Search is a living thing. It’s powered by people who change and who adapt and who create and follow new trends. Therefore, change is part of the game when it comes to search marketing, from new features to seasonality to user interface designs of the tools we use. One of the most frustrating changes that happen in a PPC account is seeing clicks decline on a previously profitable ad group. So what happened? In this post, I’m going to review some of the ways we can diagnose what’s going on in your account, and then we’ll look at a few things you and your team can do to get back on track.

Diagnose, Then Fix what You Can

If you were getting clicks before and now you’re suddenly seeing less traffic, follow this list to discover what’s going on and what you can do to combat it.

1. Check out all of the basics.

There are a lot of basics that can conspire to damage your exposure. Make sure your campaign, ad group, keywords and ads in question are all active. That is as basic as it gets. If the account’s billing is down, this is also an easy, basic fix cured by creating a new invoice order or adding a working credit card. There are other reasons that might not be so surface level but are still basic.

  • Check if your campaign has an end date set.

  • Make sure your ads have not become disapproved. • Make sure you’re not blocking valuable clicks through poor choices in negative keywords.

  • Make sure recent bid and budget changes haven’t altered your positioning or total exposure. • Check your geographic settings—have these changed?

  • Review bid adjustments. Putting  a -100 percent bid modifier on mobile ads could easily lower your results at this point.

  • In general, if you know a very specific date that your traffic stops, check your account change history and get perspective on the cause. Not all change types show through this report (such as bid modifications), but it’s often a good start!

2. Check for seasonality.

This is always something to look at if you notice sudden performance declines. Some industries are straight forward and it’s easy to discern why search volume and total visits are dwindling. If your business is Halloween costumes and your traffic outlook is trending down in November, I doubt you’ll get too worked up. If you are a turkey merchant, you’re probably not surprised by your traffic trend line in December. If your account typically acquires fewer visits this time of the year, then it stands to reason that it will predictably rebound next time your season cycles through.

Regardless of your known seasonality, if you have the data, check out last year. Both AdWords and GA make it easy to compare performance graphs year over year, but be sure to compare apples to apples when doing so. In the example below, we have a screenshot from an account where we radically changed tactics from 2014 to 2015 when DTC took over this account. This account was originally running both search and display ads, so when comparing total clicks you might be led to the conclusion that 2014 outperformed 2015. However, once you realize that 99 percent of the clicks in 2014 were display network clicks and in 2015 the campaign was only running search ads it is clear that this account is actually performing much better in 2015.

3. Is your market on the decline?

You probably have had to deal with this if you’re in the print publishing business as online media continues to eat away at profits, but print media is not alone. We can see big declines in other areas like cable TV or fax machines. If you’re not in one of these visibly declining industries, how can you tell your industry or a portion of your industry might be in trouble? Use Google Trends. Through this tool, you can see year by year trends in different regions and see which keywords are likely to move. For example, let's take a look at “magazine subscriptions." We can see that the market is visibly waning, but it’s actually also highly seasonal, with an expected boost here in December.

If the decline you're seeing in Google Trends matches that of your ad clicks, then your market might be in the midst of a decline. Especially if you check your impressions share and it is near 100 percent, meaning your ad is appearing for the large majority of searches made.

4. Is your competition heating up?

Getting fewer clicks over time may just be a symptom that you’re getting pushed down lower in the search results or that it’s becoming a more crowded space over time. It’s easy to dominate results when you’re the only advertiser bidding on a keyword, but it’s a whole different ball game when there are more advertisers than ad positions available. Check your average position over time. Use Google’s graph feature in the account, campaign or ad groups in question and select the “avg. position” metric. If it’s declining, you might have to raise your bids and likely your budget to get the results to which you’re accustomed. You should also take a look at the Auction Insights report in AdWords. This report lacks an out-of-the-box visualization tool, but it can help you explore how the competitive landscape has changed over time. Segment it by time and by month, and you’ll be able to see some valuable insights.

Here I can see that Toptal.com has increased its impression share over time while ranking higher in the ad results as the year went on. We’re overlapping a fair amount, and Toptal.com is ranking above us very frequently. Between July and August, our relationship with this competitor has definitely changed.

5. Have you raised your bids while leaving your budget in the same spot?

With all things being equal, higher positions in AdWords demand higher prices. If you’re suddenly in position one this month for the same term you were in position five for last month, your dollars might not be stretching as far as they used to. If you were running smoothly and are now seeing the “limited by budget” warning in your campaign, then this is the first clue. If these higher position clicks are converting at an acceptable rate for your business objectives, then you will probably want to raise your budget a comparable amount. There will sometimes be a group of keywords that do better at a higher position and another group that do worse. From here, you could split up existing ad groups and get more granular. Entertain a higher bid ad group based on performance and a lower bid ad group for keywords you’re continuing to test. If you have a limited budget, it’s best to exhaust it with clicks that are most likely to convert.

6. Pricing typically goes one way, and that way is up.

This year, brand CPCs increased dramatically, though CPCs are just trending up in general over time. If your budgets and bids are staying where they are, you’ll probably be experiencing performance drops over time.

7. Did your Quality Scores drastically drop?

Quality Score is one of the more nebulous and often debated topics in PPC marketing, but it’s clear that Quality Score affects your results in one way or another. Quality Score is one of the harder things to monitor over time since there is no out of the box solution. We use a Google Script to log some meaningful data over time, and we report on top 20 keyword Quality Scores over time on a monthly basis. This may not be enough for your needs, but by keeping a log you can more quickly diagnose which keywords might be suffering and where your efforts are best made for improvement. Other things to watch for are CTR drops if you’re testing ad copy, or new Quality Scores if you’ve introduced new landing pages in your account. Before you get conversions, you’re going to need clicks on ads. Make sure you’re getting the clicks you need in order to meet your conversion goals. Then find out what is most valuable for your business and try to be there for potential customers at a total cost that makes the most sense for your business objectives. If you're interested in ways to refine your ad campaigns further, negative keywords are a great way to prevent unwanted clicks. Download our guide with popular negative keywords by industry, and how to implement them for the best results.

Download our guide to negative keyword success