What Can Ants Teach You About Efficiency?

antsAnyone who has been driving with me knows that I’m not very patient with sub-optimal drivers. My pet peeves range from passing lane campers (the sign says “slower” traffic keep right, so it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, it’s how fast I’m going) to people treating roundabouts like 4-way stops (it’s a yield). If it’s inefficient, it makes me bonkers.

Along this line, I came across an article the other day that explained how we wouldn’t have traffic jams if we behaved like ants. It’s an intriguing read all around, but the main point is that ants have a very effective method for determining the fastest way between food sources and the nest.

Each ant leaves a small amount of pheromone as they navigate. There are thousands of ants leaving these trails and the pheromone naturally degrades in the environment. Since shorter paths are quicker, these shorter paths begin accumulating higher concentrations of pheromones. Subsequent ants then follow these pheromone-rich paths and a virtuous cycle is established, making the ants incredibly efficient.

How Can You Mark Your Paths?

Your PPC accounts are similar to the ants in that they are the accumulation of many, many impressions, clicks and conversions. While each is unique, in aggregate the data starts to form little trails. Perhaps it’s a distinct user segment behaving similarly on your landing pages or certain keywords surfacing down-funnel searchers. Here are 3 ways you can start laying down some metaphorical pheromones to find those efficient paths.

N-gram Analysis

The term n-gram is just a fancy way of saying 1-word phrase, 2-word phrase etc. and these are basically pheromone trails in your search query reports. But how do you analyze them? With a free AdWords script from Daniel Gilbert here. It’s simple to use and his Search Engine Land post has all the instructions. The analysis ends up in a Google Sheet and then you go to work finding n-grams that perform well and don’t perform so well. Then start adding negative keywords and building out new ad groups/campaigns as you deem necessary.


This is an AdWords-centric tip (hint, hint Bing) but labels are an excellent way to leave some pheromone trails. For example, let’s say you ran a quick analysis and discovered the 50 keywords with more than 5 conversions and have a CPA at least 50% below goal. These are your all-stars so you apply some bid changes to boost performance. However, they’re in several campaigns and ad groups all over the account. How do you check back in on them later to see how your changes affected performance? You label them! Then when you go back you can filter by label and see your 50 all-stars.

If you need some additional ideas, check out this post with 5 ways, and a bonus, to use labels. And they even work in AdWords Editor too!

Heat Maps

Here’s a quick example of a heat map:
Heat Map
The hotter colors like red and yellow show where people hover over the page and what they click on. This is almost a direct correlation to the ant analogy and shows you what is attracting your users the most. The insights gathered from this analysis can help you realize that your hero shot is distracting people from your CTA or that your sidebar is pulling attention away from the main benefit statements. Services like CrazyEgg or AttentionWizard have great introductory offerings if you’d like to take them for a spin.

In conclusion, these tips will provide you a self-reinforcing feedback loop to discover and maximize efficiency in your PPC accounts. What else are you doing in this area (humble brags okay)?