier than it would be without having that conversion data available!
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