The Zen Of PPC Campaign Reporting

Okay. It’s February. We’ve finally got all the year-end reporting and summaries for our clients done and delivered, and have set forth to meet our new plans and objectives for 2013 with big, fresh PPC budgets. And, except for the fact that it seems I am three months behind after only three weeks into the new year, I am still just as excited about the possibilities for PPC advertising this year as I was back in 2001 when I put up my first campaigns.

Having finished a detailed, three-part series on the Google Display Network last month, I thought I’d switch gears and jot down a few random aspirational musings about simplifying PPC reporting and finding better ways to preserve important historical findings inside our PPC campaigns.

These are my own chin-pulling musings — please feel free to add your own aspirations for the year ahead in the comments section at the end of this post.

The Zen Of Data Reporting

I have to admit to feeling a certain brotherhood with airline pilots who fly planes using a dizzying array of indicators, dials, levers, buttons and blinking lights that tell them everything about their planes operations so they can maintain proper course headings and schedules. Every reporting instrument and all the control levers and buttons within an arms length’s reach are important at some point in the flight.

The keys to a successful flight are the pilot’s ability to interpret real-time data from these complex data displays, to decide what changes are needed and the know-how to push the right buttons at the right times, gently or aggressively, to make appropriate course corrections.

Managing PPC and flying jumbo jets requires mastering complex data displays and controls.

Managing PPC and flying jumbo jets requires mastering complex data displays and controls. (iStockphoto used under license.)

I think that what we do as PPC campaign managers is very similar to that process.

All day long, we scan dashboards, real-time data charts and columns and rows of raw data, trying to get a handle on what’s happening inside our campaigns at that moment in time. And we feel a rush of adrenaline when we spot a particular trend or a sketchy data point out of range that jolts us into corrective action.

This sort of stimulation is what keeps us doing what we do. We love working with all the data. We love exerting control and changing performance quickly and forcefully. We pride ourselves on knowing exactly what buttons to push and when to push them (or not) in our Bing Ads and AdWords accounts.

However, as passionate as we may be about what we do, when it comes time to explain to our clients what we’ve accomplished, we can’t give them a running commentary on everything we’ve done and why we did it. A common tendency we all are guilty of at some point, is overwhelming our clients with data, numbers and charts. Maybe it is because we just can’t help gushing about what we do, or how clever we are, that we substitute voluminous data for actionable analysis and recommendations.

At the end of the day, though, the only thing our clients really want to know is “Are we on target?”

Here’s the problem. The process for, and the goals of, communicating results is nothing like the process of creating those results. Reporting results can and should be different and much more elegant.

For example, although a pilot might love to explain all the technical aspects of what they did in flying you from San Jose to Boston, they will probably simply say, “Welcome to Boston.” That really says it all.

So how can we ‘say it all’ about our PPC campaign efforts and achieve a similar simple reporting elegance? How can we eliminate every non-essential metric in our reporting, and by simplifying, make our reporting even more powerful? I don’t know the answer to that question, but one of my quests this year is to achieve the zen of client campaign reporting.

Visual displays of data, such as Excel charts and graphs are certainly going to be a part of that simplification process. Simple line charts like the one below are helpful, because they can show history, current status and provide a glimpse of what the future looks like with just three simple lines.

The chart below tells the story of what’s happening with an increase to ad spend budget implemented around May. The question on everyone’s mind is whether more ad budget will lead to more sales opportunities.

A simple trend line chart tells a complete story.

A simple trend line chart tells a complete story.

In this chart, the dotted line shows our original target goals based on the original budget. The black line shows the new targets expected from the increased budget. The green line shows the progress towards our new target. Our report to the client, based solely on this chart could be very simple. “We are making progress, but slow progress towards our new goals.”

But, we actually don’t even have to say a word. The client can see this for themselves because the gap between the green and black line is closing, but not very quickly. No more data is need to understand what is happening, it is self-evident in the chart.

Before we can achieve zen reporting, I think we must first establish clear, measurable goals and objectives for each of our campaigns. Without forward-looking objectives, we can only know where we are now and how we got here. That, unfortunately, is a story about the past and we can’t change the past, we can only describe it. We can only change what lies in front of us. With target goals and objectives, we are able to report where we started, where we are now, and most importantly, where we are heading.

Now, instead of worrying about what has already happened, we can quickly turn to discussions of what actions can be taken to change the trajectory of the future.

The Zen Of Change Management

Although we have been at the PPC game for more than a decade, we have yet to create the perfect ad group or campaign. Now I know it’s crazy to even consider perfection – as in an ad group where all the keywords all have 100% click-through and conversion rates. And yet, perfection is the direction we all want our campaigns heading.

If we have a 10% CTR, we’re not satisfied until we get to 11 or 12%. Once we’ve hit 12%, we want to keep going higher still. So, while we know we’ll never attain perfection, we always find ourselves striving toward that ideal.

One challenge we always run up against in our quest toward perfection is doing, undoing, and then redoing the same things to our campaigns over and over again. This is especially true when new account managers take over accounts and, all too often, the accumulated intelligence of why the structure of the campaign is the way it is, and why match-types, negative keywords, ad copy, landing pages are what they are, and all that has transpired within the history of the account is lost or simply forgotten. And over the course of time, we even find ourselves (or a fellow account manager) undoing helpful changes and repeating unhelpful ones.

Both Bing Ads and AdWords give us historical change reports which help us identify what’s changed, and when those changes were made. Those reports, such as the one from Bing Ads shown below, are enormously helpful for diagnosing the cause of significant performance changes. But these change reports, while valuable, only tell us what changed, who made the change and when it happened. They do not tell us why the change was made.

PPC Campaign history reports show what's happened and when, but not why.

PPC Campaign history reports show what’s happened and when, but not why.

If we want to keep moving our campaigns toward the perfection, we need to remember why each change was made.

Some changes may have been tactical, reactionary and temporary, like bid modifications. Others may have been temporary, but strategic, such as testing match type changes, ads and landing pages. Other account changes may have been more fundamental, structural and semi-permanent, to incorporate our best accumulated understanding of how to succeed with our online campaigns.

Clearly, it is important to capture and document the ‘why’ behind changes we make, especially the more fundamental and structural ones, because if we don’t remember why we made the changes, we are more likely to undo the very things that have propelled our accounts to their current state of success.

We do our best to document and describe all the account changes we make, but under pressure of deadlines and competing priorities, and people just being people, the histories we keep are often not much better than the automated reports that Google and Microsoft search engines provide. Until we can preserve the accumulated wisdom that each of us contributes to in our PPC campaigns we will never be able to achieve the perfect ad group, or even moving in that direction.

So, I’ll leave you today with these two overarching issues to ponder for yourself. How can you simplify and improve client reporting, and how can you capture and preserve the essence of all changes you make inside your accounts?

I apologize for not offering prescriptive solutions to these problems, but these are questions we all must answer for ourselves. Sometimes questions teach you more than answers.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is President and founder of Find Me Faster a search engine marketing firm based in Nashua, NH. He is a member of SEMNE (Search Engine Marketing New England), and SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization as a member and contributing courseware developer for the SEMPO Institute. Matt writes occasionally on internet, search engines and technology topics for IMedia, The NH Business Review and other publications.

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  • Barbara Young

    Great post Matt – thanks for sharing your (reporting) pain! We agree that finding the perfect system that doesn’t further bog down the process can be a challenge.

    That said, we find Google Analytics annotations to be very helpful. They are quick and easy to set up, can capture the “why” of a change, and serve as a historic reference point for future changes in traffic, goals, and ecommerce metrics.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Good idea, Barb. We’ve added notes in Analytics, Adwords Editor (comments), which are good contextually, but still don’t do what I’d like. I’d love to be able to place all the unstructured data from screen shots, emails, testing reports, etc into the history, and even draw maps and schema to show how things have evolved and changed over time. It sounds like a lot of work, but really, it is just organizing all the inputs that went into any decision making along way as changes were considered and made. A project management system could work, too. We just haven’t created / found the best way to collect and protect this as the valuable corporate asset it should be.

  • Stephen Hall

    I love this article! Reducing the millions of data points at our disposal to an elegant and actionable recommendation is one of the most challenging and rewarding things about paid search. With that said, it’s hard as hell to accomplish!

    One thing that helped me immensely when I first started working in paid search was keeping a running Google spreadsheet with different tabs for each of my accounts. Any time I made ANY change I wrote it down with the date, the campaign/ad group, the reason I made the change, and an empty space to write the results of the change. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referenced that spreadsheet over the past year to look for performance clues…it’s been a lifesaver.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you for your note. Great to hear the self-discipline you’ve got to document your change management. Do you do it for all changes, including bids? Would love to see how you’ve done this and talk with you about it. Drop me a line if you’d like.

  • Bill Scully

    Hi Matt. I’ve used different techniques but I’m not consistant in my documentation and I’d hate to think I would ever have to share it. But you got me thinking about this problem. I don’t have experience with it, but what about using a tool like EverNote Premum? It allows access to multiple users, you can store screen shots, link to urls and docs, and it will sync with multiple devices.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Hi Bill – thank you for contributing. Evernote is worth exploring – I haven’t used it yet, either, but it certainly does look collaboration-worthy. I am downloading it to give it a try out. Thanks for the idea!

  • Jeroen Maljers

    Hi Matt. Thanks for the article. This is very recognizable. We struggled with client reporting for a long time. We used screenshots, Excell etc. At some point we started making a tool for ourselves that we used internally getting data from the adwords and analytics API. We also included projects, task management and time sheets and Google docs integration some time ago. We did this mainly because project management tools on the market focussed on real projects, like building a house or organizing a party. Once the house is built you archive the project. But our job is more a recurring monthly project with monthly reporting. Last year we quietly gave access to the tool to other agencies. Feel free to check it out at and give us feedback how to further improve the tool. That would be highly appreciated.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you, Jeroen. Thank you for suggesting Swydo – I took a quick glance at it – and even started a demo project with it (setup is so easy!). Looks like you are addressesing many of the unique needs of online marketers.

    For reporting, I have been using Acquisio for years and really like it for data visualization. (so much so, that I subsequently joined their advisory committee).

    I am looking forward to working with you tool and will definitely give you feedback as I go.

  • harvey bennett

    This is definitely one of the greatest challenges in digital media (not just search). Having one place, that even a stranger could reference to understand why a change or set of changes took place. I’m going to look into swydo but some of the methods I’ve used in the past include Google calendar (allows you to search for entries which can be useful when trying to understand the last restructure when you inherit a new account). Worked best with a large, global team based in different markets. And more recently mindjet. We’ve been taking advantage of the collaborative elements of mindjet (which is also searchable) to document the why’s for 5 months. It really lends itself to it very well and you can assign priority, task, date, color codes etc. Worth exploring

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Exactly, Harvey – the challenge of organizing and distributing collective intelligence from structured and unstructured sources is a universal one. Mindjet looks very promising – I am reading it through. Thank you for weighing in – good stuff!

  • Jeroen Maljers

    thank you Matt, appreciate it.


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