Running PPC ads is one of the most effective ways to generate traffic and boost sales. But many brands that use it don’t get the best out of it. Their AdWords campaigns struggle, dogged by poor ROI and weak, underwhelming results. In the end, the business is left wondering whether AdWords or PPC is even right for them. But many issues with paid search marketing campaigns are an easy fix away from transforming themselves into positive assets. So let’s figure out where your PPC campaign is going off the rails – and what to do about it.

1. Your competitors are bidding on the same keywords

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If that’s happening, it can force your campaign down the list and result in falling impressions. It can be the result of natural competition or a direct, deliberate attempt to “steal” your traffic. It’s usually a short-term tactic but it can be crazy-making while it lasts.

The Fix: Consider switching to greater emphasis on long-tail keywords. They can drive up clicks significantly, and each one has little competition – meaning, lower cost. (Sometimes better keyword research can accomplish this too.) You can parlay your high Quality Score into super-low CPC and outflank a competitor who’s trying to muscle in on your patch by buying up all your close-to-the-head keywords. In the process, they’re hurting their Quality Score and damaging their long-term chances of good rankings.

2. Your Quality Score is falling

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First, find out if your Quality Score really is falling. Quality Scores are hidden by default, but you can discover them. Go to Keywords in your AdWords account, then click Customize Columns > Attributes and select Add in the Quality Score row and Apply to save. Now you’ll have a Quality Score column in your AdWords data.

That will let you know if your score really is slipping. If it is, it’s driving your CPC up and your position down, so it sucks and it needs to be fixed. But why is it slipping?

Google uses your landing page’s relevance and quality and the click-through rates of your ads to determine your Quality Score. So a well-designed campaign should organically produce a good Quality Score, since the keywords you’re using and the ads you’re posting should be relevant and lead to a relevant, high quality landing page. (If it’s so new that it hasn’t generated any traffic, you’ll be assigned a Quality Score – usually 6 if there’s no data to go on – which will update when there is data.)

The Fix: The place to start with a tumbling Quality Score is by checking the trends in your timeline. Go through each keyword group and assess its score, then its trend; if it’s trending downwards, you need to increase ad CTR and relevance. You can do that by narrowing your keyword groupings – shave them down to 10 or less in each group – and by adding a narrower match than the one you’re using at the moment (e.g. phrase match if you’re using modified broad) and negative keywords. You might also want to look at hiring a copywriter – bad ad copy can put your Quality Score into a swan dive just as fast as any other factor.

Finally, your Quality Score falling might not actually matter that much: if it’s falling but remaining above 7, you’re into an area – Quality Scores of 7, 8, 9 and 10 – where it’s hard to know exactly why scores change; they can be volatile, skip several numbers (leaping from 7 to 10 without ever touching, say, 8) and react very fast to only incidental changes. If you’re over 7, you’ve won and further effort is probably better spent elsewhere.

3. You’re hitting your budget every day

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If you’re bumping into the ceiling of your budget on a daily basis, or any kind of a regular basis, that’s doing your campaign no good at all. Your ads, warns Google’s own page on the subject, “might not show up as frequently as you’d like – or might not show at all.”

The Fix: Consider making yourself some room by expanding your budget. If that’s not an option, seek to reduce your CPC on some keywords or weight your campaign toward less expensive keywords.

4. Your negative keywords are holding you back

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Negative keywords further define the scope of your campaign by ensuring that you don’t appear in searches that use certain words. If you run a Jaguar showroom, this would ensure that you only got traffic from people looking for luxury automobiles and not those interested in big cats, for instance. Judicious use of negative keywords can save significant time and money and greatly improve the accuracy and effectiveness of your campaign. But they can also prevent your ad from showing where it should.

The Fix: This one’s simple to solve. Google has an alerts system that will tell you if your ad isn’t showing because of a negative keyword, allowing you to trim your negative keyword lists to ensure better accuracy. It’s not unheard-of for campaigns to be both targeting a keyword, and avoiding it as a negative keyword. That’s not going to lead to good results, but again, it’s fairly simple to straighten out.

5. Your CTR has slumped

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At first glance, a low CTR might not seem like a huge deal. Not ideal, but hardly a key metric either. It’s not like you’re doing Pay-Per-Not-Click campaigns, right? If you only pay for people who click, then why do those who look but don’t click even matter?

Mainly because it affects your Quality Score. Since your CPC is calculated by dividing the Ad Rank of the advertiser immediately below you by your Quality Score, you really, really want a high Quality Score because it slashes your CPC and increases your chances of getting seen in the first place. It’s an overwhelmingly important metric and CTR has an overwhelming effect on it: Google essentially lets users decide, by clicking or not clicking, how worthy you are in terms of Quality Score.

And your Quality Score is in competition with other brands’ Quality Scores: the Ad Rank of the advertiser below you is calculated by dividing their average CPC by… you guessed it. Their Quality Score. The more money they have to throw at a keyword, the more likely you are to get swamped. However, Quality Score is worth just as much as cash spend and it’s within the reach of advertisers with a far smaller budget. It’s an equalizer like no other – and the key to it is CTR. CTR is usually regarded as being OK to good if it’s between 2% and 3%, with 1% or below being regarded as low and a potential cause of PPC woes.

The Fix: You need to look at three things: your position, your relevance and the internals of your PPC – Quality Score and CPC. First, let’s talk position. There’s a huge disconnect between where advertisers appear and where customer click. 24% of advertisers appear at the top of the page and 65% on the right; but 85% of consumers click at the top of the page and only 13% on the right. (Things are even worse at the bottom of the page!) If you want better position, you have to either increase your CPC cap or Quality Score.

Relevance has a massive effect on CTR. How do you improve relevance? By tightening up your target groups. For specific ads, there’s a very sharp drop-off in CTR as keywords get less relevant. It makes no economic sense to pack your ad group with tangentially connected keywords if they’re actually harming your CTR, so go through your groups and make sure your keywords are locked in tight. (Check up on your own ads and the competition with the Google Ad Preview Tool!)

Finally, your Quality Score – itself largely a product of CTR – can affect your CTR. If that sounds like a vicious circle, that’s because it is one. One fix would be to boost your CPC cap on the most relevant keywords, while another might be to focus on relevance.

6. You’re getting plenty of clicks but no conversions

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When we start using different metrics to indicate our success, it’s easy to mistake them for success. Lots of clicks? Success! Lots of traffic? Success! But what really counts is selling things to people. Everything else either leads to conversions or it’s leading us astray. Fishermen don’t want the fish to bite – they want them in the net. If you’re getting lots of bites, but landing no fish, what’s happening?

The Fix: Start with traffic relevancy. Young campaigns, especially, often attract a larger than average portion of basically non-relevant traffic. You’ll find these people under Other Search Terms in your Search Query Report in Analytics.

And if that is what’s happening, try looking in Matched Search Query in your Search Query Report. That will show you the search terms of each user who clicked through from your PPC campaign. You might find instances where negative keywords would do you a lot of good by removing non-relevant traffic.

You should also look to keyword groupings, tightening them and watching the effect on traffic until the vast majority of your traffic is highly relevant, whilst monitoring conversions to see if that’s at the root of the problem. (If it isn’t now, it soon will be if you don’t fix it.)

Finally, issues with website architecture, design and copy are beyond the strict scope of this article but you should look there too, to make sure your campaign isn’t falling at the last hurdle thanks to your landing pages!

Summing it up

On reading through this guide, you’ll probably notice that everything depends on everything else: CTR affects Quality Score, which affects CTR, for instance. One reason why PPC campaigns can slump so catastrophically is that all the pieces tend to reinforce each other. In a way, that’s good news: get some leverage, rejuvenate your campaign with tighter key-wording, lower CPC caps and dialing in relevance, and you’ll hit the problem from all angles.