An insider’s guide to becoming a Google AdWords Specialist

Working with a qualified AdWords specialist is one of the best ways to grow your business.

A skilled AdWords pro can help you generate leads, increase your online traffic and scale your revenue.

That’s pretty cool, right? Well, that’s not just some empty statement, it’s exactly how my career arc as an AdWords specialist shaped up.

When I started working in AdWords in 2005, nobody knew what they were doing. Companies were throwing advertising dollars at Google, hoping this new, cheap, form of advertising would work.

And things were OK, I guess.

Or at least advertisers thought that search advertising was working. For them, it was far cheaper than advertising in the yellow pages. So they were willing to give it a shot.

Turns out, they had no idea how great search advertising could be.

I remember my second Google AdWords client like it was yesterday. It was a home improvement company in Minnesota, and they were generating vinyl siding leads for $350 a pop.

They thought they were killing it.

Then I came in and said “pay me $1,000 a month and I’ll cut your lead costs in half!”

The prospective client was skeptical. He thought that $350 leads were amazing, and was proud of himself for his mad AdWords skills.

You see, he was managing campaigns himself, trusting the Google defaults, and blissfully ignorant.

He was skeptical that my $1,000 a month service would produce an ROI. We would have to generate 2x as many leads at 1/2 the cost for the investment worthwhile.

After what felt like a hundred calls and in-person visits, he finally signed on the solid line.

The results after our month working together?

Lead costs were reduced to $50/lead. And we generated 7x as many leads for the same budget. Their $5,000 in ad spend delivered the same results as $35,000 in ad spend would have delivered with a self-managed campaign.

The difference between managing ads part time with in-house resources and hiring an AdWords specialist? In this case, $30,000 – $1,000 in management fees. An AdWords specialist was worth $29,000 a month in increased productivity. That’s $348,000 a year!

From that point forward, they always trusted AdWords specialists to do the job.

This is the value in hiring an AdWords specialist

Of course, that story was just the beginning. Within two years, I worked my way up from an AdWords account manager to a partner in an elite digital marketing company.

In this post, I’ll share my insights on how to find a great AdWords Specialist for your business or agency.

We’ll also discuss how much AdWords specialists get paid, where they work, what qualifications they need to have, and how you can learn to manage AdWords account.

What is an AdWords specialist?

Think of an adWords specialist like a fishing guide for your paid advertising on Google.  The ocean is all the search traffic on Google, and Google’s partner sites.

Your AdWords account manager has to find the best spot in the ocean to fish for for customers.  They also have to find the right bait – ads – to lure customers to your business.  And they have to bring in enough customers to make your fishing on Google profitable every month.

The best AdWords professionals can send a steady stream of highly motivated customers to your business, on a consistent basis.

But learning how to be effective in AdWords can be time consuming and costly. Especially if you don’t understand the principles of PPC advertising.

Outsourcing AdWords management allows businesses to put their paid search advertising in the hands of trained professional.

There are three main types of AdWords specialists: marketing agency and freelance Adwords account managers, and in-house PPC resources.

AdWords specialists at marketing agencies

Agency AdWords account specialists are part of an agency team focused on delivering AdWords results.

This is the role that I described to begin this post, and the role I held for about 2-3 years at my agency.

AdWords account specialists are usually an entry to mid-level role at agencies. Most account specialists work under an account manager that directs the advertising strategy. The account manager also serves as the main point of contact for customers.

The account specialist’s job is to focus almost entirely on working within the Google AdWords interface.

During my marketing agency days, account specialists spent at least 20 hours a week working in AdWords.

Day-to-day AdWords management work involves:

  • Doing Keyword research to find the best advertising opportunities
  • Mining search query reports to add new long-tail keywords, match types and negatives
  • Performing and acting on competitive analysis
  • Interpreting Adwords reports
  • Managing bidding strategies
  • Writing and testing new ads
  • Making adjustments to increase account performance

How to succeed in a PPC agency

Account management is where I started my agency career. The key to being a successful AdWords account manager is in daily diligence.

I look at Adwords as a strategy game. Every time I log into an account, there is a chance to make a move that improves results. You win the game by generating as many cost-effective leads for your clients as possible.

Agency AdWords specialists have to manage dozens of accounts. Managing this type of workload can be very demanding, and involves  long hours focused entirely on account data analysis and ad testing.

The best account managers thrive on the variety of the accounts they run. Each Adwords campaign represents a unique search marketing challenge. And every account offers new opportunity to grow a client’s business.

Freelance AdWords Specialists. AdWords freelancers are the lone wolves of the PPC industry. They generally do the same type of work as an agency account manager. But they also have to do their own business development and client communication.

Freelancers usually maintain a smaller number of AdWords clients, and freelancers will specialize by industry, or type of client, etc..

PPC Agencies vs. Freelance Consultants vs. In-House Resources

PPC Agency Adwords management

Marketing agencies are a great fit for the majority of AdWords account needs. They are cheaper than hiring a full-time resource, have the ability to make comparisons across dozens of accounts, and have the tools needed to deliver results at scale.

For budgets of $10,000 to $100,000 a month, working with an agency works perfectly. Agencies can manage complex Ecommerce accounts that  involve advertising for 100’s to 1,000’s of products. They are also ideal for big lead-generation campaigns with multiple locations and products needing advertising.

Agencies have tools to help scale results across multiple clients, industries and advertising strategies. They are worth their weight in gold, But for very large or very small accounts, a PPC agency is not the most efficient choice. s

Freelance AdWords management

Freelancers present a great option for small businesses spending less than $10,000 per month on AdWords. This includes businesses like doctors, lawyers, dentists, plumbers, movers, electricians, etc.

Advertising for service business is usually focused on location based lead generation. These business don’t need complex account structure or 100’s of product listings. But they do need a competent PPC manager that knows how to find leads and manage a cost-per-acquisition budget.

Good freelance AdWords specialist can command a high hourly rate, but nowhere near the high minimum ad spend requirements that agencies have.

Many Freelancers also work on month-to-month contracts. Whereas, agencies may require a six to twelve month commitment.

In-House AdWords Specialists

If you have a large, complex AdWords account with lots of business rules, you may find that an in-house specialist is the best way to go. Big corporate advertising accounts take hundreds of hours of work to build. They require intimate knowledge of your product offerings and services to succeed.

This might mean devoting one or two specialists to these major accounts full-time, and this can be very expensive when using an agency to accomplish the task. So in-house roles are appealing for large advertisers.

Google AdWords Certification

Most AdWords specialists are Google certified.

To become Google Adwords certified, you have to pass two Google assessments. The assessments are offered online through the Google Academy for Ads. Certification involves passing the AdWords Fundamentals assessment, and one of the supplemental advertising assessments.

Google AdWords Assessments

There is no cost to take the assessments. You need score 80% or higher on each assessments to pass. If you fail an assessment, you can re-take it 8 days later.

You do not have to be actively managing any AdWords accounts to get Google AdWords certified.

When I first took the Adwords assessments, I spent a week studying the entire AdWords manual. Google now offers a series of online training videos to help you prepare for the assessments.

These video are free to watch, but they are mostly a product demo for AdWords.

Passing the AdWords Certification assessments

If you’re considering getting AdWords certified, the free Google training videos are a good start. But there are much better programs than the free videos Google provides, since those videos are basically a commercial for Google.

And yes, Jeffalytics has a PPC Course, which helps you get Google AdWords Certified in 30 days or less. I wholeheartedly endorse this program.

In addition to online courses, some large PPC agencies have developed their own certification training programs for new hires.

But for the most part, agencies will only hire Adwords managers that are already Google Certified.

If you are working on your own, an online training course is a quick way to get prepared for the exams.

Why get certified? Because having and AdWords certification can make a big impact on your earning potential. In my experience, Google AdWords certified professionals commanded $10,000 more per year in compensation than their non-certified counterparts. 

Google AdWords Partners

Many agencies and freelancers also get certified as Google Partners.  To become a Google Partner, you have to:

  • Earn an AdWords certification
  • Spend $10,000 in AdWords over 90-days
  • Show continued account growth

Becoming a Google Partner can be challenging. When I was first starting out with AdWords, I had to manage $100,000 of ad spend in 90-days to become Google Qualified.

Generally speaking, managing high amounts of ad spend takes skill and efficiency. A Google Partner badge is like displaying a track record of success.

How to hire the best AdWords Specialists

There’s no magic trick to finding the best AdWords specialist. But there are some things you can do increase your chance of hiring a great AdWords account manager.

My agency’s hiring practices were different than most of our industry. But, those hiring practices helped us become an “Inc. 5000 fastest growing agency” five years in a row.

Most agencies look for a marketing background when hiring a PPC specialist.

Our agency found better success hiring people with finance or technical backgrounds.

At its core, AdWords is a financial tool. The best way to get good results is to make small daily adjustments based on the AdWords data. With ad copy being limited in size (barely over 100 characters), we found that success in AdWords is much more of a science than an art.

It’s paying hardcore attention to numbers, not pretty pictures. It’s a lot more Excel than Photoshop.

We found that finance, accounting and math backgrounds were great at this type of work.

Here’s the type of background and qualifications a company looks for in hiring an AdWords specialist:

  • Google AdWords Certification
  • Experience with AdWords Editor
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Excel formulas
  • A financial or technical background
  • An inquisitive personality
  • Experience making decisions based on interpreting data
  • A desire to work over 20 hours a week in the AdWords interface and other PPC tools

Hiring “A” level employees is one of the biggest challenges agencies face. To ensure we were hiring the best AdWords managers our agency developed a PPC aptitude test.

PPC aptitude test

Here’s an example of some of the questions we asked on our test:

AdWords Specialist aptitude test

The goal of the test was to learn how potential new hires worked through problems. We also wanted to find out how dedicated and resourceful they were.

The best hires always provided the most complete and thorough answers.

You can download our PPC Test below. The test can be used help you figure out who should be managing your AdWords account(s). You can use the test questions to screen potential new hires, or feel out freelance PPC managers.

AdWords specialist salary

Salaries for AdWords specialists depend a lot on the of the size of an agency, and the demands of their clients.

The Creative Group’s 2018 average salary figures for Search Engine Marketers are listed in the table below.

AdWords Specialist Salary range

AdWords Consultant Rates

The average rate for the top AdWords freelancers on a site like Upwork is approximately $90/hour.

Freelance rates may vary based on the complexity of the business they service. Keep in mind that although more expensive does not mean better, good AdWords help is not cheap.

Agency rates can be much higher than this. It’s common to pay an agency $100 to $200 an hour for services. But most agencies charge a monthly fee for their services, so the hourly rate is blended amongst resources.

AdWords Management Fees

AdWords account management fees vary a lot based on the quality of the agency.

My agency is almost always the most expensive provider when pitching a prospective client. But we also generate some of the best results in the industry, year-after-year.

Management fees also vary form agency to agency depending on how the agency bills their clients. Some agencies bill based on a blended hourly rate. Others bill based on percentage of Ad spend.

Blended billing formula

I always found a blended model involving a monthly retainer based on client ad-spend was the best billing formula.

This billing formula allowed our clients to plan their monthly fees based on how well their account was doing. The blended formula also allowed the agency to be paid up-front for their work.

Blended billing formula example

If a client anticipates spending $5,000 in AdWords in a month, they would pay a 15% to 20% retainer.

$5,000 X 20% = $1,000 monthly account management fees + $2,500 build fee.

This model also involved a new account “build fee.” There’s a lot of front-end work that goes into setting up a new account. The build fees covers the agencies work. It also protects the agency against the client walking from a contract in the first month.

The build fee was calculated at 2.5X the monthly retainer.

$1,000 retainer X 2.5 = $2,500

To learn more about how to budget for Adwords, check out our AdWords Budget Calculator. Our budget calculator will help you see how AdWords can affect your current sales model.

Want to learn how to manage AdWords accounts?

Find a business who can use your help, and blow away their existing results.

Like my clients back in 2005, many businesses try manage their own AdWords accounts. They are blissfully ignorant, and produce below-average results.

Sure, managing your AdWords account in-house, can help you avoid agency management fees. But that’s being penny-wise and pound foolish!

To run a successful in-house campaign, a company has to invest in learning how to use AdWords. They also need to learn PPC strategy. Finally, they need to have the time available to log into AdWords daily and make changes.

There’s a steep learning curve to figuring out AdWords on your own. This learning curve can involve a lot of frustration, and wasted money.

If you’re interested in jumping this learning curve, Jeffalytics can help.

PPC Mastery Course training program

Our AdWords Training program, PPC Mastery Course, teaches you agency-level Adwords techniques.

This training program uses the same methodology I used to train new hires as a marketing manager. These are the same strategies and techniques I used to generate over a million leads in AdWords.

To learn more about what it takes to become an AdWords specialist, sign-up for our Free PPC Mini-Course.


This post and video was episode 10 in our 90 Day Challenge digital marketing series.

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About the Author

Jeff Sauer is an independent Digital Marketing Consultant, Speaker and Teacher based out of a suitcase somewhere in the world. Formerly of Minneapolis, MN and San Francisco, CA.