How to Spend 3 000 Euro a month on adwords and not get a return on investment

At first glance, Google AdWords seems great. You get a lot of control over where your ads are shown and they can show up almost anywhere: in search results, on YouTube, on websites, even in people’s Gmail accounts. If you spend a lot of money, it’s almost impossible not to get visitors. However, a lot of visitors does not mean it is working for your business. AdWords can be a dangerous place for a small business, as we discovered when taking over a campaign for a new client. This is how the client spent 3 000 Euros a month on AdWords for what ended up to be nothing. Here’s how to avoid the same loss for yourself.

The Client

For the client, the goal of AdWords was to drive traffic to one of their offers – a trial of their software. This software was designed to run on a Windows desktop (remember this) and was targeted to a large but specific niche.

The client believed that there was a strong correlation between the number of trial downloads to the number of customers. Google AdWords was used to direct people to a landing page. There, visitors would download the trial and eventually become customers. That was the plan.

After four years of using AdWords and not seeing any growth or real results they came to us. We were tasked with evaluating their old AdWords campaign, and then to make improvements and (hopefully) increase sales.

First, we needed to see what had been done before. When we first looked at the old AdWords setup, it was easy to see that things didn’t add up.

The Old AdWords Campaign

There were a few odd things that immediately jumped out and made us scratch our heads.

First, there was only one campaign and it was a Display Network campaign. This meant that ads were shown on pages based on their content or the demographic of the surfer. This campaign included no exceptions to keywords or placements, which meant the ads were running on anything from knitting websites to minecraft fan hubs. Rarely were ads shown on pages that actually were relevant to the product. This isn’t necessarily bad as AdWords can display ads based on interests. However, the lack of excluded placements showed little care had been done to the campaign.

The second oddity was that mobile was a targeted platform even though the goal was to get people to download desktop software. The trial software literally could not be run on mobile platforms, and while there is a slight possibility that a visitor would download the trial on their phone and then transfer the file to their PC, it’s extremely unlikely.

The third problem was that there was no difference in targeting within ad groups. Everything was just one big ad group with a huge list of keywords. It was a shotgun approach. This meant that the targeting was all over the place. Also, there were no dedicated landing pages for the AdWords campaign.

The final thing that we found odd was that the campaign excluded women from their targeting. We will never understand why.

Despite all this, the campaign was bringing in around 1,000 trial downloads a month and many, many visitors a day.

Why The Campaign Wasn’t Working

A quick review: The goal of the campaign was to direct people to a landing page to download a piece of Windows desktop software. The target market is niche but global but most of the big industry websites do not use AdSense.

The AdWords campaign was display only, did not exclude mobile (even though no one using mobile would be able to run the trial application), was targeting a huge list of non-performing keywords, and had some strange demographic exclusions.

On paper, this did not look like an optimized campaign at all, much less one that would help achieve the goal of getting customers. Maybe we weren’t seeing something and this campaign did, in fact, work. It was time to investigate.


The Investigation

Before implementing a campaign we had set up, we needed to know more about this old one. The previous PPC company was, completely understandably so, unhelpful. We then turned to the client and asked them what kind of tracking they had in place on their website. “Tracking?” Uh-oh. Google AdWords provides a lot information on your ad campaigns, but once users are on your website, you are kind of on your own.

The client had a custom tracking dashboard with two big problems. It was tracking total trial downloads, not ones specifically from any AdWords campaigns. It also wasn’t tracking how many visitors that had come from AdWords became customers. We could see the overall effect of the AdWords campaign, but we could not specifically see how it performed against other channels. Thus, we were not able to determine the ROI (return on investment) of Google AdWords.  

The second part we investigated were the customers. We sent out a quick survey email to anyone who had downloaded the trial the past week. We did not get many responses; a lot of emails bounced. From the responses we did get, we learned that the people who downloaded the trial had no idea what they had downloaded, or sometimes, didn’t even know they had downloaded anything.

When hearing that we had revamped the entire AdWords campaign, the client got nervous. They were afraid we were going to obliterate their sales for a period of time when switching to an untested campaign. This wasn’t completely unfounded, as new campaigns from scratch sometimes take a while to get started. We also told them that the number of visits and trial downloads were going to go down, as we worked to weed out these false leads.

If we were going to revamp the AdWords campaign, we would need to start from scratch. We also needed to prove to the client that the old campaign was ineffective.


Although we were pretty confident in our original assessment that this old AdWords campaign was completely ineffective, we had to confirm it and be able to show this data to the client. We set up proper tracking so we could see how many people downloaded the trial specifically from AdWords and how many people eventually purchased from AdWords. It took some time to implement tracking correctly due to the setup of the client’s website and payment portal. Eventually, we got it all working through Google Analytics, cookies, and internet voodoo.

We ran the old campaign for a month with this tracking. The average buy cycle from trial to download was around 40 days, but this would also take into account people who clicked the AdWords ads before through gclid IDs. and the results: 0.

Zero customers from AdWords despite the ads getting us about 1/4 of the trial downloads. To nail the point home, we even stopped running ANY AdWords campaign. Trial downloads went down, but sales were average, seemingly unaffected by the lack of ads.


The client’s AdWords budget was around 3,000 EUR a month and had been running for four years. In the months we observed and tracked their campaign, it brought in zero customers. AdWords can be great for small businesses, but it can also be a sinkhole if not managed properly.


3 Important Lessons  

From this cautionary tale, here is some advice for any small business looking to utilize AdWords.

1 – Implement and Test Tracking

Unless you can see what the visitors do, that your ads brings in, you will never get a good picture of how AdWords affects your business and if it is a worthy investment. Before you start an AdWords campaign, plan out what the goal of that campaign is. Then plan out what to track and how, so you can effectively measure the effectiveness of that goal. It is important to know as much as possible about where your customers are coming from, especially if you are going to spend money on ads.

2 – Understand AdWords

If you can afford it, hiring an agency to manage your AdWords is probably a good idea. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how the basics of how it works. It is important to be able to keep your own eye on what is being done with your company’s AdWords account. Secondly, even if you have just a basic knowledge of AdWords, it can make cooperation between you and your agency better when discussing the overall game plan.  

3 – Visitors are just visitors

Our client believed that the old campaign was effective because it was bringing in a lot of visitors every day. On paper, this looks nice but visitors are like window shoppers. It doesn’t matter if your shop attracts a lot people if none of them go inside to buy something. When running any kind of marketing campaign, unless increasing visitors is a specific goal of your marketing campaign, it should not be the go to metric when determining the value of the investment. Look at the numbers that really matter.

We hope you found this useful. Scaring people away from AdWords is not our goal. We want you to know how to use it effectively, and be prepared so you do not make the same mistakes.