Think AdWords Doesn’t Work? Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong

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It’s not uncommon to hear marketers complain that “AdWords doesn’t work.” Sometimes you’ll hear this from major enterprises that should know better (looking at you, eBay). We also hear it a lot from smaller businesses – they want to make AdWords work for them, but they haven’t figured it out yet, and they’re about to give up.

Sound familiar? If you’re struggling to get better ROI from AdWords, you’re probably making one of the below mistakes. We analyzed the AdWords accounts of 500 small and medium-sized businesses to get a clear picture of the state of PPC in 2013. The outlook isn’t so great – we found that the typical small business advertiser is wasting over 25% of their annual AdWords budget. And some accounts are wasting up to 40%!

Here are the top four areas of PPC that need the most improvement – and what you can do to fix the problems.

Problem #1: Not Spending Enough Time in Your Account

The number 1 reason that most AdWords advertisers fail is that they don’t log in enough. It’s straight-up laziness. If you want to get ROI from AdWords, you have to actually log in and do work in your account!


In our survey, we found that:

  • Only 1% of small business advertisers work on their account every week
  • Over half (53%) of SMBs only optimize their ads once per quarter
  • Over 40% of advertisers haven’t added a single negative keyword in the past month

This is pretty abysmal.

How to fix it:

Commit to logging into your AdWords account at least once per week. Even 30 minutes to an hour an day will make a huge difference. Put out any major fires, then spend some time making optimizations, such as:

  • Testing new ad copy
  • Adding extensions to your ads
  • Creating a new landing page
  • Setting new negative keywords
  • Etc.

Problem #2: Bad Landing Pages, and Not Enough of Them

The landing page is your last chance to turn a click into a conversion. Even if you get everything else right in your campaigns, dropping the ball on your landing pages will kill your ROI. The small businesses we looked at need a lot of help in this area:

  • More than 1 in 4 AdWords accounts send all their PPC traffic to the same landing page.
  • 1 in 5 small businesses send all their PPC clicks to the home page.
  • Less than half of small businesses have conversion tracking installed.

How to fix it:

  • Try to create a unique landing page for every ad group. Make sure the messaging is relevant to your ads. Don’t send all your traffic to one generic page!
  • A/B test your landing pages to optimize conversion rates. Try changing your headline or call to action, moving the location of the form or color of the button, or adding visual cues that “show” visitors where to go on the page.

Problem #3: Poor Mobile Optimization

Google has pulled out all the stops lately when it comes to mobile advertising, launching new mobile ad types and generally making it much easier for advertisers to target mobile traffic and make the most of their mobile spending. But most small businesses aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity:

  • Only 5% of SMB accounts have call extensions in all their mobile campaigns. (Call extensions increase mobile CTR by 10%!)
  • Fewer than 20% of AdWords accounts have mobile-preferred ads.

Now that all accounts have been auto-upgraded to Enhanced Campaigns, you’re advertising on mobile whether you want to or not. The least you can do is make sure your mobile clicks count.

How to fix it:

  • Write mobile-preferred ads – Context matters. Mobile users need a tailored ad experience. For example, you might want to use a different call to action, since mobile users are often closer to the end of the conversion funnel.
  • Enable call extensions – Most mobile conversion are initiated by a phone call, so make it as easy as possible for users to call you.
  • Analyze your mobile CPA – For some businesses, mobile clicks are actually worth more, so allocate your budget accordingly.

Problem #4: Low Relevancy, Low Quality Scores

Quality Score is Google’s way of measuring how relevant your ads are – to the keywords you’re bidding on, to the users who see them, to your landing pages, and to whatever it is you’re actually selling. If everything is relevant across the board, you get more clicks, and that leads to higher Quality Scores.

Low Quality Scores are a sign of low relevance. For example, if you have an ad for high-heel pumps that shows up when someone is looking for pool pumps, your ad is irrelevant to what they really want. Unfortunately, “sort of relevant” isn’t really good enough – if someone is looking for high-heel pumps and you send them to the home page of your giant online shoe store, they’re going to click away and not convert.

quality score optimization

The average Quality Score for small business AdWords accounts is 5. That could be worse, but it could be a lot better – for every point that you can raise your Quality Score above a 5, you save more and more money. With a QS of 10, you save 50% on your cost per click and 80% on your cost per conversion.

How to fix it:

  • Regularly incorporate new keywords into your account. As you do so, break down larger keyword groups into smaller, more targeted clusters.
  • Run multiple versions of your ads, then keep the best performing version.
  • Enable ad extensions. They reliably increase click-through rate and Quality Score.
  • Bid on brand terms. These high-CTR ads lift the average Quality Score of your whole account.

The Silver Lining: You Can Do Better

OK, I just pointed out some of the major problems that we’re seeing in small business AdWords accounts. But let’s end on a positive note. The good news is, since the bar is so low, it shouldn’t be that hard for you to improve! Armed with these insights into what areas in your PPC account need the most work, you can easily pull ahead of the pack. Doing just a little more than your competitors can put you way ahead in the game.

P.S. Enter to Win $25,000 PPC Marketing Makeover

We’re running a contest to give one grand prize winner a free AdWords budget for 2014 – $25,000! Learn more here!

Larry Kim

Larry Kim

CTO and Founder at WordStream
Larry Kim founded WordStream in 2007. Today he serves as company CTO and is a contributor to both the product team and marketing teams. Larry... Read Full Bio
Larry Kim
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  • Robert Payne

    These same mistakes are repeated with search marketers in the second tier search market. Good advise on any level of online marketing. Many Affiliate Marketers share one problem that is usually not in their control, the landing pages. If more affiliate programs took time and energy to improve the landing pages offered to affiliates, their affiliates would experience a better ROI, thereby improve the reputation and quality of their brand.

    • Larry Kim

      Thanks robert!

  • Steve Cameron

    Great article… I was commenting with a prospect just this morning about how hard it is to get AdWords to work “out of the box”. On the one hand they want it to be simple to get started but this is a double edged sword. If you set up a campaign following their simple guidelines you will lose money.
    I seriously wonder just how many SME’s have tried AdWords in the past and have decided it’s not for them because of lack of results. Google got $500 or $1,000 from them once…. with better management they could have gotten $250 every month for years.
    With your recommendations many smaller accounts would step over the profit/loss divide with little effort.

  • Rick Noel

    Awesome post Larry. What I hear you describe is a great opportunity for Internet marketers and agencies to come in and serve these under-served SMB market segments to manage towards ROI. The key is to find a win win business model that scales. The New Google Partners program could help agencies address this segment.

    I hear way too many businesses and digital marketers discount PPC for ROI reasons when in reality, as an advertiser, being able to reach your target market with laser precision at different points in their buying journey is golden. But you are right. It does not happen automatically and there are a number of dependencies to be managed to achieve ROI.

    What separates the PPC winners and losers is well outlined in your post. PPC optimization, when done well, makes PPC on of, if not THE most efficient /effective cost per acquisition tactic available in the online marketers toolbox.

  • Bobby Bhogal

    Good sound advice. I have seen agencies making these very basic mistakes! We have taken charge of adwords accounts that have supposedly been “managed” and they are atrocious. No negative work, very broad adgroups and generic/poor ads!

    I feel sorry for the SMB’s paying for management that is simply not worth it!