Back in my early days of running websites and trying to forge a living online, I stumbled across PPC in the form of Google AdWords.

I liked the idea of driving traffic to a website nigh on instantly. That was until I ran a few of my keywords through the old Keyword Tool and saw exactly how much the estimated CPCs were: upwards of £5 per click!

I broke into a cold sweat because I knew all of my biggest competitors were using PPC, I just didn’t see how it could be profitable and I knew right there and then that my sites were going to fail.

I just couldn’t afford to pay £5+ per click.

Thank you, Google!

After registering my sites on Google Places I started to receive a steady trickle of AdWords vouchers through the post. At first they were a bit of an annoyance, after I while I decided to take the plunge.

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t understand the AdWords interface and I’d never set up a PPC campaign in my life. I’ve got the attention span of a gold fish too, so I’m not one for reading long-winded Google manuals on how best to configure a specific setting.

Somehow I managed to string together a few campaigns. Somewhere during my time spent browsing internet marketing forums I’d read lots of tales about poor results using the display network so from day one I concentrated on the search network (I’ve used display network advertising since with mixed results, but that’s another story).

The first day my ads ran I blew about £40 of the voucher credit. The second day I blew a similar amount, but before the day was over my phone started to vibrate. On the other end was my very first client as a result of AdWords! How excited do you think I was?

Taking stock

Once the initial excitement of the phone call was over I realised what I’d just done. I’d pulled in a sale of £1,500!

It was all thanks to the annoying coupons that Google had been posting to me. By the next day my free advertising credit had all but expired – I’d spent around £100 in two days, and as a result I’d generated one sale of £1,500.

A £100 outlay (which wasn’t even my money) for a £1,500 sale is a pretty good result in anyone’s book, right? In total I had 22 clicks. They’d come in at less than the predicted £5 per click, but even £4.55 per click on average still sounded ridiculously expensive to me.

The gross profit on the sale was around £1,000 which got me thinking: couldn’t I just leave the campaign running using my own cash and make £900 profit every other day? I paused the campaigns whilst I gathered my thoughts.

Working out what I did wrong

Clearly I did some things right. After all, I’d made a £1,500 sale. Obviously I’d also done a lot of things wrong. It was inconceivable that I hadn’t made mistakes, I still knew next to nothing about PPC or AdWords. The sale was a fluke.

I wanted to work out exactly what I’d done wrong so I could run AdWords using my hard earned money and make a profit (read: even more of a profit) – so for the best part of two weeks I immersed (read: drowned) myself in PPC. Ebooks, videos, Skype calls with experts – the whole shebang.

By the end of the two weeks the only thing I lacked was an official Google AdWords accreditation to say I knew everything about AdWords.

I then went back to my original campaign and worked out exactly what I’d done wrong. The biggest mistakes I’d made were:

  • Broad targeting: I’d used very broad keywords and targeted them using the broad match type. It’s a wonder the traffic that hit my site was even remotely targeted things were that broad.
  • Targeted a few rubbish keywords: In my infinite wisdom I decided to target variations of my keyword prefixed with terms like “free” or “cheap” – knowing full well I was targeting a higher end market. 
  • Just one ad group: I’d thrown all my keywords in just the one ad group, even though some of them were fairly alien to each other.
  • Just one ad: I couldn’t be bothered writing loads of different ads so I went with the one. It was very broad and general – it’s amazing anyone bothered to click it.
  • Just one landing page: The homepage. I didn’t bother deeplinking my campaign – this is the biggest mistake most people make with AdWords and PPC in general.
  • Set a stupidly low daily budget: OK my daily spends were large (for a newbie at least), but I’d still set my daily budget way too low.
  • Set a stupidly low CPC: My CPC was that low my ads tended to only show up during the latter parts of days as other advertisers depleted their budgets.

I made many more mistakes, but they are by far the biggest.

What I’ve done since

Once I worked out what mistakes I’d made I knew I had to put them right before I set the campaign live once again.

During the time I paused my campaigns and made wholesale changes, Google sent me a coupon in the post in order to try and entice me back to using AdWords. So when my revised campaign went live again, I had even more free advertising credit to play with. (Cheers, Google!)

To improve my campaign, I did the following:

  • I learnt how to use phrase and exact match types in my campaigns to ensure my ads were only displayed to relevant users. I also started to use negative keywords.
  • I spent about three days solid working on keyword research using the old Google Keyword Tool and some third party tools. I also used some of those ‘spying’ tools so I could see what keywords my competitors were targeting (if you’re red hot when it comes to keyword research, don’t waste your money on those keyword spying tools).
  • I split up my keywords into tiny groups – I ended up with over 50 in the end. They took ages to set up but having 50 different groups meant I could easily cast my eye over the campaign and see
    which groups were getting the CTR and yielding conversions and which ones weren’t.
  • I made sure every single group had five different ad copies. I then monitored the ad copies and mixed them up and switched them around, keeping only those with the highest CTR. For this particular campaign the best CTR I managed was just shy of 10% – so anything over 8% CTR I kept and experimented with.
  • I threw up lots of different landing pages tailored specifically to each ad group I had built. All ads were then deeplinked to the relevant landing page. Again this took at least five days to finish and it was extremely boring. But in the long term it really did pay dividends.
  • I kept a low daily budget at first to control my spending (and losses). As my campaign became more profitable and I started to have more confidence in it, I increased the daily budget. It’s now at a point where my daily budget is way higher than my daily spend. My ads run for the duration of my schedule and I don’t have to worry about the budget being depleted.
  • I manually set my keyword bids (ie, I don’t use the auto-bid function), they were low initially but I’m more liberal with them now. Just because I bid £8 per click doesn’t mean that’s what I’ll be charged.

    My CPCs are now lower because my campaign has a lot of history, my landing pages have great Quality Scores (they loiter at around 8-10/10 on most ad groups), and all of my ads have respectable CTRs. High CTRs = lower CPCs in very primitive terms.

As a result of making these improvements to my campaigns I’ve managed to increase my conversion rate from one conversion for every 22 clicks. I’ve also managed to reduce the CPC significantly – meaning I get more clicks for less money.

The thing with PPC is that you can never kick back, put your feet up and say ‘job done’, there’s always something that needs to be tweaked. At the moment I’m leaving my PPC campaigns as they are in general whilst tweaking on page layouts, colours, buttons and copy on my sites in order to see which combination converts best.

At one point very early on I decided to hire a PPC ‘guru’ to keep an eye on my campaign. He had all the certifications and loads of experience working with huge clients, but my campaigns started to regress under his management, so I wrestled back control for myself.

It’s well over three years since I first dabbled in PPC. I still use it today on various websites and I probably spend about two hours each day fiddling with settings. I started using Bing Ads a while back too,

it’s a really good platform. It only has a fraction of the traffic that Google AdWords offers (in my niches anyway) but I find the CPCs are a lot cheaper than AdWords and conversion rates tend to be higher. It’s certainly a great source of traffic to have alongside AdWords.

Key takeaways

I think there are lots of points you can take away from this post including:

  • Don’t resign yourself to hiring a PPC ‘expert’ - you can learn the ropes yourself if you’ve got the inclination to do so.
  • Make good use of those pesky coupons that Google sends in the mail.
  • Don’t be afraid to pause campaigns to take stock. If you’re lucky Google will send you another coupon in the mail to get you back on-board.
  • Just because your niche has a seemingly ridiculously high CPC doesn’t mean it can’t be profitable. It helps to look at the biggest picture, look at the cost per conversion or cost per lead acquisition not the cost per click.
  • You don’t have to hire a PPC guru and you don’t have to read through pages upon pages of documents on how to setup campaigns. Just jump in there and make mistakes – that’s the best way to learn; trial and error.
  • No matter what people say about PPC, it can be profitable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to build an awesome campaign.

Whether I like it or not PPC has become a huge part of my business and a big part of my life.

If you’re willing to take the plunge and get your hands dirty with PPC, there are lots of rewards waiting for you.