If you’ve ever found yourself staring at stagnating metrics or struggling to revive the pulse of your PPC efforts, you’re in the right place. Andrew Percey of Prometheus PPC is here to unravel expert strategies, actionable insights, and success stories that will help you transform your flatlining paid search campaign into a thriving powerhouse.
How to Breathe Life into a Flatlined Paid Search Campaign Episode Summary
- Andrew Percey’s transition from engineering to the paid search arena and how his education helped him analyze data effectively. Discussion around the causes of a flatlined paid search campaign, including market changes, failure to adapt to new features, and technical issues, emphasizing the importance of continuous monitoring and experimentation to maintain campaign performance.
- The importance of conversion tracking and structuring Google Ads campaigns based on specific objectives, and campaigns with a higher number of conversions per month can rely more on Google’s smart bidding algorithms, while campaigns with fewer conversions require more manual decision-making and optimization.
- The various aspects of online advertising, including budgeting, targeting, ad formats and platforms, the minimum budget requirements, the effectiveness of shopping and display ads, the potential of Bing ads, and the introduction of new ad formats like responsive search ads and performance max campaigns.
- The limitations of performance max campaigns and the use of pinning in RSA ads. Recommendations for self-diagnosing and improving Google Ad accounts, including the use of various free and paid tools.
- The importance of a cohesive advertising and conversion strategy, with Andrew emphasizing the need for effective ad messaging, landing pages, and conversion tracking.
How to Breathe Life into a Flatlined Paid Search Campaign Episode Transcript
Rich: My guest today has a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Computer Science and Engineering from MIT. He spent over 20 years in Silicon Valley high-tech engineering, marketing, and PPC advertising.
He’s helped over 100 businesses and MIT startups with Google Ads. He’s hosted 12 digital marketing seminars at MIT and Harvard. He’s also a PPC blogger, podcaster, winner of 8 public speaking awards, holder of 8 U.S. patents. Which coincidentally, is eight more than I have. He’s been running Prometheus PPC since 2012, leading a team of Google ads specialists who use analytic rigor to achieve client’s business goals.
Today we’re going to be talking about how to revive a paid search campaign that has flatlined, with Andrew Percey. Andrew, welcome to the podcast.
Andrew: Thank you so much for having me here.
Rich: Was it an easy transition from computer science and engineering into the paid search arena? And what advantage do you think your education gives you when it comes to paid search?
Andrew: Yeah. Easy, I would say no. In part because that also meant transitioning from a large high-tech company where they do everything for you, IT, business development, sales, everything else, to running my own small business. So that was a huge challenge. But as far as moving from electrical engineering and technical marketing to what I do now, running paid search campaigns, that honestly felt like a pretty good fit.
To run Google ads campaigns, you need to understand how to identify target customer personas, create compelling messaging for them. Those are all things that I did in technical marketing in Silicon Valley. But to really get the most out of the campaigns, to maximize the revenue and profit, you also have to do a very deep and precise analysis of the tremendous wealth of data that Google makes available to advertisers. And my education and training as an engineer with statistics, with probabilities, has fit that very well and keeps it very exciting.
Rich: Now you tend to focus within your business on clients who’ve been running paid search campaigns that have flatlined, and then get them up and running again. What generally causes a campaign to flatline?
Andrew: There can be a number of causes. I put them in two broad categories, causes that are outside of our control, and causes that are within our control.
So outside of our control, of course, the market can change anytime. Customer expectations can change. There can be political changes. Who knows? A little more directly, your online competitors are probably always changing, updating their offers, updating their campaigns, trying to become more competitive. And while all that is happening, Google is constantly changing the advertising platform. It also doesn’t stand still. There are new features and benefits rolling out. If you don’t take advantage of them, you can start to fall behind.
And so all those things that really are beyond what we can affect directly can cause performance flatlining, can cause performance to stop improving, can cause it to slowly degrade over time, which we often see.
And then there’s what’s within our control, right? So you have to keep monitoring and managing your campaigns. It’s definitely not a set it and forget it type of platform. If you do that, it’s very unlikely your performance will improve. It’s very unlikely you’ll see the type of slow degradation that I was just talking about.
I also see a lot of, in a lot of cases, a failure to continuously run experiments within the account. What worked last year, as far as your campaigns, your ads, your messaging, might no longer work as well now. That needs to constantly be tested and improved. Failure to implement new features and best practices, as I mentioned, including new bidding algorithm settings, which are critical for any campaign.
There can also be technical issues that arise. A lot of what we help our new clients with is fixing their conversion tracking. It can be very difficult to get accurate tracking of the actions that matter to you to show up in the Google ads campaign so that they can be maximized, they can be optimized for that. There’s a lot that can break even without you knowing it, and so we need to fix that.
And then a final thing within our control, I’d say more related to the business, is that sometimes your offering might just not be able to gather a wider interest. Or at least the way you present it, it might have an unclear value proposition. It might have unclear differentiation versus the competitive offerings. And without that clarity and focus, it can be very difficult to make Google ads effective.
Rich: So those were a lot of great answers. And just as you were talking through, one of the biggest messages or takeaways that I heard, is that you can’t just set things on autopilot. Like there may have been a period of time where you got things running smoothly and things were working for you, but if you turn away, the changes in the macroeconomic scene, the changes within Google’s algorithm, the new tools they roll out all could have a very detrimental impact on your ad. So you need to be in there on a regular basis, making sure that you’re staying up with all the changes.
Andrew: You really do. Just imagine one simple case. Let’s say that there’s just you and one other competitor in a space. If you do something that makes your ad campaign suddenly work so much better and bring you so many more leads, they’re probably coming away from the other competitor and they’re going to try to react to get back. It becomes just a continuous game of trying to one up each other without complete information. We can’t really see what the other guys are doing, but you know they’re there trying to win business away from you as well, in any sort of limited space.
Rich: For listeners who have campaigns that may have plateaued, do you have a checklist of things that you go through when reviewing a flatline campaign, targeting, bidding devices, breaking out campaigns, looking at landing pages, and so on?
Andrew: We do. Actually, I think there’s maybe a couple of things I could mention here. One is, we have what I call the “5 red flags checklist”. That’s a very short document you can download from my website prometheusppc.com, that gives you five important things to look at and how to see them in the account to know if things are starting to run off the rails. In case you’re not sure, this can help provide more clarity.
But then when we engage with a new client and do the initial audit for their account, yes, we also have a very structured audit checklist we go through looking at conversion tracking, as I mentioned before very important. The campaign types they’re running versus their goals, the bidding strategies and use the ad group structure. The positive and negative keywords being used to try to hone the targeting to the right audience, the ad testing being employed. As well as all the other dimensions of targeting that are available within the platform, which includes location, targeting device, targeting audiences.
There’s a huge wealth of types of audiences that can be targeted or excluded demographics, including not just age and gender. But also the type of business they work for, the size of the company, so many possibilities there. So there’s just a long list that we go through to see how well the account is meeting the stated objectives and what else we can do there to help them.
Rich: Andrew, it does sound like there are a lot of possible things that might be going wrong. When you go into an account, what are some of the first steps that you take to jumpstart it?
Andrew: The first thing I will do is make sure that conversion tracking is looking at what matters most to the customer, because anything you do in the account is designed to get more conversions at lower cost. And if those conversions aren’t what matters most, or aren’t being accurately measured, then we’re optimizing for nothing. We’re optimizing against a very poor goal. So we have to have good quality conversion data.
Sometimes that even means working with a client to help them identify qualified leads and upload that data back into Google ads so we have even better quality data to work with. So that’s really number one. We have to have the right conversion data. Otherwise, any optimization effort is just shooting in the dark and is going to be diluted by whatever junk is coming into the account.
Once we have that in place, then we need to look at the structure. There are different campaign types that meet different objectives for a client. And within campaign types, there’s different ad group structure you would need to apply to reach your target audiences. Applying the other targeting I mentioned as well, not just the keywords, but the locations, the demographics. It really is a matter of clarifying what not just the business objective, but what is the objective as that translates down to the Google ads campaigns, right? You have some overlying business objective for the year, some set of objectives. What are specific objectives they need the Google ads campaigns to do for you to make sure we can measure that and structure the accounts around achieving those objectives.
Part of this initial structuring is also to make sure it’s going to be flexible for us to analyze and scale. Because it’s not just about getting to one good point. It’s about finding a successful performance level and then continuing to scale. So another piece is making sure that we are set up for future success, as well as getting things running correctly.
Rich: Now, one question I’m sure is on everybody’s mind is, how long does it take to see results?
Andrew: As you can imagine, I’m sure the answer is, “it depends”. I generally tell clients that when we’re launching new campaigns and we need to train up the algorithms and have time to refine the targeting, analyze the data coming in, make sure we’re collecting and acting on statistically significant data, making so we make good decisions, not just churning in place. That it takes 2 to 3 months before we can start to see the long-term potential for the account, sometimes longer. But usually after 2 to 3 months, we can say, okay, this is where we were, this is where we’ve gotten to now. We can see how much better targeted it is, how we’re getting better data, how it’s working better for profit and ROAS, return on ad spend, and now we can see also how much runway we have for further improving it as we go.
Rich: All right. Do you find, Andrew, that there’s a different approach to a company that needs just a few leads a month versus one that needs tons of leads every single month to survive?
Andrew: There is. If you are able to generate a lot of leads per month, then Google’s built in smart bidding algorithms can work better for you because it provides more data for them. Imagine the algorithm. It is a big black box to all of us. But what it’s doing is taking all the data it has for your account, like trying to predict which users are going to respond to which ads, and then convert for you. So the more data it has, the better. The less it has to slice up by location and audience type, the more confident it can be making decisions. So campaigns that have a lot of conversions every month are usually in better shape because of that. There’s still a lot of optimization to do, but at least they can rely a little bit more on Google’s built in AI algorithms.
On the flip side, if you have very few conversions per month, very few leads per month, which is going to be true for a lot of service-based businesses for example, looking to do lead generation, it can be a lot trickier. You can’t rely on the smart bidding algorithms in many cases, at least not for qualified leads. Maybe you have to feed in some prior lead data. Or other activities that look good on the website seemed to indicate a good prospect to start to count as conversions to bring in more of the right traffic. And it’s also going to require just a lot of decision making based on what the client knows is going to be good for the business or expects, and your experience of managing campaigns, to try to really put together what you think is going to be the best small set focused area to get those handful of leads.
And we can talk more about what happens when you have too much budget or not enough, too much volume, not enough. But if you have very few leads per month, it does require a good deal more manual work, good deal more human intelligence, to make sure this is going to work out for you.
Rich: So you touched upon budget, and that’s always a question and a concern for most businesses. Do you find, because we are talking about businesses already have an established ad budget, they’ve been running ads, things have flatlined, but do you find that there is a minimum amount that most businesses should be spending each month? And is that overall, or is it per campaign that you generally have a recommendation, like you don’t want to go below this level and still be able to provide enough data for Google’s machine learning to help you?
Andrew: The minimum amount is really going to depend on the scope of what you’re targeting. Think geography, that’s the easiest thing. If you’re targeting the entire U.S. for popular searches, you’re going to need a very large budget. Conversely, if you’re targeting your town and maybe some neighboring towns for a specific service, you’re not going to need a large budget.
In fact, if you try to spend a lot, most of it’s going to be wasted. So really, I’m afraid for that question, there is no good answer. It’s going to depend on your need, how many people you’re trying to reach, and how focused your offering is. But the campaigns can work with any budget amount.
Rich: All right. How do we know if we should be diversifying into shopping or display ads, if it’s primarily our paid search ads that have been what has been plateaued?
Andrew: So shopping ads are primarily if you’re offering products versus lead generation services, versus services where you need to lead generation. And for products, they are often going to be the most cost-efficient way to get leads.
I usually combine them with search campaigns, test both. But shopping campaigns, which are now transitioning fully to performance max campaigns, are generally going to be the most effective way to advertise your products and get a good return on that ad spend, get good transaction coming through and good revenue.
Display campaigns are a bit of a different creature. They are more for if you have a budget for branding that you want to be able to spend and if you want to try remarketing. So reaching people who visited your site previously as they visit other websites, just during their normal work during the day, it’s more difficult to get direct lead generation or direct sales through display. Remarketing helps dial that in. Otherwise, you’re really more focused on branding and recognition.
Rich: All right. Do you ever find that using Bing or Microsoft ads is a good way to jumpstart campaigns if they’ve plateaued on Google?
Andrew: I don’t see it affecting Google campaigns. Honestly, we don’t have a lot of clients who, I hate to say it, even care about Bing. Just because it’s such a smaller platform compared to Google. It’s only about one sixth the size. So it is more effort to try to get that one to work. And it doesn’t have all the latest features of Google. Bing, at least so far for the most part, has been playing catch up for a number of years.
That said, there are some features that Google has taken away that were very nice that Bing still has, like the ability to see all of your search queries. So there is some benefit to using Bing. I would consider it as an add on. Once you have your Google campaigns up and running and some are working well, transplant them to Bing, make some of the updates they need to function correctly on that platform, and see if you can get some additional leads or sales that way.
Rich: In Google, are there any new ad formats or features that we should be testing out now to make our ad stand out?
Andrew: Yeah. Google is constantly rolling out new features. More recently, it’s not that new now but it became the only ad type available this summer, RSAs are responsive search ads. And probably most people are familiar with them now, but just very briefly, it allows you to specify a whole bunch of headlines, up to 15 headlines, four description lines, and other ad assets. And Google will combine them using its own algorithm to try to find combinations that seem to work better for your audience. So this was a very interesting change – forced change – it’s it does enable a bit of a simpler startup, because you can just throw your ideas into an ad and let Google take it from there. On the flip side, it also can lead to some very poor results.
So imagine again, especially with small businesses without a lot of traffic, if you put in 15 headlines, four description lines, let Google create all the possible combinations and test them. You’re talking about years of testing before you could get any significant data about what is actually working better for you.
So to make this new format work with any sort of testing assuming you want to learn what messages are working better and migrate towards those, you need to be a little smarter about it. You need to reduce the headlines and description lines. You need to pin headlines and descriptions to specific places to enable a better first start for the ads, and to enable focused testing of different messages within the ad, so you can actually still see how different messages perform. So that’s one of the biggest ones. It’s really caused an upheaval over the last year, forcing everyone to move to that new ad format.
Another big change is the push for performance max campaigns. I mentioned briefly before, Google is doing this first by migrating all shopping campaigns to performance max. And that migration is now almost complete, it will be soon. Which means that all the old shopping campaigns and smart shopping campaigns will be gone. All product ads will be handled through PMAX campaigns. And Google is trying to encourage the use of PMAX campaigns for other purposes as well, search and display.
So a PMAX campaign, if you don’t know what it is, it’s really a catch all for every possible way and place you could place an ad within Google’s framework. Which sounds great, right? You set up one campaign, or maybe a couple of them, and you can get your ads everywhere. That’s the promise of it. And they’re very simple to set up.
The problem is, you have very little control over those campaigns. Very little control over what the ads say, very little control over where they show, very little control over what audiences they show to, and very little ability to analyze the data that comes back. Unlike with other campaigns, we can’t dig down and see what parts of a Performance Max campaign are yielding the conversions that we care about, yielding the sales and qualified leads. So it makes it very difficult to optimize further. You can with some of the abilities provided. And Google has been slowly adding more features to Performance Max, allowing you to constrain keyword targeting in some ways. But it’s still very limited compared to the full control and ability you have with search campaigns, for example.
Rich: Excellent. I just want to circle back around. You had mentioned pinning certain titles in the RSA ads. Can you just go into a little bit more detail there? That’s not something I’m familiar with. Is it just that we’re limiting the number of headlines we’re using, or that we’re specifically pinning certain things to the top so they appear more often?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s more of the latter. So it was introduced, or at least described as a way to mimic the previous ad type. Where you specified, this is my headline one, this is my headline two, this is my headline three, this is my description one, description two. That’s what the ads used to be. With RSAs, you can mimic that by using pinning and saying this headline here, I only want to show in headline one, this one, I only want to show in headline two.
But it’s a little more flexible than that. You can also say, I want these three or four headlines to all be able to show in headline one, and then you let Google’s algorithm try them out and see which ones work. So you can take advantage of some of the machine learning there.
But also, this is how you can do testing. If you hold most of the ad content constant, and then, for example, create a distinct message you want to test, A versus B, you can pin those messages, for example, into the headline two spot. So this ad looks exactly the same except for the headline two message as this ad with a different headline two message. And over time, you can see if that message difference was significant enough to yield different performance data.
Rich: Okay. Now, some of the people who are listening may be “do it yourselfers”, or they may just have a very small budget and wouldn’t be the right type of clients to go and get outside help. For those people, what recommendations do you have for them to be able to self-diagnose their own issues, identify improvement opportunities, and maybe what free tools or reports might you recommend to get them started?
Andrew: Okay, so we mentioned a few things there. One, I would again recommend downloading our five red flags checklist to give you a sense of if the account is already starting to run off the rails a bit. Second, as far as tools and reports that are useful, of course Google ads, tightly coupled with that is Google ads editor. And if you have to manage a lot of campaigns or ad groups, that tool makes it much easier to do. It’s something you download to your desktop and manage campaigns that way.
Google Analytics, another free tool, is still the gold standard for analyzing your overall traffic, not just Google Ads traffic. So you can see how Google Ads fits into all the traffic your website is receiving and how all of it is working for you. Google Tag Manager is important for setup for conversion tracking. If you’re offering products for sale, then Google Merchant Center is essential. And a final free Google tool I’ll mention is Looker Studio, which gives you some more advanced reporting and visualization possibilities.
We use all those tools with our clients. They’re all pretty critical for the ecosystem. Additionally, there are some third-party paid tools we use, some of which have some free aspects to them that you can try out. One is called SpyFu, which gives you the ability to look and see what your competitors are doing, both in PPC and SEO, organic search results.
Another is CallRail, which gives you the ability to track phone calls, just like you can track form submissions and count those as qualified leads for your account to optimize for. Another is Adalysis, which is a tool created by Brad Geddes, who’s a well-known person in the PPC field. That offers a number of features to help you catch issues in your accounts. The one I use it for the most is the A/B ad testing, because it automatically tells you when a certain test has reached a statistically significant conclusion, and you can feel good about declaring winners and losers and moving on.
Another important tool that also offers a lot for free is HubSpot. If you don’t have any other sort of CRM, that is a fantastic one to set up and use. And a final one that’s useful sometimes is Zapier. That allows you to set up all sorts of different connections between different tools. I use it, because I use another tool I guess I can mention, called Typeform, which is great for setting up custom forms.
And I use Zapier to send type form data back into Google ads. I won’t go into the details, it’s very interesting and useful how you can combine all this data together.
Rich: Awesome. So obviously Google has AI and machine learning working behind the scenes, and this is where all that data goes to so it can make better decisions. What role does AI play in your mind for the kind of hands on? Like are you using AI right now in any form of generative AI for the ads themselves or the landing pages or any additional sort of research and recommendations?
Andrew: Yeah, we do. So I’ve been using primarily ChatGPT and also Bard, as it’s become, started to catch up mostly for brainstorming ad messaging, for brainstorming and finding different ways that prospects are talking about your service or product to make sure the ads are going to incorporate that, and it’s very good for that. You can come up with so many different ways of saying what you’re trying to say and can help get the juices flowing and help you find the right solution. It’s really as an assistant tool, right? It can’t do it for you, but it can help generate some great ideas that you can then run with.
But additionally within Google for years now, their smart bidding is also an AI. It’s also an algorithm that crunches a tremendous amount of data and helps make decisions for optimizing your account to get more of what you’re trying to get. And there are third party tools that are trying to do the same thing, offering different ways to handle bidding. It may change in the future. Possibly some of those third-party tools will really become a breakout success. But at the moment, it’s still hard to see how they could do better than Google’s own AI bidding algorithm, because a Google pours a ton of money into it with a lot of smart people and only Google has access to all of the data on the advertising platform.
Definitely take advantage of smart bidding within Google where you can, especially if you have enough data to feed it reliably. And I’m sure there’ll be more in the future about how AI can help us with all of this.
Rich: Awesome. As you’re working with your clients, do you find that most of the businesses that come to you are weak in the ads department or weak in the conversions department, like getting people to actually take that final action off on landing page? And is your approach to fixing their problem different on one versus the other?
Andrew: Yeah. A good question. The entire path needs to work from the people that we’re targeting so we get them to see the ads, to what the ad says to them being brought to a landing page that reinforces what the ad says, and delivers on that promise and then gets them to convert sending a form making a phone call without raising red flags and causing them to bounce and go away.
So we need to analyze this entire process with clients. And we do. And we often suggest landing page changes or new landing page versions to test. Because it seems like from our experience, they might work better for Google ads lead generation. Which is for the most part, cold lead generation, people who don’t know who you are need to be treated a bit differently than people who do.
And then of course we handle everything upstream of that, the ad messaging, the targeting, as far as which people need the most help with it’s really across the board. I will say though, that with our more established customers, they do tend to have very good websites, very good landing pages, and a conversion flow that has been proven out across many channels, not just Google ads. So for them, their biggest need tends to be us helping them getting accurate conversion tracking and setting up a better account structure to meet their business objectives.
Rich: Excellent. Andrew, this has been very helpful for anybody, whether they’re just getting started or they have an established and flatlining or plateauing ad campaign running. If people want to learn more about you, more about Prometheus PPC, where can we send them?
Andrew: Sure. Please just go to my website, PrometheusPPC.com. You can learn about my agency, you can learn more about me and my background and my team. I have a good FAQ there that explains how we work with you, what makes us different from other agencies, and hopefully better, for some of you out there listening. And I’d be delighted to take a look and see if we can help you.
Rich: And that’s where they can find the ‘5 red flags’ download too, correct?
Andrew: Yes. Yes. From the main menu, we have a content pull down that lists the ‘5 red flags checklist’, our blog, and some other content they can look at.
Rich: Awesome. And we’ll link to those in the show notes. Andrew, thank you so much for coming by today. Really appreciate chatting with you.
Andrew: Thank you, Rich. It was a lot of fun.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.