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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Yet Another SEM Automation Tool, Funded

News that WordStream just raised $4mm in funding had me checking out their product offering.

A lot of the pitch revolves around the idea that the solution can help you raise your AdWords Quality Score.

I should be thrilled that someone is doing something to show advertisers how to do this. But don't expect experienced SEM pros like yours truly to be impressed with the solution's contribution to that effort. The danger is that a large part of the discourse now shifts to the minute technological machinations that supposedly contribute to a better campaign, and away from... yup, marketing.

[While they're at it, they're going to throw in a workflow tool that will supposedly facilitate your effort in "natural" search engine optimization. Beware: cookie-cutter SEO is worthless SEO.]

Two key premises of the tool are that it facilitates:
  • Higher CTR's on ads, supposedly by helping you group correct ads with correct keywords. Proper ad testing, though, requires a combination of strategy, a testing protocol, creative, and a library of techniques. The tool addresses none of those elements of marketing. More seriously, the CTR focus (while important) does nothing to address ROI (as opposed to CTR). If the tool could (1) genuinely help you group your keywords more in sync with your customer behavior and ad copy (no easy feat, sounds great on paper); (2) help you write better ads with suggestions drawn from a database; (3) focus more on ROI; then it would be an incremental win for advertisers running large volume campaigns or many accounts. (Check back in a couple of years.) Tools like this tend to be too cumbersome and costly to bother with if you're running a small campaign.
  • Auto-generation of specific, long-tail keywords taken from site searches and from expanded matches in Google broad matching. These keywords are added over time to your account. This gimmick is by now a staple of the SEM automation field. Roughly speaking, it can be accomplished by other means and other keyword tools, including Google's free offerings. It sounds like a clever hack, to be sure. But the impact on performance should be minor if you've done a thorough job in your account. Assigning more clicks to longer phrases rather than shorter ones sounds cool, but all you're doing is complicating the data analysis task, leaving your account with a splinter effect that would require several years of data to gather statistically significant feedback for bidding (or pausing) purposes. What you're doing is taking one kind of unknown (stats related to the compound performance of popular broad or phrase matched phrases, and making it into a different kind of unknown (in an exhaustive way): a splintered bundle of lower-frequency keyword searches (which, to be sure, can sometimes help your account in volume and performance terms; just not as much as you might think). If the relevance score on an obscure phrase is actually unknown to Google, then it might actually hurt (not help) your quality score until your account gathers that data.
Currently, in collaboration with my colleague Scott Perry, I am running an ecommerce account for a major e-tailer... this account has "perfect" Quality Scores: 10/10 on at least half of the keywords. Repeat: PERFECT 10's across much of the account!

This was achieved with savvy and patient methods that aren't in every campaign manager's quiver, to be sure. But it's important to point out that high quality scores (in this case, and therefore, most others) appear to derive from:

  • CTR. Achieved using a diligent build method to organize keywords around products. Toolset used: experience, and Google's tools, mostly. Further achieved with ad testing over many months, based on years of experience testing each element of the ad (without harming ROI). Also achieved because the company has a strong brand and because the paid listings are more compelling than the organic ones.
  • Conventional user behavior, information scent, and categorization. While we believe that landing page quality generally only comes into play when the page or site is a clear affront to the consumer, perhaps there is some boost over time as Google gathers signals that indicate conventional e-commerce searching and buying behavior. BTW, minute optimization of landing pages isn't required: these landing pages have mediocre code and aren't lightning fast to load... but they show users relevant products, as expected.
  • Account-wide effect. With CTR and user behavior signals screaming off the charts of High Quality over a long period of time, Google's Quality Score algorithm "green lights" keywords throughout the account, until such time as individual ones prove themselves unworthy. This speaks to build strategy: making sure the bulk of the account performs very well so that experiments do not have much effect on account-wide quality in proportional terms.
SEM automation is a crowded field. Many of the available tools in the marketplace contain one or two helpful bits, and force you into an overall system that is in perpetual beta, pulling you away from more serious marketing considerations. And unfortunately, many will need to make misleading claims about Quality Score and long tail keyword building (note how "magical" both of these building blocks of a comprehensive online marketing strategy can be made to seem). This is not a matter of being well-intentioned or not; it's when you build marketing tools as hammers looking for nails (and customers in a "segment"), rather than organically out of real-world pain points.

It appears that the biggest shortage in our industry remains people who are good at marketing, decision-making, priority-setting, and reporting. Some of the available tools support those efforts; many seem to be a cumbersome, redundant layer seeking yet more of your precious time and attention.

Finally, I can't help but caution potential customers about the Trojan Horse problem, something I'll cover in an upcoming installment of my series on Bid Management Automation over at Search Engine Land. To boil down my argument: an unknown, recently-funded startup is eager to put their pixel tracking on your site (isn't everyone these days?). Indeed, the likelihood that they'll gain access to your data is probably one of the factors that contributed to them getting funded. But as the business owner, do you want that?

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