The PPC Experiment You Never Dare Run
A question that PPC account managers frequently have to deal with is, “Why are we paying for this traffic? Aren’t we going to get that traffic anyway?”
It’s a fair question, even if it is completely annoying to hear for the twentieth time by the twentieth new accounting manager you’ve had to break in. No matter what data you present, no matter how perfectly your charts demonstrate perfect, positive correlation between ad spend, revenues and profits, they never seem satisfied with your answer.
“Fine,” you say. “Let’s try an experiment. We call it the PPC nuclear option.”
“The nuclear option?” the accountant gasps. “What’s that?”
“Well,” you continue obligingly, “We take all our PPC ad campaigns offline for a few months, and see what the true impact on our bottom line looks like. I just need you to sign off on it here….”
That usually ends the discussion — at least until next month’s AdWords and Bing Ads bills come due.
The PPC Nuclear Option — For Real!
I won’t bore you with the juicy details of how it came about (unless you promise to buy me a drink next time we meet), but the long and short of it is that I am now in the middle of a real-life PPC nuclear option experiment.
Campaigns that had been running for a few years were taken offline abruptly three months ago, and we are just about to put them back online. The website is now relying completely on referral and organic search traffic. The website itself and all downstream processes have remained virtually unchanged.
I thought it would be interesting to make a few simple observations at this point in the experiment. I’ll save deeper analysis for a later date, after we’ve put the campaigns back online.
Observation #1: Greater Than Expected Decline In Keyword Conversion Performance
Before we detonated the nuclear option, we were aware we’d lose substantial traffic to the site because about 70% of our traffic was coming from paid traffic sources. What we didn’t know was how our brand keywords or our highest ranking keywords (which were also part of the URL) would fare.
In the chart above, I’ve summarized the before and after conversion volumes for most important keywords that have driven conversions and was surprised by some of the results. We looked at our brand keywords, keywords that were prominent on the site and which appeared in our website URL, as well as our most productive non-brand keywords.
Branded Keywords – Our client’s brand is not a household name and there’s not a lot of search volume associated with it, so our brand keywords have never been our largest source of search conversions. They do, however, rank highly and so we were surprised to see conversion volume on them drop by 28%. We figured, based on earlier studies on brand keyword cannibalization, that we’d see only 10-15% drop in conversion volume for our high-ranking brand terms.
What would account for a greater than expected decline in brand term performance? I have a hunch that our Google GDN display ad campaigns may have been providing a lift while they were running, but since we are not a famous brand, that halo effect only lasted while our display ad campaigns were running. If my theory is correct, we should expect to observe an uplift once we start advertising again. Stay tuned.
URL Keywords – Our next best performers were keywords that literally described our products and which appeared in our website URL. These keywords have generally been at or near the top of the organic search listings, and they perform more like brand terms than generic keywords. We were most surprised that these would have dropped by a whopping 59%.
Non-Brand Keywords – We were also astounded at how deeply the PPC nuclear option demolished the performance of our best non-brand keywords, which dropped pretty near to zero.
Clearly, this client is too dependent on paid search on its most important terms.
Observation #2: Organic Traffic Needs To Contribute More Search Volume
This Google Analytics graph shows all search traffic from 2009 through 2013, and to my last point, demonstrates a highly unbalanced mix of online traffic sources, since 75% of their visitor traffic dropped when the nuclear option was detonated. I don’t know what the perfect ratios should be for organic to paid search traffic, but in general, I think most of us would agree that, over time, the mix should start to skew toward more unpaid sources of traffic and rely less on paid traffic.
Of course, figuring this out didn’t require taking the nuclear option because the data has been there the whole time. It does certainly lay bare the situation unambiguously, however. The accounting manager will love this data, and so will the SEO team (that doesn’t exist at the moment) because it shows how even modest investments in SEO can be justified financially.
Observation #3: Friendly “Ghost Clicks”
Even two months after taking the campaigns offline, we are still getting visitors from “ghost clicks.” Most ghost clicks happen when a visitor types your URL into their browser after first clicking on your ad. When they start typing the URL, their browser cache types ahead for them, showing them your URL along with your original URL tracking variables. We observed about 4% of our visitors coming in this way, but they represent only about 1% of the original ad click volume.
I don’t know what a good “ghost click” ratio might be, but I’d like it to be higher because that means that our site was so memorable that people typed it into their browser rather than doing a new search.
Observation #4: Unfriendly “Ghost Clicks”
I’ve observed that not all PPC Ad ghost clicks are friendly. In some cases, they may be competitors doing deep dives on your site for whatever nefarious purposes they have in mind. Here’s my evidence of unfriendly ghost clicks:
Why would we, all of a sudden, get hundreds of PPC ad ghost clicks when our campaigns are clearly turned off? My first guess was that someone accidentally turned them on; but no, that wasn’t it. I dug one level deeper in Google Analytics and found that all the clicks were coming, on different days, from different locations.
Using my best TV detective deduction skills to develop a profile of the perp, I see that the clicks come from Beverly Hills, CA and Little Ferry, NJ. Both are pretty affluent suburbs. I also see clicks from Trinidad. Could this be a rich jet-setting venture capitalist trying to discover our secret sauce? If so, I’ll bet they are also reading my column; so to you I say, “I know who you are, and I saw what you did.”
Observation #5: Google Analytics’ Accounting For Paid Search Clicks Is Excellent
I had a weird observation when looking at my paid search clicks versus my analytics data. Google Analytics was reporting 7% more clicks than we actually paid for from all our paid traffic sources. I know that Analytics and AdWords account for clicks differently and that Google Analytics reports clicks (suspicious or otherwise), but I never took notice of how great the difference was.
I ran an AdWords invalid clicks report and subtracted those from my Google Analytics total, and found that the number of clicks from our paid search campaigns matched up almost perfectly (99.1% match) with the clicks Google Analytics reported receiving.
An added surprise was my discovery that Google AdWords continues to credit invalid clicks to the account even after turning off all spend. It wasn’t a large amount, but it was a very pleasant surprise nonetheless to see additions to our account balances.
Questions About The PPC Nuclear Option?
I’ve touched on just a few of my own casual observations from this unplanned PPC nuclear option experiment, but there are so many other observations to be made as we bring this campaign back to life. If you are curious about any part of our experiment, and have questions of your own, please leave a comment below, and I’ll see if we can get an answer for you.