Over the past five years we have attempted to have an outside company run our Adwords campaigns on three occasions. One of the companies lasted about a year one lasted ten days and the other was in between. Overall I have been disappointed with the performance of all of them and can say that apart from Idearc / Verizon / Super Pages which was beyond incompetent, there seems to be a pattern followed by these companies. I'm sure that somewhere out there are companies that are actually competent and care about their clients but I haven't found them yet.
Because of our experiences I created this guide to help others evaluate the success of their ppc consultants.
Try PPC Yourself First
Before you go out and spend $500 and up a month paying an external company to do ppc for you, go spend $30 on a book and try it yourself. This way you will have educated yourself at least about the basics of ppc and you haven't committed yourself to a long term contract with someone who can tell you whatever he wants without you knowing if he is being honest.
When you set up your Adwords account make sure that you install the conversion tracking code on your checkout pages properly so that you know what ads are producing sales. I can't emphasize this enough. If you can't track your advertising results, don't bother advertising. I think it was Henry Ford who said “I know that 50% of my advertising works. I just don't know which 50%.” Today there is no excuse for not knowing what advertising works since you can track almost anything online.
Apart from throwing money away on your ads if you don't install the code, you also won't have a baseline to judge a hired company against later on.
I also recommend reading all the Adwords documentation you can and if you are really ambitious, get officially certified. All of this takes time but you will greatly improve your chances of catching a lie like “You can only have one landing page per ad” and also be able to make an educated choice in an external company.
Research Several Companies Before Hiring One
There are lots, as in grains of sand on the beach lots, of ppc consulting companies. Every one is the best on the block and every one will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. They don't actually say that but they all will say that they can greatly improve your conversion rates and lower your costs.
Google has an extensive list of Adwords partners which is a good place to start but note that there aren't any ratings on the site so you really don't know which are the best.
Since it is very hard to determine the quality of a company before hiring it, here are some quick tests you can conduct when you interview a company that can help you determine if they know what they are doing.
- Ask if the company will use your existing account. If they create their own account and give you reports, run away. According to Google, every time you change a keyword match type, ad text or move keywords between campaigns, all the statistical data that helps Google determine the quality of your keywords and ads is erased. So a company that wants to start over is not working in your best interest.If the company wants to send you reports instead of you actually being able to see the real data, they may be hiding what they are really doing (see Idearc).
- Ask what steps the company takes before they start making changes to your campaigns. Here are some things they should do before making any changes:
- Ask what your goals are. If the company doesn't ask this, move on to the next company. How can you or they have any idea what success means if they don't ask?
- Ask to see your historical results. Since you followed my advice and tried this yourself you will have historical data for them to study.
- Take a look at your landing pages and offer improvement suggestions. Google puts a large amount of emphasis on the quality score of each keyword. This score is determined partly by how well your landing pages relate to the keywords and what the click through rate is on your ads. If your landing pages are lousy then you will be paying a lot more per click than your competitors.
- Ask about your industry. Just because they are successful managing a shoe company site doesn't mean they can manage a Catholic store. I have quizzed the prospective account manager for each of our accounts about their Catholic knowledge. One of them was pretty knowledgeable and the other two had at least a passing knowledge of the Church. If your ad rep doesn't know your industry and tries to pull a “all industries are similar” line, don't hire him. The more specialized your niche, the harder it will be to find someone who really knows what he is doing and will really be able to help you.
- Ask what your average order size is. If your average order size is $20 and you are spending $15 per sale, you probably need to make some changes.
- Is the person working on your account actually Google Adwords certified? Being certified doesn't guarantee that the person is good but it does guarantee that the person has at least read the documentation on Adwords and knows at least as much as you do.
- Make sure you find out up front what the time frame of the contract is. If the company is competent, they should be able to offer you a two week cancellation time. If they aren't, they'll try to lock you in for a year or more. If you think you have found the right company but they want a long term commitment, tell them that you won't sign a long term contract. They may work with you.The flip side of this is that ppc is not a fast process. The company SHOULD be able to find something to improve quickly. If not, you probably don't need outside help. But over the long haul improvements will be gradual.
Trust but Verify
Your ppc company should be in touch with you weekly to go over results and work with you on new ideas. You will probably get reports from them that start off with a bullet list of what they did since the last meeting. Here is an example:
Over the past two weeks our team focused on the following areas:
-Search query data research and keyword implementation
-Keyword match type analysis and adjustment
That sounds nice but you may want to log in to Adwords to see what exactly was done. Did you know that you can see every single change to your account? On the right side of the main campaign page there is a link to “View Change History.” This gives you a line by line history of everything that has been done on your account. So as a real life example I looked at the time frame covered by the previously mentioned report. I found that the company had added 25 keywords over a two week period. Okay, that covers the first bullet point. Bid optimization? Nope, nothing in the change history showing any changes to bids. Campaign activation? Nope, no new campaigns were turned on. Keyword match type analysis and adjustment? It is possible they did analysis but no keywords were adjusted from broad to phrase to exact or anything else. So basically the company was making up three of the four things they said they did and figuring that out is a very simple process.
Take some time after the initial implementation to go through the keywords that they have added or changed. Are they relevant? Are they for products you sell? We have had companies add keywords for products we don't carry just to boost ad views.
Go through the ads that they created. Do the ads follow the Google suggestions for highly actionable ads? Do they point to landing pages that make sense? One of our ppc companies used our main category pages for every ad. If I am advertising a particular book does it make sense to point the ads to the home page which may not even have the book on it?
Content – Display Network
The regular search network and the Display Network (formerly called the Content Network) are very different beasts and need to be approached differently. Here are some warning signs that your SEM (Search Engine Marketing) Company either doesn't know what it is doing or doesn't care about the Display Network:
- Campaigns are set to run in both the Display Network and in Google search. The way that Google determines cost and display rate of ads for the two networks is VERY different. By running ad groups in both networks you are probably making your Delivery Network results much worse than they should be.
- Campaigns for the Display Network and Google search are separated (good) but the Delivery network ad groups are just a copy and paste of your search ad groups (very bad). The Display Network is a theme oriented service. Google determines a theme for your ad groups and tries to match them up with websites running Adsense that it determines match your theme. Because of this, you want to make sure that each ad group is a tightly themed unit for the most optimal placement. For example, if you sell DVD players and DVD cleaning kits, in the search network you might combine both items into one ad group with different landing page urls for the players and the cleaning kits. For the Delivery Network you would want to break these out into two groups so that your cleaning kit ads will display on troubleshooting and repair sites and your player ads would display on review and shopping sites.
- Keywords in the Display Network campaigns have the same keywords with different match types (broad, phrase, exact). The Display Network ignores match types because it is theme based so using all three match types just triplicates a keyword. This is important because…
- Google only looks at 50 words / phrases when determining your ad group theme for the Display Network. If you have more than 50 words in a Display Network ad group, everything over 50 is ignored but you have no way of knowing which 50 words Google chose!
- No negative keywords are used in your campaigns or ad groups. While the Display Network ignores match types, it does use negative keywords. For example, if you sell DVD players but don't do DVD repair add “-repair” to your campaign so that your ads won't be seen on repair oriented sites.
- No sites are excluded from your Display Network campaigns. There are a lot of sites in the Display Network. There are a lot of sites that you may not want your ads to show up on. For example, Google Adsense ads show up on parked domains (pages that aren't real sites), “edgy” sites and gaming sites. If your target audience doesn't fit those profiles you shouldn't be wasting ad dollars on those networks.
While this certainly isn't an exhaustive list of tips it should be a good start for assessing your new or existing SEM company.