Tag Archives: CTR

The declining profitability of Google Adwords

Google Adwords used to be a great way to get targeted traffic cheaply (if you knew what you were doing). I think those days are well and truly over.

I have been using Google Adwords to advertise my table plan software since 2005. The following graphs show some metrics from my Adwords campaigns over that 8 years. The graphs show 12-monthly cumulative figures (e.g. each point represents the value for that month plus the preceding 11 months). Using cumulative data hides some of the noise, including the seasonal variations that are inevitable in a business related to weddings (more people buy my software when it is summer in the northern hemisphere), and makes the overall trends clearer.

Average cost per click (CPC)

Average cost per click (CPC)



Conversions (sales)

Conversions (sales)

Profit per month

Profit per month

The trends are clear and it’s not a pretty picture. Less, more expensive clicks = less profit. I can either pay more and more per click to maintain the same number of sales. Or I can continue to pay the same per click and get less and less clicks. Either way, my profit goes down. It isn’t a trend I see changing direction any time soon.

I think these long-term trends are mostly due to increasing competition. As more and more companies bid on Adwords for a finite number of clicks, it inevitably drives up the cost of clicks (simple supply and demand). It also doesn’t help that a lot of Adwords users are not actively managing their campaigns or measuring their ROI, and are consequently bidding at unprofitably high levels. Google also does its best to drive up CPC values in various ways (suggesting ridiculously high default bids, goading you to bid more to get on page 1, not showing your ad at all if you bid too low – even if no other ads appear etc).

Of course, this is just my data for one product in one small market. But the law of shitty clickthrus predicts that all advertising mediums become less and less profitable over time. So I would be surprised if it isn’t a general trend. Are your Adwords campaigns becoming less profitable? Have you found another advertising medium that works better?

Setting an optimal bid price for Google CPA bids

A couple of years ago I wrote up the results of an experiment comparing Cost Per Action vs Cost Per Click bidding in Google Adwords. At the end of the experiment I decided that I did trust Google CPA bidding, but the results from CPA bidding weren’t compelling enough for me to switch. So I stayed with my mature CPC campaign. Subsequently I spoke at length with Adwords guru David Rothwell and Adwords master practitioner Alwin Hoogerdijk. They convinced me that:

  • I hadn’t really given Google CPA enough learning time – the more data Google has the better it should be able to do. The mighty Google brain might even be able to spot and exploit patterns I would find very difficult to emulate (e.g. based on season, country, day or week or time of day).
  • I should switch from paying per sale to paying per download, as this would give Google an order of magnitude more data to work with.
  • CPA bidding would require a lot less of my precious time to manage.

So I switched back to CPA. This time measuring a conversion as a successful download and install (my table planner shows a help page in a browser on first run, this contains the Google conversion tracking script).

So now, instead of having to choose thousands of bid prices (one for each keyword and match type in each campaign), I had to choose a single bid price – what I am prepared to pay Google for a download. If I pay too little for a download: Google won’t show my ads much, I won’t make many sales and my profit will be low. If I pay too much for a download: Google will show my ads a lot, but the amount I pay for each conversion will be high and my profit will be low. In between their should be a ‘sweet spot’ that gives me optimal profit. But how to find that sweet spot?

Looking at analytics data I have a good idea at what rate Adwords traffic converts to sales. I chose a CPA bid based on this and then I randomly varied the bid up or down every 7 days (some days of the week perform consistently better than others for my product). The graphs below show the results. Each data point is 7 days of data. The black lines are linear trend lines. I deliberately haven’t put values on the axes, but the x and y axes are all linear, starting at 0.

The trends are pretty clear. Increasing CPA bid price:

  • increases the number of times your ads are shown
  • makes little difference to the click through rates
  • decreases the click to download and download to sale ratios

So higher bids means more sales, but also a higher cost per sale. But, of course, the really important metric is profit. So I worked out the average daily profit from Adwords traffic, which is the net sales income (gross sales minus sales costs, including payment processor fees and support costs) minus Adwords costs. Again each point is 7 days of data. The black line is a 2nd order polynomial trend line.

The data is quite noisy. But some data is a lot better than none and there does appear to be sweet spot about where the red arrow is. The curve is fairly flat meaning that I don’t have to be too precise in my bid price to get a near to optimal return. But if I bid twice the optimal price my profit will drop by about 35%.

In an ideal world I would have run all these different bid prices concurrently, instead of one after the other. But that just isn’t possible with Adwords at present (you can use Google Adwords experiments to split test bid prices, but only 2 at a time). Also I could have gathered a lot more data, used longer time intervals (7 days probably isn’t long enough for Google CPA to get into its stride) and bid a lot higher and lower, to make the trends clearer. But I wasn’t prepared to spend the extra time and money required.

If you are using CPA bidding you should be able to carry out a similar analysis on your own Adwords account to find your own CPA bidding sweet spot. If you are still using CPC, perhaps you should consider switching to CPA and let Google do some of the heavy lifting for you. You can switch any campaign that has 15 or more conversions per month to CPA bidding in the ‘Settings’ tab.

You can always switch back to CPC later. If you aren’t using Google conversion tracking, well you really should be.

A word of warning. Not all downloads are equal. You might think that download to sale rates would vary a lot less than impression to click and click to download rates (I did). But download to sale ratios can vary a lot between different campaigns, even for the same product. For example, my analytics data shows that downloads from Adwords display (=contents/adsense) traffic only convert to sales at around a quarter of the rate of Adwords search traffic. So display campaign downloads are worth a lot less to me than search campaign downloads and I set my CPA bids accordingly.

I showed a draft version of this post to Alwin Hoogerdijk of Collectorz.com collection database software, who first persuaded me to switch back to CPA and knows a lot more about CPA than I do. He had the following to add:

When using CPA bidding you should give Google more room to experiment. On search, this means using more broad match terms, or at least modified broad match. And less negative keywords (I removed a lot of my negatives lately). The idea is that Google will automatically find out what works and what doesn’t (again, this may take a lot of time).

On the Content Network it means being less trigger-happy with the site exclusions. Without CPA bidding, I would be more likely to exclude generic sites like Facebook, about.com, etc… But with CPA bidding, I tend to allow the optimizer to display on those sites and the find the right pages within those sites to show my ads on.

In my experience, the optimal CPA bid can vary (wildly) between products, campaigns, etc. . Content Network CPA’s in general tend to be much lower, for the same products. Strangely enough, content network visitor sign up (or downloads) are worth less than search traffic sign ups. Which wasn’t what I was expecting. Of course, content network traffic is less targeted in general so one would expect a lower sign up rate. But even if those visitors sign up, they convert less well to actual sales too. Tricky.

Advertising your software on Facebook (=Fail)

Facebook previously didn’t allow the advertising of downloadable software. Someone told me that they had relaxed this policy, so I checked their guidelines. Sure enough they have removed the offending line in their guidelines that used to say:

No ad is permitted to contain or link, whether directly or indirectly, to a site that contains software downloads, freeware, or shareware.

It says in their guidelines that downloadable software that does naughty things such as “sneaks onto a user’s system and performs activities hidden to the user” is not allowed, which is fair enough (see section 14 of their ad guidelines for the details).

Woohoo! As part of my ongoing project to try every legitimate form of promotion known to man, I can try advertising my seating planner software to, for example:

I ran 5 different ads over a couple of weeks. For example:

advertising software on facebookTrying to fit an attention grabbing and informative ad into the very limited strapline and image size was challenging. But I didn’t spend too long agonizing over the ‘creative’ (image and text), as this was just a feasibility study. The biggest problem was the minimum bid prices. Facebook was recommending I bid at least £0.40 per click. Given that the majority of my customers buy a single licence for £19.95 and typical conversion rates for clicks are around 1%, I would be likely to lose money if I bid £0.20 or more (especially when you consider ecommerce fees and support). I bid £0.10, but got no impressions at all. I bid £0.20 as an experiment and got a reasonable number of impressions. As soon as I dropped the bid to £0.15 the impressions slowed to a trickle.

Here are the stats from my experiments, as reported by Facebook:

Impressions: 357,366
Clicks: 310
Click through rate: 0.087%
Total cost: £46.60
Average cost per click: £0.15
Average cost per 1000 impressions: £0.13

Any of you who are used to Google Adwords might be surprised how low the CTR is. But apparently this is quite a reasonable CTR for Facebook. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that people are on Facebook to socialise, rather than to search for stuff.

Of course, the most important metric is the profit. So how many licences did I sell? According to my own cookie tracking: zero. Zilch, nada, nothing, not one. Cookie tracking isn’t 100% reliable, but it seems that a 1% conversion rate might be highly optimistic for a facebook ad. Advertising a £19.95 product on Facebook to people who might be planning to get married obviously wasn’t going to be profitable given my price point, the minimum bid prices and low conversion rate. So I created a new ad to try to target a more focussed demographic, who might convert better and perhaps buy one of the more expensive versions of my product. Ad number 6 was disallowed one minute after it had been approved.

Eh? This ad was very similar to the previous 5 approved ads and for the same product. Their email said:

The content advertised by this ad is restricted per section 5 of Facebook’s Advertising Guidelines. Restricted content includes, but is not limited to: 1. Downloadable products that may affect the user’s computer or browser performance in unexpected or undesirable ways; 2. Get rich quick and other money making opportunities that offer compensation for little or no investment, including “work from home” opportunities positioned as alternatives to part-time or full-time employment or promises of monetary gain with no strings attached. 3. “Free” offers that require users to complete several hidden steps or make additional purchases in order to receive the promised product. We reserve the right to determine what advertising we accept, and will not allow the creation of any further Facebook Ads of this type. Ads for this product, service or site should not be resubmitted.

I didn’t feel my ad/product violated any of those criteria. It was clear in the ad that only the trial was free (not the product) and it doesn’t do anything nasty or sneaky. I emailed them for clarification. Here is the response:

Hi Andy,

Thanks for your email. Please note that we don’t accept ads for downloadable products through our self-service advertising channel. We reserve the right to determine what advertising we accept, and will not allow the creation of any further Facebook Ads for this product.

In order to maintain legitimacy of the products and services promoted on Facebook, ads for downloadable or installable products are only permitted through a direct sales partnership with Facebook. At this time, we’re only able to provide this service to a small set of qualified advertisers.

We’re committed to providing high-quality support for all of our advertisers, and we’ll keep you and your business in mind for the future growth of our ads product. In the meantime, please continue to email us here with any questions you may have and we’ll be happy to answer them for you.

If you have any further questions about why your ad was disapproved for Restricted Content, please refer to our Help Center about downloads at:




Online Sales Operations


So apparently, they still don’t accept advertising for downloadable software, unless you are an approved partner, because it ‘may affect the user’s computer’ (even if it doesn’t ). This wasn’t at all clear in their guidelines and they let me run 5 ads before they enforced it (these ads are still running BTW). Thanks Facebook, I like you less with every passing day (and I didn’t like you much to start with). At least I got enough data to show that I was unlikely to ever get a return on advertising a £20/$30 product. I also console myself with the fact that PerfectTablePlan is doing better financially than Facebook (after 7 years and with 500 million users Facebook are finally cash flow positive, but nowhere near recouping the estimated one billion dollars in venture capital) and my product will hopefully still be selling profitably after Facebook has  been buried by the ‘next great thing’ that comes along so regularly in the world of social media.