Over 10 years ago I fell in love with PPC because it was the most measurable and optimizable marketing channel.
If a keyword wasn’t working out, no problem! I could change the ad, or optimize the bids, or chose entirely different keywords. I could measure and optimize anything and everything, which enabled me to create very sophisticated and profitable paid search campaigns.
Yet as PPC has become more and powerful and thus more optimizable, sadly, the average AdWords account manager is optimizing less stuff in their account – to the point where I believe that today, most AdWords accounts are dying of neglect.
Very low PPC account optimization activity means that many advertisers are missing out on what I believe to be the best part of PPC. Should you be concerned?
Exhibit A: Self-Reported Weekly PPC Activity
Last month at my WordStream webinar, we asked a non-scientific poll of approximately 200 AdWords advertisers the following question: How much time do you spend doing PPC work every week?
Respondents painted a very rosy picture. The overwhelming majority of respondents (87%) reported doing some activity every week, as illustrated in the following screen capture:
AdWords Account Managers Claim to be Very Busy Optimizing their PPC Accounts
Exhibit B: Actual PPC Account Activity
I wanted to see how the self-reported account activity compared to the actual AdWords account activity in advertisers’ accounts. I can do this by looking at the Change History log in AdWords – I’ll explain in detail how to do this later.
In a nutshell, I manually looked at several hundred recent customers and set the date range to the 30 days prior to signing up as a WordStream customer. Here’s what I found:
In this chart, the “Activity Index” on the Y-axis is a measurement of how active an advertiser is in terms of doing PPC account optimization. The Activity Index is based on manually counting up the number of changes in the exported change history report using Excel, then applying a weighting for each type of account change.
For example, because creating/editing/deleting a new campaign is a more time-consuming and more significant optimization than changing a single keyword bid, campaign changes are given a higher activity weighting.
I then plotted the activity scores against the advertisers’ monthly spend to see how the activity level varies based on how much an advertiser is investing in paid search.
Here were some of the highlights (or “low-lights”?) that I found:
- Approximately 20% of AdWords account managers do nothing at all within a month.
- There’s very little consistency. Only 10% of advertisers consistently do optimization work in their account every week over a 90-day period.
- Agencies do only slightly better than advertisers when it comes to regular account activity.
- The more you spend on AdWords, the more likely you are to be optimizing your account – however as you can see in the chart, there are many companies spending lots of money (hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars) doing nothing at all in their accounts.
It’s Probably Much Worse
I have no way to prove this but I suspect that there’s probably some survey bias happening here and that low account activity is actually a far bigger challenge. My data was taken from WordStream customers, immediately prior to working with WordStream – meaning those advertisers had already realized they could be doing more with their accounts.
I suspect that businesses who reach out to companies like WordStream are agencies and advertisers who care deeply about their account performance and are taking action to improve their accounts, and thus are more likely to have been historically active in their account.
I think there’s probably a large number of advertisers out there who are completely asleep at the switch and thus aren’t even showing up on my radar screen, and are likely to have even worse account activity.
Why PPC Account Activity Matters
While PPC can work for just about any kind of company, I’ve found that it almost never works on the first day. Furthermore I’ve never seen a successful “set it and forget it” strategy. The reality is that no matter how good your account is, you can always do better.
Here’s a summary of different types of PPC account optimization activities and why they matter:
Thoughtful and consistent PPC account optimization activity is the path to achieving ROI from paid search. On the other hand, a “set it and forget it” strategy is a bit of a death spiral that generally results in a cycle of lower Quality Scores, which results in higher cost per clicks and lower ad position, which results in lower ROI, and ultimately failure.
For this reason I believe that PPC account activity even trumps Quality Score  as the single most important PPC metric in your account. Thoughtful and consistent PPC optimization experiments is the path to doing well on all the other PPC key metrics.
If I’ve convinced you in the importance of measuring and tracking your PPC account activity, here’s how to do it.
Figuring Out Your Account Activity in AdWords
To figure out your account activity levels in AdWords, find the Change History Tool, located in the Tools & Analysis tab, as shown here:
Set the date range to the time period you’re interested in, then click on the Download button to export the report in a CSV format. AdWords groups together different changes by campaign and ad group; for example in the screenshot you can see that there were 39 bid changes within a single ad group. So, to process the exported data, you’ll need to do some manual data manipulation in Excel to decompress the change history log.
An Easier Way to Determine Recent AdWords Account Activity
Another way to quickly visualize your recent AdWords account activity is to just grade your account using the AdWords Performance Grader . This free tool will do an instant audit of your PPC account across 8 different key performance metrics, including Account Activity.
The report will calculate and display your Account Activity in the last 30 and 90 days and break it out by types of account optimizations are happening in your account. Here’s an example of what the Account Activity section of the AdWords Grader report looks like.
So in this example, you can see that the advertiser has created/deleted or modified 2 campaigns in the last 90 days, made 10 ad text changes in the last 30 days, etc.
In addition to automatically calculating you’re your account activity, the WordStream AdWords Grader also gives you a score of how your account activity stacks up against a WordStream PPC best practice benchmark for account activity.
Slow and Steady Wins the PPC Race
Given the anemic activity levels in the typical PPC account, I believe that PPC account managers should be embracing the concept of PPC activity as a success metric. When asked for the most important PPC metrics , PPC marketers tend to think of things like CTR, cost per conversion, conversion rate, etc. – yet it is only our ongoing PPC experimentation and optimization activities that enable us to do well in all of these metrics.
Ultimately the key to success in maintaining a healthy amount of PPC account activity is to make it regular. For example, set aside at least 20 minutes a week  for PPC optimization, spending a few minutes on each of the most critical PPC optimization tasks, like keyword expansion, negative keyword research, bid optimization, and ad text optimization. While this might seem like a lot of work, the use of PPC tools  can add a ton of leverage in terms of time savings and ROI.
Like with a diet or fitness plan, don’t overdo it by doing thousands of changes in one sitting and then not revisiting for 6 months, but don’t get complacent and fall into a sedentary PPC lifestyle either.
The good news is that the PPC account activity bar is very low. Just 20 minutes of PPC work every week would put you ahead of 90% of the other accounts out there.