Stop wasting money buying PPC traffic that doesn't convert

Aran Reeks
By Aran Reeks
21 Dec 2015

Let’s start with a few questions:

  • Do you know your conversion rate from PPC advertising compared to your other channels such as organic, email or referral?
  • How often do you look at successful competitors to see what you can learn from their landing pages and website?
  • How often do you carry out split tests and content experiments to improve PPC conversion rates?

If you are already doing these things, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article.

If not, and you’re almost certainly wasting hard cash on your PPC campaigns and missing opportunities.

The PPC cycle of desperationPPC

It’s a familiar tale: an online business allocating a large budget every month to buy paid search traffic. But not knowing how much more of that traffic could be converted into sales with a properly optimised site and better thought out landing pages.

If you’re buying paid search traffic then your ROI from that spend should be 100% clear. You should be able to calculate the conversion rates, good quality leads and sales generated from the traffic you’ve paid for.

Sadly, that’s all too often where things stop (and sometimes they don’t even get that far).

If sales revenue or good quality leads per click even feature as KPIs there’s often no clear mechanism for influencing and improving them.

Many businesses try to achieve targets by simply increasing the PPC budget. In some ways this is understandable. The conversion rate is a known quantity so you should be able to calculate the likely sales or lead generation uplift from buying more clicks.

It seems like a safe bet that’s easy to plan into budgets. But is it smart business? Is it really just a cycle of desperation that you need to liberate yourself from?

A different calculation

Say a business gets 5000 visits per month at a 3% conversion rate. That’s 150 sales or leads. If they wanted to increase sales or leads by 50% that means increasing the budget by 50%. How much would an additional 2500 clicks cost every month, assuming that the additional ones convert at the same rate?

If, on the other hand, you increase the conversion rate to 4.5% you will have the 50% uplift. And whatever you spent on optimising your pages to win the extra conversions will have a lasting benefit. You don’t have to repeat it month after month.

First you have to understand how your conversion rates compare to the best in your sector. Average rates vary significantly depending on the type of business. The rates enjoyed by the very best performers vary even more.

With a bit of research you can find out how your conversion rates compare to industry averages. But remember the average figure includes a whole load of sites that are not optimised. Instead of focusing on the average, look at the the conversion rates achieved by the top 10% of businesses in your sector. Imagine if you could get close to that!

For eCommerce this could mean PPC conversion rates of 6.5% or more, and for B2B lead generation it could be over 11%.

Where sales leak awayadword

Assuming that your Adwords or display ad wasn’t misleading and that people who click have a genuine interest in your offer, these visitors ought to be good candidates for conversion. In many ways they should be easier to convert than organic search traffic as there is a clear intent behind their click.

So if your conversion rates are languishing around 2-3 %, what’s happening?

Problem number one might be with your conversion process. Is there one? Are you presenting an imaginative, unique and irresistible offer? Are you doing it in a way that demands action NOW? 

If your goal is B2B lead generation, are you offering something of meaningful value in return for contact details? Everyone is offering free trials and downloads, so aim to present something that looks like superior value. 

With B2B other points to check are:

  • Are you asking for the absolute minimum of personal information?
  • Are you getting attention by showing a potential gain or loss aversion that actually matters to your target?
  • Are you limiting their choices to a single action, or offering routes out of the conversion process with additional options?

Consider too how your offer presentation could help to qualify and convert the traffic that is most likely to turn into a proposal or business. ‘Let’s just get some email addresses’ is not a B2B conversion strategy. 

eCommerce conversion optimisation

In eCommerce the site visitors you’ve paid for will probably land on a product page or product category page, depending on whether or not they click on a specific Product Listing Ad. 

Think about the process with a PLA click. Somebody has seen the product, the price, the seller and possibly a star rating before they hit your site. If you’re not converting a significant number of those into sales then there’s clearly something wrong.

A more general query such as ‘camping equipment’ will, via Adwords, probably lead through to a product category page on your site. But did you really have this in mind when you designed it?

Some simple usability tests to see how quickly people can find a specific product after landing on a category page will expose the sort of experience you offer immediately after the click.

Whether they have landed on a product page or category page they are subject to the same sources of confusion and doubt as organic visitors - it’s just that you’ve spent money to get them there. A badly optimised, poorly converting site is exactly that, no matter where the traffic comes from.

So before ploughing yet more money into buying traffic that will never convert, what should you do?

Using data to unlock optimisation opportunities


As ever, the process starts with data and Google Analytics:

  • Make sure you are tracking paid search traffic separately.
  • Map a detailed journey from clicking on a paid ad to your conversion goal (sale, download, sign up or whatever).
  • Set up tracking for key events in the journey so that you collect data on where people drop out.
  • Use the drop-off data to identify areas of the site/process that need optimising. Combine this with usability tests, heat maps or session recording if you need more evidence.

Armed with the right data and insights you can construct test hypotheses to adjust layout, content or the presentation of your product pages and landing pages. The data might also indicate that there are problems with your checkout process or shopping cart that need to be addressed.

You then need to carry out A/B split tests and multivariate tests to establish whether your proposed changes make a positive difference.

If you’re on top of your Analytics data you should have a clear picture of how you need to develop your site to increase conversion rates. Getting on top of your data is the first step to improving the revenue earned per click or the number of leads you create from your PPC budget.

And remember this: while you might get your first visit from PPC, if you offer that visitor a great experience before and after the sale you probably won’t need to pay for the next one.

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