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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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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, October 25, 2007

Google Shoots Arrow into Heart of "Link Economy"

There's an unwritten rule in search marketing: when a Google update knocks the stuffing out of a bunch of sites that were unfairly ranking too high, you're not supposed to gloat if you came out unscathed. But for the Grace of GOOG, there go I, etc.

Even when the infamous Florida update had webmasters scurrying in circles, and we noticed a sharp uptick in interest in paid search opportunities, I only gloated mildly.

That's why I almost considered letting this latest assault by Google on the practices of link buying, link farming, and business models that constitute premeditated interlinking schemes by their very nature, slide by without comment. But the lessons learned by this latest cannot be emphasized enough. It's time to stop ignoring these things or treating them as episodic examples of Google's high-horse madness, and to begin realizing that they continue to take aim at rank improvement "schemes" in their role as consumer advocates, attempting to reflect legitimate real-world authority and usefulness, just as they do with their increasingly tough rules on the paid search side.

Sounding every bit like a woman with a clear conscience, Jill Whalen gloats a bit in her recent commentary about these developments, and resolves to get out the popcorn to watch things unfold.

Put plainly, the reason the majority of the search marketing world responds so ineffectually to such issues is because of tunnel vision. At the most general level of professionalism, many in the "agency world" will advocate "integrated marketing," "brand management," and other long-term views of marketing strategy. This is the furthest thing from the minds of many SEO hacks.

And granted, that's too high-concept and not appropriate to the work many search marketers do. However, I'd propose that to be effective, the hyper-focus on the details of ranking tactics needs to be brought back into a mid-level focus. More on this as we go, later in this post.

The fallout of Google's latest rejiggering has been fairly severe, if you go by PageRank. On one of the PageRank checkers I use, you can see the multiple datacenters, so you see the "old" PageRanks and the "new." Traffick.com, I had nary a worry about because of the long-term, stable way we gathered external mentions since launch in 1999. We're stable at 7.

A number of the blog networks have been hard hit, with sites like AutoBlog losing one or two notches in PageRank. I would have to assume that this would take a direct hit out of the pockets of blog network owners such as Nick Denton. Organic traffic from search engines is a free lunch to many private entrepreneurs like this. Quality content deserves search visibility, of course. The question is really how much. There is only so much search traffic in a given month, so every Google reassessment of ranking and weighting methods amounts to a zero-sum game of "who gets the available free referrals."

One well known search industry site, Search Engine Guide, clocks in with a drop of 6 to 4, at least if you believe this PR checker. In the old days, they often came in with an 8, which is very high. I'm not saying the current drop is justified - Google decides on that. But it is probably the case that the 8 was too high.

And yes, I realize that PageRank's only a rough guide to Google's opinion of your site's authority, after weeding out phony forms of authority as best as they can. Some of those hard hit are claiming they see "no drop in traffic" and speculate that "Google is putting on a show." In denial to the end? Could traffic drops be coming soon?

Dropping two notches in PageRank may not sound like much, but it could constitute a severe penalty because the scale is logarithmic. The difference between 4 and 6 is really significant, as any experienced site owner will tell you.

But the point here is not to single any one actor out. It's to point out that search marketing as a profession became so popular so fast that many actors assumed that popularity or prevalence equated to real marketing expertise. The momentum of the industry translated into a "everything's fine here" sensibility, and an insular view that more experienced marketers had nothing to teach us. We're taking over! (With bought links, keyword research, and meta tags, you're taking over?)

What it looks like, to draw upon some of the beautiful photos I picked out to dress up this post, is that search marketers were so sure of themselves that they turned into the fuzzy, wool-bearing little creatures below. Matt Cutts says bought links are bad? Selling PageRank is bad? Baaaa humbug! 1,000 of my friends agree with me, so Matt must be wrong, and possibly evil.



















The thing about it is, if you're in high school and well compensated (if not well dressed), you and your peers don't look like sheep to one another. It's such a cool gig to have, you actually look like Heathers...





















No, I did not mean those heathers, and plus there are still sheep grazing nearby... can someone please...


Right, that's better. Heathers.

These Heathers were so compellingly popular, it seemed sometimes like you'd want to do anything to be like them. Even if you were the aloof, independent, and lovely Winona Ryder. Stop, Winona! You're better off without them!




So, I'm here to make the case for a mid-level focus rather than a close-up view that a narrow set of tactics in a toolkit will give you any clear guide of what to do to improve your company's long term reach and connection with prospects. As Goldilocks (or Winona, before she began shoplifting) I'll suggest that for many search-focused professionals, the idea of "integrated marketing" is too high level to be practical; whereas pure old-school SEO tactics always get you into the same mess eventually. You're not VP Marketing at a Fortune 500, or any other type of lifer; nor are you going to get far in life if your only skill is to tweak an H1 tag. In between, there needs to be an integrated understanding of what makes customers and markets tick today, and how to put that together with a search visibility strategy. That entails a lot of detail work, but deciding on the appropriate types of campaign work will be more effective if it's done within a structured framework that recognizes Google, and other sites for visibility online, as the complex consumer advocates they are. Call it "integrated online attention-getting," if you will.

So whereas for a couple of years on the Page Zero site, we joked about that we don't do SEO at all, we realize that what we've developed for some clients (at the moment we call it SEO 2.0) is something that yes, we actually do, and will continue to do. A long-term focus on "integrated online attention-getting" means a sustained strategic implementation, with particular action items leading to detail work performed by the appropriate party (sometimes us). When we launch the new version of our consulting site in a couple of weeks, that's what we'll make clear to current and prospective clients.

If that's gloating, well... unwritten rules were made to be broken. The way we see it, our clients are not in business to sit around wondering when they'll be "Google-slapped."

Update: Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, responded to this piece to note that "the Google demotion of link farms has only hit offending blog networks. Engadget and other Weblogs Inc blogs have taken a hit of a couple of points of PageRank. But Gawker sites, which are much more sparing in their linking, are unaffected by the latest change."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Immature, Incestuous, and Complacent - But other than that, we're doin' fine

I came across two useful new articles by Kevin Lee and Gord Hotchkiss -- Kevin saying that the SEM industry is immature in both senses of the word, and Gord chiding us for lacking innovation. (I agree more with Kevin's, I think - it's vital that agencies and clients develop a partnership rather than a one-off or serial dating mentality. Gord, I know what you're saying but I believe many firms are innovating a lot under the hood, or working on more spinoff software or Web 2.0 projects than you give them credit for. But I enjoyed both articles.)

So I realized that I had my own recent piece where I accused some of the online interactions among the insider SEM crowd of being "sophomoric." This was written as a birthday present to myself (talk about sophomoric and self-referential!), but later that night, I had trouble sleeping because I thought I'd been offensive in some of the article -- and to put myself to sleep, I pulled the post off the blog. Now, I realize that I was really wide awake that night because I drank coffee at 9 p.m. and was worrying about an important meeting the next day - and that I actually stand behind the albeit feisty piece. If Gord and Kevin are going to stick their necks out then I shouldn't be a chicken, so back it goes: Exhaustion Leads to Nostalgia: How Far Into this Vortex Are We Willing to Go? Thanks to fantomaster and Aaron Wall somehow managing to comment on it before my 3 a.m. lullabye deletion.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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