AdWords Optimization Hacks: Optimize With A Scalpel, Not A Hammer

AdWords throws a lot of data at you and I’ve talked a great deal about the dangers of getting lost in the numbers—not seeing the forest for the trees, optimizing based on too little data, and other common data pitfalls. This cautionary post will explore yet another important topic relating to effective AdWords management—why you should always use a scalpel, not a hammer, when optimizing.

What do I mean by this? There are endless ways to structure an AdWords account, and the aggregate data often means nothing. However, it’s common for account managers to optimize to that aggregate data instead of taking the time to drill down to actually understand what’s happening at the more granular levels of the account.

Take, say, campaign-level data. You may identify a particular campaign delivering a CPA of 2X your target. This isn’t good, so what are your options for fixing it? Here are a few choices. Which would you choose?


A.) Decrease this campaign’s budget in order to minimize serving due to poor performance.


B.) Drill into the campaign and pause the ad group that’s most contributing to the high campaign-level CPA.


C.) Drill down into the ad group and take a look at the keyword-level data to explore whether the rise is coming from a single, poor performing keyword with a ton of traffic, or a combination of keywords in that ad group.


The answer’s C.


You certainly would not want to adjust the budget for a campaign due to poor performance without first understand what’s happening within that campaign. Once you do, you’ll immediately gain more insight simply by looking at which ad groups are contributing to the problem most significantly. But don’t stop there. To really understand what’s happening, you need to get down to the most granular level of your account—keyword-level, if you’re doing search advertising—in order to make sure you’re not missing any outliers.



campaign-level CPA outlier

Ad group-level:

ad group level outlier


Think of this process in the same way you’d tackle a dry rot issue in your home. You certainly wouldn’t want to tear down the whole house immediately upon noticing the problem. You also wouldn’t want to tear out the bathroom once identifying that as the location of the dry rot. Instead, you’d want to isolate the specific area in the bathroom representing the problem and deal with it surgically, approaching the project with a scalpel, not a hammer. (This mix of metaphors may be reaching a perilous state, given that one probably would approach a confined dry rot problem with a hammer, but I digress.)

The same is true for AdWords management. Understanding the limitations of ‘bird’s-eye view’ data analysis is crucial to developing an effective management strategy. To really understand what’s happening in your account, and take meaningful action, you must drill down to the more granular views.

Lastly, it should be said that this advice is more applicable to some account structures than others. If you built your own account and a granular way to begin with—campaigns segmented by brand, non-brand, match types, networks, etc.—and truly know the account like the back of your hand, you may have less of an issue with aggregate data false insights than with other accounts. That said, it’s always a good idea to drill down, even if you’re almost certain of what you’ll find.




  • Don’t make tweaks based on false or half-formed insights from aggregate data
  • Drill down to more granular account elements to truly understand what’s happening in your account