A review of free PPC reporting solutions from Google

Doing PPC reporting right often involves some trade-offs between time and money. The perfect report takes a lot of time to build — time that could have been spent improving the performance of an account. A quick and repeatable report, on the other hand, is usually generated through a tool that costs money. So the arrival of Data Studio, which offers very customizable reporting, and now does so at a cost of $0, warrants an investigation to determine how it can help account managers.

Because the tool suite of my company, Optmyzr, also includes PPC reporting, spending the time to evaluate Data Studio made sense to me. So if you’re overworked and can’t really spare a few hours to look at Data Studio yourself, get my take on it here in a quick 10-minute read. I’ll even share a handful of cool reports you can make.

Why trust my opinion? Because my personal credibility in this industry hinges on being helpful to advertisers. So while I’ve got skin in the game, for this post I put on my agency hat and tried out Data Studio to see where it shines and where it might fall short for search marketers.

What is Data Studio?

While Data Studio is not new (it was announced in March of 2016), it wasn’t a tool for most of us because there was a five-report limit per user — hardly enough for the average consultant or agency. Anyone who needed more reports had to buy a license for Google Data Studio 360.

With the recent announcement that this limit no longer applies to the free version, Data Studio is worth a new look for anyone who balked at the high price before.

Free PPC reporting options from Google

But if you’re looking for a free reporting tool, Data Studio is hardly the only offering from Google. So I’ll also share some pros and cons of the free solutions that have been around a bit longer: Google Analytics and AdWords.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics Dashboards (screen shot from Google.com taken February 2017)

Google Analytics (GA) is primarily a tool for analyzing what users do on a website. So if you want to look beyond cost and conversions from PPC, GA is a great solution. It can help explain why clicks convert.

It’s also very good at showing acquisition data from other channels so you’re not limited to reporting only what happens in AdWords. But while it automatically knows what traffic comes from Twitter, Facebook and more, it knows nothing about campaign details or costs unless you do some serious work setting up UTM tracking tags and importing cost data. In this case, you’re paying for a free solution with your time.

GA is not a purpose-built reporting or dashboarding tool, so it may not be as sophisticated as you’d like. It does have some capabilities like custom dashboards that can be emailed on a schedule.

Pros

  • Bring in data from any advertising channel using the “cost import” feature and UTM tracking parameters.
  • Helps analyze WHY clicks convert, not just IF they converted.
  • Simple integration with AdWords allows data to be shared in both directions between GA and AdWords.
  • Automates sending reports on a schedule.

Cons

  • Dashboards are limited to 12 widgets.
  • Importing cost data is pretty time-consuming unless you use a tool for it, but when using a tool, this solution is no longer free.
  • Reports cannot be white-labeled.
  • No way to make changes to multiple dashboards in bulk, making simple changes very laborious for agencies with many clients.

AdWords campaign management reports

Download and schedule reports from AdWords (screen shot from Google.com taken February 2017)

The vast majority of AdWords advertisers use nothing more than AdWords itself to analyze the results and get reports. As a result, the reporting capabilities in the campaign management interface is primarily geared to meeting the needs of the account manager, rather than the executive team.

This means reports are fairly bland, comprised mostly of tables and simple charts. While the new interface will improve on this, for now, most of us are still stuck with the old version that doesn’t lend itself well to creating pretty reports for stakeholders.

Because reports in this part of AdWords also happen to be in the same place where changes are made, an insight can instantaneously be turned into action. The bigger trends and insights may not be as obvious to see — but that’s where the Report Editor comes in handy, and I’ll cover that further below.

Pros

  • Nobody has more data about AdWords than Google itself. For example, Auction Insights are not available in the API, so other reporting vendors can’t offer an alternative solution.
  • It’s easy to send raw data via email on an automated schedule.

Cons

  • Raw data in tables helps account managers make decisions, but it’s not as useful for someone who’s not involved in day-to-day management. I argued in my recent post that sending very detailed reports with all the data in tables is not the right way to do reporting.
  • For security reasons, data can only be emailed to people who have access to the AdWords account.

AdWords Report Editor

AdWords Report Editor Charts (screen shot from Google.com taken February 2017)

For a truer form of reporting, AdWords has the reporting tab. Their Report Editor provides a more robust, drag-and-drop environment for exploring, manipulating and visualizing data. The reports you find here can be used to create more robust variations of the tables found in the Campaign management section, or to create interesting aggregations through pivot tables. You can also make great-looking visualizations, like charts that highlight key findings.

In a way, it’s like they brought some of the most useful functionality from Excel or Google Sheets right into AdWords. AdWords Product Management lead Jon Diorio recently told me, “one of our Report Editor goals was to eliminate the time wasted constructing pivots and charts from downloaded data.” The benefit is that the tedious step of fetching fresh data from AdWords is no longer needed. When reports become much easier to repeat, account managers are more likely to gain the right insights to improve performance.

While the tool is definitely a time-saver compared to doing the same analysis in a spreadsheet, it only allows one analysis at a time to be shared, so it still leaves the work associated with building a great multi-page report to be done manually every time. That said I’ve heard whispers that AdWords has begun beta testing just such a dashboarding solution.

Pros

  • Powerful way to slice and dice data via pivot tables and advanced charts.
  • Do the same analysis normally done in a spreadsheet, directly in AdWords, bypassing the need to manually download and sync data every time.

Cons

  • A “report” consists of exactly one visualization, so you have to create multiple reports to tell a story.
  • As with all AdWords reporting solutions, it can only be shared with people who have access to the AdWords account.

Google Data Studio

AdWords Report in Data Studio (screen shot from Google.com taken February 2017)

Data Studio is the newest free reporting tool from Google. It’s great for doing analysis on a variety of data sets, including MySql databases, Google Sheets and several Google products like BigTable, AdWords, YouTube, Analytics and DoubleClick. As with most Google products, direct integrations with the other big players are sorely missing, and for agencies, that means there’s no integration with Bing Ads, Facebook Ads or others that compete with Google for advertising dollars.

Unlike GA and the AW solutions for reporting, this product is built specifically for reporting and dashboarding, so the output is better-looking, and if done right, a report created here can help communicate the right story about an account to an executive.

But Data Studio was not built primarily for advertisers, and that shows in the lack of a few things a typical agency might want from a reporting tool: the ability to show ad text data, scheduling of reports and the ability to leverage one report template against a large number of clients.

Pros

  • Customizable with different fonts, colors and layouts, and white-label with images.
  • Create dashboards that are multiple pages.
  • Data integrations with Google Products like AdWords MCC, Analytics, Search Console, YouTube, BigTable and generic connectors like MySQL.

Cons

  • No integrations with Bing Ads, Facebook Ads and so on.
  • Cannot be white-labeled with a custom domain.
  • Cannot be shared on an automatic schedule
  • Currently cannot be shared with people without a Gmail or Google for Work account (though Google expects this to be supported eventually).

Five things to try in Data Studio

While it may not be the Holy Grail of PPC reporting that we’ve been looking for, Data Studio is still an awesome tool with plenty of powerful and useful functionality that you should take advantage of. Here are some useful PPC things I was able to do.

1. Create an executive MCC dashboard

The Google MCC dashboard is the starting place for an account manager’s daily optimization routine and provides a great overview of the performance of several accounts at once. We’ve heard from agencies using our tools that executives want to get access to this type of tabular overview data. But granting an executive access to AdWords may not always make sense, either because they might be drowned in too much data or they might accidentally interfere with the work you’re doing.

Data Studio provides a way to create your own version of an MCC dashboard that can easily be shared with anyone you want, even when they don’t have access to AdWords. And thanks to the recently enhanced AdWords MCC integration in Data Studio, it’s very easy to pick just the accounts from an MCC to include (as long as they use the same currency).

2. Create a custom heat map table

Tables are great, but they can take some time to read and understand. If you want to combine the level of detail you get from a table with an easy-to-grasp data visualization, try a custom heat map table. You can build the table with up to 10 levels of segmentation to get a very granular view. For example, use lots of segments and color coding to help quickly identify portions of an account that might be ripe for an optimization.

3. Show third-party call-tracking data

Even though Data Studio doesn’t integrate directly with call-tracking vendors, you can still include that type of data if you maintain it on your own SQL servers or in a Google Spreadsheet. The graph above is an example I created using call-tracking data from CallRail, which I added to a Google Sheet with Zapier.

This data can then be rendered in a variety of interesting ways. Here, I show both a graph with the number of calls received every day and the overall total for the last 30 days. Since every call is a row on the spreadsheet, to get the count of calls, I used one of my favorite capabilities in Data Studio: custom calculations to sum it all up. Specifically, I used the formula COUNT(Date) to get the total calls by day.

4. Use calculated fields to show how big your account is

There are some nifty functions that can help calculate new metrics from the underlying data in Data Studio. For example, use the function COUNT(Ad Group) to show how many ad groups there are. Then apply a data filter to a dimension like Ad Group Status to show just how many of those are active, paused or deleted.

In this example, we’ve calculated the number of active ad groups in one account, as well as the number of keywords that currently have a Quality Score of 6, and what the highest and lowest Quality Score is for any active keyword in the account.

5. Remove complexity from reports by normalizing campaign names

Account managers use different campaign naming conventions depending on the strategy of their account structure. For example, someone employing an alpha/beta structure may name one campaign “Widgets – Alpha” and another “Widgets – Beta.” The recipient of a report probably only gets confused when they see your naming convention, so why not standardize the names?

Renaming things is possible by using a text manipulation function to create a new calculated field. For example, create a field for “Normalized Campaign Name” that removes the alpha/beta notation. The resulting report is automatically reaggregated so that the report becomes much easier to digest for an executive. The specific function I used in this case was REPLACE(REPLACE(Campaign, “alpha”, “”), “beta”, “”)

Conclusion

There are several free reporting solutions from Google that can help PPC account managers with the creation of reports for their stakeholders. Unfortunately, there is no reporting solution, whether free or paid, that is going to be the perfect solution for everyone. So be ready to compromise, whether it’s on cost, time savings or features. But ultimately, a powerful tool that is free to use, like Data Studio, should have a place in our toolboxes because it can help streamline some common tasks.

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