When Should You Overhaul Your PPC Account Structure?

Let’s start by looking at a hypothetical scenario:

You’ve just been put in charge of a PPC account — either in-house or as part of an agency shakeup. It’s an account with a lot of history, and it is hitting goals, but…

After a few days spent familiarizing yourself with this account, you come to the conclusion that it’s not structured the way you would like. You sense a lot of opportunities for improvement: ad groups with too many keywords, budgets being eaten up by broad terms, keywords cannibalizing traffic from each other… and so on.

It’s at this point you need to come to a decision about how you’re going to move forward with the account:

  • Start gradually tweaking things within the current structure to generate improvements?

- Or -

  • Knock it all down and start from scratch?

Which would you go for?

This is a question we ask ourselves a lot when a new client comes on board, and it can be trickier to answer than you think. There are many different factors that determine which path to take. For one, building out a new structure is time-consuming. If the account is in good shape, you might be able to generate much better short-  and medium-term results by working with what you have. On the other hand, an account that’s in bad shape is going to be tough to work with and might not be able to hit the goals you’ve been given.

Some agencies will always redesign accounts completely from scratch. This can be helpful for a couple of reasons:

  • You can easily train people to understand all the accounts you manage
  • It speeds up repetitive tasks that are handled across a team of people

I’m not personally convinced it is always necessary or the right thing to do. If I came in as an in-house PPC manager, would my first actions be to tear down the current account and replace it with one I had built? Unless the account was in dire straits, probably not.

When Should You Restructure/Start Over?

I have a few personal metrics that I use:

  • An account more than 25% away from goal that doesn’t show improvement month-over-month
  • An account hitting goal that is showing non-seasonal, non-competitor related decline month-over-month for 3 straight months
  • Accounts with median keywords-per-ad-group over 30

Is Restructuring Always A Good Idea?

There are two competing ideologies at play here: “PPC Best Practices” and business reality. Take a look at the following graph, which highlights what we typically see after an account restructure for an account that is in the “good, not great” mold:

A chart showing performance dropping after implementing a new PPC structure

Performance initially drops with the shakeup. New keywords, bids and ads all come into play. It can take up to a few months for performance to get back to where it was under the old system.

Accounts that don’t respond well to change initially seem to have a peculiar trait in common: a ton of history and very little activity. Huge accounts that have just kind of sat there for years with very few changes tend, for some reason, to give us the biggest headache. Internally, we speak of accounts having their own personalities. In this case, I picture a grumpy old man in his chair — when you wake him up, he starts cursing at everyone and heads back to sleep.

For the business side of things to go smoothly, you’ll need to project at what point you break even. Take a look at the cumulative frequency of conversions from the previous chart. The red line below represents overall sales had we not rebuilt. The blue line shows post-rebuild performance.

Notice there is a 6-week period in which our total sales were below expectations. I like to call this the “valley of client unhappiness.” The trick to surviving it is setting expectations, showing incremental gains every week and communicating constantly. Make sure everyone is aware of the long-term reasoning behind your account changes so there is a reduced chance of knee-jerk reactions.

A cumulative graph of PPC sales with and without a restructure

Rules To Follow For Restructuring An Account

I went back and analyzed post-rebuild account performances for our clients. There was a fairly even split between this delayed improvement and immediate improvements being seen.

I’m sure a few of you, particularly within specialized verticals, haven’t ever had to deal with accounts that drop after “improvements.” You are either great at PPC or very lucky. For those of you like me who are neither, the following are the steps I put in place to maximize the chance of success with restructuring:

1. Make Sure Everyone Buys In

This is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed long-term. Sit down with your boss/client and spell out why you think the restructure is needed (it will improve long-term performance), what the negatives will be (short-term problems), and a rough approximation of how long it will be until this change pays off. If you can lay this out ahead of time, you won’t have to scramble to explain performance in the short term.

By ensuring you have buy-in, it also gives your boss/client another chance to stop you and say, “Hang on, we need every sale we can get right now, don’t blow things up until after Black Friday.”

2. Keep Bids The Same Where You Can

One of the simplest practical tips you can use when rebuilding an account is to keep things as similar as possible bid-wise at the start. New blanket bids will be much less efficient than ones that have been reached over months of tweaking.

I find the easiest way to do this is with a VLookup formula in Excel. Find out what your existing bids are and apply them anytime that same keyword and match type combination shows up.

3. Have An Overlap Period

Very rarely do I transition account structures without some kind of overlap period. This involves uploading the new structure without deleting the old. This allows time for my ads to start impressing and my image ads to be approved — and for me to fix any issues that almost always arise.

4. Recognize Your Failures

In business language, sticking with a failed change because you invested too much time and money into it is known as a sunk cost. Make sure your best AdWords efforts don’t turn into sunk costs of your own. Give your new account structure time to work, but recognize when it isn’t making things better. Typically, after a month or so, you should be able to tell if things are improving.

Along this train of thought, always download a backup of your account when you make big changes. There’s nothing worse than messing everything up and not being able to hit the reset switch.

5. Start With The Best Ad Only

If you want your restructure to be successful in the very short term, starting with only your historically best performing ad copy is a good way to go. By beginning with 3+ ad tests, you are dividing your new traffic amongst ads that might well be much worse. Typically, I tend to build out my ad testing with my structure, but then hold off uploading all but my best ad until a week or two later.

6. Put Top Keywords In Their Own Ad Groups

A lot has been made of single keyword ad groups in the past year, and personally I like them for my top keywords. By putting your top 100 or so into individual ad groups, you can check on them more easily and tailor better ads for them.

Adding “Important Keyword” labels is a really good idea, too — just in terms of keeping track of everything. You don’t want to think to yourself, six months down the line, “Hmm, I’m sure [x] used to be a really important keyword for us….”

7. Use A Consistent Naming Structure

There are many different ways to name your campaigns and ad groups. From the hundreds of accounts I’ve looked at, it seems like almost all of them do things slightly differently. Sometimes it’s “Nike – Shoes – Search,” other times “Google | Search | Brands | Nike | Shoes.” Keeping things consistent from the start is going to help a lot down the line (and it’s probably half the reason to restructure an account in the first place).

As always, I’d love to hear your restructure success and horror stories. Have you ever had troubles with changes you thought should have been massively beneficial? Let us know in the comments section below!