10 Lessons I’ve Learnt From 10 Years of PPC


by Michael Madew

I was introduced to pay per click marketing in late 2003. I staggered out of University with a degree in History and absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do with my life, except some vague ambition to be a sports journalist. A few failed interviews later and I found myself wondering whether that was the right path for me. Then a chance conversation with a friend led to an interview at a digital marketing agency, a startup founded by a guy who had made a small fortune in the dot com boom a few years earlier.

I got the job, and being one of the first employees was placed in charge of setting up PPC accounts, and using these to drive leads to our initial clients. It was definitely a case of ‘in at the deep end’ – I had barely any experience of using the internet let alone the intricacies of Google Adwords and the other PPC platforms. Yet there I was, with sole responsibility of managing thousands of pounds of PPC spend a day on Adwords, Overture (Yahoo!), and Espotting amongst others.

Fast forward 10 years and I’m now a PPC consultant, using my 10 years’  experience to help save my clients thousands of pounds on their PPC spend by implementing simple strategies with proven results. 7 of those 10 years have been spent as a self-employed lead generation affiliate, using PPC to drive traffic and revenue in an ever-changing landscape. Believe me, when you’re spending your own money on Google Adwords and you’re using it as a means to feed your family, you quickly learn how to keep wasted clicks down to an absolute minimum. It is this knowledge I now pass on to my clients, and I share with them the following lessons I have learnt from a decade of PPC. Many of these have been learnt the hard way…


Lesson 1: More time on PPC does not equal more profit

Most jobs in life have a simple formula: the more work you do, the more money you make. This is simply not true of PPC campaigns. You can spend an extra 5 hours a day on your campaigns and if you’re not careful your efforts can actually make a campaign worse. Google is renowned for keeping it’s cards very close to it’s chest – they will never explicitly reveal how to get a 10/10 Quality Score for your keywords. Like SEO, they give you vague guidelines but nothing concrete, and they keep changing the goalposts. How does one cope in such a tricky environment?

The bulk of the work involved in a PPC campaign, especially an Adwords campaign, is in the initial setup. Get your settings, keywords, ads, adgroups, bids, tracking and landing pages right from the start and you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of success. Some unscrupulous PPC agencies will tell you how much work is involved in the ongoing maintenance and management of a campaign (to justify their fees), but my advice has always been that once a campaign is profitable you should let it continue to make you money for as long as possible. Like a spinning plate on a stick, you may have to make minor adjustments to keep it going, but mess with it too much and you risk the whole thing toppling down.

A profitable PPC campaign is one of the purest forms of passive income available online. Once you’ve got the formula right you should use the free time either enjoying your life or focusing on building other aspects of your business.


Lesson 2: In general, Google Display Network does not work

On the face of it, opting for your ads to appear on the Google Display Network (GDN) is enticing due to the millions of impressions and cheaper clicks. Take a look at this screenshot from my own Adwords campaign:

The first column is clicks - 16 times more clicks were generated on the search network than GDN. But look at the second column. GDN generated 118 million impressions for those 22,000 clicks, a click through rate of 0.02%. Search generated less than a quarter of impressions for 16 times more clicks. The last 2 columns are average cost per click (CPC), and total spend. Yes, it cost me £20,000 of my own money to figure out that GDN doesn't work. Lesson learnt the hard way.

"But the CPC was cheaper on the display network!" I hear you cry. Correct, and I'm also getting my brand and ads in front of 118 million people compared to 24 million on search. But this is irrelevant as far as making money is concerned. Because conversion from click to sale should be your only consideration when running a PPC campaign. 'Brand awareness' provides a means for agencies to spend more of your money and rack up more fees without any accountability or measure of success. I realise this view is controversial, especially to any agency bods who may be reading this. I've only acquired this viewpoint since spending my own money on PPC. When budgets are tight you simply can not justify spending money on anything other than clicks which leads to measured, tangible profit on a PPC campaign. And the fact is that comparatively speaking, GDN does not convert.

It's not difficult to see why GDN compares so badly to Google search when looking at conversions. With search, people have actively and purposefully searched for your product or service before they even see your ad. If your ad is relevant, they will click it, visit your website and hopefully buy from you there and then. The intent was there from the outset. With GDN, as with Facebook Ads, you're pushing ads to people who aren't actively looking for what you're selling. This is why the clicks are cheaper. To stand out on GDN you must make your ad more visible (read: more enticing), and if you can't deliver what you promise in your ad you are not likely to convert the visitor into a customer. The other day I created a minor storm on the Twitter #ppcchat hashtag by suggesting that GDN is a waste of money. Apparently a few have made it work in certain niches but I'm dubious, and these guys are mainly agency-side who wouldn't want to diss GDN as it makes them more money, and they will be pushing ideas of 'branding' to their clients.

In my experience, GDN is a waste of money and you should disable it from the start. Even if you're generating applications from it at a relatively cheap cost you will probably find that these applications are clogging up your call centre and simply not converting at the required level, because these applicants started their journey as opportunist browsers rather than active searchers for your product or service.


Lesson 3: You need to adapt quickly in a constantly changing environment

Every lucrative PPC niche will eventually become saturated. The good news is that there are almost endless opportunities. By thinking outside the box I mean doing things that your competitors don't, or doing these things earlier than them. Keyword research is one example. Most companies will use the Google Keyword Planner to create their keyword lists. It's a useful tool, but everyone uses it. You know your business better than anyone. You need to put yourself in the shoes of one of your potential customers and really think about what kind of phrases they will be searching for on Google in order to find you. If you're a loan company, Google Keyword Planner will feed you hundreds of phrases with 'loan' in them. But your potential customer may be searching for 'cheap credit', or 'how to borrow money safely', or 'can't afford credit card repayments'. If you sell umbrellas they may be searching for 'how to stay dry in the rain' rather than phrases including the word 'umbrella'. You get the idea...

Here's an example of doing things early. Until early 2006 the ads on MSN (Microsoft Search Network) were supplied by Overture, which was owned by Yahoo!. Then Microsoft decided to ditch Yahoo! and develop their own PPC platform. The new service was MSN adCenter, and I was one of a few people who applied to take part in their beta testing. I was accepted, and for 2-3 months my ads appeared on MSN with almost no competition. £0.03 per click for the top spot in several financial niches. Companies on Adwords were spending upwards of £10 per click for the same keyword. The lack of competition at this point on MSN made the volume of conversions comparable with Adwords.

You need to be constantly on the lookout for new opportunities in paid search as this is where big money can be made, albeit for a limited time. If Apple ever release their own search engine and PPC platform it will create a massive opportunity for those who get in early. The rise of voice recognition and Google's Hummingbird update show how search is constantly evolving at a rapid pace, and that you need to think outside the box to stay ahead of the game.


Lesson 4: PPC success is more down to website conversion optimisation than anything else

You can have the best PPC campaign in the world with Quality Scores of 10/10 across the board. But if your website is not optimised for conversion then you're doomed to fail and you will waste your money. More time should be spent on optimising your website for conversions than anything else. You need to focus your efforts on providing a smooth and consistent journey for your potential customer, from the moment they see your ad to the moment they actually buy something from your business.

First impressions count online. It's all the more important with PPC as you have just paid money in order for the potential customer to see your website. You've got a few seconds at this point to grab their attention and deliver an irresistible call to action. If they don't like what they see, they will probably never return. Much will obviously depend on the mindset and demographic of that visitor at that very moment in time, but you don't want to be losing customers by giving them a poor user experience. Cluttered websites with loads of links and no obvious call to action should not be part of your PPC plans. You need to use separate landing pages that give you the very best chance of a conversion with minimal on-page distractions and a clear message.


Lesson 5: Negative keywords are very important

In every profitable PPC campaign I have ever run, I have created more negative keywords than normal keywords. The importance of negative keywords can not be understated. You're likely to use a mixture of match-types within your Adwords campaign in order to provide yourself or your client with the right volume of highly targeted traffic. I nearly always recommend modified broad match to my clients as the perfect balance between volume and targeting. But it only works alongside a thoroughly exhaustive negative keyword list. You do not want your ads to be seen by anybody who is searching for something you don't offer, because they WILL click on your ad and waste your budget. You don't have enough space on your ad to tell these people why they shouldn't be clicking on it, so make sure they don't see it at all by excluding their searches from your campaign.

Negative keyword research is based on 2 things. Firstly on stats gathered from your tracking of exact keyword searches. Secondly on your own common sense. For instance, if you sell a product that is searched for as an acronym, is that acronym shared by anything else and can you find negative keywords associated with that?


Lesson 6: Google is your best friend and your worst enemy

Why is Google your best friend? Because they dominate the PPC market. If you want real volume of conversions from your PPC efforts, you need to be using Google Adwords. The traffic is excellent because people are actively searching for your product. Forget Facebook - people go on there to find out what their friends are doing, complain about something or like funny pictures of cats. They are not going there with any intention to buy anything. You can get traffic from Facebook, but the conversions will be nowhere near as good as Adwords. Bing is like Google without the volume of traffic. It's better than Google in a lot of ways, but the lack of traffic will eventually send you running to Adwords.

Why is Google your worst enemy? Because they are constantly changing the goalposts of what's required to run a successful PPC campaign. They will never tell you explicitly how to achieve a 10/10 Quality Score. And their ultimate aim is to get you to spend more money with them, so any offers from them to 'optimise your campaign' will usually end in disaster. On 2 occasions I have allowed Google 'Experts' to optimise my campaigns, and on both occasions I ended up losing a lot of money because of it. They simply don't understand your business like you do - how can they be expected to? They may improve your impression > click conversion rate and get you more traffic, but that traffic is not likely to be as targeted, or convert as well as your own efforts.


Lesson 7: Don't do anything that could get you banned from Adwords

Have you ever had the urge to open a second Google account and bid on the same keywords so that you can push your competitors further down the page and dominate the top spots for your particular keywords? Or thought about running a slightly dodgy but extremely profitable 'direct to merchant' affiliate offer?


Don't ever do anything remotely 'dodgy' that could piss Google off. If you get banned from Adwords, you are usually banned for life. I was banned from Adsense about 6 years ago. I was the innocent party - fraudulent clicks had been detected on my account and the Adsense team shut down my account. I can only assume that they thought it was me, clicking my own ads from some remote IP address. I say assume because they never give you any details. I believe that my account was shut down due to an unscrupulous competitor clicking my ads in order to get me banned. This is what I told them on appeal, but they rejected it. Like Adsense, with Adwords you get one appeal. If they reject this you are banned for life. FOR EVER. After this point they do the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "LALALALALA".

If you're banned from Adwords you've just lost a huge proportion of the PPC market. And nothing you do will get you reinstated, so don't even bother. A week after I was banned from Adsense, I saw the UK CEO of Google on a TV business show talking about his son's recent interest in rugby. So desperate was I to get my Adsense account back at the time that I sent him a brand new rugby ball and equipment for his son, along with a polite letter asking him to authorise a second appeal for me as I had clearly been wrongly banned. I didn't even receive an acknowledgment of the gift. I wonder how many 'gifts' these guys receive every day...

The point I'm making is this: never do anything that Google may even remotely frown upon. It's simply not worth the risk.


Lesson 8: You Should Embrace Mobile Search

In 2011 I spotted an opportunity. My Adwords campaigns were running well at the time. I spotted on Google Analytics that my traffic from mobile devices had doubled from 6% to 12% in the space of a few months. More and more people were viewing my sites from their smartphones. The problem was that my site was delivering a poor user experience on mobile. At this stage mobile ads were switched off and all the traffic was from natural search.

Realising that my mobile traffic was valuable and could convert if the sites were mobile-friendly, I hired a developer to create a mobile version of my biggest site. I plumped for a standalone mobile version rather than a responsive design as I felt that the site would convert better if it was stripped down and designed in a minimalist style, from scratch. Stripping the site down would also result in quicker loading times which is such an important consideration for mobile PPC campaigns.

The mobile version turned out to be a huge success. The purpose of the site was to generate applications for people looking for a certain product in the financial sector. I reduced the length of the application form to 6 fields. 5-6 is optimal on a mobile - enough to take basic qualifying information and contact details. Any more and the conversion rate goes down sharply as people get bored, frustrated and lose interest. The site was simple, easy to use and intuitive. I integrated several HTML5 elements into the form to make it easier to complete on a mobile, such as a numerical keypad appearing for numerical fields.

By the end of the year, mobile traffic had reached almost 20% and lead volume from mobile devices had almost reached desktop levels. The impression and click volume was much lower, but the clicks were cheaper and the conversion rate was huge - around 30-40% from click to application. This dwarfed the desktop conversion rate. Of course, the clients who were ultimately dealing with the applications needed to be happy too, and they were - the mobile applications converted on the back-end much better than the desktop ones too. This was because an efficient call centre could call the applicant as soon as they had applied, and that applicant was always contactable because they were being called immediately on the very device they had applied on.

Some say that mobile traffic doesn't convert but they are largely referring to mobile display ads. Mobile search is the future of PPC and if you're not doing it already, you should be. Another major feature of mobile PPC is the ability to run click-to-call campaigns. Click-to-call is another very effective way to drive a positive ROI from mobile PPC in my experience.


Lesson 9: Start small and grow

If you're setting up a new PPC campaign the temptation is to use some tool to quickly generate ten thousand keywords and lump them into a few adgroups to get some quick traffic. In my experience this is completely the wrong approach. The formula I use is this: if a keyword doesn't convert into a sale/application after 100 clicks, delete it. Let's say your average cost per click (CPC) is £1. You need to spend £100 to figure out that a keyword doesn't convert. If you have 1,000 keywords, that's up to £100,000 to figure out which keywords don't convert. This is madness. It is needlessly burning through budget.

The trick is to use your brain and to start small. You will have some idea of what your potential customers will be searching for, so add these keywords first. Re-read lesson 3 and try to find keywords that have lower competition to start with. Make sure you have an exhaustive negative keyword list as per lesson 5, and group your keywords into small, highly targeted ad groups with their own highly relevant ads. A few keywords per ad group is enough. This is more time consuming than lumping hundreds of keywords into just a few ad groups but you will quickly see the benefits of more relevant ads. Your quality score should be high, and your CPC will come down as a result. As you get your campaign into profit, you can add keywords and ad groups to your campaign, re-investing your profits back into the account in order to grow your business.


Lesson 10: PPC is a fantastic source of income for your business

The beauty of PPC marketing is that you can quickly get a campaign into profit, and once the campaign is running smoothly it doesn't require much management, despite what many digital marketing agencies will tell you. How do I know this to be true? Because I have been self-employed and using PPC to fund my lifestyle and feed my family for the past 7 years.

It doesn't matter whether you are a huge brand or a small business, the principles of PPC success are the same. PPC requires some kind of budget to start with, but this doesn't have to be huge. In my first month I only spent £1,000. I made 100% ROI and re-invested the profit. After consistently producing this kind of ROI for a few months I decided to borrow £10,000 and found that the ROI on this was the same - 100%. It grew from there. My focus is on cutting out wastage and maximising every single click - this includes website optimisation, negative keyword lists and targeting the right audience of active searchers. This is how I manage to achieve such a positive ROI from PPC, regardless of budget. This focus on minimising wastage was quickly learned when starting to spend my own money on PPC. It was an extremely valuable lesson.

My advice to anyone looking to start a PPC campaign for their business, or those who are struggling to make PPC work, is this: focus on the lessons I've outlined above, and really drill down into your campaign settings to make sure that you are getting your ads in front of the right people and not leaking money through poor targeting or a poor website. Once you're profitable, don't mess with your campaign too much as you may make things worse. Slowly and intelligently add keywords in order to grow your business and maximise your profit from the paid search channel.

If you would like some help with your PPC campaigns I have a few limited consultancy slots available charged on an hourly basis. My aim is to teach you how to become profitable and let you run your PPC campaigns yourself - This is why I don't charge any monthly management fees. You can get in touch with me here, or through my Twitter account.






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.


  • Steve Cameron

    Reply Reply February 10, 2014

    Great article – and I agree with all but one of your lessons. The only one with which I have an issue is #2 – the GDN can be made to work really well – but it will not work out of the box – actually, nothing about AdWords works out of the box – but the GDN needs much more love and attention.

    We treat it more as an advertising medium in much the same way we treat magazine ads – and we target ferociously.

    We’re not in the game for cheap clicks – we hold the GDN accountable for ROI as much as we do for search campaigns – although it is fair to say that the expectations in terms of the amount of return are generally lower.

    Search is great when people are searching for your product. The GDN fits in best when people don’t actually know they need your product yet, or when they just don’t search for it.

    Saying it doesn’t work is simply unfair – that it doesn’t work for some products, sure. That it doesn’t work for most advertisers – definitely. But that is not the GDN’s fault.

    For the sake of transparency – I am agency side, but I never justify the use of the GDN by using the “branding” card – despite numbers that suggest it does have an impact.

  • Michael Madew

    Reply Reply February 10, 2014

    Thanks Steve, appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

    I guess my point was that GDN hasn’t worked for me in the industries I have been involved in (primarily finance, insurance, home improvements). I believe that it can work in the right niche, but I would always contend that search converts better and thus is a much better place for your advertising dollars (or pounds in my case).

    So we’re basically in agreement that it doesn’t work in many cases, but that there are also many instances where it does produce a positive ROI!

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