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5 Steps To Turning Around Google Ads Performance

September 18, 2023

Greetings from Berlin – I’ve spent the week in Germany for a speaking engagement at SMX Advanced (thank you to the multiple subscribers who I saw over the past few days). I can’t recommend this (and SMX Munich) enough if you’re interested in paid search or SEO – these are some of the best-run, most informative events out there. 

A major topic of discussion over the past two days has been unstable and/or declining account performance – along with what to do about it. Today’s issue dives into the four-part framework I use to identify, rectify and re-scale accounts that have stagnated. Let’s get to it:

Step #1: Get The Right Data

Most advertisers simply don’t have the right data in Google Ads (or Meta Ads) to make good decisions. I worked with Optmyzr to pull data from 30,000+ accounts – and of those, only 13% were using offline conversion import. Even fewer had uploaded and were using Existing Customer Lists. And virtually none were taking advantage of conversion adjustments. 

If you can’t determine what campaigns, ad groups and keywords are driving incremental new customer growth, you can’t effectively run a Google Ads (or Meta Ads) account. 

Fortunately, Google makes this incredibly simple: 

  • Upload a list of all your current customers (yes, all of them)
  • Upload a list of all your lapsed/historical customers (yes, all of them)
  • Add both lists to your campaigns as “Observe” 
  • Bonus: Add these to your campaign settings – “Customer Acquisition” -> “Define Existing Customer List” (add your current customer list) 
  • Wait 1-2 weeks
  • Pull an Audience Report (“Insights & Reports”) 

You can do (effectively) the same thing in Meta using the Ads Reporting Feature. You’ll have to create a custom breakdown (or use a 3rd party tool), but you’ll be able to get to the same place. 

If you don’t have Enhanced & Offline Conversions set up (or, for Meta Ads, the Conversions API) – go ahead and get that done here, too. If you’re not sure what those are, check out this issue. 

Aside: if you’re in B2B/Lead Gen, you can still do this. Your current + lapsed customer file may look different, but you should still have names, emails + phone numbers for current customers, as well as existing prospects + churned prospects. You’ll use those for this. 

Result: you’ll have actual data on how your current account(s) are performing. 

Step #2: A Lot of Cuts & Two Builds

This is the painful step: using the data you have at your fingertips from (1), cease all non-incremental or negative contribution spend. All of it. 

This is going to be grueling, but the path back to a healthy, profitable ad account starts with cutting off the poison that’s killing your performance. That’s what you’re doing here. 

With the painful part over, your next task is to lay the foundation for sustainable growth. That involves two primary builds: 

Build #1: Define your existing audience for all non-branded campaigns, and bid only for new customer acquisition. There are other steps we’ll take later to ensure we’re present for your current customers, but for now, the objective of your non-branded campaigns is to drive incremental growth (i.e. new customers/prospects) at or below target cost. That won’t happen if Google is able to cheat its way into those numbers by advertising to your existing customers. 

Build #2: For your branded campaign, you’re NOT going to bid for new customers; instead, keep your current + lapsed customers added as “Observe.” If a current customer is searching for your brand, there’s no reason not to be present on the SERP. This is an insurance play, not a customer acquisition play. 

Result: Spend will decline MASSIVELY, while new customer counts/revenue will decline slightly (if at all). The reason for this is that you only killed the non-productive spend, which was dragging down performance. 

Aside: I highly recommend alerting your boss/client before making this change; when spend craters, they tend to have a conniption. Best to avoid that.   

Step #3: Prioritization

Most accounts fail because there’s no prioritization or structured maintenance. In many cases, it’s no one’s fault – people change, the way we search changes, the way bidding works changes. But this isn’t about excuses, it’s about results. 

Now that we’ve stopped the bleeding (so to speak), the next step is to re-prioritize your account based on your (or your client’s) business. We’ll start with the non-branded search campaign(s), then repeat the same process (to the extent possible) with the branded campaigns (though this will likely be much easier). 

Make a 3×3 matrix that looks like this:

In the upper left should be your Single Topic Ad Group(s)(“STAG”s) – and yes, you can have more than one – that target non-branded terms that are CORE to your (or your client’s) business AND have that magical combination of high volume + excellent performance. This is the engine that’s going to drive 60% – 80% of your account’s performance. It needs to be unleashed. 

Continue with niche + potential terms (i.e. perhaps an emerging way people are talking about your product/service, or a common pain point you solve, or a DIY-alternative, or a specific style), and Experiments + DSAs (experiments = guesses that you think might work; DSAs should be limited to core web pages for the core; and so on and so forth). As you progress from TOP (“Top Performers”) to BOTTOM (“Experiments + DSAs”), EXCLUDE everything above the row from your Ad Groups. Your goal here is to build a sustainable structure that can scale responsibly. 

Repeat for Secondary (i.e. products or services that do NOT represent your core offering, but are either (a) still quite profitable, (b) frequent “gateways”, or (c) high-priority areas for expansion in the future, and Maybe (everything else you’d like to advertise). 

Re-organize your active/non-paused KWs into each of those STAGs. 

For Meta Ads, you’re going to prioritize using AUDIENCES (i.e. Purchasers, Website Visitors/Remarketing, Engagers, LALs, Interest Stack, Broad) using a consolidated campaign structure (more on that here). It’s the same principle as above, just adjusted for Meta. 

Result: You’ll now have a campaign structure that effectively mirrors your (or your client’s) business – so resources can be funneled into each ad group based on its actual value. This prevents poor performers from hoovering up resources at the expense of top performers. 

Step #4: Cost Controls

Now that you have a real structure, you’re next step here is to implement cost controls (Cost Caps / tCPAs / tROAS / Bid Caps *if you have the data) based on the following prioritization:

  • Low – Mid Priority: LOWEST tCPA // HIGHEST tROAS 

Rationale: setting the CPA low or ROAS (which is just a variable tCPA) high effectively squeezes Google / Meta’s ML models into serving these ads only for the lowest-hanging, highest-probability-to-convert impressions (as these are the only ones where the probabilistic model these platforms use will allow your ads to serve). 

  • High Priority: MID tCPA // MID tROAS 

Rationale: this setting will enable your high-priority campaigns to serve for more, lower-probability-to-convert impressions – which is OK, because the payoff for these + relative impact to your / your client’s business is commensurately higher. 

  • Highest Priority: HIGHEST tCPA // LOWEST tROAS 

Rationale: This has the opposite effect as the Low – Mid Priority from above – setting the tCPA High // tROAS low enables those ad groups to enter a LOT of auctions. This is exactly what you want: your best performers getting the chance to shine more often. 

Note: if you’re not familiar or sure how to set your tCPA effectively, here’s a quick guide:

Result: Your new customer / client / lead acquisition will no longer crush your overall margin, and your account will be able to scale at a profitable, risk-adjusted contribution margin. Win! 

Step #5: Scale With Search Term Discovery, Broad Match, New Creative & Offers

The final piece of the equation is to scale your (now-barebones) account from its low spend level back to (or beyond) its previous levels. There are a number of routes to get there, but the three that have been most successful for us are: 

  1. Search Term Discovery – continually mine + introduce new keywords to the account. I recommend adding them to the lowest-priority STAG first, then “promoting” them based on performance. The simple reality is that most brands ignore iterative keyword research, and it absolutely kills performance. 
  2. Broad Match – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Broad Match – with proper structure + controls (including robust negatives) actually performs quite well – including reducing CPAs by up to 51% in some accounts. It is often incredibly helpful to mine your broad match search terms reports for high-performing queries, then add those queries to your existing structure (and negative out from Broad Match). This enables broad match to function (effectively) as a DSA – giving you new ideas, while the strict budget controls keeps it in check + prevents Google from going crazy. 
  3. Creative – This is true for both Google + Meta – creative makes a HUGE difference. As more marketers have turned to ChatGPT (and others) to create ads, it shows. It isn’t great. Be better. 
  4. New Offers – the offer still reigns supreme. There’s nothing like it. If you aren’t testing offers, you’re going to have a tough time scaling + maintaining. 

Result: Spend will increase over time, as will new customer acquisition + overall margin. 

This is not an easy or quick fix, but it WORKS. So, if you’re struggling (or just worried that your account isn’t doing what it used to / is supposed to), give this a try. If you need help, or just want a second set of eyes, I’m doing a few audits over the next few months. Just reply to this email and we’ll set it up.

Thanks for reading!