Thoughts on the Changing PPC Landscape

While recently working through building out campaigns for a new client, I kept thinking about just how much the PPC landscape has changed over the past few years. Our approach to structuring, managing, and reporting on campaigns has shifted in the process. Below are some major shifts occurring in the industry:

  • Close (and not-so-close) variants are an unavoidable reality in any search campaign
  • Automated bidding is the default modus operandi pushed by all major platforms for new campaigns
  • Responsive ads will soon be the sole option in search campaigns
  • Privacy restrictions continue to degrade the accuracy of conversion data and the ability to build audiences

So, as a PPC marketer in the current time, how can we move past previous “best practices” that may or may not even be relevant anymore, while thinking through the process of building out campaigns in a way that will benefit us in the current PPC landscape? Here are a few thoughts:

Less Segmentation Generally Wins

While I’ve never completely fallen in the SKAG (Single Keyword Ad Group) camp, I used to advocate a much stricter approach to organizing keywords into ad groups. I’d spend obsessive amounts of time adding negative keywords between ad groups to sculpt the perfect setup.

As both exact and phrase match have loosened up, allowing close variant queries with similar themes to match to keywords, hyper-segmented search ad groups no longer make sense in most contexts. Of course, you should still make sure to exclude irrelevant queries, but separating misspellings, plural vs. singular keywords, and synonyms with the same meaning generally doesn’t add much benefit, unless the data shows significant performance difference between keywords that also have decent search volume. Additionally, as “low search volume” keywords sometimes won’t even trigger ads to show (while the same query might show for a related keyword), over-sculpted ad group structure can harm more than hurt.

Also, as Google and Microsoft move more heavily toward responsive search ads and automated bidding, automation requires larger data sets to make decisions about what ads and other elements are performing best. Grouping more keywords together in ad groups will allow for more data and better decisions. Note that I’m not advocating that the platforms are always making the right decisions here (human oversight is still important!), but giving the system a chance to perform the way it’s intended is more likely to yield results.

I’ve seen similar performance trends in social channels recently, particularly on Facebook. Where previously hyper-segmented ad sets for specific interest categories would perform well, what often performs best currently is lumping together more targeting criteria into fewer ad sets. This tactic allows more budget to flow toward a broader audience and quicker learning within the system to determine what ads will perform best for the audience.

Automated Bidding is Getting Better

I was a major skeptic of automated bidding for a long time. Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve gradually shifted toward testing more automated bidding features such as CPA bidding, Maximize Conversions, and even Maximize Clicks, in accounts of all sizes.

While at times these bid strategies can tank campaign performance quickly (keep an eye on your data!), in other cases I’ve seen automated bidding help to stabilize an account after switching over. Don’t be afraid to at least test in your accounts. You can always set up an experiment with specific campaigns to be cautious here, as well.

Even in smaller accounts, where I was most skeptical about automation in the past, I’ve found that Maximize Conversions (with CPA bids to help add control) can work reasonably well if a steady flow of conversions is coming into the system. Maximize Clicks (with a CPC bid cap) can work to keep display campaigns pacing properly when getting off the ground, and can also help with volume for search campaigns that haven’t collected much conversion data yet. Of course, if you see wild swings in daily spends or overall performance between the first few days, switching to Manual CPC can help to reign back flaky performance.

You Won’t Be Able to Report on Every Conversion

Attribution has never been perfect. But our ability to tie conversions to their original sources has been further reduced by iOS restrictions, browsers blocking cookies, GDPR, and a host of other privacy rollouts over the past couple of years.

While platforms have scrambled to provide workarounds for reporting as much data as possible, increased conversion modeling and decreased accuracy in overall attribution are here to stay. The positive fallout is that marketers are forced to reckon with the fact that perfectly tying the impact of an ad to the resulting lead has never been an absolute 1:1 correlation even with the best tracking. We’re forced to think more holistically about how multiple paid channels interact, and how paid channels interact with non-paid efforts, to drive overall branding and leads.

The tough part results when executives and in-house marketing directors still find themselves tied to wanting to see data that can be proven to connect with their marketing dollars. However, as the advertising landscape continues to evolve, marketers should be willing to have the tough conversations necessary to help leadership realize that results may not always be 100% tangible data. At the same time, we can work to ensure that we are tracking as much as we can, including proper UTM parameters, setting up enhanced conversions, getting the Facebook Conversions API in place, and opting users in to receive first-party data where possible.


So, where are we headed in the PPC world beyond the changes we have faced in the last couple of years? We can likely expect the points at the beginning of the article to continue as trends, while new challenges may still be ahead. As marketers, we should continue to monitor the shifts in the platforms, while being willing to adapt our tried-and-true approaches to face a changing world.