What Toyota’s Crisis Can Teach Us About Managing PPC Campaigns

It is absolutely stunning that Toyota is embroiled in such a serious quality crisis. Toyota’s well-earned reputation for quality is legendary and is the envy of carmakers worldwide. Their quality control principles and methods are taught in leading business and engineering schools everywhere. In spite of all that, Toyota’s quality problems are now the subject […]

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It is absolutely stunning that Toyota is embroiled in such a serious quality crisis. Toyota’s well-earned reputation for quality is legendary and is the envy of carmakers worldwide. Their quality control principles and methods are taught in leading business and engineering schools everywhere.

In spite of all that, Toyota’s quality problems are now the subject of congressional hearings, lawsuits and blogs and everyone demands answers! Did they fix the right problem? How do they know the recall repair will work? What took them so long to figure this all out?

And, what does this have to do with paid search?

When things go wrong in PPC campaigns

All of us who manage PPC campaigns know that things go wrong for from time to time even within our best campaigns. There are times when CTRs inexplicably plummet, ad spend goes through the roof, conversion rates tank or CPA doubles overnight.

When things go wrong with PPC campaigns, our clients demand answers, too.

While not life-threatening, these problems can certainly be career-limiting and in severe cases, cause business failure. As PPC campaign managers we need to get out in front of emerging problems when campaigns go haywire, diagnose and remedy the problem, and then put procedures into place to prevent the same problem from happening again.

Identify problems early

It is always more pleasant to discover critical PPC problems before clients bring them to our attention.

One way to head off emerging problems early is to set up alert notifications in both your PPC and analytics accounts. All of the search engines offer email alerts for critical campaign failures, with Google currently offering the most robust set of notification options in their AdWords and Analytics consoles. In AdWords, you can define custom alerts that notify you whenever any key metric, such as clicks, impressions, CTR, CPA, conversions, conversion rates, or ad spend, hits a minimum or maximum threshold that tells you something is not working right and needs your immediate attention.

With Google, you can define alerts for just about any performance condition you can imagine at any level of your account. Microsoft and Yahoo offer a more limited suite of alert options, but can be used to alert you to a complete failure such as your account going offline.

We don’t go overboard with our alert notifications. We use them sparingly only to signal critical campaign failures, such as daily click or conversion counts dropping to zero. If your inbox gets too cluttered with less critical alerts it’s easy to miss a truly critical one.

Although the alert notifications may have a few hours lag time, in most cases, you will get a jump-start on diagnosing and fixing the problem long before you get a call from an agitated client. For extremely time-critical applications, we recommend Hitslink from Net Applications, because the notifications are closer to real-time.

Diagnose and correct problems quickly

Sometimes we get lucky and the problem turns out to be something easy like a credit card payment problem that has taken the campaign offline. Most problems aren’t as easy to diagnose, however, and the longer it takes, the more heat we get from increasingly nervous managers and clients.

One of our favorite ways to home in on a diagnosis more quickly is to round up everyone involved with the site and the campaigns and ask them this simple question, “Have you made any changes?”

The reason this is so effective is because most campaign crises are self-inflicted and caused by recent changes to the website or the campaigns. It is amazing how a quick five-minute conversation can help pinpoint a cause and allow you to develop a solution immediately. For example, if the web team says, “Yes, but we only made some minor cleanups of page and directory names” that would certainly explain why your conversions have completely dried up. Your PPC ads have been sending visitors to non-existent pages.

Changes made by your PPC team can be tougher to sort out. Even if everyone keeps good notes on what they’ve changed, inadvertent keyboarding errors, such as typos, forgetting to put a minus sign in front of a negative keyword, or misplaced decimal points can tank your campaigns quickly and effectively.

We do our best to document our changes in a simple, plain text document, jotting down date and time, what the changes were and why we made them. Unfortunately, this is a painfully time-consuming and imperfect manual process and often gets shunted aside, especially during very busy weeks (which of course is when we really need the documentation!).

Thankfully, Google offers a change history report that not only details what changes you made, but also charts those changes against campaign performance run-charts, making it so much easier to see the impact of your changes:


Interestingly, only Google and Ask currently offer change history reports, which we believe should be standard fare for all paid search engines. We hope that Microsoft and Yahoo will follow Google and Ask’s lead and implement change history reporting sometime soon.

Once you’ve eliminated self-inflicted wounds as the cause for your campaign crisis, you’ll need to look at factors external to your campaigns and think outside the box. In some cases, you’ll find that you don’t actually have a performance issue, but instead have a reporting problem. In other rare cases, the problem miraculously fixes itself, which is always nice, and usually points to a network or search engine outage or other transient condition that has come and gone even before you started investigating. Here are a few symptoms and odd causes we’ve encountered over the years:

Problem: Not getting clicks and conversions. Potential causes:

  • Search engine reporting or ad delivery problems
  • URL tracking variables have been stripped from destination URLs when traversing contextual ad networks
  • Tracking scripts accidentally removed from landing pages

Problem: Conversions and Conversion rates drop way off. Potential causes:

  • Shopping cart is not working or inventory outages
  • Website is down
  • Really bad news about your company just hit the wires
  • Selling season ended
  • Affiliates poaching your branded terms

Key to success: Avoid repeating the same problem

Nothing is more painful than reliving the same dumb mistakes time and time again.

After a campaign crisis has passed, it is always a good idea to take time to understand who or what created the problem and exactly how it happened. The idea is not to assign blame and dish out punishments, but rather to calmly and dispassionately take stock, fix what needs to be fixed, change processes for editing campaigns and websites, open better lines of communications and provide additional training to PPC managers as needed to prevent the same thing from happening again.

As a safeguard, we backup our Google and Microsoft campaigns on a regular basis using their desktop editing tools. Taking backups, especially before we lay in a major set of edits, allows us to “roll-back” should we do encounter unexpected problems. Yahoo has recently announced they will be releasing a desktop editor this year, too, which we will use for the same purpose.

No PPC manager ever plans for failure, but just as the great automaker, Toyota, knows all too well, failures can occur whether they are of our own making or they are caused by random, external events. Taking time now to assess our own preparedness for PPC campaigns disasters can help us identify and deal with emerging problems before they become painfully big and costly.

In the coming months, I’ll get into the more positive aspects of managing paid search campaigns and advanced optimization techniques based on statistical process control and continuous process improvement methodologies.

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About the author

Matt Van Wagner
Matt Van Wagner is President and founder of Find Me Faster a search engine marketing firm based in Nashua, NH. He is also a member of the programming team for SMX events. Matt is a seasoned sales and marketing professional specializing in paid and local search engine marketing strategies for small and medium-sized companies in the United States and Canada. An award-winning speaker whose presentations are usually as entertaining as they are informative, Matt has been a popular speaker at SMX and other search conferences. He is a member of SEMNE (Search Engine Marketing New England), and SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, He is member and contributing courseware developer for the SEMPO Institute. Matt occasionally writes on search engines and technology topics for IMedia, The NH Business Review and other publications, He also served as technical editor for Andrew Goodman's Winning Results with Google AdWords and Mona Elesseily's Yahoo! Search Marketing Handbook.

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