I’ve spent over $1 million on Google Adwords – 10 lessons I learned

I have managed multiple millions of dollars of Adwords spend over my career, but the stat that makes me most proud is that I have spent over $1 million of my own money, as a self-employed entrepreneur, on Google Adwords. Here’s a screenshot of my Adwords account:

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 14.34.52

£714,312.50 is, at today’s exchange rate, $1,089,480.14. As you can see from the screenshot, the vast majority of spend is on the search network with only £20,275,68 spent on the display network (mainly wasted money, which I’ll explain later). The average cost per conversion is £14.57, although this is skewed because there have been tracking issues along the way. Adwords has generated over 57,000 conversions over the lifetime of the account.

I have written this article to tell you what I have learned about Google Adwords by spending over $1 million. First let me tell you the nature of my business and why I have given Adwords so much of my money – affiliate marketing.


Affiliate Marketing

A pretty simple concept, affiliate marketing is essentially using your own site/s to generate sales or leads for another company, or ‘merchant’. In 2005 I decided to try my hand at lead generation, and became a lead generation affiliate. It involved creating my own websites which I would drive traffic to and generate applications (leads). These applications would be sold to a relevant merchant on a ‘cost per lead’ basis. As long as the cost per lead I was getting from Google Adwords came under the cost per lead I was being paid by the merchant, I was making money. Much of affiliate marketing is to do with sending traffic to merchants via links or banners. In my opinion lead generation is the best form of affiliate marketing because it reduces the reliance on tracking technology, and also reliance on the merchant’s website to effectively convert the traffic you are sending them. By generating the leads yourself and getting paid ‘per lead’, you are in control of your own conversion rate. It’s a much more reliable business model.

So here’s what I learned from giving Adwords over $1 million. Hopefully these lessons will help you with your own Adwords efforts:


1) Google Adwords can provide you with a real, viable work-from-home business

I’ve been self-employed since 2005. That’s 10 years of working from home, on my own, being able to be there as my 3 children grow up. I know people with high-powered, highly-paid jobs who deeply regret not having had more time to spend with their kids as they grew up. Because what is the point of any job? To provide for your family. In fact the reason most people work is so that they can earn enough money to stop working. Time-freedom is what everyone craves, and Google has given me that. I may not be a multi-millionaire, but this is no longer my aim – my aim is to continue to bring in enough money to provide for my family AND have enough time to enjoy all the special moments with them. Passive income is an over-used phrase in online marketing, but with Adwords I can say from experience that virtually passive income is definitely possible. Shameless plug for my course on how to do this: How to Make Money Using Google Adwords.


2) Google is not going away

When I started out in 2005, I viewed affiliate marketing as a stop-gap – a temporary experiment while I was looking for a ‘proper’ job. Ten years later and I’m still using Google Adwords to make money. Ignore all the gurus who tell you that you can’t rely on one traffic source for your business – Adwords has been the source of roughly 90% of my affiliate earnings and it’s not going away any time soon. Unless you do something stupid to get your account banned, you can always rely on Google for traffic, and lots of it. This is not to say you don’t have to adapt and move with the times – I will get to that in due course.


3) Focus on what makes you money and maximise it

Once you find a formula for making money, you need to throw yourself into it 100%. When I say ‘formula for making money’ I mean something that generates good income, enough to support you/your family month to month. And when I say ‘throw yourself into it’, I mean this: it’s easy to find a niche, start making money and then sit back. After all, most people are working because they want to stop working right? If you get lazy, which has happened to me on several occasions over the last decade, the following things will happen:

a) The competition will quickly catch up and your earnings will go down

b) You will lose motivation, which once gone is hard to get back

c) You will become unhappy

In 2006/7 conditions were perfect for lead generation affiliates. Google Adwords was still relatively cheap, Microsoft launched it’s Adcenter (now BingAds), and merchants were paying a high price for leads. Demand outstripped supply, and the affiliate was in prime position to take advantage. My business did exceptionally well in this period, but I do feel that had I been a little more motivated and determined, it could have done much better. I did not exploit the opportunity that was there to the maximum, and it’s a mistake I will not make again. In fact the lack of motivation to knuckle down in that period led to an anxiety problem that I thankfully managed to overcome a couple of years later, but it was an unpleasant episode.


4) The best way to make money online is to become an expert in one thing rather than a ‘jack of all trades’

When you look at successful people in life, one common theme is that they usually excel in one particular field or niche. Jamie Oliver is a chef – he has made his fortune by becoming a culinary expert. The same principle applies online. If you can become an expert in one particular niche, like Adwords, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN or email marketing, you will find that people are more likely to pay for your services or courses. Warrior Forum seems to be full of ‘internet marketers’ who don’t have a specialist subject, but who are trying to sell courses on often vague concepts like ‘self-improvement’. With all due respect, people are more likely to pay people with specific skills because they want a problem solved. If you can establish yourself as a Google Adwords expert you will soon be contacted by companies who are struggling to make Adwords work for their business. But you can’t just pitch yourself as an expert without having the necessary experience – there are too many people trying to ‘fake it ’til they make it’ in the online marketing industry, and that is damaging for the industry as a whole.

Focusing on one discipline can be tedious and boring at times but it’s the best way to make money online. If you stick to what you know, what you’re good at and what you have more than a vague passing interest in, you will probably succeed where others fail.


5) Don’t bother with any online ‘qualifications’

I have managed millions of dollars of Adwords spend in the past decade. But anyone could have done that. The most important learning exercise for me was spending over $1 million of my own money on Google Adwords. I didn’t have $1 million to start with of course – this has been an accumulation over the years, ploughing profits back into Adwords to generate more leads, and more profit. If a client doesn’t show a positive ROI from Adwords, the PPC agency still gets paid because most of them work on a % of spend model. But if you’re using your own money, you simply HAVE to produce a positive ROI. You can not factor in things like brand awareness because that doesn’t make you money in the short to medium term. You can not afford to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on the display network if it is not producing what you need to at least break even. In my case I have a family to feed and there is no greater motivation than that.

By spending your own money on Google you quickly learn how important it is to not waste money. Every single click that doesn’t result in a conversion needs to be examined so that your campaign can be improved. This is so much more important in 2015, where Adwords prices are relatively high compared to a few years ago. This ‘hands-on’ experience, where if you lose money you don’t still get paid, has been invaluable to me.

If I took the Google Adwords exam tomorrow I don’t know how I would do. I’m not convinced I would even pass with flying colours. I really wouldn’t bother with anything like this – you are far better off spending your time in your campaigns getting some hands-on experience with Adwords, trying to minimise mistakes but learning from any you do make. The theory is all well and good, but it’s the practice that helps you make a living.


6) Google Adwords is the best source of leads and sales for your business, bar none

Ignore all the buzz around social media, because Adwords is still the King of conversions for your business. I heard an online marketing ‘expert’ recently announce that everyone had packed up and moved to Facebook. It’s not true, and anyone who has done that is not likely to succeed.

Consider the reasons why you might log onto Facebook: to see what your friends are up to, to moan or brag about something, or to post a picture of your lunch. You never visit Facebook because you’re looking to buy something. Compare this with Google – if you want a car insurance quote, you’re probably going to perform a Google search for ‘cheap car insurance quote’ or ‘best car insurance company’. The difference is obvious – you’re in a buying mindset. People who visit Google are much further along the buying cycle than people on Facebook or Twitter. In short, the traffic is far more likely to convert into sales. For this reason, I would not recommend the Google Display Network to new advertisers – as you can see from the screenshot above, it cost me £20,000 to learn this lesson.

A quick word on Bing. I love BingAds because their customer service is excellent, their traffic is generally cheaper than Adwords and the conversion results are pretty much the same – it’s still paid search after all. The only problem with BingAds is the lack of volume – 10-15% of the paid search market in the UK, although Microsoft has more of a foothold in the US with around 30% market share. BingAds should definitely be a part of your paid search marketing mix, but Google Adwords still reigns supreme due to sheer volume of sales.


7) SEO is not a reliable source of income

There have been many times when I have looked with envy at the sites appearing at the top of the natural listings for keywords I target with Adwords. They are getting their sales for free whereas I have to pay a fortune for them! I have dabbled in SEO for this reason, but it has never really worked and it’s far too unstable in my opinion. Your site is truly at the mercy of a Google update like Panda or Penguin which is fast and brutal. You may spend 9 months SEO-ing your site, only to see your hard work vanish overnight for no good reason. Not only is PPC on Adwords quicker – it’s also far more reliable, as you would have to do something pretty bad to get your account banned and lose this source of traffic. Added to that is the increasing dominance of ads on the search results. Search Google on your mobile and you have to scroll down to see any results that are not Adwords placements. This is unsurprising, and in the battle between paid ads and natural results there is only going to be one winner.


8) You must be prepared to adapt quickly to change, or risk getting left behind

This lesson is true for the offline world as well as online – in order to survive businesses need to adapt. The online marketing industry is fiercely competitive and rapidly changing. The biggest winners are those who ‘get in early’, and I have seen several examples over the years which back this up. For instance, if you were a beta tester for Microsoft AdCenter back in 2006, you got a few months’ worth of traffic for 1-2 cents a click, when the equivalent Adwords clicks were costing up to $20. For example, in 2011 if you started experimenting with mobile Adwords ads you could get high volume of cheap clicks, until the competition finally caught up. I decided to throw myself into mobile in 2011, based on my mobile traffic stats which had jumped from 6% to 12% in less than a year. I spotted the opportunity and started to build mobile-optimised websites, realising that there was a key difference between a ‘mobile-friendly’ website and a heavily optimised one. Using mobile redirection scripts which served the mobile versions to people who were on their smartphones, I ran several successful mobile-only campaigns for large lead buyers. They found (and still find) that depending on the niche, mobile leads convert better than desktop leads. And the volume is increasing all the time. This all changed in 2012 when Google introduced Enhanced Campaigns – you can no longer run mobile-only campaigns on Adwords. This prompted me to go back to a hybrid model, and look into other mobile traffic sources which I still have great success with to this day.

In terms of what is ‘hot’ right now, I would still say mobile and in particular mobile pay per call offers – this is where you get paid for a phone call which lasts over a set amount of time (1-2 mins). I am also seeing excellent results from Remarketing campaigns – requires a bit of effort to set up but it’s worth it. And if Apple ever releases it’s own search engine, the people who get in first are the ones who are going to make a lot of money.


9) Common sense is far more useful than any online tool

By online tool I mean anything which is designed to help your Adwords campaigns succeed. This includes Google’s Keyword Planner and their automated bidding options. You should try to retain as much control of your campaigns as you can, despite Google’s increasing efforts to do it all for you. One prime example of this is Adwords Express. Choosing this over a standard Adwords campaign will seriously restrict the control you can exert over your own campaigns in terms of settings, bids & keywords – I can see why it is tempting to an Adwords novice but I would never recommend it.

The problem with the Keyword Planner is that everyone uses it. It’s good for traffic estimates and ideas for new keywords but don’t let this take precedence over your own common sense. The real way to make money with Google Adwords is to put yourself in the shoes of one of your potential customers – what do you want them to search for to see your ad?


10) Be careful whose advice you take

Most people who offer advice on the internet in the online marketing space are doing so for one reason only – they have something that they want to sell you. Whether that is an online course, consultancy, training or agency services, they are not writing all this advice for free. I am no exception of course – it only too me 4 paragraphs of this article to mention and link to my Udemy course (there you go again in case you missed it).

Now that I’ve plugged my course I can offer you some sage advice. Take it or leave it – I have been in this game for 10 years so I think I’ve learned something! This actually comes from the heart, believe it or not:

Whether it’s Twitter, podcasts or online marketing forums, the world is awash with people who think that the real way to make money online is to teach people how to make money online. So they will trot out a load of old nonsense (in my opinion) about how to find a niche that you have a ‘passion’ in, create an ‘info-product’, build your ‘tribe’ and watch the money roll in. People will try this, find that it doesn’t bring in any more than pocket money, realise that the online gurus seem to be making loads of money teaching people how to make money online, and start teaching people how to make money online. There must be thousands of people doing this, and it’s frightening when you think that most of them are teaching something that they have never personally achieved. Reminds me of a talk I saw a few years back: “How to SEO like a Super Affiliate”. The speaker’s opening sentence was “I’d just like to point out that I am not, or ever have been, a Super Affiliate”. I walked out.

I won’t lie and say that my online income from Adwords has been steadily increasing since I started. It has been a mixture of good and bad times. I have never not earned money online though, and the fact I have been self-employed for 10 years is testament to that. I too have joined the ranks of the ‘teachers’, the difference being that I have actually succeeded in making money online and I see teaching as the next logical step to further my career and income.

Don’t get bogged down in forums full of teachers. Only use online marketing podcasts as a brief ‘pick me up’ if you’re in need of some motivation, as otherwise you will flounder. Initially you will be galvanised with such advice as: ‘build a squeeze page’, ‘grow your tribe’, ‘start a podcast’, ‘create an online course’. Then after some time you will realise that the advice is meaningless and you are faced with a myriad of options and problems facing you – total overwhelm – and nothing on these podcasts or forums is ever explained step-by-step. Why would it be? – it’s free, and they want you to buy their course.



This article took me longer to write than I expected, so if you’ve reached this point then I salute you – thank you for reading. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments, or if you’re serious about making Google Adwords a success I would highly recommend you leave me your email to receive a free guide to getting started with Adwords. If you’re lucky I may try to sell you an Adwords course down the line…

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About The Author

Michael Madew

PPC expert with over 10 years' experience in creating and managing highly profitable PPC campaigns on Google Adwords, Bing Ads and other paid search platforms.

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