Designing custom AdWords tools.

The AdWords interface is awful.

I’m not talking about the new UI vs the old UI. Both are terrible, and when version 3 is forced on us in a few years it will be no less unpleasant to use.

The AdWords interface has to do too much for it ever to be great software.

  • It must show every scrap of data in your account.

  • It must let you sort, filter and segment by every possible parameter.

  • It must expose every switch, setting, lever and control in the system.

  • It must allow for tasks you do every day.

  • It must allow for tasks you do only once.

  • It must work for advertisers doing lead generation, brand building and ecommerce.

  • It must work for people using the search network, the display network and YouTube.

  • It must accommodate text ads, video ads and image ads.


It can’t favour the way you work over the way someone else works. It can't prioritise the data you want over the data other advertisers use. It can't optimise for campaigns on the display network at the expense of campaigns on the search network.

It has to be all things to everyone. It has to be multi-purpose. It's a Swiss army knife.

You can use a Swiss army knife to fell a tree, rescue a baby deer from a snare, change a plug or tighten the screws on your glasses. It’s not a great tool for any of these jobs, but it’s usable if you don't have anything else.

AdWords is the same. It can do everything but it's not comfortable to use. Finding data takes too many clicks. Regular workflows are spread out across many screens. The display is cluttered and noisy.

Here's how you can design a great custom Google Ads tool.

Build less.

You know the 80:20 rule? It’s valid for AdWords too. 80% (or more) of the time you spend in AdWords is spent looking at the same few columns and doing the same handful of tasks.

Start by polishing out the friction from the every-day tasks. Every click you shave off, every calculation you automate, every complex workflow you trigger with one button will repay you in time saved, mistakes avoided and general happiness.

There is a temptation to build everything AdWords can do, to make your tool complete. Don't do it. You'll end up with a poorly implemented multi-purpose tool - a knock off Swiss army knife.

Accept that you'll have to make the occasional visit to AdWords. When you get back you'll appreciate the simplicity of your tool even more.

Put the data you need to make a decision on one screen.

Let me explain what I mean with an example.

My regular workflow includes a deep look at keywords with a higher than average CPA. I need the following data to guide my decisions.

  • The average CPA for the campaign over the last 30 days.

  • The trend in CPA over the last 6 months.

  • The CPA for this keyword for the last 30 days.

  • The trend over the last 6 months.

  • How many conversions came from this keyword for all time and more recently.

  • How many conversions we'd lose if we paused the keyword.

  • How many conversions we'd gain if we allocated the cost from this keyword elsewhere.

  • What search terms were triggered by this keyword (if it's not exact match).


This data is scattered all over AdWords. You can consolidate it into a single screen in your custom tool. You still have to apply experience and good judgement to decide if the higher CPA is a problem, why it's higher and what to do about it. But, you don't have to spend a hundred clicks gathering the data before you start work.

Show less data.

The more data you show on a screen, the harder it is to interpret. Your brain has to filter the signal from the noise. Show only the data you need to guide the decision at hand.

You may need extra data when the main metrics don't give a definitive answer. You can handle this by having a button to show secondary data. Better - (but more expensive to build - is to have your tool know when you need the extra data and show it automagically.

Pre-filter everything you can.

Sticking with the same workflow example - examining keywords with higher than average CPA.

Your tool could have a screen that shows keywords ranked by CPA. It's already faster than the equivalent workflow in AdWords:

  1. Create and save custom set of columns.
  2. Choose the column set.
  3. Select the appropriate date range.
  4. Find the average CPA for the campaign.
  5. Set a filter for CPA > the average CPA.

But it could be better. Your tool could show only keywords that had a higher than average CPA. You're removing some noise from the screen. That gives prominence to the keywords that need action.

By definition are always going to be some keywords with a high than average CPA. They don’t all need attention and you’re still asking the to decide which keywords are OK and which are a problem.

You can take this decision away from the user by setting a threshold at which high CPA becomes a problem. Say any keyword where the CPA is higher than 15% above average deserves a look.

Now you’ve only got keywords the user needs to pay attention to on the list. No noise, all signal. Every decision you remove makes your software better.

Set sensible defaults.

If you normally make decisions on the last 30 days data, set your tool to default the last 30 days data. Good software requires as few non-core decisions as possible. You can always offer a discrete date range selector if the default isn't right often enough.

You’d do the same for other settings. If you normally opt out of search partners on new campaigns, default to that. It might even be worth not exposing the option at all. On the odd occasion that you need to opt into search partners you can do that via the regular interface.

This make sense to you? Read this next: How to use the AdWords API to automate AdWords.


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