PPC Audit Methodology: An Expert's Workflow + Real-World Examples

Updated on: 
May 13, 2024
Caesar Barba
Caesar Barba

Pay Per Click (PPC) platforms like Google and Microsoft Ads come with a lot of complexity. Not only are they subject to frequent interface overhauls and feature changes, but for those of us who don’t regularly work in these ad platforms, they can feel like tangled labyrinths with steep learning curves. 

Unfortunately, it seems almost intentional that these PPC platforms are designed with such ambiguity. For the entrepreneurs and digital marketing managers of the world, it’s all too easy to burn through a budget without much to show for it. That is unless you know what you’re doing. 

With so many levers to pull and so much at stake, conducting a PPC audit is critical to get an objective view of how an account is performing. In simple terms, a proper audit will highlight what's working, what can be improved, and what needs to be fixed immediately and over time. 

For PPC accounts with sizable budgets, audits are often high-return investments that pay for themselves. While every audit has its own systematic fundamentals, each case will have different needs and requirements that should be treated accordingly.

PPC Audit Methodology

Breaking it down for us is Caesar Barba, Principal PPC & Analytics Consultant here at The Gray Dot Company. In this post, Caesar shares an effective PPC audit methodology, which unlike a conventional checklist or step-by-step process, will likely provide a more sensible direction given that these platforms seem to change every couple of years.

To effectively calibrate the audit to your target audience's needs, it's important to establish a strong, data-supported foundation. 

All this is rooted in accurate quantification across a brand’s overall tracking portfolio. This includes Google Analytics data (or other analytics platforms), conversions, value, internal and external data, online and offline metrics, and overarching business goals.

The fundamental questions worth asking are: 

  • How are we going to measure success?
  • What does success currently look like? 
  • What are everyone's expectations? 

If you don't have a clear answer to these questions, there’s likely a disconnect. You may not be speaking the same language or expectations may be on opposite sides of the spectrum. That’s a good recipe for frustration… So, it’s best to get clear on these questions before digging into the actual audit.

Absorb Performance Data without Judgment

A good starting point is to review Google Analytics data, Marketing Platform Ads data, and internal data if it's available. The goal here is to absorb analytics performance data with curiosity. No judgments or solutions should come at this point, only observations and questions, like:

  • What does their traffic ecosystem look like?
    • How many sources of traffic are generating traffic (multiple PPC platforms, email, referrals, organic, affiliates, etc.?)
  • How far down the conversion funnel are they measuring goals? (and do final leads/transactions take place on a different site or offline entirely?)
  • How does each source of traffic perform? (including an idea of relative conversion rates.)
  • What is the intent of each traffic type? (e.g. brand awareness/top-funnel vs bottom-funnel/conversion-focused.)
  • What do the general PPC account structure and campaign architecture look like? (including themes, spends, and returns?)
  • What percentage of revenue/leads and traffic does PPC account for? (And how does this compare to organic SEO?)

This post is not going to tell you what numbers are good or bad; it's all relative. Every business and its challenges are unique, and therefore, their results will be as well. Your goal is to acquire the context required to answer the question about how to measure success. 

One way to do this is to relate the performance you're seeing to what you've seen in other industries, other accounts, etc. Are you seeing what you expect? Or can you rationalize what you're seeing? 

If you're seeing something unexpected, there's usually a good question you can come up with to learn more about the business. If what you’re seeing is what you expect, it's still a good idea to verify your findings with your contact.

For example, you may see that an account is realizing a 2x ROAS and assume that’s terrible performance (after all, they only have 33% margins.) Come to find out that because the market is so saturated, the strategy has been to dominate the market in a land grab effort to control as much search market share as possible. 

Or maybe they have a more sophisticated understanding of their LTV and have a 3x user value after the initial purchase. The point is, understanding internal logic and intentions will help you bring the right yardstick with which to measure the account's performance.

Based on the above example, there are two goals when absorbing performance judgment-free: (1) to familiarize yourself with the overall site performance, and (2) to get an understanding of how your client views those same results. 

Are they seeing what you see, what's their take on the results, and why? Are they using a different approach to measure results?  

You can think of this process as building a rosetta stone of sorts to make sure you are speaking your client's language. It's always worth the upfront investment to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. 

Openly Discuss Your Initial Discovery Findings

Three men in an office wearing hardhats and analyzing the results of their PPC audit
Time to dig into your audit findings!

One helpful approach is to prepare a "mini" report to review with your client in an initial discovery meeting (i.e. this is what we're initially seeing – is this what you're seeing? This campaign/account looks very successful to us. Do you agree?) 

We've seen great ROAS and high transaction volume and have the client say performance is terrible (pushing very low margin products.) And we've seen low ROAS campaigns (high volume) be lauded as stellar performance (land grab approaches). 

Our point is, that it can be detrimental to make assumptions (both for your PPC audit and relationship), so approach with curiosity, establish the foundation, then have a meaningful discussion with your audit.

More than anything, don't start by telling the client whether they have great or terrible results. Let them tell you what the results have been like historically and get a read on how well that jives with what you're seeing. In short, there should be more questions than answers in this phase of the audit.

Establish a Foundation for Your PPC Audit

Between your initial discovery and discussing your findings with your client, you should be able to establish a sound foundation for your PPC audit. Think of this as a holistic performance benchmark that ensures everyone is on the same page.

In summary, this preliminary calibration process will include the following components.

  • Acquire access and review the entire site performance
  • Take notes on anything that doesn't meet your expectations or any anomalies in the data (which make great questions for discovery.)
  • Make sure to look at trends and not just snapshots (account history is crucial and you don't want history to repeat itself if results aren't good.)
  • Consider preparing a mini report of what you're seeing in the account and present that to the client, including your questions.
  • Get on the same page with goals, tracking, results, etc.

Once you’ve come to a mutual understanding of how success is measured and what the general expectations consist of, you can begin to dig into the actual account audit.

Conduct Your Audit “Deep Dive”

Now that you have a solid footing regarding expectations, you can embrace the minute details of your PPC audit. At this stage, we think it’s helpful to approach your deep dive with a big-picture mindset. We’ll often start with the following thought exercise:

Based on what we’ve learned about the client's goals, what we are capable of tracking, and how that tracking allows us to determine what is or isn’t working, we then ask ourselves: 

  • What areas are we seeing success and why does it seem to be working?
  • What areas are we not seeing success based on the goals, and why isn't it working?
  • What strategy would we recommend moving forward as it relates to what we know to be the client's goals?
  • Is all of the above what we expected to see or does anything stand out?

Zero in on the Biggest Spenders, then Zoom Out

In general, we like to start reviewing campaigns that are spending most of the budget and work our way out from there. We look to see if the general architecture AND results for campaign types make sense.

For example, a typical audit will involve the following performance tiers, starting with:

  1. Brand campaigns generally always perform the best (by a long shot) but often have limited traffic and very low CPCs.
  2. Shopping campaigns are next in performance and typically have much more traffic potential with a consistently profitable overall return on ad spend (ROAS).
  3. Non-brand search campaigns may be closer to breaking even but have some segments performing on either side of that line.
  4. Remarketing campaigns would be somewhere between the two prior segments.
  5. Display / Prospecting campaigns are often distantly apart from all of the above, to the point where ROAS wouldn’t be an appropriate measurement for success.

If anything doesn't make sense/meet expectations (e.g. exorbitant budget being spent on Display ads,) then turn your focus to that. 

Also, take a look at the performance history of the account and see how metrics trend over time. We’ll often set the date range to at least the past year and assess how performance has been to see if that aligns with the client's expectations. 

This is also good for reviewing seasonality or any abnormal irregularities. Especially now in the wake of COVID and amid tough economic times, it’s a good practice to compare performance to both the previous year as well as pre-COVID to get a better understanding of what the business should expect. When you do this, you may find some inflection points in performance and those are good areas to hone in on as well.

Dig Into Specific PPC Elements

Construction equipment - including an excavator - set in mountain scenery.
Taking it the next level deeper.

For a more template approach, here are some specific things worth digging into based on what you're seeing:

PPC Campaigns

  • Targeting Type – Is the campaign utilizing the right network or targeting method, such as Search, Shopping, Remarketing, Dynamic Remarketing, Display Network, YouTube, Social, etc.?
  • Strategy – Based on its strategy, like branding, reputation, prospecting, lead generation, sales, etc., are the appropriate ad targeting method(s) being used?
  • Architecture – Are primary categories (products or services) organized properly in campaigns or are they mixed and overlapping?
  • Campaign Settings – Is the right target audience, search network, ad type, ad rotation, bidding strategy, device(s), and time of day/day of week set up appropriately?
  • Linked Assets – Is Google Analytics properly tracking data and are we measuring the right things? If using Google Merchant Center, are we handling product feed quality, ad disapprovals, etc.?

Ad Groups & Keywords

  • Architecture – How are ad groups structured and how tightly themed are they? Are themes contained well enough to deliver tailored Ad Copy or are different stages of the funnel all targeted within the same campaigns/ad groups?
  • Match Type – What keyword match types make the most sense for an ad group/campaign's strategy and budget (e.g. exact match vs broad match)?
  • Negative Keywords – Can we leverage negatives more effectively to eliminate unwanted queries and/or better sculpt our keyword targeting?
  • Ad Copy & Extensions – Does our PPC ad copy and use of ad extensions resonate with users and drive stronger CTR? 
  • Landing Pages – Are we taking users to relevant destinations that align and engage with target users?
Looking over the shoulder of a man in a black t-shirt with a laptop open to Google Analytics
You'll probably end up doing a lot of this.

KPIs / Metrics

Paired with the above, here are some helpful KPIs to evaluate performance and derive opportunities:

  • Impression Share
  • Cost
  • Revenue / Profit Margins
  • ROAS (Return on ad spend)
  • AOV (Average Order Value)
  • CPT (Cost Per Transaction)
  • CPA (Cost per Acquisition)
  • Lead Volume
  • Transaction Volume

When conducting a deep-dive, here’s an example PPC audit checklist of personal preferences or ideal scenarios that we like to take into consideration.

  • Testing in an account instead of a blanket approach, like only using automated bid adjustment strategies, only using smart campaigns, only using manual bidding, etc. 
  • A campaign structure that mirrors the website category architecture. 
  • Campaigns split up based on performance (grouped by high, medium, and low return campaigns) or based on profit margins.
  • Brand targeting should always be broken out into their own campaign (and negative keywords used in other campaigns so as to not overlap). 
  • Tiered shopping campaigns can be very effective by helping isolate more valuable search terms to bid on them more aggressively
  • 20 or so keywords per ad group is a good rule of thumb. More usually dilutes ad relevance and warrants a need for split ad groups.
  • In general, more data should lead to more segmentation, like device segmented campaigns, audience (like RLSA), etc.

After a comprehensive audit, you can assemble and articulate your findings into a report that can be conveyed to your client. Oftentimes, this discovery will help lead us into a strategic roadmap where we’ll provide a clear and actionable path on what to optimize and restructure for a more profitable and successful PPC account.

PPC Audit Workflows and Examples

To help put some of this PPC audit methodology into practice, here are a few real-world workflow examples that we’ve encountered. These are unique situations that, when auditing an account, should catch your attention and warrant further investigation.

DSA (Dynamic Search Ads) Example

In one interesting case study, we were auditing a PPC account that spent 33% of its budget on DSAs (dynamic search ads). The DSAs were also achieving a higher ROAS than the account average. We had a sneaking suspicion that something was off.

In large part, we've seen DSAs used for keyword mining. Because it’s not always possible to recognize or research every keyword to add to your campaign, DSAs can be very helpful in filling in the gaps.  

The way DSAs work is that you first tell Google Ads what sections on your site you want to send traffic to. Google then reviews that content and automatically targets search queries that it thinks are relevant to that content. Once Google surfaces search terms that generate transactions/leads, these keywords can be moved to your standard search campaigns and then targeted intentionally, assuming there’s high enough volume. 

But because you'd be giving up a lot of control to Google, we typically recommend starting by bidding low on these new keywords while adding all of your current targeted keywords as negatives. This way, all traffic goes to its appropriate campaign/ad group and you can easily see how well the DSAs are working. In turn, the expectation is to see low CPC, low traffic, low spend, and low ROAS, by design. 

As for the example account, seeing 33% of ad spend invested in DSAs, performing at an account-average CPC and above-average ROAS, the alarm bells went off. Suffice to say, mischief was afoot, and cleaning up a cluttered search campaign was in order.

The fix: In this case, the non-DSA search campaign counterparts should have been getting most of the traffic coming from the DSA, whether through exact match variants or at a minimum through the phrase match variations. 

One approach would have been to add negatives to the DSA campaign so that the search terms would have no choice but to match the expected keyword in the appropriate keyword-targeted campaign. But because there was so much traffic hitting the DSA campaign (and, being particularly curious about verifying theories on how Google Ads functions in the great manual vs automated debate,) we decided to take a phased approach.

First, we wanted to understand how Google Ads determines priority (manually targeted keywords vs dynamically selected keywords). So, we made a list of search terms that were showing up in the DSA campaign that should have been matching the existing keyword-targeted campaign. We then added this list as exact match keywords to keywords targeted campaigns using lower bids than what we were seeing in the DSA campaign, again, to test priority.  

The result was that the search terms immediately started funneling to the keyword-targeted campaigns. The keyword-targeted campaigns increased in impressions by roughly the same amount that those keywords were generating in the DSA campaign. 

The final step was to add negatives for the keywords targeted in other campaigns to the DSA campaign to cover all bases. Once all traffic was going to the right campaigns, we were able to bid more appropriately on specific keywords (saving thousands per month while generating more revenue) and uncover a much lower-performing DSA campaign, to which we were also able to apply more appropriate bids to. 

The added benefit of confirming this theory is that PMax campaigns likely function similarly to the DSA campaigns in terms of how Google Ads will assign priority to search term/campaign matching. This means they will likely capture brand keyword variations that you’re not specifically targeting in your Brand Campaign, thereby inflating results and subsidizing the performance of lower-performing terms that you wouldn’t necessarily want to target. In short, make sure to add as many variations as possible.

Brand Example

Another account that we audited had a brand campaign whose CPC was a bit high (below account average but too close for comfort.) Additionally, ROAS was high, but again, not quite leaving all other campaigns in the dust. 

Looking at the account history 2 to 3 years back and graphing out the average CPC and ROAS, two inflection points became apparent. The first occurred about a year back when the ROAS tanked, CPC skyrocketed, and traffic boomed. Once traffic normalized, the CPC came back down but still at a higher level. 

The second inflection point was about 18 months back. CPC was at a low before dramatically jumping 2-3x and remained at that level. Reviewing both inflection points provided valuable findings worth highlighting in the audit.

The inflection point from 18 months back with the increase in CPCs, well, just happened. There were zero changes in the campaign at the time of the KPI change (months before or months after). Google just decided to increase the CPC, maybe because the bid was high enough to allow for it. 

The fix here was to decrease CPC while closely monitoring impression share, CTR, and Conversion Rate to make sure they remained steady. We then continued decreasing the bid until we returned to normal levels or until we started seeing a negative impact on impression share. ROAS doubled, but really just returned to a normal level, saving nearly $1k per month without sacrificing any traffic, transactions, or revenue.

The inflection point from 12 months back, however, was correlated to changes in the campaign. Non-branded keywords were added to the campaign, which ended up eating up all the budget and increasing CPC and ad spend. The fix focused on removing those keywords from the Brand campaign and adding them to their own Non Brand campaign.

Essentially, when you see inflection points, compare the period after to the period before and see if you can hone in on where performance differs. The change history (1 week before to 1 week after the inflection point) is also perfect for diagnosing the issue as well.

Greedy Keywords Example

In reviewing an account for a coworker, we noticed the primary campaign was down in lead volume year-over-year and CPA was significantly higher. It's always important to follow the money and one obvious item stood out – they were spending much less compared to last year. 

The campaign was comparable in its build/targeting/ads to the prior year, so we went to YoY comparisons on the keyword level to find outliers and outliers there were. 

A large portion of the budget was going to broad match keywords generating little to no leads while the exact and phrase match keywords that converted well the year prior saw a large decrease in ad spend, though the leads they were generating were coming in at a comparable CPA to the year prior.  

In summary, because broad match keywords have a much broader reach and the account had a limited budget, broad keywords were consuming a majority of the budget and tanking the campaign's performance. 

The fix: Impression share metrics confirmed that the keywords that drove the most leads the year prior were seeing very little visibility (less than 10%). The solution was to pause the broad keywords and funnel more of the budget to the more targeted, higher-performing keywords. 

After the high-performing keywords maxed out on their potential traffic and performance returned to expected levels, we had some additional budget to work with. We created a new campaign for the broad match terms so we could control the budget and not have to worry about those keywords eating into the higher-performing segment.

Audit on Your Terms

When taking on a PPC audit project, there are no hard and fast rules you must follow. Sure, there are certain objectives or pain points that clients may want to address. But at the end of the day, whatever you decide to audit, you should be able to answer – does this recommendation get me closer or further from their goal, and why?

Hopefully, this methodology has you asking thought-provoking questions and enabling you to produce meaningful findings from your audit. So with that, happy auditing! 

Reach out to us if you have any questions or learn more about some of the PPC consulting services that we offer.

Work With Us
We’ll help craft, teach, and carry out SEO roadmaps that check all the boxes.