How to Fake it: Automating PPC When You Can’t Afford the Machine

I pitched SMX Advanced this year for the Human vs. Machines: What’s the Best Way to Manage Paid Search? session. I didn’t get accepted (sniff) but that’s doesn’t mean that my pitch can’t be a most excellent blog post. I knew I was a little off the beaten track with it anyway, but that is my style after all. The session description was:

With the rise of so many new companies offering outsourcing, tools and systems for PPC management, it’s important for advertisers to have a good overview of leading tools and services, understand the economics, business issues, relative pricing models and other aspects of automated vs. hand-crafted search advertising campaigns. Should you be hands-on or hands-off? This session will help you make the optimal decision for your paid search programs.

My pitch: Automation is great, it’s a time saver. But if you don’t have the funding or the resources quite yet, here’s how you can automate, still using machines, but the free ones. At the very least, session attendees will be able to determine if they need to think about a 3rd party tool- if these tips seem like too much time and work. So without further adieu…I bring you the presentation I would have given.

How to Fake it


Let’s face it, 3rd party bid management tools are pretty awesome, if you can afford them. Or can convince your CFO to give you the funds. What if you’re not sure yet? Or think you’re not squeezing everything that you possibly could from your manual labor? (Or your summer intern’s?) Plus, if you’re not spending at least $10k a month, it’s tough to justify a $500- $2,500 price tag, regardless if you have agency help (and cost) on top of that. Especially if you have a seasonal business. So how do you get the benefits of automation without the price tag? Fake it. (But keep it classy.) Take the best parts of automation for free and be human everywhere else.

Machines don’t know everything anyway:
O’BRIEN: Looks like we’ll all be burning the midnight oil on this one.
DATA: That would be inadvisable.
O’BRIEN: Excuse me?
DATA: If you attempt to ignite a petroleum product on this ship at zero hundred hours, you will activate the fire suppression system, which would seal off this entire compartment.

Machines are unable to predict the weird things that humans do. Like when humans use products other than for their original intended purpose. For example, I met a siteowner that sells pre-wrap for athletes for layering underneath taped injuries. Keyword list predictions, quality scores, ad copy and common sense would tell you that their keywords should revolve around like terms for athletic uses with taping and injuries. Turns out, machines can’t predict that teenage girls use the brightly colored stuff in their hair. Apparently it makes a great, comfortable and fashionable ponytail holder or headband.

And when you find something that teenage girls like…

you can make millions.

Now, let’s automate some stuff, free up time and let you concentrate on finding the next Twilight.

AdWords Tools

We’ll start with the ones you might already know about, thought about or even dabbled in. These you know are free and easy to set up.

Set up Automated Rules

Easy to control. Test, test and preview.

If you end up liking this feature and feel like you need “more” you’ll have your answer on whether or not you should be investigating 3rd party tools. (The answer is “yes”.) Just don’t go crazy when you start or you won’t know what is actually working vs. what isn’t.

Hit the “automate” button, create a rule and apply.

  • Start with something easy though, like pausing an ad when the CTR falls below 1%.
  • Be sure to do the “preview results” before enabling.
  • Make the frequency reasonable for the amount of traffic on the site. So if the ads you’re applying the rule to is a lower traffic one (less than 200 clicks a day) you don’t want to set a daily run, more like a weekly.
  • Name the rule something descriptive. You won’t remember in 3 weeks.
  • The daily budget change rule is going to be really useful for campaigns that you’re constantly having to adjust, be sure to take advantage of the multiple start/stop times too.
  • Email yourself the results for that extra piece of mind.

automated bid rules

Accelerated Delivery

Turning up the heat.

If you’ve got a campaign that never hits the ceiling (or rarely) on it’s daily budget, simply set the ad delivery setting to accelerated delivery. This will show your ad more rapidly and longer and since you’ve go budget and all day, take it for a ride, it’s free for impressions after all. This is especially pertinent if your impression share is below 60%.

Typically this works best on campaigns that: don’t hit their daily budget, have an average position of 2 or more with the current bid, CTR of 3% or higher, low search traffic (less than 3,000 impressions a day), converts well for you and consistently converts well for you when visitors do arrive at your site.

Enhanced CPC

Google has precious info on buying habits and online behavior. Use it.

Enhanced CPC is like having a tiny bidding ninja running around in the background. It operates on a level deeper than we can see or control in that it adjusts the bid on a per query basis based on the user, conversion data and history for well, everything. This is the closest feature to a 3rd party bid management tool for bid adjustments besides automated rules. Personally I have found the most success with the feature on ad groups where the conversion rate struggles a bit. Makes conversions but just breaking even or a little over and the keywords in question have some competition and impressions over 1,000 per day. Basically, the tool needs data to work with, not enough data and it’s no different than using it or not. Just be aware that with the tool, Google takes the liberty of increasing bid to up to 30% over the Max CPC when it feels the situation warrants it.

Conversion Optimizer

Conversions need apply.

Branded campaigns for example, you should always bid on yourself anyway and I’ve found the most success with this feature on high converting campaigns with brand power or being highly segmented. I’ve tried it on lesser converting campaigns (like ones that just reach the threshold to qualify and use it) and it’s been a struggle to get that CPA down lower than it would be if I had used the CPC method. The more data in conversions that you can give the tool, the better it’ll do for you.

Set up a branded campaign or super targeted, high converting, turn this baby on and let it ride. I almost never go with the suggested, right out of the box CPA by Google and go a few dollars under. Keep that keyword list tight too, 10 terms or less. If your CPA ranges all over the place- like you sell $3 and $300 items, go with the Max CPA. If you only sell one product at $10, Target CPA is the choice for you.

conversion optimizer adwords

Using Custom alerts

Set it up so you get emails when things catch on fire. Or don’t catch on fire.

You’re a fool if you’re not using these anyway, especially if you’re busy and can’t be looking in on the machine every other day and spending over $100 per day. Remember to multiply by 30….a $3,000 credit card bill you weren’t expecting sucks.

automated rules adwords

Set an alert at the campaign level or ad groups. If you’re on a tight budget, check out the percentage of spend feature and if you’re really angst-y get them emailed to you every few hours. If you’re seriously trying to automate, I would stick with the daily. Be sure to check, some alerts can be set weekly like cost, if you want even fewer emails.

Top alerts for automating:

  • Percent of Daily Budget Spend- getting close to that 100% mark
  • Cost- when X is reached or exceeded (use this one or percent of daily budget spend, you probably won’t need both.)
  • Conversion Rate (1 per click)- drops by X
  • Cost/Conversion- increases by X

Google Analytics

It’s where your data lives.

Find niches and opportunity gaps faster to work on without having to dig around in mounds of data in addition to automating some reporting.

Custom Reporting & Dashboards in GA

Have what you really want to know sent straight to your inbox. Updates anywhere, anytime without having to login. And when you do have to login, have your dashboard set up to give you what you need most, right away.

For custom reporting, use the super easy drop and drag interface, schedule and off you go. I recommend a weekly wrap up of all your AdWords PPC with cost, revenue and transactions for the week.

custom reporting in google analytics

For your dashboard, go to your favorite PPC reports, click “add to dashboard” go to your dashboard and arrange. THERE, you’re done. It’s super easy and quick, but you’d be surprised how many people just dive into the data first.

Use advanced segments in GA to filter and consolidate ALL PPC traffic into a single report, segmented into different sources or not. Yeah, it’s that easy. Just drag and drop. Login to GA, apply and you’ll see it all right there. And export it? Yep. Schedule and email it to yourself? YES.

advanced segments google analytics

Find More Keywords Fast

Once every month or so, turn your all keyword list upside down. Look for keywords that have a few conversions but haven’t been paid much attention to in PPC yet. Go to Traffic Sources- Keywords. Set the date range for more than a month, set to eCommerce.

THEN- sort by Ecommerce Conversion Rate. All those 100% conversions on a single keyword and sometimes single visit will pop up. (Don’t do the weighted sort, you want this to be all crazy.) Start looking through that list- what is there that you can add? What is there that you can break into a new ad group or target differently? What is there that you never thought of before?

google analytics keyword research

Based on this info, I might want to make my towel bars and racks more searchable or market them by size if I’m not already.

Create Your Own PPI Calculator

It’ll blow your mind.

OK, that might be an exaggeration. But have you hit a couple of ads and been like, “man these sure are almost identical in CTR and/or CR, which one do I change? Or should I continue on forever with these two?”

Use PPI or profit-per-impression to tip the scale.

But then you’d have to do math…or do you?

You don’t. Try the Portent Ad Comparison Tool from Michael Wiegand at Portent, for FREE. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that you download, plug in impressions, cost and revenue and the answers are yours. Including the visual aid of confidence in red, yellow and green. It’s OK to be impressed, really.

profit per impression calculator

Ad Template Swipe List

Building for the future.

As much as I hate to say “ad template” it sure does make things faster, especially if you’re testing out something specific. Start with a “swipe list” of offers/benefits/features you want to try and create a template around that. Duplicate, replicate and upload. (I recommend a desktop editor for this one.) Block out an hour one day, spend that hour cranking out the templates and you’ll be able to generate solid ads for testing for weeks.

In conclusion:

Sure, Watson won on Jeopardy, Deep Blue beat Kasparov but in the end, machines are just tools.

Human helpful machines like Data, Robot 1X and the Terminator are great, but if you could afford –or had- a positronic brain you probably wouldn’t be doing PPC anyway. You’d be finding life on Mars, saving mankind or installing a satellite dish.

But we don’t have time to do each and every little thing by hand. Use the tools. Use the machines, automate where needed and search for that next Twilight type idea.

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See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

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  1. I love this post, Elizabeth. I’m fairly new to PPC, and this seems like incredible advice for getting things started. I really like that this approach is very scalable/efficient without taking too much control out of our hands. It’s a shame you didn’t get to present this at SMX. Hopefully, the selection committee will read this and make a better decision next time.

  2. Thanks Elizabeth,
    is it only teenage girls who like Twilight? I must say we’ve a few twenty-something’s in our office who partake.
    Re: Adwords automated bidding – i would say just be careful with setting and letting go. I set a 20% bid increase on certain keywords of ours hitting a particular conversion rate by 12 pm each day. It incrementally increases the bid, starting from the new bid established when the rule activates the increase on a given day. It does not reset back down to the original bid. This was a couple of months ago, so it may have changed.

  3. Human helpful machines like Data, Robot 1X and the Terminator are great, but if you could afford –or had- a positronic brain you probably wouldn’t be doing PPC anyway.

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