Andrew Goodman – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Fri, 18 May 2018 15:58:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.1 Hidden PPC traffic killers /hidden-ppc-traffic-killers-298274 Fri, 18 May 2018 14:48:00 +0000 /?p=298274 Is your PPC program behaving badly and blocking out perfectly acceptable traffic? Contributor Andrew Goodman looks at five ways to relax an over-tightened account.

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If a pay-per-click (PPC) account and the advertiser’s business model are functioning reasonably well, we often find that a business owner becomes heavily dependent on the PPC channel.

“Max the volume!” and “We’re down from last year, I’m very worried” are typical (if vague) remits from clients and bosses deep in the thrall of this perennial growth-driving channel.

If you’ve arrived late on the PPC scene, you might not be aware that previous account managers assumed the channel was “naughty” and that PPC needed to be reined in. Sure, there are sources of cash bleed in any PPC account, but there are downsides to an overly defensive stance.

Pursuing volume in the context of an “over-tightened” account can cost even more (in the form of high bids, excess use of remarketing and overzealous attempts to find new inventory in other channels that can be enabled via PPC platforms — say, in Display).

Even the savviest of us might overlook some of the excess tightening that has crept into an account. Some of this is obvious; other times, it’s nearly impossible to dig up.

Here are five ways your PPC account may actually be blocking out perfectly acceptable traffic.

1. Unreasonable dayparts

Businesses that rely on a retail store or phone interactions might reasonably adjust bids downward in off hours.

Business to business (B2B) campaigns might seem to be better suited to run during normal business hours, targeting people at the office.

I get it. The problem with this is that none of it is 100 percent true; people do research (especially, now, on their phones and tablets) during off hours. In AdWords, the time zone you use is fixed, so assumptions around your coastal bids will be three hours off.

Consider loosening any bid adjustments (you don’t have to take the reins off entirely), thus ensuring that ads are at least eligible to show up 24/7.

2. Over-negativing

There are a couple of ways that negative keywords can hamstring an account manager. One is the broad match negative that simply cuts too far into query flow. Obviously, if you have to, you have to (based on performance).

Other times, though, the negatives (and keyword bids themselves) need to be more surgical.

A very high number of negatives can also be a red flag. Are the bids, keywords or match types inappropriate? Is the campaign relevant? With a very high number of negatives, it’s difficult to sift through them all to separate the wise from the silly.

Sometimes it’s necessary to eliminate a bunch of them and start again (with better campaign strategy). This may be the case when new attribution information provides better credit to higher-funnel interactions.

Take the example query “hipster beef jerky recipes.” People are looking for the recipes, not the jerky. Except that sometimes, they come back later via a remarketing ad and buy a carload of jerky.

3. IP blocking using a click fraud detection service

Depending on how things work where you live, a given internet protocol (IP) address might be associated with hundreds or thousands of users.

For my money, Google seems to be doing a pretty good job with click fraud these days. It could be that the click fraud software is actually costing you business. At the very least, question its assumptions and tinker with the settings.


4. Failure to use broad match

Some account managers overdo the perfectly reasonable fear of broad match, and you see far too much reliance on hyper-specific exact match keywords.

Hey, we all love exact match. But if growth is what you seek, then you need to cast a wider net. You might even need to run conventional (gasp!) broad match or dynamic search ads (oh my!) to assist in ongoing query research. With a growth mindset comes extra risk and extra work.

5. Bad assumptions about geography

We had a national financial industry client tell us “We do poorly in Georgia — shut it off.” It’s tough to push back against a direct order, but the data will almost always support something like a -30% bid adjustment — and thus, new business within target cost per acquisition rather than “shutting it off.”

Growth is hard. Don’t make it even harder on yourself by keeping the “naughty” PPC channel on too short a leash.

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Sarcasm aside, how strict PPC advertiser policies may actually benefit us /sarcasm-aside-how-strict-ppc-advertiser-policies-may-actually-benefit-us-296420 Thu, 19 Apr 2018 14:33:00 +0000 /?p=296420 Contributor Andrew Goodman suggests we may not like the way Google manages the AdWords program, but anything less and the SERPs and advertising ecosystem would have imploded long ago.

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Around the pay-per-click (PPC) water cooler, it’s been whispered that Google just might be out for its own financial self-interest. (Shhh! Don’t tell!)

That Google search is an utterly dominant and indispensable source of high-quality, high-intent paid search traffic makes it impossible to do anything but maximize our spend in this channel, of course. But many of us routinely do so with a suspicious mind.  We worry, among other things, that the interface and the terminology associated with Google AdWords is “tricky,” all part of a droning narrative bent on driving up cost-per-click (CPC).

Frankly, that’s a given. But if we move past that, what insights might we gain?

Google Guvernment

Over the years, I’ve nicknamed Google “The Guvernment” (which was the name of a popular former nightclub in Toronto’s East Waterfront area) and dubbed them the “Sheriff” — for what sometimes appear to be quite detailed and heavy-handed policies impacting paying advertisers.

This may strike you as sarcastic (Sarcasm gets us through the day no less effectively than it did for Flo on Mel’s Diner), but if you lean in a bit, you’ll also detect a note of admiration.

Google is self-interested, but they’ve got the goods. And they’re uniquely conscientious in many ways. One holiday season, a Christmas gift from one of those “alternative” sources of PPC arrived early in the New Year at my home, sent from an address in upstate New York. Why was the package so slow? Well, for starters, it was ticking. You guessed it: a clock. My long-suffering colleague (we’ll call him D) didn’t miss a beat:

Every tick represents a fraudulent click.

Google’s nothing like that

Maybe it’s time to dial up the admiration level, or at least focus on understanding what makes Google so unusual and special as a self-imposed regulator of matters that it could easily remain agnostic about. In what appears to be a massive paradox, Google has made a business of not glibly taking money from borderline business models that carry too much baggage or threat of illegality.

That being said, Google has also had lapses in this area, including some high-profile cases in the pharmaceuticals field. To get into specifics, here’s a summary of some of the many ways Google regulates advertisers and the overall advertising environment.

  • General consumer protection. It’s fortunate that most jurisdictions also have extensive legal frameworks for consumer protection. But if you’re in the advertising program, Google may simply ban you if it determines your business model is in a regulated field, illegal or just at a high risk of misleading or defrauding customers.
  • Feed quality and feed contents. Google Shopping works best for consumers if Google has a well-maintained and truthful feed to work with. If a feed contains certain banned or restricted products or landing pages where, say, misleading health claims are made, the items may be disallowed. But make no mistake: The Sheriff (Google) dislikes some controversial products so strongly, even if they represent 0.01 percent of a reputable merchant’s feed, the entire feed may be disabled if months go by without problem areas being rectified. That could represent 40 percent of a large online retailer’s daily sales.
  • User experience pet peeves. Google has never liked things like pop-ups and aggressive data collection (“squeeze pages”). These beliefs, arguably, are at once entirely scientific but also subjective. Google exercises its prerogative in terms of how much it will censure a website or advertiser for the presence of annoyances or privacy intrusions. And this spans the paid and organic sides. Recently, I heard from a very savvy creator of large content sites (with some monetization attached in the form of subscription products) that organic rank for many of their pages was strong when they avoided overt monetization, such as email address collection for the purposes of signing interested parties up for a free trial. Although the paid and organic sides of Google work independently in many ways, philosophies tend to converge around protection of user privacy and preventing users from bouncing or complaining due to annoying user experience (UX) practices.
  • In Google’s eyes, nothing is less user-friendly than a slow-loading page — except, of course, for a slow-loading page on a site that isn’t particularly mobile-friendly. Arguably, in the AdWords program, Google doesn’t just leave advertisers to fail on their own (say, by losing money), but they also compound the pain for that advertiser by baking some of these signals into Quality Score. Why? Because (1) they don’t want users to go to such pages at all, ideally; and (2) they want to effect change. In popular policy studies parlance, this acts as a “nudge” to give folks an incentive to sit up and take notice of their poor mobile UX, for instance, to put the resources into this now, rather than “next year, for sure.”
  • Of course, there is much more. Take ad copy alone. Google has long watched out for advertisers exploiting loopholes in ad copy creation. To provide a level playing field among advertisers, you can’t game the race for user attention by using all caps or otherwise creating “shouty” ads that degrade the overall experience of using a search engine. That’s a little like the condo board that won’t let you put a bedsheet (or even polka-dotted roller blinds) on your windows. Google is trying to prevent a tragedy-of-the-commons degradation of the search engine results page (SERP).
  • Last-click attribution is an inaccurate way to measure the effectiveness of advertising. Google is encouraging us to move to more effective attribution models.
  • Although ad extensions are far from a perfect landscape, they present an interesting way to improve how much objective information is included on the SERP. Google doesn’t have to show any given ad extension. They can tweak the algorithm to quietly favor and boost trust levels in certain types of advertisers, such as conventional, well-known companies if they so choose. To be sure, they can come up with precise ways of incentivizing advertisers to bid higher in order to trigger coveted ad extensions that just… won’t… show up… every… time. ( See above, under “suspicious minds.”)

Flaws, fits and fighting

Certainly, there remain many flaws in Google’s processes. Many of us are pained by ad disapprovals for one or two ads in an ad group that refer not to these ads, but to the business model of the entire site. If 99 percent of the ads in an account for an innocuous product line are approved and harmless, it’s impossible that virtually identical ads for the same company are ban-worthy.

Such all-too-common glitches give us fits. Google’s many false positives, one might be told, are the result of a “well, you can’t be too careful” attitude. But it appears that far too many policy violators and charlatans are permitted to open AdWords accounts in the first place. The system and the protocols are quite open (though far less so than with organic search), so the mentality of “always fighting spammers” seems to do a disservice to reputable advertisers and their significant non-laundered monies.

This is the keyword advertising ecosystem today, but it feels unstable and uncomfortable much of the time.

Do more they should

Yet I can’t think of any company other than Google that would have had the foresight to stay so far ahead of what often appear to be debatable issues of consumer protection and intra-advertiser fairness. They could do even more; perhaps they should.

And they’ve done this while diversifying and growing ad programs in a complex environment with literally millions of advertisers. Think of where we might be had Google not pushed for high standards of the types outlined above.

  • Consumer trust in search engine results would be much lower.
  • Consumer trust in advertisers would be much lower.
  • The user’s daily experience would be slower.
  • Advertisers would chase more perverse incentives; the average participant in the AdWords program would be more inclined to listen to snake-oil salesmen and tipsters offering insignificant ways to get an edge over more straight-arrow competitors. They would spend time and energy listening to trivial trickery rather than diving deep into data and getting to know clients; they would be stunting their marketing careers.

If anything, we should be expecting more, not less, scrutiny from Nanny Google. It may not always feel that it’s in our best interest, and sometimes it’s more self-serving than Google lets on.

But the alternative feels worse. Under a less firm hand, the SERPs and advertising ecosystem may well have imploded long ago. Nanny Google may be tough, but she lets us live in her house. And it’s a big, sunny house indeed.

In my next article, I’ll look farther out into the future of advertising. Nanny Google is exhausted from nearly two decades of chasing advertisers around. The tech titans have a major reset in mind, one that will relieve them of the chaos that has prevailed in the online information ecosystem in the past couple of decades.

Stay tuned.

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Google Attribution: Is Google stepping in because no one else would? /google-attribution-google-stepping-no-one-else-281744 Thu, 07 Sep 2017 15:52:23 +0000 http:/?p=281744 Advertisers would love to see unbiased attribution measurement that unifies channel reporting and moves beyond the last-click attribution model, but is Google Attribution the answer? Columnist Andrew Goodman discusses the likely impacts of this new product offering.

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Advertisers — especially PPC junkies — want to pay for the highest-converting, most relevant traffic possible. That’s been the obsession of our corner of the digital world for some years now.

Yet in other corners, key players have been roundly accused of taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to advertisers paying for the least credible, most fraudulent ad impressions and clicks possible.

The problem isn’t an imaginary one. The industry remains plagued with ad platforms that make threadbare claims to effectiveness.

Google is now aiming squarely at both the opportunity and the problem — because most others won’t. They’re rolling out a free version of a powerful, unified marketing attribution solution (now called Google Attribution, available in beta to select advertisers).

Should the average marketer care?

As above-average marketers, I think we should care insofar as it makes our work more meaningful and more accurate. Make no mistake: these tend to be incremental wins nowadays. The big revolution is already behind us; whether through server log mining or users and sessions being tracked via cookies and other means, we’ve long had the data on hand to improve the accountability of advertising.

As Google points out in their “Hello Google Attribution” post, though, most advanced attribution tools are “hard to set up.”

Many advertisers, therefore, go with the default — last-click attribution — and try to use their imaginations as to what kind of ROI they’re “probably” getting “if only” they had better measurement. Not ideal.

When it comes to new customer acquisition in particular, last-click attribution too often assigns 100 percent of the credit to hangers-on in the process: Brand and Remarketing clicks. If, instead, we were able to sprinkle partial credit around to all the previous consumer touch points, we’d be living up to our boast of being “data-driven.”

The lack of (“de-duped”) unified channel reporting currently incentivizes siloed marketers to play adversarial games, pulling for their own channels. It also incentivizes each disparate publisher platform to bias their own conversion tracking in favor of — you guessed it — their own platform’s ad inventory.

So, will Google Attribution fix that? Hey, you in the back, I hear your cynical chuckle. What kind of ploy is this?

Google: Playing sheriff once again (because no one else will)

Yes, Google is self-interested. But often, their self-interest has been served by pushing for stronger industry standards, which in turn improves the user experience and nets Google a little respect. Just think of Google’s meddlesome, but ultimately welcome, interventions into https adoption, site speed and mobile-friendliness.

Nearly every decision Google has to make in the design of Google Attribution — neutral talk of “smart,” “machine-learning” and “data-driven” aside — will pick winners and losers. Not counting the impact of an impression if it wasn’t viewable, or a click if it didn’t behave in a way consistent with non-fraud, may discount nearly 100 percent of the impact of rival networks and publishers. Go figure.

But unless Google itself perpetrates massive and uncharacteristic fraud, these tools themselves will push Google, too, to police its own ad inventory across all Google-owned and partner channels.

Relying on a large monopolistic player to enforce “truth” on an industry is far from a perfect solution. You’d love it if industry bodies or even government regulators would provide some help in that direction. But in the absence of much leadership elsewhere, Google it is.

This is a long game. Even lukewarm responses over the next year from advertisers kicking these tires may be relatively meaningless if Google is onto something: that the future of advertising may well depend on something just like this. The next three or four years will determine whether this tool becomes a trusted industry standard like Google Apps for Business or Android.

Tip of the iceberg

Success — for robust spenders who play in multiple channels, who stand to benefit the most from improved understanding of how consumers are influenced by different touch points — will depend on Google taking this all the way.

Cautious versions of this same idea have been underwhelming to date. Most of the advanced advertisers I talked with, for example, aren’t seeing much difference when they toggle from model to model (Last Click, Position-Based, Linear, Time Decay, Data-Driven) in the recently released Attribution Models in AdWords.

Why? Largely because the various models only take account of AdWords clicks. Without information about all other channels (including organic search) in that mix, we don’t see much improvement in attribution accuracy. In that context, last-click attribution lives on as a reasonable option.

Some business models are ripe for better attribution models

Google Digital Marketing Evangelist Avinash Kaushik has counseled that advertising spending shouldn’t be a “faith-based initiative.” Yet in some industries, a lucky few instinctive players have gotten rich acting that way and throwing heavy spending at certain channels that “seem” to work. That works (for the lucky and instinctive) because many growth strategies are in fact hard to measure; the genius of the spend only becomes clearly obvious years or decades after the fact.

Long buy cycles pose a particular challenge for marketing attribution. Long research phases and tire-kicking are commonplace in B2B, but not only there. Let’s think about a business that has to win over consumers before they can have a conversation with certain suppliers. That big consumer spend is the unsung hero of the business, and that brand-building process takes place over a long period of time.

(Does the Trivago guy really pay for himself? That is not as easy to answer as it seems. What we do know for sure is: no Trivago guy, no company.)

Some companies with an engineering mindset inherently mistrust marketers and are happy when they can show definitive proof of poor marketing ROI. If you’re a PPC professional and you’ve worked for a high-tech startup, you’ve probably noticed that.

In a fight for resources, say the proponents of spontaneous word of mouth, shouldn’t product win? Is advertising truly a “tax for being unremarkable?” Come on! That’s jejune. (My answer would be that with the right investments in both product and marketing, resources wouldn’t be as scarce. As marketers, we need to be armed with better tools to demonstrate the impact of that budget. Although maybe it would be easier just to repeat the mantra, “No Trivago Guy, No Company.”)

Three potential outcomes of Google Attribution

Let’s turn to some likely impacts of Google Attribution if it works the way it should. Therein lies its genius — and its limitations.

First, moving credit around within the AdWords silo won’t help anyone hit the jackpot. But helpfully, it may reduce incentives for AdWords marketers to overspend on last-click-seeking interactions within AdWords. Some PPC managers (shhh!) overspend on remarketing audiences only as a form of retaliation for misleading conversion-sniping that goes on in other channels.

As for such shenanigans — zap! — siloed marketers who engage in competitive “last-click seeking” and generalized attribution inflation (which may lead to double- and triple-counting) will be neutralized and humbled. That’s the second, and most hopeful, takeaway from unifying attribution with a trustworthy clearinghouse for attribution data. To tell a long story in brief: Just because Facebook called it a conversion, AdRoll taught your team how to turn up Remarketing to 11, or someone came in and purchased through a branded organic click, shouldn’t mean we suddenly begin overspending in Facebook, tripling your remarketing budget, or handing wads of thank-you cash to the SEO team. Fair credit is due to every channel — but no more.

Finally, I see a neutral to slightly negative outcome in the realm of hard-to-measure media like display, especially long-running, drip-drip display advertising that is used more for brand-building with some vestiges of performance thrown in. The influence of this media varies so widely it’s difficult, at this point, to trust any new attribution technology to be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The problem here is if the “science” starts arbitrarily assigning credit (even partial credit) to interactions that don’t have nearly as much true influence as the models claim for them. Perhaps that’s not terribly hard to address: calibrate the model to be skeptical and only take seriously interactions which seem somehow related (or close in time) to a significant conversion event.

With enough data, you could safely discount the influence of a lot of spend. But would you be discounting precisely the juiciest part? The rare business models where the instinctive, faith-based advertiser somehow wins from a decision to say to heck with the truisms and just spend heavily where others fear to tread? After all, if the performance case is rock solid, surely everyone else will know that, and the rising price of the media will ultimately make profit elusive?

Certainly, any approach to partial credit should err on the side of conservatism. There is a massive problem with crediting “view-through” conversions. If enough ad impressions are paid for and shown near humans, nearly every purchase made online could be affiliated with a prior ad view.

Have a formula that assigns a “reasonable” amount of fractional credit to prior ad impressions or even crap clicks? Someone out there will find a way to slash the price of those interactions to the bone so that advertisers can buy ten times more of that thing. If Google Attribution becomes the gold standard, some sneaky publishers and networks will say to themselves, “Let the gaming begin.”

Models that are looking to be clever enough to assign “a little influence” to an interaction, as opposed to none, could well over-credit poor-quality media. But if the model hits back by erring on the side of no influence in too many cases, then we’ve discovered nothing novel about where and how to advertise.

Can we trust free products?

In sum, unbiased attribution measurement that unifies channel reporting and moves beyond the oversimplifications of last-click attribution models would be a sight for sore eyes for many of us. Needless to say, though, questions will remain about the inherent biases of any attribution product operated by the world’s largest seller of online advertising.

Despite the dangers, I’m keeping an open mind. Today’s vendor landscape is littered with those who will simply pull (potentially biased) analytics data from multiple platforms into a reporting dashboard. Google is virtually the only company that has the capacity to intelligently “de-dupe” attribution credit — or, put another way, to subtly assign partial credit across channels in a fair and actionable manner.

Right out of the gate, though, let’s push Google to maximize the information made available on demand. If the claim is that Google Attribution can help us unify information from various channels and devices, we want to be able to see those individual user funnels — including the weights Google’s attribution models assign to different interactions and devices for that user’s conversion.

For such rich data, I’d argue that many advertisers would be willing to pay handsomely for a premium version of the product. There has to be a happy medium between “free and opaque” and the six-figure price tags that seem hard to justify in light of how much data we can access at no cost.

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Beware these 7 sneaky PPC attribution tricks /beware-7-sneaky-ppc-attribution-tricks-271387 Thu, 23 Mar 2017 14:18:25 +0000 http:/?p=271387 You may think you're hitting your conversion goals, but columnist Andrew Goodman warns that faulty attribution can lead to inaccurate or misleading performance data.

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PPC account managers are held to exacting performance standards. Their efforts are judged by KPIs like Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) and CPA (Cost Per Acquisition).

That sounds simple enough. But it’s a lot easier to set tough performance standards than to achieve them. As competition mounts, an account manager may decide to shorten their time horizon to four months instead of four years, figuring that keeping the gig is a lost cause. That leads to “Operation Obfuscate” — to fool the boss by the attributed conversion numbers, at least over the short term.

This column is about doing the opposite of that — or reversing the damage when Operation Obfuscate has sapped the strength of an account that used to have real customer acquisition power.

Businesses are always healthiest when they’re viewing their performance statistics with full transparency.

This process can get uncomfortable, especially when rooting out past malfeasance. But the path to prosperity generally starts with getting back to basics and weeding out all the attribution tricks. Here are seven ways PPC accounts can slowly lose their mojo via, shall we say, “relaxed” approaches to reporting conversion behavior.

1. Creeping brand credit

One’s own Brand bucket (not a product line, but rather, a navigational query that indicates a strong desire to return and purchase something in a premeditated way) can be a huge culprit in over-crediting a PPC manager’s efforts. By and large, we hope that these conversions come very cheaply.

Account managers can easily (or inadvertently) spread that credit throughout an account. If brand queries aren’t excluded from other campaigns, they may blend into said other campaigns, improving their numbers. Tighten it up!

2. Hyper audience bidding

RLSA audiences can be embedded within ordinary Search ad groups now; with Custom Combinations, or even behavioral parameters, they can be a marvel of sophistication. You can even use “similar audiences” to tap statistically similar groups of users.

Nearly all audiences of previous recent site visitors, converters and customer lists will convert better, but there’s a limit to how much you want to bid up on these audiences. You’re just altering your bid on the same search queries that you’re in the auction for anyway. Bid boost by 5, 10 or 35 percent? I have no problem with that. But I have seen completely irrelevant audiences (visited other product lines and so on) being boosted by 85 percent — a practice that is purely inflationary.

The most amazing example I’ve seen is audiences bid up as high as 898 percent with the help of a third-party bid tool. At some point in here, the thread has been lost. If impression share isn’t rising based on a boosted bid, don’t boost it further!

3. Spending, spending, and spending some more on GDN remarketing

Today, some account managers spend a staggering amount of their time creating an array of flavors of remarketing. Chop these campaigns up enough, and give them enough confusing names, and they may well fly under the radar. The campaign’s overall ROI slowly degrades, but the reported ROI isn’t so bad, because remarketing heavily pulls attribution credit away from channels outside the PPC campaign itself, especially in companies that have strong natural audiences from other advertising and/or a long history in business.

Recently, we found a large campaign spending 24 percent of its dollars just on this type of spend. In short order, we were able to bring that down to 9 percent by eliminating all the overlapping, confusingly named campaigns. Remarketing shouldn’t be confused with marketing, especially if you stop filling the top of the pipeline.

4. Double-counting

It’s not uncommon to duplicate conversion actions in Conversion Tracking setup. If you add many conversion actions and count them all, the platforms aren’t going to reach out and slap you. You’ll just see an improbable CPA number.

Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples over time, at least. The most idiot-proof way to do this in Google AdWords is to enable only one conversion type. A more leisurely assessment of other KPIs should take place in an Analytics platform like Google Analytics.

5. Fake or misleading attribution models

We’ve only just begun to see examples of attribution models being used that don’t refer to actual conversions but assign credit based on an estimate.

Even short of that, there’s a key distinction in conventional PPC practice between counting one conversion against a keyword, and multiple conversions if, say, that same user buys again (and again) within the conversion window. It can be useful to apply that revenue to calculations, but multiple conversion counting can be really confusing on smaller amounts of data. For my money, CPA is easiest to fathom when we only assign a single conversion to a user.

6. Fake conversions!

Long ago, some publishers in networks like GDN determined that they could get bots to fill out forms on the sites of lazy lead gen advertisers without CAPTCHAs. (Guess what, though. CAPTCHA or no CAPTCHA, some publishers employed humans to fill out the forms, just to keep their “conversion” numbers high enough to avoid being tossed from the network.)

Lead gen businesses have to be keenly aware of lead quality. If a source — such as super-cheap clicks from generic display ads — seems too good to be true, it probably is. Ideally, all lead sources track right through to revenue via some kind of CRM integration. Failing that, though, just look at the quality of the forms that are coming in. If you sell a $20,000 enterprise software package starting with a free demo, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to sniff out the low-quality leads.

7. Campaign duplication

This isn’t strictly an attribution issue, but it’s part of the same phenomenon. Ever waded through a large account and seen a few marginally performing campaigns, not quite sure of their intended purpose? When I’m not familiar with a campaign’s purpose, and its performance is somewhere near the bottom end of the average for the other campaigns, I assume it’s a sensible attempt to slip a bit on the marginal cost curve to pursue more growth.

Companies are often worried about shutting off these sophisticated-sounding campaigns because they might kill something that was set up as an incremental growth driver. Thing is, I’ve looked harder at some of these exotic animals. Sometimes, it comes to light that they’re all variants of the exact same thing (e.g., three different Dynamic Search Ads campaigns with distinct-sounding names), inefficiently pulling impressions across two or three campaigns, haphazardly, to say nothing of cannibalizing other parts of the account. Consolidating down to a single version of same ultimately leads to clarity of purpose and improved ROI with no loss of sales.

Final thoughts

Given the complexity of how impressions are served in a large account, it can be scary to undertake a cleanup operation. You have to be quite confident that apparent drivers of new customer growth are in fact illusory. If you can skillfully reallocate budget to growth drivers, the “attribution hog” parts of the account will resume their growth as well. This is best done gradually, but for long-term success, it’s a must.

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The Death Of Search Marketing Expertise /death-search-marketing-expertise-242628 Thu, 25 Feb 2016 16:53:10 +0000 http:/?p=242628 Where have all the search professionals gone? Contributor Andrew Goodman explores the state of the search agency industry today and wonders if we can be doing better.

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Recently, I had dinner in Orlando with Bill and Ted (not their real names), some pretty successful digital agency owners. (By successful, I mean more than 50 employees and strong annual revenues.)

They’ve been friends of mine for a long time, so I assumed they’d be up for a little of the usual expert banter.

The first punch in the gut came when I casually explained about some PPC bidding methods we routinely use. My friends had no idea what I was talking about. Hyperventilating, I reminded myself they deliver SEO services, primarily.

So I told a story from the SEO world. As usual, it involved a chartered jet, a bottle of Scandinavian spirits, a spammer with a weird nickname and a senior Google evangelist who shall remain nameless. I was interrupted as I was just getting warmed up. The guys who run this SEO-first agency simply had not heard of the senior Googler — one of a handful of SEO evangelists Google has ever had in its history.

Talk turned to sports. The longevity of Jaromir Jagr’s mullet was debated.

Pardon the assumption, but I always thought the owners of professional services firms were more respected when they had “chops.” Granted, the owners or top execs of an agency may not need to get down in the weeds for their team to be successful. But you’d think we’d at least need to maintain a culture of expertise in agencies.

Less obvious — but no less important, if you ask me — is the need to keep up with an industry’s people, personalities and events. At some level, networks and connections matter. It’s hard to divorce the concept of maintaining relationships with key people (key experts) in a fast-moving industry from the very kernel of expertise itself. There are the “on paper” answers to tough problems, and there are the “real answers.” A great network provides shortcuts to the truth.

Many imperfections in agencies, of course, stem from low profit margins that stand in the way of learning opportunities, “20 percent time” and R&D.

Regardless, I’d like to challenge the related fiction that the only chances for agencies to climb out of the low-margin trap are those that “figure out scale” and deliver cookie-cutter services. The claim is demonstrably false. Take ReachLocal ($RLOC): have a good look at their financials and decide for yourself whether they’ve done well, even after raising all that money in an IPO.

Of note: ReachLocal’s once high-flying stock currently trades below book value. Flat to declining revenues may indicate that the cookie-cutter model, when applied outside of realms like sandwiches and oil changes, breeds client dissatisfaction.

An Aside About Awesomeness

David Ogilvy was brilliant. He also had good enough timing to be a co-founder, in 1948, of an ad agency that would soon win gargantuan accounts in an era when big brand ad spending was in its ascendancy.

Arguably, Ogilvy’s inspirational power at his own company was heightened by the fact that Ogilvy possessed what Seth Godin calls a “superpower” — no mere manager, bean-counter or big idea man, Ogilvy consistently wrote powerful advertising copy that made clients wealthy. Like several other early pioneers, he was also a champion of using data and research to improve targeting.

Ogilvy found his way to the top by rolling up his sleeves and doing a job he loved, not by planning a business model, raising “VC” or learning how to manage “key functions in a company of this type.”

Given his financial success, Ogilvy could be forgiven for enjoying the fruits of his labor in his later years, relaxing in his massive French chateau, Touffou.

It may simply be because the agency business is too competitive now, and upstarts face behemoths backed by decades of tradition and billions in revenue. Or maybe it’s because we’re facing a massive shift towards martech in the wake of the steady unraveling of the TV-industrial complex. But our world today doesn’t look much like Ogilvy’s.

It’s far tougher for agency owners and executives to get credit for maintaining “chops” nowadays, especially with the proliferation of media, technology, events and fields of expertise requiring attention. The pace of change is faster than it was in Ogilvy’s heyday; optimization is an hourly or daily activity. I get it. No one person, short of Mark Zuckerberg, is getting much mileage out of “keeping up.”

To paraphrase Bart Simpson: Gotcha. Can’t win, don’t try. Right?

Working “In The Business” — A Bad Thing?

Like most small business founders, agency founders have been led to believe that they should stop poking their noses into accounts, stop trying to achieve results directly for clients, stop holding technical conversations with clients and employees. That’s how you “stay small.” Don’t you want to get big?

According to business orthodoxy, the real problem would be if agency founders remained technicians. In The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work, and What to Do About It, Michael Gerber asserts that there are really three competing people fighting inside the body of a small business founder: the Technician, the Manager and the Entrepreneur. The Technician is greedy for the attention of the business, because the Technician just wants to work on stuff. If left to his own devices, the Technician will destroy the business. Balance is a must.

Fair enough. But as any critical reader might conclude, Gerber doesn’t just instill balance in the technician, he shoots the technician.

It’s important to remember that his entire book is constructed as a dialogue with the owner of a pie shop (not even a variety of baked goods!), and that saving this pie baker from the slow-growth future of always being in the shop baking pies comes across as cutting-edge business advice that should be widely applied.

The franchise model (and business process thinking) of companies like McDonald’s and Mrs. Fields’ Cookies are held up as models for how to save the business founder from having to work “in the business” instead of “on the business.”

For a professional services agency, that’s extreme advice. It explains why many clients of marketing agencies today feel like they’re being served up a plate of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies (literally: cookie-cutter services) instead of developing a relationship with an educated, connected, senior-level marketing professional and the team around them.

Beyond that, Gerber’s ideas predate the complex challenges and opportunities related to scaling businesses in a digital and interconnected world. The trends of the past 20 years have radically altered business culture, supply chain management and much else. Certain business functions (under the aegis of the all-important Manager lionized in Gerber’s book) are more accessible to small companies today with software and outsourcing. Communicating with third-party vendors of logistical and managerial functions is also easier, thanks to tools.

Like many founders, I’ve often longed to follow Gerber’s advice to log out for the last time and work full-time “on the business.” As an already-proven expert, I’d also love to skip out on the Google Partners exams they continually require experts to re-take.

But I sense it doesn’t work that way. Our field is a little like pro golf. Your PGA Tour exemption – unless you’re the proud winner of a major or two – lasts but a couple of years. Fall out of touch with the fundamentals because you’re too busy hobnobbing with sponsors and celebrities and meeting with your agent, lawyer and accountant, and you’ll find yourself literally “back in school” — the professional golf “qualifying school” events – if you want to rejoin the pro ranks.

Expertise Matters

Somehow, expertise is going to have to rub off on employees who work on complex digital marketing assignments. Once liftoff is achieved, it would help if some employees developed actual careers with a sense of professional direction, as opposed to being semi-competent in addressing a few odd tasks.

There are only so many ways for this to happen, and in many agency cultures, ownership has no game plan to allow this to happen.

First off, it may be time to drop the act. You know the one. “The company is so big now, I’ve grown distant from day-to-day operations.” “I’m a philanthropist/show horse breeder/angel investor/triathlete.” Nothing against charity, the equine arts, angels or exercise, but unless you’re the departing chairperson of a mysterious, privately held $50 billion insurance company, isn’t all that extracurricular activity just a shade pretentious?

Mentoring (in some form or fashion) is essential. Many agencies do more monitoring than mentoring, trying to squeeze every ounce of “work” out of new people.

Conferences and meetups are also invaluable sources of insight and learning. To be sure, with tight agency budgets, not everyone can go; hardly anyone can get out frequently or routinely. But agencies that shut themselves out from industry events entirely are relegating themselves to a kind of dogged toil increasingly devoid of insight.

“Agency Culture” Beyond Paintball And Snacks

Let’s be clear: this isn’t about paintball, or what kind of food is available at the office. It’s about a culture of expertise and a shared professional mission, as opposed to a culture of pure financial performance.

Some of the largest agencies in the world — ironically, those who can most afford to educate and inspire their people — are the ones skimping the most. The bean-counters have taken hold.

According to Michael Gerber, the genius of the “Turn-Key Revolution” is that a business can operate using “people with the lowest possible level of skill.” That’s fine for Mrs. Fields’ Cookies. Personally, I’ll take Gerber’s recipe with a grain of salt.

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PPC Geo-Bidding, Simplified /ppc-geo-bidding-simplified-240611 Thu, 28 Jan 2016 22:01:02 +0000 http:/?p=240611 Are you overthinking your geo-targeted bidding strategy? Columnist Andrew Goodman thinks you might be -- and he's here to help simplify your life.

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Recently, I came across a social media post that — honest to goodness — went on at length about the price the poster would be willing to pay for a new brand of ketchup.

“I’d need 50 percent off to give it a try,” opined the timid tomato tester. “If I turn out not to like the product, it’s just a whole lot of wasted time, and a waste of food .”

“This calls for snark!” some alien voice urged me.

I’m not proud of it, but there was only one possible reply: “Dude. It’s just ketchup.”

Unlike the man-child clinging to the safety of the almighty Heinz brand, some people actually get paid to overthink stuff. That appears to be the case in the marketing profession.

Despite some underlying complexity in the permutations, probabilities and platforms, there are many topics in digital marketing today that could use a little dumbing down — at the very least to overcome paralysis, but also to avoid doing fake work or engaging in “doctor that actually makes the patient sicker” activity (of the type Nassim Taleb has been so eloquent in calling out).

Bidding accurately on different geographic segments is one of those topics. Let’s go.

Dive In! See, You’re Already Swimming!

In AdWords, assuming you set up your main location (i.e., your nationwide “catch-all” — say, United States) along with a few additional sub-locations of interest (a handful of cities or states, using the +LOCATIONS button), you’re already geo-targeting.

Plus, you’re already geo-bidding as soon as you enter your first bid adjustment (adjusting your core CPC bids by some percentage, for ad viewers associated with that geo segment). That wasn’t hard, was it?

(Note: Bing Ads offers essentially parallel functionality.)

I consider this screen to represent the core of any AdWords geo-bidding strategy today; it’s available on the Locations tab as one of three prominent bid adjustment opportunities (alongside mobile bid adjustments and ad scheduling).

geo bids

Somehow this powerful, basic functionality gets lost in the shuffle of PowerPoint decks seemingly bent on adding complexity for its own sake.

One conference presentation I recently reviewed finally got to this screen on slide 34 of a 40-slide presentation. By this time, attendees were no doubt visualizing the complimentary samosas, fancy ketchup and drinks available at the cocktail reception, convinced they could never handle all the complexity of data manipulation required to be “good at geo.”

Worse, little to nothing was said about this important geo-bidding screen. What should you set up, and why?

What To Set Up, And Why? No One Is Really Saying.

The above AdWords screen, obviously, is no great secret. The question is, can you be doing more with it? Can you be doing that more effectively? And are people in Phoenix as stingy as I say they are? And if Pittsburgh is such a goldmine for my clients, why the heck can’t Pittsburgh be bigger? Do special features like demographics, places of interest, colleges, central commercial areas and ZIP codes really help? When?

Another question that nags at a lot of marketers is this: What if I do it improperly? Won’t things get worse?

Faced with a lack of resources and no clear methodology to manage from, many avoid the task entirely. Or they’ll throw a few (or all 50) US states into the mix, then abandon the effort.

I’m convinced there is a solid lift to be had from geo-bidding accurately. But so far, few of us in the industry have produced usable case studies to show clearly what kind of lift geo-bidding is capable of.

Given the difficulty of A/B testing campaign-level settings, most case studies would have to be taken with a grain of salt anyway.

Beyond a certain point, there is only wheel-spinning, busywork and regression to the mean, as with so many other marketing boondoggles.

Experiment. There’s Limited Risk.

It’s worth asking — to channel Taleb once more — is this something you’d fuss with if you had real skin in the game? Not as a technocrat, but as a business owner?

In the financial, medical and environmental realms, there are awful consequences to “blowing up,” even if blowups or meltdowns are rare (black swans). Yet fast talkers and advocates of shiny new things pursue slight gains too ardently. Taleb refers to that as “the convexity of risk.”

In AdWords, you don’t get quite the same potential for catastrophe. So if you can tune out the overly eager purveyors of shiny objects, use some of your spare time to tinker. You may find you can create incremental, reliable lift without endless effort.

The Cool Thing: Geo Data Gets Beyond Black-And-White Thinking

Many marketers aren’t aware of the power of the data we have at our fingertips today, and how easy it is to tap that power.

Last year, we worked with a client who told us to exclude a number of states from their financial lead generation effort because 30 years of direct mail had taught them those areas don’t perform for them.

We are generally against putting the cart before the horse in this way. If René Descartes himself sat us down and told us that logic dictates we should shut down potential goldmine states in favor of a highly convoluted and unproven theory about how certain personas might come up with a search query, we’d introduce him to David Hume and a pitcher of ale and return when he’d come to his senses.

Basic Principles: What Are We Trying To Accomplish?

To put the exercise on a solid foundation, consider the following basic principles:

  • The purpose of geo bid adjustments is to maximize PPC campaign volume and/or ROI by bidding accurately on some configuration of different geographic areas (a number of states and metros within the US, for example).
  • This “bid adjustments” functionality, called Enhanced Campaigns when first rolled out by Google, is a powerful advancement over the old methodology where you had to set up a separate campaign for every geo-specific bid strategy you wanted to deploy. Granted, bid adjustments may not be the only geo-strategy in many accounts. But for many PPC accounts — possibly the majority — it’s a great time-saver to lean more on bid adjustments and less on elaborate account structures, geo-specific ad copy and so forth.
  • At a certain point, you must accept that complex stories are irrelevant to this exercise because of what it entails: many of the resulting actions will be small bid adjustments of less than 10 percent. In much rarer cases, those adjustments may be 20 percent, 40 percent, or all the way up to 100+ percent if you are looking at a highly localized type of business. In all cases, what you are doing is fiddling with bids. It’s that simple. Hearing an elaborate story about neighborhoods and personas does zero to alter the course of events. Just normalize each segment to hit your target KPI on all of them.
  • Geography is not being used as a bid factor for its inherent characteristics, presumably, but because it is a good enough proxy for propensity to purchase. That propensity doesn’t derive solely from income, but from a mix of demographic and cultural characteristics, including the nature of employment or common pastimes.
  • For simplicity’s sake, it’s worth remembering that we are essentially on the lookout for differing conversion rates (though you can opt to manage to ROAS, CPA or whatever you like, of course). A greater search query volume, because “people like salty snacks in this region,” doesn’t necessarily translate into more dollars to the business, since we’re paying for clicks.
  • The behavior of the segments has to be significantly patterned in a manner distinct from just random data fluctuations to be worth adjusting your bids to. Put another way, long-term patterns that are distinct enough from the mean to build up a high statistical confidence level warrant attention. Stuff that just bounces around short-term but results in regression to the mean shouldn’t be “chased” — at best, you’re getting no farther ahead; at worst, you do even worse than if you had not managed it at all.
  • Following from that, I’ll save you some time: If you’re getting excited about how to best market to a bazillion ZIP codes, keep randomness and statistical confidence in mind. Maybe don’t bother unless you’re very advanced and have a very large account.
  • Behavior will vary from industry to industry, from account to account and from campaign to campaign.

Slightly More Advanced Principles

Now consider the following slightly more advanced principles:

  • A thematically organized account may help, as long as the resulting campaigns are large enough. Poorly organized accounts — say, accounts that have unnecessarily large campaigns — may wind up “blending” interesting behaviors to a less interesting aggregate. This can mask interesting behaviors that break down by, say, type of product.
  • This stuff isn’t all that easy or common to automate, but there’s no doubt you can and should automate it, past a certain point of time being wasted.
  • Big-city dwellers may exhibit behavior that meaningfully departs from the “hinterland” (rest of the state); in this case, managing a combination of cities, metros and states may be important.
  • For your particular account, combined with your unique insights into how certain parts of the world “tick,” you might be able to hit on some clever approaches to geo-bidding in highly populated areas. Get creative. Pick a suburb you know, and add it as a geo-segment, along with the DMA and the state.

Don’t worry about data, though, if you don’t add a given segment. You can look up the past data at any level using “View Location Reports,” available from the same AdWords screen. That might be an awfully important place to research your strategy!

Sunset Superfluous Stuff

Finally, after a considerable period of time, consider sunsetting the pieces of your geo-bidding edifice that do nothing to further the cause. If a state or metro area is going to regress to the mean (for, say, the whole United States), then maybe you’re better off admitting that it isn’t interesting to enough to manage separately.

If you no longer want to manage a geo segment separately, simply “remove” it (not the same as excluding it). The “unmanaged” segments now simply pool in with the catch-all (e.g., “United States”) and should — if you’re adept at reading the data and making a solid prediction — make management simpler with no loss in performance.

With the time you save, you might just be in a good enough mood to pay full price for condiments. Pass the ketchup.

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Are Paid & Organic Distinct Channels? Not So Fast. /paid-organic-distinct-channels-not-fast-236717 Thu, 03 Dec 2015 15:02:46 +0000 http:/?p=236717 Search marketing channels are often both data-driven and siloed, but contributor Andrew Goodman notes that clients don't necessarily see it that way. To improve performance, he says, we must understand the greater picture.

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At our company’s informal book club, we recently had a nice discussion of David Hand’s The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day.

Belief in causation where there is only correlation, faulty assumptions about how “randomness” works and similar errors are shockingly common, even among the educated. Superstition can be a nightmare for the marketing practitioner, who can be praised or blamed for factors that fall outside of her control.

Better measurement helps, of course — but so does understanding how different channels work and interact with one another.

The Separation Of Paid And Organic

Rational people with years of digital marketing experience are supposed to know that paid and organic search are separate channels requiring separate budgets and different forms of optimization.

Sure, we understand that the buyer’s journey might involve research phases and multiple influences from different searches, exposures to display ads, email, the brand and more. In that sense, we should be aware that digital marketing programs are integrated.

Yet it often seems as though it’s not kosher to talk as if the paid results influence the organic results, since there really is a Chinese wall there (right?). It’s also unusual to attribute performance losses in one channel (paid or organic) to activities in the other.

The thinking is that “PPC results” should be analyzed unto themselves, and “organic traffic” should be looked at in its own right. Who could disagree? To believe otherwise would akin to planning your day based on the daily horoscope.

At least, that’s what we tell people. Have we been getting it wrong?

Client Should Be Ecstatic, But Isn’t

We’ve been working with Sadie, owner of a small but high-spending online consumer business, driving results for the past eight years. (Client name has been changed to the name of a neighbor’s cat.)

Entrepreneurs like Sadie generally don’t have dedicated staff to go over multiple KPIs from marketing channels in painstaking detail each week. They do want to know the basic bottom-line results. Unlike some more sophisticated large businesses, SMBs can be uncannily savvy in using certain simple KPIs as a basic survival mechanism.

Recently, I apprised Sadie of the fact that the PPC channel is thriving this year under our direction. Despite the maturity and competitiveness of her vertical, we’d managed a 40.7-percent increase in year-over-year PPC conversions in the four-month period leading up to October 31 (her busiest season). Not only that, we whittled the CPA down by 16.1 percent. Stunning!

“What are you talking about?” she retorted. “We’re down from last year, not up.”

Come again?

Sadie does not have a metric like “CPA from PPC” in her vocabulary. All she cares about is “total revenues from digital minus total spend on digital.” Sadie speaks profit and loss.

Turns out, over the past couple of years, our wizardry on the organic side had made her a small fortune. We’d helped her business out of a few scrapes over the years — disavowing shady backlinks, building a real content strategy and more.

Inevitably, after a couple of years ranking #1 on some truly competitive terms, some of her plum organic rankings had fallen to page 2 of the SERPs. So when you added it all together, conversions were down slightly year over year (due to the decline in manna-from-heaven organic conversions).

What’s more, because of the heightened (and profitable) PPC activity this year, in recent months, her total PPC cost is actually up 18.1 percent. That’s why she’s always making those strangling noises about the high cost of her “Google bill.”

Now I get it!

And it’s fine. Knowing what we know now, we can work with it. Growth in the PPC channel, while good, needs to come at an even better ROI so those increased “Google charges” moderate a bit. It’s sheer optics.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done. In the past 30 days, CPA is down 26.4 percent year over year. Those pesky “Google charges” are still substantially higher than last year, ironically due to the success of the PPC channel, but they’re coming under control.

Why did I tell her all this in the first place? As a means of justifying a fee increase, of course. The fee increase went through. Sadie may have her quirks, but she isn’t crazy.

Organic And Paid Channels Impact More Than Just Search

Search marketers have been slow to adopt integrated thinking around the paid and organic contributions to company bottom lines, in part because PPC grew up as an “anomaly” that was resisted for too many years by an SEO-dominant breed of marketers who felt that PPC lacked the “purity” of the “real” search results.

In newer channels like Facebook, the pattern was greatly accelerated. Facebook and others have been juggernauts in their own right, delighting users to be sure, but have been structured early on as Wall Street vehicles that won’t be messing around too long before ratcheting up the business end of things.

Indeed, Facebook ultimately threw everything it had at developing its advertising products. This led to a highly successful (in Wall Street’s eyes) curbing of organic reach. In a very short space of time, companies have shifted their attitude towards Facebook, now taking a blended view of paid and organic exposure.

Business owners are now starting to assume that their social-facing team or agency partner can develop hybrid skills to handle all aspects of Facebook. That’s how the business owner thinks; that’s how the service provider must think.

The same often goes for mission-critical channels like TripAdvisor and Yelp. The business owner is being reviewed on these channels. He or she is being cold-called by third-party “reputation experts” who shadily offer to “help” with their review profile (bad idea). They’re also receiving sales calls directly from the channel where all this organic content is being posted.

You know and I know there is no direct connection between these sites’ ranking/rating algorithms and whether or not you pay them — that’s been confirmed after exhaustive investigations by the FTC — but you’ll be hard-pressed to talk all those SMBs off that particular ledge. I doubt we’re ever going to put to bed business owners’ “superstitious” belief that their dealings with these companies are as parts of a larger whole.

In some sense, it can be useful that the business owner comes to the realization that to achieve greater levels of exposure, you have to work both channels effectively, and you pretty much have to pay.

The days of cherry-picking off organic reach alone are past. Google, Facebook and TripAdvisor (combined stock market valuation: $852 billion as of this writing) weren’t created as charitable contributions to the bottom lines of business owners. They’re advertising vehicles that happen to house organic content that is incredibly compelling for users.

Thinking About Digital Marketing Like A Business Owner

Like her namesake, Sadie may go scurrying under the bed a little too often and sometimes hiss at the wrong target. But the two of them are wise enough to know that arms and legs are part of a larger whole, one that can either feed you or kill you.

Whatever the key source of traffic for any given SMB — Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor — all of them do indeed have a paid and organic component, and all of them are powerful enough indeed to either feed your business or crush it.

As is so often the case, the entrepreneur knows something that those without “skin in the game” don’t. Sadie didn’t care that we’d rocked her world specifically in the PPC channel this year. She does care about digital media profitability — whether the whole effort put together is paying off.

We should lean in and listen a little more to these entrepreneurs. When we do — no matter which of the formal channels we’re responsible for driving — we’re going to become just a little more engaged with how traffic sources work for them as a whole. We’ll also become more aware of about how well we’re allocating the effort across all channels; and maybe see a little more urgency to ensuring that there are no serious gaps in marketing execution, regardless of the specialization required.

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PPC Ads Not Performing? Reduce Cognitive Load /ppc-ads-not-performing-reduce-cognitive-load-227337 /ppc-ads-not-performing-reduce-cognitive-load-227337#respond Thu, 13 Aug 2015 13:24:05 +0000 http:/?p=227337 Is your ad copy not performing as well as you'd hoped? Contributor Andrew Goodman suggests that perhaps you're making users think too much.

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If you’re a seasoned online marketer, you’ve probably been exposed to user experience gurus, conversion rate improvement experts and their ilk. Even without knowing the high-level principles, many designers and performance marketers have developed a bias in favor of simplicity. Concepts such as the use of white space and decluttering a page have been bandied around for years in the normal course of creating better experiences for users.

Lurking behind much of the advice are higher-order principles of human-computer interaction (HCI) derived from various overlapping research fields: psychology, cognitive science, ergonomics, ethnomethodology and the like. Top UX experts don’t really feel they “know” anything unless they’ve confirmed certain design and navigation hunches with one of the higher-order principles that may have been tested in other contexts.

For those following the “cognitivist” line of reasoning, we should attempt to link our testing to the existing body of research on how the human brain actually processes information and makes decisions. (Some like to call this neuroscience.)

The Challenges Of Cognitive Load

One of those principles is called cognitive load, which user experience guru Jakob Nielsen defines as the “amount of mental processing power needed to use your site.”

Our intuition tells us that smart people should able to process tons of information and that focused people aren’t easily derailed. That intuition would be wrong. The more distractions we’re forced to wade through, the less likely we’ll be left with sufficient resolve to push through any task, no matter how simple it seems.

It’s surprising how little this concept has spilled over into the creation of the first point of contact many of our prospects have: that tiny little text ad we write to prompt them to take action in the context of their search query.

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertisers have the luxury of trying a lot of ad creative versions and turning them off when they don’t work. But all this spaghetti being thrown at the wall may create little more than a messy house. While unfocused experimentation can turn up unexpected discoveries, it’s not a bad idea to reduce the number of bad or mediocre ideas you’re trying out. Endless testing is sort of the mantra of our industry, but we also need smarter and better testing.

Cleaning Up Your Copy Testing

Assuming our goal is a higher conversion rate, smart advertisers have for years relied on a small number of key principles to guide their ad copy ideation:

  • Particularly relevant advertising. The ads sit at the very beginning — at the trailhead, if you will — of the user journey. Copywriters should be mindful of the well-known UX principle of information scent — which, in this case, refers to users’ ability to predict what they will find when they click from a search ad to your website. Syncing the user query with the ad the user sees — and in turn, to the theme of the landing page — should be a no-brainer. Failure to do so means you’ll experience nastily high bounce rates — or, as Kaushik describes the scenario: “I came, I puked, I left.”
  • Filtering to weed out inappropriate intent. Sometimes, you have to lower your click-through rate (CTR) to make more money. Whether it’s a call to action that refers explicitly to buying or downloading or a line of description that evokes a higher-end or business-oriented purchase, it’s not just the case that winning ad copy does a good job of encouraging; it also does a good job of discouraging the wrong prospects.

However, practitioners of both approaches have forgotten one more thing: Too many ideas (or even characters) crammed into that little ad space could dampen performance by failing to achieve optimal clarity and “cleanliness” in the pursuit of the above two principles. Just as may be the case on a well-designed form or landing page, a little white space could lead to better results.

You’re probably wondering how an ad space so small could possibly produce an ad that is “too long.” Many PPC practitioners spend their time grappling with those 35-per-line character limits. (And we know how that turns out, don’t we? Half the time, the weird abbreviations and tortured word choices perform much worse than plain, simple language.)

Under the banner of “reduce cognitive load,” the UX experts tell us to avoid visual clutter, and they have science to back that up, so why don’t we mix that principle into some of our ads? Here’s an example.

fungus ad

As you can see, the final ad just looks much more cluttered. I find it harder to read. In fact, I’m vaguely repulsed by it, even though my conscious mind might not say so.

But it isn’t just visual clutter. More ideas are being crammed into a small space. The theory says your mind won’t focus on the important ones, or your brain’s executive function will be sufficiently weakened by the experience that your ROI from this cluttered style of ad will turn out to be, let’s say, 15% worse.

The first two ads show us there is a lot of room for experimentation within this general theme of clutter reduction. Both, for example, could be reduced even further if you were fanatical about it.

Note also the elimination of the “helpful” additional “keywords” in the display URL (as shown in the third ad). For years, advertisers have felt this might have a benefit (it might), but have you also considered that it makes your brand name virtually impossible to see or recall without really slowing down and looking hard at it (something most users refuse to do)?

Since CTRs matter, too, a cleaner ad might lead to both higher CTRs (and thus higher Quality Scores and higher ad positions, possibly leading to increased eligibility in the auction) and better conversion rates. That “double win” is the Holy Grail of PPC ad testing.

Build On Existing Mental Models

In addition to eliminating visual clutter and reducing superfluous tasks, the UX experts tell us to build on existing mental models. That principle applies more to your business model, your website’s navigation and so on, but it’s worth considering for your word choices in ads, too. In particular, the principle of building on existing mental models explains why we will usually fail with unusual (or nonexistent) calls to action.

People know what it means to buy, shop or request a free demo. They get confused if you try to sell a service when they think they’re buying a product or if you direct them to a confusing process when they’re expecting a simple, transparent transaction. Be clear.

Failure to follow that principle usually results in severe ROI deprivation and loss of volume. Remember, Google has sophisticated models for incorporating “ad relevance” and “landing page and website quality” into its Quality Score algorithm. Poor user experiences stemming from violated mental models may not be against the law, but they’re likely to be punished by the Quality Score system.

As I ponder this imaginary company with its imaginary vegan deliciousness, I can’t help but think to myself: “I’ve already forgotten the 25% discount. I can see for myself how many varieties are on the page. But what sticks in my head is those robots they have vacuum-sealing those packs! Now that is cool! I am never going to forget Plant… what the heck are they called again? Plantsomething?”

Ah yes, the quest for simplicity never ends. If only the Plantmeisters had been nimble enough to invest in a name like Plants.com or Vegan.com.

As usual in these matters, the last words go to web usability consultant Steve Krug, whose principle is quite simply: “Don’t make me think!”

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High-Priced Talent Letting You Down? PPC Moneyball Revisited /high-priced-talent-letting-you-down-ppc-moneyball-revisited-162678 /high-priced-talent-letting-you-down-ppc-moneyball-revisited-162678#comments Mon, 17 Jun 2013 13:31:25 +0000 http:/?p=162678 As the summer weather haltingly makes its appearance in my neck of the woods, thoughts turn to on-base averages, fielding percentages and all of that Moneyball stuff. My theme for this column is the woeful underperformance of the team known as the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite a wave of off-season signings and by far the […]

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baseballAs the summer weather haltingly makes its appearance in my neck of the woods, thoughts turn to on-base averages, fielding percentages and all of that Moneyball stuff.

My theme for this column is the woeful underperformance of the team known as the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite a wave of off-season signings and by far the highest payroll in their history, the Jays are sitting dead last in their division, playing .435 baseball.

In a couple of ways, baseball underperformers and paid search underperformers tend to exhibit similar characteristics.

They try to run before they’ve proven they can walk, though everyone knows you must learn to walk first. They also represent poor asset allocation — all the money sucked up by these costly underperformers might be better used for other things: lower ticket prices, a better stadium, or dividends for Rogers’ – er, PPC account – shareholders.

Year in and year out, via an audit service we offer, we have the opportunity to review paid search account managers in action. There is often no correlation between the size of the agency (or the size of the take-home paychecks) and the account managers’ ability to get the job done for clients in terms of bottom-line performance.

What Are PPC Managers Doing Wrong?

So how do underperforming PPC managers compare to the Toronto Blue Jays? Let’s think in terms of baseball errors.

Swinging For The Fences Instead Of Putting The Ball In Play

Too many strikeouts chasing expensive, core PPC terms? Focusing on the “long ball” instead of the long tail? Planning extensively for the “big push” “spring campaign” (spent on any keyword click or display impression willing to serve), rather than incrementally improving profits through the drip-drip-drip of detailed, “always-on” optimization? Maybe a trip to AA ball will cure your hotshot of this habit.

Can’t Bunt

There are fundamentals, and there are fundamentals. If your PPC manager doesn’t appear to know the difference between a query and a keyword, and her/his only encounter with the Search Query Report is to dump in long lists of boilerplate negative keywords “for show,” then no amount of time spent at the charity BBQ event is going to save the account. Your company will have more funds available for charitable donations if they stop handing it all over to Google.

Can’t Make Friends In High Places

José Bautista is a top hitter, but stripping off all your equipment and threatening the umpire with death after a questionable strike call probably won’t get him any favorable calls during a pennant race. Analogously, are you truly providing “big agency” value if your account managers — however talented — have no industry experts or major search engine representatives in their network?

Can’t Play On A Team

Brett Lawrie, a brilliant 23-year-old third baseman, thinks he’s bigger than the game — despite flirting with a batting average so low that he may soon need to shop for a recreational Slo-Pitch league in his native British Columbia. He recently made news by screaming at teammate Adam Lind and third-base coach Luis Rivera for safely holding slow-footed Lind at third on a shallow fly ball.

In PPC, team play may not be the norm, but it’s important to draw on team resources as well as share ideas across your team. The end result should be a relatively consistent standard of execution along with great morale and confidence in one’s teammates.

It’s amazing to audit multiple accounts across a single team and to discover that the players are deeply siloed, not learning, and not improving. Even worse, though, is a shared culture of complacency — if one or two account managers think it’s okay to let proper conversion tracking slide (blaming client inaction for two years of flying the account blind), then everyone learns to make up the same silly little excuses for mediocre execution.

Teams matter — and team play means sharing expertise and letting mentors do their job of teaching and leading. Screaming 22-year-olds probably should not apply.

In Last Place, But Making Money Anyway

In sports, you can develop a cult following even if your greatest days are in the past. Merchandise, for example, is a never-ending revenue stream for bad teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and this season’s Toronto Blue Jays.

To take the analogy over to PPC: is the account grossly distorted in its approach, lacking fundamentals and spending half the budget on brand terms? In all too many PPC accounts, the manager takes the easy way out and reassures the client that aggressive lead generation isn’t all that important, since the brand terms are really the most effective.

And on top of the obvious (over-)bidding on brand terms, if you look inside Search Query Reports, you just might find this manager smuggling in more brand queries even when they appear to be bidding on new, demand-generating keywords.

Brand terms are great, but they’re just ways of harvesting the other investment the business has made. Brand terms, like Joe Carter jerseys, are a form of living in the past. Anyone can bid on brand terms! If your manager has been spending most of the budget on brand keywords without your being aware of it, maybe it’s time to rethink your asset allocation, play a little Moneyball, and create a winning season through strong fundamentals.

When it comes to PPC, don’t forget to touch all the bases. Let’s play ball!

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Search Engine Marketing & Economic Recovery: Don’t Get Caught Flat-Footed In 2010 /search-engine-marketing-economic-recovery-dont-get-caught-flat-footed-in-2010-31780 /search-engine-marketing-economic-recovery-dont-get-caught-flat-footed-in-2010-31780#respond Mon, 14 Dec 2009 12:00:04 +0000 http:/?p=31780 My cat, Walter, runs under the bed when he hears footsteps—even if it’s only the mailman. Being risk-averse to that degree doesn’t make Walter a rational maximizer, so he’d probably make a poor tournament player in bridge or poker. But it does make him a survivor. Natural selection works on the principle of “better,” not […]

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My cat, Walter, runs under the bed when he hears footsteps—even if it’s only the mailman.

Being risk-averse to that degree doesn’t make Walter a rational maximizer, so he’d probably make a poor tournament player in bridge or poker. But it does make him a survivor. Natural selection works on the principle of “better,” not necessarily “best.” Walter’s nervous ancestors tended to live on to propagate their genes, so the trait stuck.

walter

Walter isn’t the only one whose brain evolved with such traits. The animalistic side of most human brains is well-suited to localized snap judgments, which can lead to all kinds of mistakes, according to the recent work of Keith E. Stanovich, author of What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. For example, we can actually be too overconfident because we’re simply not aware of the broader context and evidence that impacts our immediate decisions.

On the other hand, in looking at the world of probabilities in something like the stock market, we exhibit something researchers call myopic loss aversion. Studies show that investors (yes, even intelligent folks) feel twice as much pain and anguish from losing $100 as they do pleasure from gaining the same amount. They’d be less risk-averse if they looked at their results less frequently, and if they knew the potential gains from solid strategies were greater than initially thought.

Why is that? It’s hard to say. But 1,000,000 years ago, we weren’t staring at spreadsheets or trying to figure out how to sell puts on Nokia with a January expiry while reading rumors that the company is set to increase its dividend. The point is, relative to rational outcomes we tend to shoot ourselves in the foot just by virtue of our natural dispositions.

So the problem for us a lot of the time is that our brains haven’t evolved to do a good job of reacting to situations in the games we’re forced to play in civilized society. We need to hop into modes of analysis that are more likely to produce victories in these games.

Now back to search marketing—specifically paid search.

One of the nice things about paid search is that—unlike certain financial scenarios—it’s difficult to fall victim to a “black swan,” a rare event that can wipe you out in a single day. You can build additional safeguards to guard against catastrophic losses, but “losses” in any case will take a few days to months to fully take effect, even if you aren’t watching that closely. And in search, rarely is there a “contagion effect” from one “investment” to the next, as is the case in various investments related to financial derivatives, banking, etc.

The real challenge in marketing is to build out and expand a world-class campaign that destroys your competition. Any mammal, after all, can stand around with their hand poised over a big red panic button.

So—counter to our myopic loss aversion bias—the biggest risk in 2010-2011 for most marketers may lie in working with outdated assumptions about the size and potential of both their target markets and the paid search channel. In short, could you lose more money under-investing in a hot recovery and allowing your competitors to steal market share than through any localized action or test that looks like a “mistake”.

When economic rebounds come, they come quickly. Some folks, like hedge fund managers, may be able to turn on a dime, but corporate marketing planning tends to be more methodical. If there’s anything you and your organization can do to ready yourself for a rebound, it’s worth doing it sooner rather than later.

Here’s a short list of five kinds of investment or expansion that should be well worth it as pent-up demand returns with a vengeance by the middle of 2010.

Quick disclaimer. The channels below aren’t for everyone, and sometimes experimentation is only suitable for aggressive advertisers. The word “aggressive” should not be a bad word in the right context. In many businesses it makes no sense to try to strike after the iron has cooled, so to speak. In any case, recognize that weighing all the evidence for or against different alternatives should also involve not taking my word for any of the following, but doing it if it makes sense and fits your plans.

Reasonable search marketing strategies to try in 2010:

Content targeting. Many savvier Google AdWords advertisers recognized the decisive shift in performance in the content network about two years ago. But chatting with individual managers and company owners, we often find that the caution bias still applies, and many have content targeting dialed way back. It’s worth taking a second look. You’ll want to optimize that channel heavily and bid it carefully, of course. On a related note, many campaign managers have opted for managed placements, a program that sounds more “laser targeted” than the automatic matching program. That may be true, but by ignoring the deep benefits of automatic matching, you can be missing out on the reach it provides. No one wants to show up in inappropriate channels, but the system allows you to exclude anything you like. Think expansion, while monitoring carefully.h

New ad formats. Depending on your business, you’ll want to keep a close eye on things like Google Local and how that integrates with AdWords. In terms of the new ad formats coming down the pike, product images and other experiments are coming from Google. One interesting one is the potential inclusion of “additional links” from your top-position paid search listing. The effect of this could be to push competitors down the page.

Dayparting. The use of ad scheduling has been often biased in the direction of “loss aversion” by advertisers who fear night-time and weekend clicks—or more sensibly by those who wish to provide proper phone support to their prospects. But the other side of the coin is, some advertisers are ramping up bids a lot during hot times of the day. Your volume could be seriously impacted by this. If you’re in aggressive mode, fight fire with fire by scheduling in some bursts of bidding where you’re up there at 150%-200% of your base bid. You might enjoy the extra business.

Facebook ads. The decision to pursue additional performance-based, targeted inventory shouldn’t be just based on the prospect of a few decent CPA conversions. It should also be based on the likelihood that the time and testing budget invested are going into a channel that should be a source of highly targeted customers, in reasonable volumes, for the long haul. In this regard, looking into performance-based Facebook advertising is a no-brainer.

Bing! RIP Yahoo Search and the paid search platform operated by Yahoo (code-named Panama). But to advertise to both Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s search users, there should be a ton of quirky optimization opportunities as the platforms are consolidated in mid-2010 and as Microsoft expands the offering through 2011. There’s nothing urgent you need to do about this now, but you should be budgeting for it. And so here is where I think some loss aversion does come into play. Clean up outdated advertising programs that haven’t performed for you, whether it’s through a second-tier service that has proved unreliable, or paid inclusion that is about to be wound down. If you need to find the dollars to properly budget for Facebook and Microsoft in 2010-11, expanding the budget is one option, but consolidating your budgets and focusing your human team’s efforts is another way to raise the needed budget room.

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