How to Tell if Your Agency or In-House SEM Person Knows What They Are Doing

December 27, 2018

These days the role of a traditional marketer is more convoluted than ever. As a Marketing Manager/ Director/Executive Officer, you are expected to be an expert in traditional and digital marketing channels AND have a deep comprehension of every nuance as to what makes marketing in your industry successful. You have to be a leader and help your org make the right decisions with your marketing budget.

The list of channels seems endless on both fronts. Traditional media includes: Television, Direct Mail, Print, Flyers, Billboards, Trade events, and more. Digital feels even more complicated: *deep breath* Paid Search, Organic Search, DSP’s, Video ads on YouTube, Video ads in banner spaces, Media buys, Site-takeovers, Email, Product Listings, Affiliates, Native, Social ads on Facebook, Social ads on Instagram, Influencer Marketing, LinkedIn Mail…..The platform options are seemingly endless.

Let’s start with a small slice. In this article my goal is to help you grok enough of Paid Search (Search Engine Marketing, AKA “SEM”) to:

  1. Know if your in-house or agency team are doing a good job
  2. Sound intelligent when talking to metrics up the chain of management
  3. Better manage your SEM team

On the surface SEM is more straightforward than you think, but under the hood it is an overwhelming beast that becomes more specialized and more complicated by the year. This article is only scratching the surface of SEM but if you want to go deeper we have plenty of resources to help you out.

Some key elements to keep in mind about SEM:

Firstly, the most important aspect of Search (in my opinion) is that search is a “lean forward” or “hand raisers” medium.

People make searches with intent. SEM ads aren’t a TV ad or billboard you put out there and hope, dearly, that you get some kind of response. People are actively looking for a service/product/solution. If your ad is present on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP’s) when a user has the intent (read as “NEED”) for your product or service, you are effectively at the right place at the right time.

Secondly Search, like most digital channels, is trackable! From a user interacting with your ad to that user calling your business or making a purchase on your website, even offline events can be imported and tied back to search clicks. Most digital channels offer their own tracking analytics, but 3rd party tools make everything trackable: from the ads that drive the most clicks to your contact us form to the video that gets the most likes on Facebook.

Thirdly, Search is often the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the digital world and works for just about every business when done correctly. That’s not to say it’s going to be cheap, and these days the competitive nature of SEM makes appearing in top spots is a difficult proposition for many smaller businesses. But if you have budget and a decent website, you should be doing SEM and it should be generating conversions for you.

So how do you determine if your team knows what they are doing? There are several key questions that you can ask:

1. Why aren’t my ads appearing on relevant searches?

In an incognito browser window, conduct a few searches for your product. Not just brand terms, but descriptors of what your product or service does. If your ads aren’t showing up, ask your team why not. If they know what you are doing they should be able to tell you why. If they can’t, they are failing.

The answer to this question is typically one of two reasons. Either:

  1. The terms you searched are too competitive (too expensive) and can’t achieve your CPA goals at your current conversion rate.
  2. Your conversion rate is too low on these terms resulting in a CPA that is too high

In both instances your conversion rate is the likely culprit. There could be other more complicated reasons (the copy that was used wasn’t good enough, the landing page wasn’t relevant, etc) and your team should be able to go into detail if this is the case.

Regardless of the answer, your team should be telling you and you should have a serious discussion as to whether or not you want to strategically target these relevant terms any way, even if their performance isn’t at your goal. If you aren’t having these conversations, your team, and to a certain extent you, are failing. A solid SEM ercan discuss these topics at length without any prep work

2. Is my ad copy relevant to the search query?

If after conducting these test searches, you see ad copy that doesn’t seem relevant to your search or doesn’t include your search term, your team is failing.

Search is an auction, meaning that people are bidding for the opportunity to put their ad front and center when someone needs what they are selling. You aren’t the only one who gets to appear in search results and therefore your ad copy must be relevant and on point. If it’s not, your campaigns won’t be successful.

Search ad space is  limited, more than most mediums, but your ads still need to be relevant to the search query. The reasons for this are:

  1. Google ranks all ads in the auction by their relevance to the search query. If your ad isn’t seen as relevant by the Google algorithm, they will doc you and you’ll show in a lower position unless you pay more to move up. You need your ads to be relevant for the algorithm.
  2. People have short attention spans and want instant results. If you search for “red shoes” and you see an ad that says “Blue Shoes for sale” you aren’t going to click on it; you don’t want blue shoes you want red shoes!

If your ads aren’t relevant to the search being made, your team is failing.

3. How is the SEM channel performing to goal?

With the ability to track every event imaginable your team should be tracking your business KPI’s and using SEM as performance channel. At any moment you should be able to tell your ROI, CVR, etc. If they can’t, your team is failing.

Note that here, it may not be your SEM team but development that is causing the lack of tracking. In this case, your SEM team has failed you because they should never let you take campaigns live and start spending without knowing what you will get for your investment.

4. What is the performance split between brand and non-brand campaigns?

Searches for your brand are the lowest of the low hanging fruit: People know your brand and are searching for it. They are either existing customers or new prospects deep into the conversion funnel. They should convert at a high rate and a very low CPA.

Separately, non-brand terms such as descriptors of your product or service (e.g. my “red shoes” search example if you are Nike) are higher up in the conversion funnel and are meant to help with the discovery of your brand. These terms are typically more expensive and convert at a much lower frequency.

Your team should know this and they should therefore meet two criteria:

  1. Give you recommendations to have separate and distinct goals for Brand and Non-brand campaigns
  2. Split these campaigns to optimize and report on these keywords separately

If they aren’t meeting these two criteria, your team is failing.

5. What “search terms” or  “search queries” are the most valuable to our business?

A quick preface: “Search terms” and “Search Queries” are used interchangeably in the SEM vernacular.

“Search terms” are not “Keywords.” There is a distinct difference here:

Search terms are the query that a user actually makes on a search engine.

Keywords are words or phrases that you use to target those specific Search Terms.

Keywords are also set up with various match types (you can learn more about different match types here) that determine the breadth of related Search Terms your ads will show up for.

Your SEM team should be able to tell you the difference between a Keyword and a Search Term and they should be able to tell you which of each are valuable to your business. If they can’t, your team is failing.

Often times lists of top performing Search Terms and Keywords will be very similar, but there will be differences (especially outside of Brand terms) that tell good Search marketers how to optimize. If your team can’t clearly define the difference between Keywords and Search Terms, or they can’t tell you the difference in performance, they aren’t paying attention to your accounts and most likely not optimizing your account to its fullets potential.

In conclusion, ask these questions and you will have a clearer understanding of your Paid Search (SEM) team and their skill level.

If they can’t answer these questions, it’s time to find someone who can.