2013 was a roller coaster year and as expected, Google did not disappoint with their mass of algorithm updates and continued knowledge graph expansions. But Google weren’t the only ones who were keeping us on our toes. Bing teamed up with Klout in a move to better incorporate social influence, and Yandex (where mass link buying often got you to the top) set themselves on a path towards not attributing any ranking factors to links.
In between all of the algorithm shuffling, there were many other important lessons to be learned. So keeping with the tradition of December posts, here are my three key lessons from 2013:
1. Never Forget The Basics
No matter what you do, there are always lots of new, shiny things around to consume your time and attention. But if you are not building from a strong foundation to begin with, then your efforts can often end up being wasted. In SEO, sometimes just sticking to the basic values of clean on-page factors and valuable content that people will want to share, can help to reduce the time you spend on being reactive and playing catch up to the never-ending algorithm updates.
Search marketing can sometimes feel so overwhelming and fast-moving that it can be easy to forget about the basics. This year, I learned not to be afraid to put on the brakes when needed. Remember to keep in mind that search is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Get Your Analytics in Order
It doesn’t matter how well or successful you think your program is doing, if you aren’t accurately measuring the outcome – in a way that is meaningful – you may as well not be running anything at all.
This year, going through a new CMS launch, I re-learned the importance of tracking accuracy and picked up some new tricks along the way, particularly with regards to attribution. A key takeaway I learned is that whenever possible, make sure you use actual numbers and don’t rest your laurels on numbers based on averages and calculations, which can vastly skew reality.
3. Life is About Making Big Moves
I couldn’t have said it any better than my Twitter pal, @sdmktgguy. Regardless of what the future holds, 2013 will always be a memorable year for me. It was the year that I left my first employer of 14 years, to work for a different company, in a different state, in a different industry. And despite all of the scariness that change can bring, I’ve never felt more excited and eager to make a difference.
I’ve attended quite a few conferences over the years and although sessions that talk about the latest industry news, trends, and search engines updates are interesting, the discussion can become very dated, very quickly. The sessions that I’ve found most useful are those that provide lessons which you can take with you and apply right now, or even several years down the road.
I remember one session at SES San Jose where Alex Cohen talked about the 5 Stages of SEO Maturity. Even though I heard this talk at one of the first SES conferences I went to many moons ago, I found myself referring to it just the other day. So I wanted to share this in a blog post, and also thank Alex, as I’ve found it to be such a useful model over the years. I’m sure you will too.*
Stage 1: TRY
This is when an organization has heard about SEO and wants to try it out. As part of experimenting with a SEO program, they allocate part-time resources (often adding these duties to an existing employee’s role) and focus on a small selection of striking distance keywords that can help to increase visibility in the search engine results and bring in website traffic.
- Part-time in-house SEO resource
- Strategy: Focus on low-hanging fruit and priority keywords
Stage 2: INVEST
At this stage, the organization realizes that SEO has the potential to really benefit the business and so they start to take it more seriously. They go beyond priority keywords and simple on-page optimizations, and delve more into content development efforts as well as the wider education of the company. As they invest more resources, time and money, there is the need to show the value of the program (beyond traffic), often through conversion and lead tracking.
- Full time dedicated in-house SEO resource
- Strategy: Expand out keyword set to more than just priority keywords
- Allocate dollars for content and link development
- Invest in technology to track success
- Pro-active site audits
- Ongoing training and education for content providers
Stage 3: MEASURE
As the organization becomes more advanced in SEO practices, measurement becomes even more important – particularly the need to tie SEO directly to overall business measures, including sales, revenue and ROI.
- Bring on additional SEO resources
- Strategy: Efficiently monitor and tie SEO metrics to business metrics
Stage 4: SCALE
At this stage, the organization is pretty well versed in the SEO space, and so the focus is on how to better scale company efforts. There are specialized SEO roles within the team, including strategists, writers, and analysts, with the goal to dominate the search engine results.
- Specialized SEO resources (strategists, dedicated content writers, outreach specialists, analysts)
- Strategy: Organize and prioritize – make all keywords winners
Stage 5: COMPETE
At the compete stage, organizations don’t just want a great presence within the search engine results, they are out to crush the competition as well as stay ahead of the game by planning ahead for future trends. This seems very unicorn-like, and although I’ve never experienced a company who is anywhere near this stage, it certainly provides a great goal to strive towards.
- Multiple SEO teams
- Strategy: Crush the competition — predict the future using existing data
- Monitor SEO market share
[* CORRECTION: Bad memory lapse... I've been told this is what happens when you get old! Alex was on the session panel, but presented the SEM side. This SEO model was actually shared by Conductor. However, Alex is a total SEM master, and if you don't know that already, then you should go check him out at Digital Alex].
Several years ago, search marketing and social media was relatively new and somewhat experimental. Back then, we were still trying to get our heads around 25/35/35 character limits on ads and how to use social media for more than just customer service.
Everyone has to start somewhere. I had my trusted 1st Edition copy of Search Marketing Inc in hand, learning about PPC on the go. Inevitably, I hit some pretty hard lessons along the way. With the benefit of hindsight, are there things that I would have done differently, wised up to quicker, or just avoided like the plague?
Here are just some of the things on my list:
1. Spend time up front to do proper keyword research
Speaking to company product experts is a necessary step in order to build up an initial keyword list. But don’t just stop there. Sometimes, when people have worked for a company for a long time, views can be very insular, and strong – sometimes unfounded – opinions run riot.
In addition to speaking with product experts, make use of keyword tools to find search volumes and related words that may be more in tune with customer vocabulary. Always run regular tests to compare keyword performance and weed out the words that just don’t perform. Don’t hang on to expensive words that don’t convert, just because someone thinks it is important. At the end of the day, customers will tell you what keywords work, through the data you collect. This leads us nicely into…
2. Do everything you can to get your tracking right from the start
You don’t know how good (or bad) you are doing unless you are measuring it, and measuring the right things. Ask yourself, do front end metrics like impressions, clicks and cost per click really tell me if I am spending my money wisely? Figure out what the key conversions are on your site and track them. Understand what actions are most likely to lead to sale and track them. Look wider into your company’s systems to see if there is the capability to track sales/orders, both online (through e-commerce) and offline.
By taking the time to understand this, not only will you see how much your program is really delivering to the business (making discussions and negotiations with executives much more meaningful), but you will also get consistent historic data to show how much your program has improved over time.
3. Develop a program structure that is built for return and efficiency
Having a well thought-out PPC program structure in place at the start will improve your performance and save lengthy “restructuring” projects later on. Don’t just think about campaigns built around major product categories, but consider campaigns built around intent, conversion and efficiency. Some examples include:
Brand Campaigns – Build out a brand campaign that includes company name misspellings. Brand campaigns convert well and efficiently because these people already know that they are looking for you. Despite arguments around keyword cannibalization, data shows that having a presence in both paid and organic provides incremental traffic (and conversions) to your site.
Priority Keywords – Priority keywords are those keywords that are important to your business and provide high return. Identify priority keywords (no more than five) within each product category and keep these well funded by separating them out into their own campaign. Doing this also helps you to better control funding to these words which is critical if you are working within tight budgets.
Conversion Events – If you know what key conversions most likely result in a lead or a sale, then build a campaign and adgroups around these specific conversion events.
Searcher Intent – Build campaigns around different stages of searcher intent. For example, you may consider building a campaign based on the marketing (Learn/Buy/Use) funnel. Doing this allows better control over how you fill the funnel and where to focus budget within the different stages.
4. Understand that PPC ad copy takes practice and constant revision
With a limited number of characters to work with, there is no room for waffle. This is a good thing because you have to make every word count. Twitter is a great channel to practice sharpening up your micro-messages.
As with any good ad, you need a call to action. Give people a reason to click on your ad. I’ve been surprised as to how often a call to action is missed out.
When you have your adcopy, don’t just leave it be. Run multiple ad variations, weed out the weakest performing and replace them with new variations, over and over.
5. Don’t wait until the end of the month to see whether you hit your targets
If you have monthly targets, don’t wait until the end of each month to see whether you managed to reach your goal or not.
Keep on top of things by setting up weekly run-rate reports to provide a regular health check of how your program is performing to plan. Your weekly reports will help to flag when you are falling behind, giving you plenty of time before the end of the month to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it.
Attribution continues to be a hot topic when it comes to PPC.
It is common for companies to base PPC performance upon the buyer’s last click prior to a conversion or sale. This is called, “last click attribution” — giving credit to a marketing channel, based upon the last action a visitor takes. But a buyer’s journey is more complex than that and all good marketers know that PPC spans the entire funnel, including early consideration. If that is the case, then basing PPC performance upon last click alone, is under-representing its true value as a marketing channel.
So how much does PPC really assist in a conversion or sale? And how much does PPC really contribute towards business?
Of course, the answer will depend upon your company and the efforts being made in the search space. But in order to get an idea of the total contribution of your PPC efforts, it is important to look at both direct attribution as well as assist conversions.
Direct PPC Attribution Based on Last Click
Sales that can be directly attributed to PPC (based on last click) is quite straightforward to see, particularly when it comes to e-commerce. You spend money on a searcher’s click and at the end, you get an online sale that can be easily linked back to your spend.
Offline purchase is a little more of a challenge, but not impossible. I was lucky enough to work with a company who had in place a standard process which required sales people to close out offline orders with an order amount. What this meant was the ability to see which offline orders were generated from the web. Adding parameters to the URL that included medium information (EG: PPC) which stayed with each visitor’s record, meant that offline orders could be attributed directly to PPC, based on last click.
The problem with the last click approach is that it is short-sighted. A customer’s journey is not based upon one single path or even one touch; it is multi-channel and multi-device, and no longer about one single moment of truth, but multiple moments that are equally important. This is why assisted attribution is important.
Assisted PPC Attribution
If you are lucky, you have access to multi-event attribution tools, systems, models and a team of super smart statisticians who can provide you with conversion and sales numbers that your PPC program assisted with.
If, like me, you are an ordinary Joe, then Google Analytics (GA) is as good a place as any to start in order to give you a directional idea around PPC assist activity.
A prerequisite is that you have your goals set up in GA. Then you can start digging in to the data by going to Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions. Remember to adjust your date range and your look back window (any time from 0-90 days) depending on what is appropriate for your business. Unfortunately, GA doesn’t let you go back beyond 90 days… but hey, what do you want for free?
You can then start to build models based upon the assist data. One simple example may be that you use the percentage of assists from PPC to apply against the conversions or sales you get from the web. Sure, the method may not be perfect, but it is a start. If anything, lean more towards the conservative as you start building out your models. This way you aren’t starting with over-inflated numbers. Trust me, you will be thankful for this as you start to improve your understanding and adapt your methodology over time.
With the prominence of PPC in the early stages of the marketing funnel, particularly when it comes to display, it may not be surprising to find that the assist activity from your PPC campaigns is more than double the contribution of your last click (direct attribution) numbers.
Hungry for More?
Attribution is a massive and complex topic. Here are some helpful articles to provide more food for thought: