Google is the Scrooge of SEM

Back in October, Google changed the way search queries were passed to web analytics, and not in a good way. I wrote about this at length at the time, so if you’ve been away from the web for a while and aren’t aware of this, go give it a read.

When the announcement was made, Google claimed that the percentage of searches performed by logged-in users was small, in the low single digits. But the data is showing otherwise. SEMs across the web are claiming that the percentage is much higher: as much as 20% in some cases. Think about that for a minute: You’re now losing organic search query data for 1 out of every 5 visitors to your website. Ouch.

However, as I said in my earlier article, the percent will naturally vary across websites, depending on the vertical, customer base, etc. So how does that make Google a Scrooge?

Well, shortly after they launched this hugely unpopular change, they rolled out Google Plus pages for businesses. Previously, the lack of business pages in Google Plus was a big hole in the service – businesses were clamoring for the ability to have a page for their business in Google Plus. And now they have that ability.

And how do users connect with businesses on Google Plus? Well, they have to have their own Google Plus account – and they have to be signed in to Google to connect. And most users, once logged in to Google, don’t bother to log back out before they start performing searches.

Uh oh. Do you see where this is headed?

And that, my friends, is a great big BAH HUMBUG to everyone who cares about search query data.

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Google’s SSL Change: A Bad Deal for PPC

Earlier this week, Google announced a sweeping change to the way they pass referrer data to analytics. In a very brief nutshell, users who are logged in to Google will be routed to an https version of the Google search engine, and search queries from these users will not be passed in the referrer string to analytics packages for organic traffic.

This decision has rocked the search community more than anything I can remember in recent years, and the reaction is almost universally negative. Anyone who’s successfully done search for any length of time will tell you that one of the great things about search marketing (and I’m talking PPC and SEO here) is the amount of data you get. And Google just removed a big chunk of that data. (Google claims it’s not a big chunk, but that’s debatable.

The kicker is, this change only affects organic traffic. PPC referrals will still contain the referring query data. And this is what has SEOs really upset and crying “conspiracy:” the implication is that Google is trying to encourage websites to use Adwords, so they can get all their referrer info instead of only part of it.

Why should PPC’ers care about this? After all, we’ll still get our data. So who cares if the SEOs of the world are out of luck?

I care. And here’s why.

PPC and SEO work hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that no marketing channel should operate in a vacuum – especially search channels. For best results, PPC and SEO should work hand in hand. I often talk about PPC informing SEO, and Google’s change won’t affect that aspect of your integrated marketing strategy.

However, the information flows both ways. SEO can and should inform your PPC efforts, too. Search pros often recommend mining your organic data for new PPC keyphrases. With this change, your organic data is going to be less complete.

Transparency is key.

From day one, search pros have been asking for more transparency from the search engines. We want as much data as possible to inform our decision making process. We want to know what sites are driving traffic to our site, and whether those sites are converting. We want to know what search queries people are using to find us, and whether those queries are converting. We want to know where those searchers are located, what browser they’re using, and anything else we can learn about them.

This is not to say that we want this data down to the individual level, which is the basis for Google’s change. Google is claiming privacy concerns as the driving force behind their decision.

That’s a bunch of BS. Google has never shared individual user data in referrer strings. And even if they did, who cares? Looking at user data on an individual basis is a waste of time – it’s not statistically significant, and isn’t useful. Data is only useful in aggregate. I don’t care if one guy searched on “what is the best ever ppc blog written by some chick in Michigan” to find my site – but I do care if 100 people who were logged in to Google searched on that term to find me.

With this move, Google has decreased transparency, not increased it – thus going backwards in terms of providing useful and informative data.

PPC’ers should be very concerned about this move. I for one am wondering what they’ll take away from us next. How does this change affect you? Share in the comments!

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Can An Intern Do Your PPC?

Interns offer a lot to a business: in general, interns are eager to learn, hardworking, smart, and willing to work for little to no pay. Back in the day, I was a college intern in a local TV station sales department, getting my first taste of real-world marketing – for free.

A lot of SEM companies use interns to help with a variety of tasks. But can an intern run your PPC campaigns?

Of course, this is sort of a loaded question. It absolutely depends on the person. You might get lucky and find an intern who’s actually done some PPC. And of course an intern can help with a lot of PPC tasks. But run an entire campaign? Not so fast.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many companies hire an agency to set up and optimize their PPC campaigns – and then bring the whole thing in-house and give it to an intern. The logic goes something like this: “Well, the agency has this running really well, so we don’t need to pay them for this. We’ll just have an intern watch it for a few hours a week.”

This is a mistake. PPC is not a “set it and forget it” medium. It requires constant attention, monitoring, measuring, and testing. Far too many advertisers have assumed that PPC is really simple, and have ended up wasting thousands of dollars while they tried to figure out how to stop bleeding money. Handing off even a small PPC campaign to an inexperienced intern (or an inexperienced employee, for that matter) and leaving them to their own devices is a recipe for disaster.

What Interns Can Help With:

On the positive side, interns can be a great asset to a PPC team. At Fluency Media, we have used interns for a number of tasks that are invaluably helpful for our client’s PPC campaigns. Here are just a few great intern tasks:

Keyword research.

I personally love doing keyword research: it’s fun and informative, like finding buried treasure. However, it can also be hugely time consuming and tedious. I like to have interns do the initial keyword research and narrow down the list, and then I’ll review and refine further. It’s a great way for interns to learn the process, while still maintaining professional oversight of the final product.

Ad copy writing.

Let’s face it – at some point, even the most creative PPC manager will hit a type of writers block. I find this true especially for campaigns I’ve been managing for a long time – I flat-out run out of new copy ideas to test.

This is where your interns come in. Ask one or two of them to look at your client’s keywords and website, and have them come up with a few copy test ideas. The great thing about copy testing is that there are no wrong answers – as long as the ad is factual, meets editorial guidelines, and delivers on its promise on the landing page, almost anything goes. You can even turn this exercise into a friendly competition – test a couple interns’ ads against each other, or have them go up against you to see who “wins.” Unless your ego is huge, this can be a fun and creative way to breathe new life into a mature campaign.

Budget monitoring.

If you’re a PPC advertiser with a budget limit, someone is going to have to watch it daily to make sure you’re spending the right amount. We usually have one of our interns check our client budgets every day, and notify my which clients need attention. It’s a simple task, but it takes time – and it’s a great way for interns to learn how an individual advertiser’s campaign flows over time, putting them in a good position to take over an account once they have more experience.

Reporting.

I don’t recommend handing over client reporting entirely to an intern, but interns can contribute a lot in terms of pulling data, assembling charts, and acting as a second pair of eyes on your data. An astute intern will notice when trends don’t match up or when numbers don’t make sense – and this is really important for any busy PPC manager. Even if you’re really on top of your campaigns, things can sometimes slide through. Our interns have discovered issues with tracking codes and client-side slip-ups, and have saved me an uncomfortable conversation by pointing out these issues before a report ever leaves our office.

How have you used interns to help with your PPC campaigns?

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Why PPC and SEO Engagements Fail

Nobody likes to talk about failure. Most times, we’d probably like to pretend there is no such thing. Truth be told, though, you haven’t learned anything in life unless you’ve failed. I’m willing to bet that every PPC and SEO manager who’s been doing this for any length of time has had one campaign or client that they’d consider a failure. While failure is part of life, there are ways to minimize it when it comes to SEM.

The #1 Reason Why SEM Engagements Fail

In my 10 years of experience doing PPC and SEM, the overwhelming #1 reason why engagements fail is due to a lack of goal-setting at the beginning. Sometimes clients (or bosses, if you’re in-house) are so anxious to “start a PPC campaign” that they don’t take the time to figure out what their goals are.

If your client website doesn’t have conversion tracking enabled, lacks a call to action, and doesn’t make it clear what you want visitors to do when they get there; your campaign has no goals, and is doomed. If your client doesn’t have a unique selling proposition (USP), then you’re almost certainly doomed as well.

While it may take a few days or even weeks to establish campaign goals, this is the one step that cannot be skipped when embarking on an SEM engagement. After all, if you have no goal or destination, how do you know when you’ve gotten there?

Other Common Reasons for SEM Failure

The next most common issue I’ve run into that dooms an SEM engagement, especially SEO, is lack of client uptake. While there are a lot of things an SEM can do on their own without any client involvement, implementation of code changes, SEO recommendations, and other technical aspects are often not on that list. SEO simply will not make any impact whatsoever if it’s not implemented.

This can be a tough challenge to overcome – in fact, if it’s not addressed during the sales process, it can be extremely difficult to get the client on board. Setting expectations up front by letting the client know that there will be some effort involved on their part during the engagement will help ensure that projects move forward without frustration on either the part of the SEO or the client.

Tracking code installation falls into the technical bucket too. Even if SEO isn’t part of your service offering, a PPC campaign needs at least one tracking system (and preferably more than one) in order to optimize the campaigns. We strongly prefer to use the free conversion tracking provided by Adwords and adCenter in addition to the client’s web analytics software. While no 2 systems will match exactly, differences of more than 5% to 10% in data usually indicate a problem with one or both systems. And it goes without saying that being able to log in to your PPC account and see conversion data down to the campaign, ad group, keyword, and placement level makes campaign management go much more quickly.

But if you have a client that cannot get conversion tracking installed, be wary of taking on the engagement. Otherwise, you’ll only be able to optimize for click-through rate – and as most of us know, CTR does not necessarily correlate with conversion rate.

Some Campaigns are Just Doomed

Sometimes, despite an SEM’s best efforts, even a well-thought-out and well-executed campaign will fail. Some businesses are just not suited to SEM – for instance, inexpensive, commodity products in a competitive industry will have a hard time making money on PPC – often, more is spent getting a click than the advertiser earns for each sale. And some websites will never rank well organically, due to crawlability issues, technical problems, or other reasons.

Some engagements, especially complicated, expensive B to B lead gen processes, will also have a hard time showing ROI. While some clients understand and accept the amount of time and expense needed to generate that one sale per month, other clients are just not going to be happy with a cost per conversion of $1,000 or more.

When faced with this type of engagement, think long and hard about whether you want to take it on. Sometimes, even the best-laid plans end up, well, failing.

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More Great Marketers to Follow on Twitter

A couple of weeks ago, I published a list of the Top 10 PPC Experts to Follow On Twitter. Go check it out if you haven’t already!

Hot off the press today is an awesome list from my friends at aimClear of 52 Mind Blowing Marketers We’d Love to Clone and Adopt. The list runs the gamut from SEOs to PPCers to social media pros, and is basically a Who’s Who of online marketing. If you’re looking for new experts to follow on Twitter, go check out the aimClear list.

Disclaimer: I’m on the list, and am humbled by the inclusion. Thanks to Marty and crew for including me!

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SEO Never Stops

As most of you know, I consider myself primarily a PPC professional. That said, I’m also responsible for the SEO efforts at Fluency Media, and I firmly believe that SEO and PPC should go hand in hand.

If you’ve worked with websites at all, you know that the time will come when a site needs a redesign. Whether it’s a minor refresh of a few pages or an all-out scrap-and-redo, redesigns are part of any website’s life cycle. One of the issues I’ve run into from time to time is clients wanting to put SEO on hold during the redesign process.

Don’t fall into this trap!

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand the thought behind holding off on SEO during a site redesign. Why put time, effort, and money into site updates that in all likelihood will go away when the redesign launches?

Well, there are a few reasons why it makes sense to keep up at least a basic SEO effort during a redesign.

Redesigns take time.

How many site owners do you know that were able to complete even a small refresh in less than a month? Yeah, I don’t know many either. The fact of the matter is that these things take time – sometimes as long as a year – to complete. Web design teams are frequently understaffed and over-committed, and Murphy’s Law usually applies to a redesign as well.

In the meantime, the existing site is still live, crawled by search engine spiders every day. Theoretically, the site’s purpose still exists during a redesign: whether it be generating sales, leads, or whatever. The world doesn’t stop during a redesign – and neither should SEO efforts.

Optimized content is design-neutral.

Unless you’re changing your entire business model, it’s a good bet that the actual content of your website will remain relatively unchanged. While things might look different on the page, and locations of some information may change, the content itself likely will stay the same. And it’s likely that the keywords people use to find your business won’t change much either.

That’s another reason why it’s a good idea to continue SEO efforts during a redesign. Really astute clients will even provide new site access, or at least content, to their SEO professional to optimize before the site launches. This way, it’ll take the spiders less time to find your new content and realize that you haven’t gone away. A good SEO can also help you set up the proper redirects for any pages that may be moving on the new site, which also helps the spiders find their way on your new site’s roadmap.

SEO is a long-term investment.

Anybody with a 401K or retirement account has probably been advised to keep investing no matter what is happening in the market. Even if your account is losing money in the short term, you need to keep putting money in! And even if you’ve fallen on hard economic times, it’s really best to put even a small amount of money away for the future.

SEO is no different. Even if your website is as volatile as the market, you need to keep investing in optimization. Like a retirement account, SEO is a long-term investment – and you need to invest in it continually for best results.

And like a retirement account, a small investment is better than no investment at all. It’s not a horrible thing to temporarily reduce your SEO investment while you’re in the middle of a redesign, so you can focus your time and resources on the redesign itself. Keeping a minimum level of SEO going, though, will make things much smoother when the new site launches and prevent ranking & traffic setbacks.

In short, putting SEO on hold not only loses visitors while the redesign is happening, it makes it take longer for you to get found once the new site launches. Smart site owners will keep investing in SEO, because they know it pays off in the long run.

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PPC Costs Less than SEO

I know, you probably think I’ve lost it. How can PPC cost less than SEO? SEO traffic is free, but PPC costs money for every visitor! You’re right. But if your SEO isn’t informed by PPC, it can cost you a lot in terms of lost opportunity.

In order to get all that free SEO traffic, your website needs decent search engine rankings. If you’re not ranking for anything, you might be tempted to spend your time and money on SEO first, to improve rankings and thereby traffic.

You’d be right that you need to optimize your site if you really want to get the most out of search engine traffic. But how do you know what terms to optimize for?

By now you may think I’ve really lost it – you’re thinking, “Of course I know what terms to optimize for – the ones that describe what I’m selling! They’re the same terms I’d be bidding on for PPC! Just pick the keywords with the most search volume and get on with it!”

On the surface, you’re right: you definitely want to focus on keywords that describe what you’re selling, and they may well be the same terms you’ll bid on in PPC. (And I probably have lost it, but that’s another post.)

Here’s the thing, though. The number of keywords you can bid on in PPC, at least theoretically, is nearly unlimited. It’s not unheard of for large advertisers to be bidding on hundreds of thousands of keywords. SEO is different: each page on your site can only be realistically optimized for about 5 keywords. So it’s critical to make sure you pick the right 5! How do you do this?

Use PPC to test them first. A well-crafted PPC campaign will start generating traffic, and ideally conversions, on the very first day. After a week (or two or three, depending on your business), you’ll have a treasure trove of great data – not only data on what keywords are driving the most traffic, but also the most conversions. And conversions are the name of the game.

SEO is time-consuming: it takes a significant amount of time to review the website pages, meta tags, navigation elements, anchor text, alt text, and other critical SEO elements. It takes additional time to prepare optimization recommendations, and even more time to actually optimize the pages. And once you launch the optimized page, it usually takes 3 weeks just to see if your rankings changed, much less determine whether traffic & conversions improved. Furthermore, if you’ve optimized for the wrong terms – terms that don’t convert well – you’ve spent all that time and effort (and money, if you hired an SEO consultant) obtaining rankings for keywords that don’t increase your sales.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say you sell low-priced widgets. Your keyword research unearths the following keywords:

Wholesale widgets, 50,000 searches per day
Cheap widgets, 25,000 searches per day
Discount widgets, 10,000 searches per day
Clearance widgets, 500 searches per day

You could do one of two things: You could optimize your main pages for “wholesale widgets” and call it a day. Or you could set up a PPC campaign with all 4 keywords (and many more, ideally), and get real data on (1) which term drives the most traffic to your website and (2) which term gets the most conversions.

Your PPC test may reveal that after a month of testing, “wholesale widgets” was the right term after all. Or, you may find that it had 1,000 clicks and one conversion; and “discount widgets” got 900 clicks and 50 conversions. Which term would you choose now?

An oft-quoted statistic is that 70% of clicks on a search engine results page come from organic listings. If you had chosen to have your SEO expert optimize for “wholesale widgets,” all the SEO rankings in the world likely wouldn’t net you many sales (like, maybe 10 per month). But having your SEO expert optimize for “discount widgets” would, by the formula, net you 250 conversions in that month.

Tell me again which was cheaper?

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Beyond the Paid Makes the Best PPC Blogs List

Yesterday, the good folks at Boost CTR published The Best PPC Blogs – The Definitive List of Pay-Per-Click Blogs. It’s a list of 45 or so blogs that cover PPC, and it’s full of heavy hitters: Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, Clix Marketing, Click Equations, and more.

I’m honored, thrilled, and just a bit overwhelmed to be included in the list that’s loaded with just about everyone I look up to and respect in the PPC industry. I owe a debt of gratitude to Matt Van Wagner, Andrew Goodman, David Szetela, and the great folks at Search Engine Watch for their encouragement and support over the nearly 9 years I’ve been doing PPC. Thanks, guys!

If you’re doing PPC at all, you should be reading the blogs in the Boost CTR list. Go add them to your reader now!

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PPC Predictions – A Look Back

Yep, it’s cliche – everyone is blogging about their predictions for 2011. It happens every year. Last year, I had the privilege of sharing my predictions on David Szetela’s PPC Rockstars podcast, along with several other PPC luminaries.

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions or predictions (I know, that goes contrary to me participating in a podcast on just that topic, but whatever). So this year, rather than postulate on what will happen, let’s look at whether I was right last year.

On the podcast, I predicted that the rate of growth in PPC would slow in 2010 vs. previous years, due to social media and other factors such as increasing CPC in search. I also predicted that the Microsoft/Yahoo merger would happen, but it would make no dent in Google’s market share. On the show, David politely disagreed with me. (David’s always polite!)

Well, guess what. I was wrong on the first one. According to Efficient Frontier, year-over-year growth from 2008 to 2009 was 6%, and Y/Y growth from 2009 to 2010 was 10-15%. I attribute this to the economy, which rebounded in 2010. It’s actually a good thing for PPC that I was wrong on this – it indicates that advertisers still see a high value in this channel.

On the second prediction, about Microsoft & Yahoo, I was right!!!!! (Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, David!) According to Efficient Frontier yet again, Google’s click share in Q3 2009 was 72.0%. In Q3 2010, it was 78.3%. So, despite all the ballyhoo surrounding Microhoo, Google continues to win the search click wars – at least for the time being.

So, I’m batting .500 for 2010. Not too shabby, I’d say!

As I like to say, to thine own self be true – I won’t be making any predictions for 2011. If you’d like to see some good ones, though, check out the Search Engine Watch article from John Lee – who, not coincidentally, works for David over at Clix Marketing. Here’s to success in 2011!

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Top 5 Free PPC Tools

It’s December, and around the world the holidays are upon us. For many, the holidays bring a spirit of giving. In keeping with that spirit, I thought I’d list my top 5 favorite free PPC tools. Think of it as my PPC gift to you. (wink)

#1: Adwords Editor

Without a doubt, Adwords Editor is #1 on my list. All the other tools are, well, not useless, but much more difficult to put into practice without Adwords Editor. When I train new Fluency Media PPC staff, the first thing I have them do is “download Adwords Editor.”

If you’re new to PPC, or are a PPC Luddite, Adwords Editor is a downloadable application that lets you edit your Adwords campaigns offline. So if you’re without an internet connection, you can still work on your campaigns, and then post the changes the next time you’re connected.

Adwords Editor is also great for creating campaigns, copying campaigns, ad groups, or keywords, moving keywords or ads from one ad group to another, and making changes in bulk. It was originally developed as a tool for Adwords staff and was built off the Excel platform, so it has many of the features we all know and love from Excel, including find & replace, sorting, filtering, appending, copying….. You get the picture. I literally could not do my job effectively without this tool.

#2: Google Keyword Tool

While the Google Keyword Tool has undergone several recent changes, and is notoriously inaccurate at times, it’s still my go-to tool for finding keywords. I like to start with the “website” feature, entering a URL and letting the tool tell me what keywords it thinks are relevant. Not only does this give you a lot of keyword ideas for your PPC campaigns, it alerts you to potential issues with the page that could negatively affect your PPC and SEO results. In other words, if you think the page is about one thing, but the keyword website tool tells you it’s about another, you’ve got a problem – and you’ll need to address it if you want to earn the best Quality Score and organic rankings.

#3: Acquisio Modified Broad Match Tool

I just discovered the Acquisio Modified Broad Match tool about 2 weeks ago, although it’s been around since July. The guys at Acquisio are awesome – I consider Marc Poirer, their co-founder, to be a great friend in the SEM industry – and this tool is simply incredible.

Earlier this year, Google introduced Modified Broad Match and SEMs all said, “Finally!” It’s long overdue, and is easy to implement if you’re only modifying a couple of keyword or keyphrases. However, applying modified broad match to a long list of keywords is daunting. Excel’s Concatenate function won’t do it, Adwords Editor won’t do it, and the thought of typing that “+” sign over and over is enough to make my stomach hurt.

Enter the Acquisio tool. Just copy and paste your keywords into the box, indicate whether you want all words modified or only specific words, and click “generate.” Voila! It’s that simple. I recently created a huge holiday campaign with several hundred modified broad match keywords in a fraction of the time it would have taken me otherwise, just by utilizing this tool.

#4: SplitTester and SuperSplitTester

If you’re running ad copy tests (and you should be), you’ll need a tool to tell you whether your test results are statistically significant or not. There are several good tools out there that fit the bill, but I like SplitTester and SuperSplitTester.

If you’re just looking at one metric, i.e. CTR, conversion rate, or whatever, use SplitTester. Enter the number of clicks (for CTR) or conversions (for conversion rate) and the CTR or conversion rate percentage, and it tells you whether the results are significant, and at what confidence level.

SuperSplitTester takes it a step further and incorporates CTR, conversion rate, and cost per impression. It runs all those metrics through its super-secret algorithm, and tells you which variation will make you the most profit over time. We use this free tool for almost all of our clients’ PPC tests, and the results speak for themselves.

#5: Twitter

Twitter? Yes, indeed – Twitter is one of my favorite PPC tools. It’s not a tool like the other 4 I’ve listed, in that it doesn’t take in data and spit out a result. Nonetheless, Twitter is my go-to place when I’m having a PPC problem that I can’t solve, or when I want to get quick feedback on something. It’s also become my news reader: I get breaking PPC news from Twitter before I see it anywhere else, and it aggregates everything into one place. Not only is it a great way to keep up with friends in the industry, it’s really become a valuable PPC tool.

Bonus Tip:

Since I’m feeling especially generous, here is a bonus tip: My good friend Alex Cohen from ClickEquations wrote an article for Search Engine Watch not long ago on 43 Paid Search Tools. It’s long, but as always, highly educational. Check it out!

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