Will AdWords Work?

It's a good question. A great Google AdWords campaign will generate a steady stream of sales for many years. But there are thousands of people who’ve wasted money and time on AdWords without ever making a single sale.

What if you knew AdWords would send you sales enquiries every day?

  • You could do your best work without worrying about where your next customer was coming from.
  • Your cash flow would be a lot more comfortable.
  • You’d be able to plan for the future.
  • You’d turn more quotes and proposals into sales as you got more and more practice selling.
  • You’d take on only the best clients - people who trusted you and valued your services. Not price shoppers.

You’d be confident that you’d chosen the right way to grow your business. You’d be able to focus on getting the best possible results from AdWords instead of flitting from AdWords to SEO, Facebook etc.

Will AdWords work for you? The only right answer is “it depends”.

Your business is unique:

  • The market you serve.
  • The product or service you sell.
  • Your skills and experience.
  • Your constraints - time and money.
  • Your resources - time, money and skills.
  • The way you respond to a sales enquiry.
  • Your sales process.
  • etc...

A one-size-fits-all answer isn’t good enough when you’re staking your future on it. You need to a way to confirm if AdWords will work for YOUR business given your unique circumstances and constraints.

Two businesses use AdWords. One makes money. One wastes money. Why?

Peter Carruthers and I ran a weekly webinar for several years. Subject: use the internet to improve your small business. About 1300 small business owners were paying us for the training.

The group included architects, engineers, plumbers, mechanics etc. There were people who owned guesthouses, factories, distributors and retail outlets. Almost every industry was represented.

AdWords was part of the curriculum. For many it was the most difficult part. Some of our students followed our instructions to the letter and got sales enquiries within hours of activating their campaigns. Others made mistakes or took shortcuts:

  • They'd jam all the keywords into one ad group so they didn't have to write hundreds of adverts.
  • They'd choose high volume broad one-word keywords thinking that more traffic was better.
  • They'd forget some step or setting.

Their results: pay Google a load of money and make no sales. And of course they'd complain "AdWords doesn't work".

I thought AdWords didn't work for them because it was difficult. The AdWords interface is more complicated than a Boeing’s cockpit and Google changes it all the time.

I thought that we could make AdWords work for everyone if we made it easy to build campaigns. (Turns out I was wrong, but it took a few years to find that out. More on this in a moment.)

I wrote software to prevent mistakes and force best practice. It made building an AdWords campaign a fill-in-the-blanks exercise.

Lots of people using the software meant lots of new AdWords mistakes. Every time they made a new mistake I changed the software to prevent it. Every improvement to the software turned into lower AdWords costs, better conversion rates and more sales enquiries.

This approach worked so well that a newbie could start on Monday and follow our "5 Day Challenge." They'd spend about an hour a day and by Friday they'd have their first sales leads from AdWords.

But some people still complained that AdWords didn't work.

I remember one case well. For some reason we had loads of students from the printing industry. You could Google for printing services and 5 of the then 13 adverts would be our students'.

Why were 5 people able to get their ads onto Google but only 2 were making sales?

An AdWords campaign has 7 key facets:

  1. Market
  2. Campaign
  3. Budget
  4. Management
  5. Website
  6. Response
  7. Sales process

What do you think would happen with:

  • A great campaign in a poor market?
  • A fantastic sales process with nobody to sell to?
  • A gorgeous website with no visitors?

Put another way: Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

Anything multiplied by zero is zero. Get any one of these facets wrong and you won’t make sales from your AdWords. One zero matters.

Every one of our struggling students had at least one zero in their equation. The AdWords campaign part wasn't usually the culprit but it always got the blame. "AdWords doesn't work".

If AdWords is going to work for your business, you need to make sure that there are no zeros in your equation. You don’t have to reach perfection on day 1. Instead you need to make sure that none of facets is fatally flawed.

It's your job as the business owner to worry about the whole equation. Everyone else is concerned only about their facets:

  • AdWords agency: Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.
  • Website designer: Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.
  • Sales people: Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.
  • You: Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

The market.

Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

A great campaign is not worth a barrel of warm spit if nobody in your market uses Google.

Your market is defined by:

  1. The goods or services you sell.
  2. The town, region or country you do business in.
  3. The people who are likely to buy from you.
  4. Your competitors.

1.The goods or services you sell.

I'll refer to the goods, services or combination of both as the product.

There are a couple of types of products that make AdWords unlikely to work.

  • Products banned by Google. Guns, explosives, some medical products etc. Go here for a list of these for your country.
  • Trademarked goods. Google won't allow you to use some trademarked names in your adverts. This makes writing attractive ads difficult. I have a client who repairs laptop computers. He can't use the initials HP or the words Hewlett Packard anywhere in his ad copy. When someone searches for "HP laptop screen repair" he can't show a highly relevant ad that says "We repair HP laptop screens." Instead his advert has to say "We repair laptop screens." This generic ad copy isn't very effective.
  • Undifferentiated branded goods. It's hard to stand out if you're selling exactly the same thing as everybody else. People usually buy for the first time based on price or convenience or some mixture of both. It becomes a race to the bottom with everyone else who sells the same stuff lowering prices to try and get market share. More detailed explanation here.

2. The town, region or country you do business in.

If you can’t reach enough people using AdWords it might not be worth doing.

Two things determine the number of people you can reach:

  • The geographic area you serve. If you serve a small local market you might not be able to get enough sales from AdWords to move the needle.
  • The number of people in that area who use Google to search for what you sell.

Where do a vet's patients come from?

I audited a struggling AdWords campaign for a vet. He knew he wasn’t getting value for what he paid Google but he never suspected he was wasting that 99% of his ad spend.

Most of his patients live close to his practice. That makes sense, vets are generally a local service. Hairdressers, dentists, plumbers etc are also.

A long-standing client might drive in from the next town but nobody climbs on a plane to get their puppy vaccinated.

His AdWords campaign was set to show adverts to everyone in the entire country instead of only to people close to his surgery. 99% of the people who saw his ads lived too far away to use his services.

How many people in your area Google for what you sell?

You can only show ads on Google search when people search for your product. If nobody searches you can’t advertise to them. This makes AdWords on search a poor fit for brand new products or concepts. It's not a good medium creating awareness.

Google and others offer tools to estimate how many searches there are likely to be for your product. Google's tool is called the Keyword Planner and you can find it inside your AdWords account.

The estimates from these tools are not perfect so they're best used as a broad guide to see if there is enough interest to be worth considering or not.

They way the results are presented makes it easy to misunderstand what they mean if you're not familiar with the concepts. It's probably best getting some advice on this if you're not familiar with the concepts.

3. The people who are likely to buy from you.

Your future customers are wonderful, frustrating human beings. They'll shower you with money if you make it easy for them to get what they want. But they'll click away from your site in an instant if you try force them to do business your way. Fickle bastards!

Your website processes should line up with the way the market already acts or you'll find AdWords hard. Let me illustrate.

Years ago I ran a great AdWords campaign for a real estate agent who specialised in selling apartments.

The offline flow looked like this:

  1. She'd advertise in the paper.
  2. A potential buyer would phone up or visit the office.
  3. She'd ask them what they were looking for. How many bedrooms, parking etc.
  4. She'd look through her file of apartments for sale and find a handful that matched their criteria.
  5. She'd arrange viewings.

Back then this was how people bought apartments.

We cloned this flow online:

  1. We'd show an ad every time someone Google for apartments in her area.
  2. The potential buyer would click the ad and land on a website.
  3. The potential buyer would enter what they were looking for into an enquiry form. How many bedrooms, parking etc.
  4. She'd look through her file of apartments for sale and find a handful that matched their criteria.
  5. She'd call or email to arrange viewings.

AdWords worked well for a couple of years. Then the flow of enquiries dried up. The adverts kept showing on Google. People kept clicking on the ads but nobody filled in the enquiry form anymore.

The way people expected to look for an apartment online had changed. Multi-listing websites like www.rightmove.co.uk listed all the apartments available in the area. People expected to be able to search for all the apartments listed by all the agents in the area at once. They were no longer prepared to fill in an enquiry form on every estate agent's site hoping for a match.

As long as your business processes match what the searcher is trying to do you should be OK.

4. Your competitors.

There are a limited number of slots for your adverts on the front page of Google. Google sells those spots by auction so the more advertisers there are the higher prices tend to rise.

You’ll bump into 3 types of businesses competing for the same customers.

  • Your peers. Businesses of similar size to yours.
  • The 800lb gorillas. Large firms in your field. They'll often have nationwide presence or be franchises.
  • Aggregators. Middle-man websites like www.bookings.com. They list many suppliers on their sites and get paid a commission when you buy/book through them.

Competing against your peers is not too difficult as they face the same kind of economics your business does.

Competing against large firms and aggregators is possible because they can only occupy one of Google’s 4 slots at a time. But it's more difficult. Especially if there are lots of big players. In Africa where I was born we have a saying “When the elephants fight the ants get crushed”.

The AdWords Campaign.

Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

An AdWords campaign has a lot of moving parts:

  • The search terms (called keywords in Google talk) that you use to trigger your ads.
  • The negative keywords you use to make sure that your ads don't show for the wrong kind of searches.
  • The advert copy. In time you'll have hundreds of adverts. Each needs headlines, extensions, structured snippets, a call to action etc.
  • Ad groups to make sure that your adverts match what the searcher wants.
  • The location targeting - showing your ads to people in the area you can reach.
  • etc etc.

The success of the campaign facet depends on the skills and experience you can apply to assembling these parts into a sales generating engine. You can get those skills by hiring them in or learning them yourself.

DIY AdWords evaluation is risky.

Testing AdWords yourself is an attractive option. It’ll save you the hassle and cost of finding someone to do it for you. But, if your test fails because you made a mistake you'll reject AdWords, and that might mean losing a great way of finding new clients.

The difficulty in DIY for your first campaign is that you’re a brand new amateur competing against people who get paid to do AdWords every day. How likely is it that your first campaign will be as polished as theirs?

My agency offers a solution to this. We run pilot campaigns for testing AdWords. A pilot campaign is designed to test how well AdWords works. It comes at a fixed price and and none of the long-term contracts that most agencies want. Details here.

AdWords is easy to learn but hard to master. Mistakes are so common that they’ve even earned themselves a nickname - the Google stupidity tax. That’s the money you waste as a result of mistakes.

In some cases that stupidity tax can be significant.

One of my clients owns a high-end lodge near a popular game reserve in South Africa. People come from all over the world on safari. We built him a pilot AdWords campaign to confirm that AdWords would work for his business. (A pilot is a small AdWords campaign that allows you to test the water without spending a fortune.)

The pilot campaign worked well enough to confirm that AdWords was worth doing. My client's son joined the business as marketing guy. His first task was to build an AdWords campaign.

Two years later I got a call. Son had moved on and my client wanted me to take a look at their AdWords account. AdWords hadn't delivered as many bookings as expected.

Son had said yes to every keyword Google suggested when building the campaign. His ads popped up in response to every possible search that included the name of the game reserve. Someone Googled the gate opening time? His advert offered to tell them the reserve opening times. Want the phone number for the ranger office? He'd written an advert and put it on their website's FAQ page.

Dad paid Google every time one of those ads got clicked but only a teaspoonful of those clicks were from people who needed accommodation.

In two years he'd paid enough Google stupidity tax to buy a 3 bedroom house in his area.


Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

Would you mind thinking about time and money under the heading ‘budget’? In AdWords it is possible do some or all the work yourself - trading your time for the money you’d have had to pay someone else to do it.

If you’re going to trade time for money and do it yourself you should consider:

  • The time you’ll need to learn how AdWords works.
  • The time you’ll need to do the work.
  • The cost of the mistakes you’ll make along the way.
  • The cost of missed sales opportunities while you’re learning and doing it.
  • The opportunity cost of doing something else with your time.

Your budget must cover initial and ongoing costs.

Initial costs.

The initial costs include:

  • Building the AdWords campaign.
  • Building a website or altering your existing site to work with AdWords.

Ongoing costs.

The ongoing costs include:

  • Google’s charges. They charge every time someone clicks on your advert and lands on your website.
  • Managing the campaign.
  • Learning. Your adverts, keywords, website, response etc won’t be perfect on day 1. It may take some time to refine your process before the profit you break even - cover your AdWords costs from profits on AdWords sales.
  • Sales cycle lag. You’ll need some float to cover the lag between the time you pay Google and the time that click turns into a sale. How long this is depends on your kind of business. An emergency plumber might have finished the job and been paid before Google charges. But if you sold waste water treatment plants it might take years before an AdWords enquiry turned into an invoice.
  • Recurring revenue lag. The same issue applies if your business relies on repeat sales. You might spend more than the value of the first sale to get a new client if you were able to recover that cost from future sales.


Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

AdWords campaigns rot. Without attention costs go up and sales go down.

How much time, skill and experience have you got (or can you hire) to manage your campaign?

Google moves the goalposts.

Google makes hundreds of changes to AdWords every year. Some of the changes are minor but others are earth shattering. You (or someone you hire) needs to understand, assess and respond to each of those changes. That takes time and skill.

Sometimes those changes give a quick advertiser an unfair advantage. Google changed the format of their text adverts in October 2016. Google's testing showed that the new format ads would be clicked more often.

This was a mammoth undertaking. There are tens of thousands of adverts in the campaigns I manage. Every single one of those adverts would have to be rewritten.

It took us a month of hard work but it was worth it. We got the extra clicks promised by the new format. We also got a big lead on slow moving competitors who took much longer or never upgraded their ads.

Competitors come and go.

Google sells their advertising by auction. As more competitors enter the market the price tends to rise. The price goes down when people stop advertising.

Sometimes a competitor will raise the bidding higher than seems logical. It might be a ploy to drive other advertisers out of the market. It might be that they don't know what they're doing they're paying the Google stupidity tax.

You have to respond to this. Sometimes the right answer is to raise your bids. Sometimes the right answer is to find another angle. Sometimes the best thing to do is sit it out and let the competition waste each other's money.

Monitoring it takes time and skill. Knowing what to do takes skill and experience.

Your future customers are illogical crazy humans.

It takes time and testing to figure out which adverts those future customers respond best to.

It takes time and testing to figure out what website layout they respond best to.

It takes time and attention to keep up with the changes in the way they search Google for what you sell.

Business would be much easier if you didn't need customers. :)

Getting more clicks starts a virtuous circle.

Google rewards ads that get clicked often. Those ads cost less, appear more and get the best slots.

It starts a virtuous circle. The best ads do better by displacing worse ads.

Making this happen takes time, skill and experience.

Your website.

Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

Your website has to do two things to avoid being a zero in the equation.

  1. Convince Google that it's relevant to what their searcher wants.
  2. Convince the searcher to take the next step closer to becoming a customer.

1. Convincing Google.

Google wants to give their searcher a great experience. If she finds what she wants on Google she'll keep using Google. That makes Google happy.

Google looks at the headings and the words on your website. They look at how fast it loads and how comfortable it is to use on a mobile phone. They look at a host of other factors that they don't tell anyone about. Then they decide if your site is going to help their searcher. If it's a yes, they'll show your ad to her.

2. Convincing your future customer.

Your website must convince your future customer to complete the enquiry form. (Or buy from your site if you're doing ecommerce.)

You'd think that it would be easy to convince someone who wants something to fill in an enquiry form. It's not. A typical business website might only convince 1 of every 100 visitors to fill in an enquiry. That's 99 zeros for every success.

Designing a high-converting landing page is much harder than it looks. I won't get into the nitty-gritty now. If you'd like to read more about how to design landing pages take a look here.

Your response.

Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

(This is only applicable if you're generating sales enquiries. If someone was buying from your website they’d skip straight to the sales process.)

The response what you do after your prospective customer fills in an enquiry form. There are many ways to make it into a zero.

  • The enquiry never arrives. Usually a technical fault or the enquiry delivery email looked like spam.
  • You’re too busy to respond now. By the time you do respond your prospective customer has bought from someone else.
  • You respond by email right away. Your future customer checks her email tomorrow. Her inbox shows new emails at the top. Your fast response is buried below everyone who responded slowly.
  • Your email gets caught in her spam filter and she never sees it.
  • You email a quote because she asked for one. Your price is twice as high as everyone else because she didn’t give you all the information you needed on the enquiry form and you made some assumptions.
  • You attach your quote as an Excel spreadsheet and she can't open it.

I have seen every one of these zeros at least once.

The worst example of a broken response was from a client of mine who owned a mattress factory. He's an older Jewish gentleman and he'd been making mattresses since he was a boy.

His AdWords campaign sent him 56 sales enquiries in the first month. One was for 600 mattresses for a new hotel.

I asked him how many of the 56 enquiries had turned into sales. "None" he said. "They must all be tyre kickers. Nobody on the internet buys anything".

I asked him to talk me through what happens after a sales enquiry lands in his inbox.

"Peter, I'm really busy so I don't deal with the enquiries myself. At the end of the day I email them all to the factory. The next day the sales team emails a price list to everyone who enquired, if they have time."

"If they have time?" I asked.

"Yes", he said. "The sales team are the ladies who work on the sewing machines making the mattresses. If they've met their production quota before closing time the foreman gets one of them to come to his office to do email. He's old and doesn't know how to use a computer."

I said "Please don't tell me you emailed a price list to that guy who wanted 600 mattresses for his new hotel."

He said "of course we did. We treat every enquiry with the same respect, whether they're big or small".

I could have wept. An order for 600 mattresses would have paid his AdWords costs for years.

It get's worse though. I asked him to send me a copy of the price list. It was almost impossible to read - a pdf scan of a low resolution print. The font was tiny and even if I could have read it it made no sense.

It had no description of the mattresses. It was a list of their internal codes along with the cost per mattress if you bought one or ten or a hundred. The price list didn't have the company name on it. There was no phone number or email address.

The best AdWords campaign in the world couldn't have made him sales!

You have complete control over the way your business responds to enquiries.

Website enquiries rot. The faster you respond to an enquiry the better chance you have of winning any sale that's going. If you get back in under half an hour you're doing well. Five minutes is preferable. If you wait a day or a week you've lost the sale.

The absolute best way to respond to an enquiry is by picking up the phone and calling the sales prospect. This will improve your AdWords results faster than anything you do to the adverts or to the website.

You're going to get one of two responses. If you get through to a lady she's going to say something like "Wow, that was quick." If you get through to a man he's going to say the same thing but a little more robustly.

You don't have to talk about how good your service is when you prove it by responding.

That human-to-human contact starts the process of building trust.

I feel so strongly about this that I won't take on a client unless they commit to call as fast as possible when ever possible.

Sales process.

Sales = Market x Campaign x Budget x Management x Website x Response x Sales process.

What is the source of most of your sales enquiries?

Would it be fair to say that your selling process has evolved to work best with people arriving via that source?

Many of my clients got the bulk of their enquiries via word of mouth before using AdWords. Consequently their sales processes clicked with word of mouth referrals. But a sales process that converts referrals won't necessarily work as well for strangers.

A referral is very different to a stranger enquiring via AdWords.

The referral is speaking to you because they trust one of your past customers. Well done!

An ice-cold stranger doesn’t yet have a reason to trust you. They may have good reasons to be suspicious of your entire industry. Everybody has a horror story about a mechanic or a builder.

A referral is probably speaking only to you. Your AdWords stranger clicked every advert and filled in every form. You’re one of many possible choices.

It takes time, thought and practice to tune your sales process to match the desires and fears of an AdWords lead.

Once you've done it you have a life-changing combination:

  • A reliable flow of sales enquiries hitting your inbox every day.
  • A reliable process for turning those enquiries into sales.

Aren't you biased in favour of AdWords?

It is true that I’m an AdWords guy.

I’ve been doing AdWords for the last decade. The work I’ve done has helped my clients generate almost a million sales enquiries from AdWords.

I’ve seen AdWords help struggling businesses grow their way out of trouble. I’ve seen brand new businesses make sales in the first week from their AdWords campaigns. I’ve seen people who were scared of wasting money on AdWords swear by it after they started getting results.

So yeah, I’m a little biased.

But I turn down 4 of every 5 people who apply to be a client because AdWords isn’t a good fit for them. A failed AdWords campaign hurts everyone. It’s not good for your business and it’s not good for mine.

The only sensible thing to do is to find out if AdWord will work BEFORE you start throwing money at it.

© Peter Bowen 2018 | Isle of Wight