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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
For a more template approach, here are some specific things worth digging into based on what you're seeing:
Paired with the above, here are some helpful KPIs to evaluate performance and derive opportunities:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!