AdWords Certifications – A Veteran’s Verdict

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RICHARD TALBOT Head of Paid Search

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As Head of PPC at TinderPoint, it’s important to keep up with the latest trends in the world of search and display advertising, as well as keeping my skills current. As a digital marketing nerd, I would be doing this anyway whether it be researching AdWords keyword techniques or more fundmanetal strategies to boost success metrics, but it becomes even more important when leading the search and display team. Part of this means passing the exams from Google and other platforms to maintain certified partner status. As I prepare to complete my suite of Google AdWords exams for 2016 by taking the Mobile exam, I find myself asking if these qualifications are worth the effort.

For the most part I’ll be discussing the Google AdWords certifications, but I will also touch on some of the others available.

The Basics

In a nutshell, passing the required minimum of two exams from Google AdWords will confer on you the status of ‘Google Certified Partner’. The good news is that these exams are free.

At a minimum, you must pass the AdWords Fundamentals exam – valid for two years – and at least one of five others: Search, Display, Mobile, Video and Google Shopping. Each of these five certifications is valid for a year, meaning an annual renewal is required to retain your overall Certified Partner status.

Find out about the certification process here.

Novice Drivers

Getting Certified Partner status is similar to passing your driving test in that you remain very much a ‘novice driver’ for a time afterwards. You have achieved the minimum competency required to operate an AdWords account but have much to learn before becoming a PPC ninja!

Obtaining certification means you should be able to navigate an AdWords account and manage a basic campaign at best. However, you will not know much about campaign strategy, or what to do when something goes wrong. In short, you know enough to move the vehicle, but you could also crash it. Figuring out the nuances of account management takes practice and time.

Learning Curves

As with all digital marketing disciplines, learning curves exist in PPC. While many mistakes are fixable, some take considerable time and expense to recover from. Having seen thousands of accounts over the past eight years, common mistakes are repeated, some as a result of launching into campaign management without adequate mentoring or supervision after obtaining certified status.

For example, as everyone who works in PPC should know, what’s recommended by Google may not always be best for the client. Exam questions may highlight account features that benefit Google’s bottom line in the name of ‘optimisation’, leading to impaired assessment of your options in managing complex campaigns.

Question Wording

Another issue with these exams is the way questions are worded. Some questions can seem odd to those renewing their certifications, for example, similar questions on the same exam, answer options that are ambiguous (often with two potentially correct answers) and self-serving questions on the benefits of AdWords. (Note to Google: If I’m taking the exam, I’ve already bought into its benefits).

The Google Exam Types

1. Fundamentals

This initial exam is unavoidable, the entry point into the world of AdWords. It’s a broad exam that covers the basics. If you have already been working in PPC for a while, it may be advisable to sit the exam without preparation to ascertain your knowledge level. If you don’t pass first time, no sweat. You can retake any exam after seven days. If you’re new to PPC, you’ll want to study first for sure.

2. Search

Often viewed as a more advanced version of the Fundamentals exam, you may notice similar questions, but more in-depth topics are covered. It’s the exam most taken after Fundamentals and a natural follow-on.

3. Display

For anyone working with display ads, this is worth taking; likewise, for those working in content marketing who promote their content. While not particularly difficult, it requires a good knowledge of the basics of display.

4. Video

A newcomer to the suite of exams, this focuses on YouTube advertising. As the area evolves quickly, expect this exam to be updated on a regular basis by Google. It’s also useful for those working in social media due to the crossover with YouTube as a social media-search engine hybrid. (Admission: I had to repeat this exam after failing by 2% on the first attempt).

5. Mobile

Google have finally designated Mobile as deserving a separate exam. In addition to experience managing the mobile aspects of campaigns, you’ll need to research mobile conversions, mobile bidding and stats on mobile from the Google help centre. Lastly, there is a heavy emphasis on apps. This exam can be more challenging than you might think.

6. Shopping

This is arguably the most difficult of the AdWords exam suite, suitable only for those working with Google Shopping campaigns. It requires a thorough understanding of the Google Merchant Centre, product feeds, as well as experience of Shopping campaign optimisation.

Other Certifications

In addition to the AdWords exams, the more difficult Google Analytics Individual Qualification has a broader reach than just PPC professionals as it should be considered by anyone who uses Google Analytics regularly. It should be considered by anyone working in PPC once they have a working knowledge of Analytics, and have obtained their AdWords certification status. Many other ad platforms, such as Bing Ads and Marin Software, offer tutorials that lead to a qualification.

Once your Google certifications is out of the way, you should consider tackling the Bing Ads certification. This single exam resembles the AdWords fundamentals exam somewhat, and should be done shortly after your Google exams. This will require some study of Bing Ads, but shouldn’t be difficult if you have already obtained your Google certification.

Marin, which offers an advanced PPC management platform, has a series of modules called the ‘Marin University’. You must have a Marin account to access these, and several certifications are available in each area. These do not involve an exam along the lines of Google or Bing.

Open-book exams

Since these are open-book exams, you have access to whatever material you need during the test. Using additional browser tabs, you can search the AdWords Learning Centre, for example, in the time allowed. Similarly, if you have taken notes during your study, you can refer to these.

Furthermore, there are several sites that offer exam question-and-answer banks, sometimes for a fee. These sites often provide outdated versions of the exams, so beware if using these as a short-cut to exam success.

The open-book nature of the exams, and potential of getting a 100% grade via ‘cheating’, devalues the certifications somewhat.

Verdict

Depending on where in the world of digital marketing you are, you should place different emphasis on the value of such qualifications.

If you are a student, graduate, or career-changer looking to get into digital marketing (and not just PPC), obtaining Google Certified Partner status is worthwhile. You might well enhance your prospects by adding it to your LinkedIn profile, and linking to the relevant membership directory page entry.

If you are a marketing agency or in-house team looking to hire any kind of PPC specialist, for anything beyond an entry-level role experience with managing multiple PPC accounts counts far more than certifications. Confirmation of certification and current validity can be done quickly by checking the Google and/or Bing membership database, but probing experience should be your focus during recruitment.

While it may seem like a drag to have to renew annually, it pays to keep your qualifications current even for seasoned PPC professionals. This is especially relevant for those in senior roles who have to lead by example. The upside of experience is that you may likely blitz through the AdWords Fundamentals, Search, Display and Bing exams in record time. I recently renewed my Bing Ads qualification, getting a score of 94% for 12 minutes of my time!

Studying for and taking exams on advanced topics in the Video, Mobile and Shopping areas surpasses passive reading or webinar participation in my opinion.

So to sum up, PPC certifications are worth the time and effort overall, but it’s important to be aware of their shortcomings. Don’t place too much time or emphasis on obtaining them, or over-estimate their importance when recruiting for a PPC role.

It’s good that the digital marketing industry has minimum qualifications in the PPC area that are free for all to study and take, but remember, even a little experience counts far more than your grade in these exams.

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RICHARD TALBOT Head of Paid Search

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An experienced digital marketer with 8+ years of industry experience, Richard has worked in client account management at both Google AdWords and Microsoft's Bing Ads in Dublin. He now leads the Paid Search & Display Advertising team at Tinderpoint delivering successful campaigns for a portfolio of diverse national and international clients across many industries.