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SearchTHIS: Paid Search Automation

SearchTHIS: Paid Search Automation Kevin Ryan
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If Ron Popiel were to invent a sponsored listing search engine marketing (SEM) tool, he might show you a way to stuff all of your keywords and phrases, titles and descriptions into a little machine available for five easy payments of $39.95 and tell you to "set it, and forget it." Sounds a little silly doesn't it? Advertisers wouldn't apply the highly successful Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ Oven mantra to SEM management, would they?


There are plenty of would-be search engine tools currently marketed and sold with a simplistic pricing structure and easy fix sales tactics, e.g. the "$99.95 gets you listed everywhere" search cancer pill pitch. Most, if not all, of those can be dismissed with a one-two punch of search sanity. However, one of the most interesting topics of discussion at the iMedia Search Marketing Tour was the all-too-common tendency for marketers to set up the paid search plan, check the search box as "completed," and move on to more important things.


Today's technologically sophisticated paid search management tools offered by search sites, paid search aggregators and third-party intermediaries can help manage bids and positioning, select keywords, and manage advertising return expectations -- which makes the "set and forget" tendency a lot more appealing. Overall, they can help bring the cost of managing a paid search initiative down, but leaving the tool in charge can have some pretty disastrous consequences. Let's take a look at the ups and downs of search engine marketing automation.


Introductory offer


All too often, search marketers settle on keyword selection/management tools because they don't understand the unique requirements of search and a need for a simple solution. Checking the search box, as it were, should leave marketers wondering if automated decisions are the right ones.


A sound search marketing execution strategy effectively blends the efficacy and cost-savings offered by technology with the insight and experience of seasoned search marketing professionals. While bid management and keyword suggestion tools enable us to maintain optimal positions, minimize bid gaps, manage budget parameters and measure return, our program managers analyze campaign data and trends to optimize campaigns.


In the old days (last year) finding a search engine marketing tool meant signing up with a third-party bid management program that aggregated multiple paid search programs into one, easier-to-use interface. Overture maintains a list of approved providers of these services. Today, third-party bid management tools are just the beginning.


Search engine marketing is now more competitive than ever, and many specialist firms are developing their own tool-sets designed to reduce the cost of managing search programs. The paid search management space is in a constant state of evolution and keyword selection is now being married to systems that automatically generate descriptions and simultaneously remove keywords that do not meet expectations.


It slices, it dices, it will julienne search results


New search management technologies have many worthwhile advantages, critical in fact, for some advertisers.


"Automated keyword selection is important and efficient for advertisers with many products/models like resellers, distributors and catalogers," says Erik Matlick, chief executive officer of Industry Brains. "These tools are extremely effective in deriving detailed combinations of keywords using combinations of product/model names and marrying this with data from search engines to determine what is being searched for and what the advertiser has in inventory. I would go so far as to argue that not only is this a benefit to these advertisers, it actually puts their competitors who are trying to manage this by hand at a significant disadvantage."


So, manual stimulation of search listing selection is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. According to a recent Jupiter Research study, advertisers who used more than 1,000 keywords increased to 22 percent (March 2003 to March 2004) from only 4 percent the year before. Indeed, one of the key reasons behind this growth might be the use of keyword proliferation tools, but there are one or two problems with leaving keyword selection to technology.


Act now, quantities are limited


For the most part, automated systems cannot accommodate human search components and are based on algorithmic or computer-generated variational biases. That is to say, a keyword selection tool looking for matches to the term "Federal Express" will find multiple variations of the term, but not "FedEx." The same is true for commonly used abbreviations. Suggestion tools looking for matches and similar terms for "The Wall Street Journal" will not recommend "WSJ."


Brand marketers with compound words in their names may experience difficulties as well. "Dodgeball" brand searches are likely to occur as "dodgeball" and "dodge ball," while keyword selection tools might not recommend the latter form. In May, 2004 Overture recorded more than 28,000 searches for the single word, "dodgeball," while the two-word format received just over 6,100 searches.


As of the writing of this article, the more frequently searched "dodgeball" is only $.03 per click more than the "dodge ball" format. Often, an advertiser would find much lower click costs in the low volume keyphrase and most likely, very similar post click behavior, so it makes sense to buy them both.


New and improved space age formula


An automated system for selectively removing keywords for poor performance may not allow for trend analysis within keyword selection and messaging. Some systems will also not allow for multiple messaging elements to be considered as testing or trending parameters. A keyword is simply tied to one messaging element and removed if deemed ineffective. For the most part, automatic optimizers like these are designed to monitor key phrase performance and remove keywords that do not initiate a click or ones that generate click traffic from visitors who do not meet desired action requirements.


Dave Carlson, president of Atlas OnePoint (formerly GoToast) calls this process "modeling." "Modeling takes existing keyword sets and uses historical success criteria to map out keyword goals for campaign optimization," he says. "At minimum, advertisers must have 30 days' exact return on investment data. Ideally, there would be more performance history data because without it, November will be treated the same as March in a search program."


Often, otherwise effective keywords could be removed prematurely without allowing for positive trend analysis. A good example of this would be low-traffic keywords showing negative purchase behavior in the short term, which may prove valuable over a six-month time period. For example, the low-volume key phrase "liberate apes before imprisoning apes" may not move any View Askew merchandise for six months. In that time, 20 searchers may click on a listing result at a cost of $2. In month seven, when "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" re-enters the movie channel schedule, 75 searchers might visit the Secret Stash Web site, generating more than $700 in revenue.


Although a number of keywords may be deemed ineffective in the short term, that doesn't mean said keywords should be removed and replaced. Smart search marketers allow for trends, be they seasonal, tied to events or considered acts of HBO. Lesson learned: Keeping these keywords in your search program can prove effective over the long term.


Don't be fooled by similar looking products


Another shortcoming of many automated systems is an inherent lack of understanding in search term iterations from one search site to another. Also, many search sites do not compensate for plural or spacing disparities while others do. In this instance, having power over a keyword list designed specifically for each search syndicate is critical.


"Automated generation is a good thing, assuming the list can be controlled," says Kevin Lee, chief executive officer of Did-it.com. "Automated selection brings with it a loss in control. We must retain the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff."


Closely related to the differing term set problem is another small dilemma -- these tools also fall short in accommodating messaging performance analysis variations from site to site. For example, Google's creative requirements vary greatly from Overture's, but if you don't separate what works in a 70-character Google description from a 140-character Overture message, effectiveness measurement suffers.


A unique strategy has to be implemented across all sites and in these instances, the human variable starts to look highly favorable. Once again, keyword performance might vary across phrases with certain seasonal ties and other market conditions as well.


But wait, there's more


Search automation tools are in a constant state of refinement and enhanced evolution. Every day, they are getting better at addressing some of the issues we have touched on here. The question is, will there ever be a time when one can just "set and forget" a search initiative? Most search marketing professionals and search site functionality designers agree there will always be some level of need for human intervention in a search marketing program.


Although I have heard the perpetual need for a human role in search explained at least a dozen ways, I'll leave you this week with my absolute favorite, from Dave Carlson, using a commercial aviation analogy.


"Imagine settling into a pre-flight beverage aboard a large passenger jet bound for your Parisian vacation," he says. "A voice is heard over the intercom congratulating you for being randomly selected for the first fully automated, pilotless commercial flight. Although today's modern jets have very sophisticated auto pilot systems they can't handle unpredictable weather, hijacker intervention or the random errors of other pilots. Likewise, search program management technology has advanced, but it still can't fly on its own."


I don't know about you, but I'd rather swim to Paris.


Ryan proves geographic ignoramus


How catastrophically ironic would it be to get a geographic reference wrong in a world search article? Well, in last week's column, I mistakenly referred to Singapore as a Malaysian country. Actually, Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 according to the CIA world fact book. As Jay Shapiro, chief executive officer of Blue Interactive wrote, "In fact, you will find that Singapore is a full fledged member of the APEC nations (including Canada and USA) and is currently the  No. 7 ranked country globally as 'e-ready' by The Economist (USA was  No. 6) for the attractiveness of online business, adoption and infrastructure."


There you have it. I was wrong, and I am sorry for the error.


iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. Meet Ryan at Ad:Tech http://www.ad-tech.com/ July 12-13, 2004.


 

Landing page conversions -- home vs. other


This metric is most relevant for improving sales from people who search for specific products and then click PPC ads or links in systems like Google Shopping, where you can control the landing page of the link. Landing pages are very important pages. If your landing pages don't retain new arrivals, you've got no chance of a sale. In a shopping site, you've got three choices for where to land new arrivals. The easiest option is to land everyone on your home page, where they can discover who you are and learn the site's layout and navigation system.  The disadvantage is that the visitor then has to search for the product, and you may lose them during that process. Secondly, you can land them on a product category page. However, they may find it more difficult to orient themselves to the new site, and they'll still have to locate the product. Finally, you can simply land them on the page of the product they're interested in. Conventional wisdom is that you should try to land the visitor as close as possible to what they were looking for, so land them on the product page. Google promotes this practice.  Google Shopping systems, which allow you to upload products directly to Google, require that these link directly to the corresponding product page. Google AdWords advisories also recommend linking the AdWords directly to the product page. 


It seems intuitive that landing someone on a page which contains what they're looking for is better than making them search for it by sending them to the home page. However, this is not always the case. When I analyze e-commerce sites, I frequently find the home page has a better conversion rate than product pages, even for product-specific links from systems like Google Shopping and Adwords. Product category pages, which list all the related products, can also often do better than specific product pages. This is mainly due to the design of internal pages, which often assumes that people have already been navigating the site and understand the layout. Many people simply find it easier to leave than work out how to use the site from a confusing product page.


You need to know whether your site design suits landing people deep inside the site or not.  Comparing the conversion rate of your home page against your other landing pages isn't possible with the standard reports in Google Analytics, so you need a custom report. Here's a link to the one I use. Clicking this link will add a custom landing page performance report to your Google Analytics system.  If you do find there is a significant performance difference, you need to look at the volumes of traffic involved to decide if this is something you need to work on.

Visits to purchase


How many times do your customers visit your site before they make a purchase? Most sites are totally geared for getting the sale on the first visit. That's not unreasonable, since most purchases are made that way -- but not all. And it's different for different types of sites. In general, the more the customer has to lose by getting it wrong, the more visits they make before they purchase. So if the product is expensive, like a loan, or bulky, like furniture, or emotionally important, like a vacation, people are going to make multiple visits before they make a purchase. In addition, there can be seasonal variations involved. Consumer sites typically see a reduction in visits to purchase leading up to Christmas while B2B sites see an increase.


Understanding how this works on your site can make a huge difference. It's very important to know how much your income depends on such sales because what someone looks for in a website on their third visit is very different from what they look for on their first. I think of these as multi-visit sales involving one continuous sales pitch spread over a series of visits. Maintaining the momentum over these visits requires specific design elements backed by analytics research. This can be a significant undertaking, so you only want to do it if it's going to impact enough visitors to justify the effort. However, where it is justified, the returns can be staggering. I've seen sites quadruple turnover by improving their handling of multi-visit sales.


Google Analytics covers this in the time to purchase report in the e-commerce section.  


Rise of mobile


Tracking the rise of mobile is part of watching the future. It's also key to online growth. Over the last year, many sites have seen no growth in desktop-based traffic while their mobile traffic has exploded. Many sites have even seen desktop-based traffic decline. This is the trend of the future. We're entering the m-dot revolution. All significant traffic growth will come from mobile. Desktop traffic will decline as many people give up desktop access completely. Mobile also changes how people access the web and what they want from their web experience. The rate at which this change is happening varies according to industry sector and geographical region, but at some stage it will affect everyone. One day, if you want to increase traffic or improve online sales performance, mobile will be the only traffic that matters. For many sites, that day is today.


Tracking the rise of mobile traffic month-by-month helps you understand how fast things are changing and whether you've entered the m-dot revolution. Comparing sales metrics, such as bounce rate, average order value, and conversion rate, between desktop and mobile traffic will tell you whether you need to improve mobile performance. Eventually, there's a good chance you'll need two sets of reports, one for desktop and one for mobile. The rise of mobile traffic makes things much more complex for web analytics because it doubles the workload without offering any immediate benefit. However, because mobile is different, it constitutes a new market. None of your competitors have established positions in the mobile sector, so great opportunities exist for those who can adapt first. Learning what makes for success in mobile starts with analytics.

Page speed


There once was a time when designers had to worry about how long web pages took to download because everyone had very slow connections. Then people moved to broadband and designers were let out of their cages to run wild and free across the webscape. With the rise of mobile, download time becomes an issue again because mobile users won't wait as long as desktop users for a page to arrive. Desktop users are prepared to wait around five to six seconds for a web page to fully render, while mobile users get impatient after two seconds. Download time is therefore much more important for mobile than desktop visitors. Meanwhile, search engines like Google are aware of this and list faster sites above slower ones (all other factors being equal). 


This means page speed affects both your mobile conversion rate and your search listings. In fact, page speed can affect many factors on the site. For example, desktop visitors who receive pages in fewer than five seconds are twice as likely to return to the site. The exit rates and conversion rates are similarly affected. It's therefore useful to be aware of your page download times because the faster your pages are, the more successful your site will be. The critical cut-off points are five seconds for desktop users and two seconds for mobile visitors. Once you see download times above these, you know you're losing visitors and sales. 


Google Analytics provides this information in the "site speed" section. Initially, it will show you how long each individual page took, but you want to switch this to operating system so you can compare Windows and Macintosh with Android and iOS. You can drill down from there. A range of useful options are available via the tabs -- site usage will cross-reference bounce and exit rates with speed. For example, one graphics-heavy site I saw recently had an average download time of eight seconds. The average exit rate per page was 10 percent for Windows, 15 percent for Macintosh, 21 percent for Android, and 29 percent for iOS. This tells us that Windows visitors are happy waiting eight seconds, Macintosh people less happy, Android users not happy at all, and iPhone and iPad users just plain miserable. The "technical" tab will break down the portions of the process so you can see where the time goes. In this site, a quarter of the download time was due to a two second delay before the server responded to any request. This revealed that the server was overloaded and needed upgrading. The "DOM" tab will show you how long it takes a visitor's browser to process the page once it arrives. In our example site, this emerged as five seconds, which is far too long. Redesigning the page's code so it didn't make so many external calls fixed this.


Page speed is going to become an increasingly important metric as mobile traffic rises, but it's important for desktop visitors as well. It's also one of the few metrics which tells you how your technical infrastructure impacts your sales. Keeping an eye on your page speed therefore offers a wide range of benefits.


Conclusion


These five metrics are not things you need to look at every day, but you do need to know where your site stands. Many people are afraid to look at these metrics because improving them can be a substantial undertaking. However, ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. What is very clear is that sites that do well in these metrics beat competitors that don't. Because these factors are rarely considered, there's often a great deal of competitive advantage to be gained by improving your own performance. If there's a metric here that you don't review regularly, go and check it out, you might just learn something valuable.


Brandt Dainow is the CEO of ThinkMetrics.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.



"Three businessmen with their heads in the sand" image via Shutterstock.

Partnership


We hear a lot about teams in marketing, and we talk a lot about breaking down the silos that divide those teams, but one fact that often gets overlooked in that discussion is just how important collaboration is to virtually everything marketers do.


"Surprisingly, it's not knowing the latest trends, digital tricks, and SAAS tools that make a successful digital marketer," says Tom Gallego, founder and chief creative officer for L7 Creative. "Success in digital marketing today means engaging skilled partners, who you can trust and rely on to deliver winning strategies that support your specific marketing goals while building long-term brand equity."


So what makes a good marketer a strong partner? It's a mix of things, according to Gallego.


"They are great managers of people and possess a passion for their careers and the brands they are charged with growing," he says. "Their work ethic is fueled by a sense of purpose and commitment to their vision."


But while that vision is essential for uniting a partnership around a specific goal, it's not set in stone.


"The most successful marketers have a vision and plan with built-in flexibility to make necessary course corrections along the way," he says. "They are demanding, but not autocratic."


Humility


It may not be what quality hiring managers look for on the resume or bosses pick up on in an interview, but a good marketer is a humble marketer, according to Fiona Gill, VP of global client excellence at Kenshoo.


"No digital marketer, no matter how talented, can manage things totally on their own," she says. "Those who try to do it all and suffer every detail, inevitably fall behind and fail to try new potentially valuable things."


But being humble has another advantage, according to Gill, who says it's an important bulwark against hubris.


"Failure comes with the job," she says. "A humble marketer might try to correct a failing channel, but they won't do so endlessly. Humble marketers know when a marketing investment is not a good fit and they cut their losses and move on to the next opportunity."


Grasping the big picture


While so much of marketing today is all about the specialist, it's still important to be able to think like a generalist. It helps you see the big picture, according to Stan Valencis, president at Primacy, and it helps you work with a diverse and always-expanding group of marketing professionals.


"The old cliché, get the right content in front of the right people at the right time, has never been more apropos," says Valencis. "Understanding the full digital ecosystem and each role is the only way to optimize your content strategy and corresponding media spend."


A customer's mindset


Many marketers want to think like the best marketers in their field. There's nothing wrong with that idea in theory, but the best thing you can do in practice is to train yourself to think like a customer, says Eric Schiffer, CEO of DigitalMarketing.com.


"[Marketers] need to be able to think about everything they do through the lens of the consumer," he says. "Consumers have more control and say than [they] ever [have] in history. So designing the user experience with keen insight into consumer motivation and behavioral dynamics is critical to success, and then it's about measuring, monitoring, and adjusting that experience in real time for each customer."

An open mind


If you're a digital marketer today, there's a good chance you didn't go to school for what you do. In fact, if you're over a certain age, the industry that you work in didn't exist when you were a kid. But if you're a Millennial in the marketing business, you shouldn't assume that you've got it all figured out because of your digital native status. In fact, one of the only constants in our industry is change.


"One of the most exciting parts of working in digital media is the endless number of first to market opportunities available to us," says Bruce Harwood, associate director at The Media Kitchen. "In traditional media, it's much harder to do something truly unique and out of the box that has never been done before. It's always a plus to have a client that is not afraid of these opportunities and appreciates the benefit of getting their foot in the door before everyone else, [and] it's important that marketers are open to new and untested opportunities."


But don't mistake "untested" for unmeasured.


"It's extremely important to realize the importance of measuring each portion of the campaign to understand the true value of each tactic," says Harwood. "The best marketers are committed to measurement."


Commitment to continuous improvement


"The very best marketers openly ask 'What could we do better?'" says Tania Yuki, founder and CEO of Shareablee. "Even if they are leading their category, they are not satisfied with where they are, and encourage those around them to stay restless, curious, and healthily paranoid."


While building that commitment in yourself isn't something that's easily done or understood, Yuki says some of the best evidence that a marketer has the building blocks to improve comes down to the willingness to face facts, especially when those facts aren't good news.


"[Strong marketers] know that success is not always linear, and they want to understand what's working and what isn't so they can learn and continually get better, so the truth does not scare them," Yuki says. "They acknowledge that new platforms require new rules, and what worked for one, or once before will not ensure future success. This can be particularly tough if it means reporting that a campaign was not as effective as it could have been, but it is the way the very best brands stay sharp and ahead of the game, and it also creates a culture where people do not fear failure, and are therefore willing to take risks."


Life-long student


Similar to having a commitment to continuous improvement, strong marketers are also lifetime students, says John Lincoln, co-founder and president of SEO and social media at Ignite Visibility.


"You always need to be combing blogs, studying, learning, and getting new certifications," says Lincoln. "In digital marketing, if there are two people with equal abilities and judgment, the deciding factor between who is better simply comes down to their thirst for knowledge. Internet marketing really is an industry where knowledge is power."

Willingness to experiment


You've probably heard this thousands of times: Digital marketing depends on testing and experimentation. Well, you've heard it so often because it's true, according to Dave Rigotti, who worked on Microsoft's Bing marketing team before joining Bizible.


"The biggest part to being a successful marketer now is to have a willingness to try new things, but to ground all of your decisions with data," he says. "It's all about taking calculated risks that are one step ahead of the competition. So you need to be the sort of person who's really comfortable with testing your marketing to see what's working and what's not."


Strategy and tactics


"Typically marketers would fall into two buckets," says Scott Rayden, chief revenue officer at 3Q Digital. "You had your marketing tacticians and your marketing strategists. I believe the successful digital marketer of the future will be a convergence of the two. The best marketers I've been around have had the unique ability to understand marketing at a tactical level, but could also understand how to leverage business data, consumer data, and marketing data to build strategy."


According to Rayden, what's forcing marketers to be able to think tactically and strategically is the nature of the industry itself.


"So much is changing in our industry right now and there is a huge focus around relevance and the personalization of advertising," he says. "Great marketers need to be able to develop, articulate, leverage the right team and resources, and execute on strategies that do a better job connecting brands and consumers in meaningful ways."


Knowing something besides marketing


For some people, it might make sense to say that the best marketers are those who studied marketing. But there's a contrary view on that topic that's worth considering, according to David Erickson, VP of online marketing at Karwoski & Courage.


"I am fairly skeptical of formal professional communications degrees because I think they teach a lot of stuff you'll quickly learn on the job but too little of the critical thinking skills required to excel," says Erickson. "I think people who have earned English or political science degrees, for example, are more likely to have the mental training required to be a successful marketer in the digital age. The study of literature requires you to learn how stories are put together by breaking them down to understand what the writer is saying. Political science majors, especially those who practice politics, will learn to decipher human motivations, perceptions, and how to network."


Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. Follow Michael Estrin at @mestrin.


"Business person standing against the blackboard" image via Shutterstock.

Incomprehensible data


You can't use data you can't understand. You probably shouldn't expect to understand every metric that comes your way, but someone should be able to explain your metrics to you if you ask. This is not always the case. It is possible that metrics are being provided that no one understands. This is most commonly the case with reports from ad delivery systems, such as bid management systems, emailers, and other systems that automate placement of marketing material in some way. These are often extremely sophisticated technology systems. However, they are usually operated by agencies staffed with people who lack detailed technical knowledge of how these systems work. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it does mean most agencies can click a few buttons and produce reports without knowing what's being measured, how, or even what the metrics reported mean. It's just -- "Click, print, email. Hey, presto! We're reporting." This boring and uncreative task is often assigned to interns and other office hopefuls, so the agency never really develops any understanding of performance metrics.


I once dealt with an SEO agency that reported its progress in terms of "the percentage of the relevant search space." The agency would proudly announce to the client that "51.5 percent of the relevant search space has been captured." Each month the SEO agency would report capturing a little more of this search space for the client. The client was happy because the percentages kept going up, but the client didn't really understand what it meant in concrete terms it could design marketing activity around. When questioned, we discovered the SEO agency could not explain what a "search space" was, how it was measured, how you assess relevant versus irrelevant search space, or even how any of this related to something as basic as website traffic.


The data is used to assess the performance of the agency providing it


Many agencies provide the metrics that clients use to assess their performance. Numbers calculated by them are used by clients to decide how much to pay agencies and whether to give them more business. If those numbers are poor, it will cost them business. It's a rare client who's going to say, "Well, that was a really terrible campaign. Your execution was poor, and you failed to meet all the objectives. But you did report all of this honestly, so I'll give you more work."


In the offline world, it is usual to check the numbers an agency gives you if it's going to affect that agency's bottom line. It's considered naïve to assume everyone will tell you the complete truth if doing so is going to hurt them. You don't have to be completely cynical to recognize that sometimes people will spin a little, err in their own favor, or highlight the numbers that present them in the best possible light. Even something as basic as a FedEx delivery sees the number of boxes delivered checked against the shipping note. Yet this seems to be rare thinking in the online marketing world. It's as if everyone trusts everyone completely. Who would have guessed -- online marketing is the most honest and trustworthy business environment known to humanity! Nobody in digital marketing will ever spin, exaggerate, or lie.


If you're having trouble accepting that the digital marketing community is a community of saints, check the numbers people are sending you. It's always possible to produce your own independent metrics to compare with someone else's. If an agency claims to be sending 100,000 people to the site, you can check your own site metrics. If it is placing AdWords via a bid management system, you can check AdWords data directly yourself. It's surprising to see how many agencies withdraw their bids for work when told their performance will be independently assessed.


While I am sure there are honest agencies out there, every time I've checked agency numbers I have found they are higher than mine -- much higher. Typically the numbers claimed have been three to five times what I could verify independently. I don't know if such exaggeration is typical; it's possible I've been unlucky. Maybe you're lucky and all your people supply 100 percent accurate numbers. However, unless you check their numbers against your own, you can't possibly know for sure.

Vanity metrics you can't do anything about


Data is not the same thing as information. Information is data that has value. You don't need data; you need information. Data is only of value if you can use it. There are many popular web metrics that are of no value. People often refer to these as "vanity metrics."


For example, page views are fairly useless. This is just a count of how many web pages were viewed on a website. There's nothing you can do to increase page views, and the count of page views says nothing about your site's performance. There's no real value in this number because it's just a product of other factors that you can do something about, like the number of pages on the site and the number of visits. You can increase the number of visits, and you can add or remove pages, but you can't directly do anything about page views themselves. Page views are useful only as a step to calculating the average number of pages per visit.


Web analytics systems have to be comprehensive. They need the capacity to serve up whatever information anyone may happen to want, so they need to cover a large number of measurements. People don't need most of these numbers most of the time, they only need a few numbers that relate directly to current activities. However, there is a tendency to produce comprehensive reports that flood managers with a tsunami of data. Often this is because the people producing the reports don't know what the people reading them are concerned with or what they need. When I design a web reporting system for a client, I find myself dumping reports more than adding new ones.


After reading a good web analytics report you should emerge with a number of things to do. If your web analytics reports don't lead to a to-do list, you're not deriving any value from them; they're just vanity metrics.


Compared to what? Raw numbers mean little.


"Hey, Barbie. How's your website performing?"


"Well, Ken, I got 100,000 visitors last month."


"Wow, Barbie, that's the same as my site. Isn't it great!"


"Sorry, Ken, but I usually get 1 million visitors each month. A mere 100,000 means my site is in serious trouble."


"Gee, Barbie, that may be bad for your site, but I usually only get a few thousand visitors each month. A massive 100,000 means stellar success for me."


Web analytics numbers are always relative to something else. They can be up or down on the previous month or previous year. They can be higher or lower than your competitors' numbers. On their own, isolated from trends or their environment, they don't mean anything.


The most common place raw numbers are used in isolation is pay-per-click bidding. The majority of bids are placed without reference to the income they will produce. Many AdWord bidders are paying two or three times what the click-through traffic produced earns.


A web metric is meaningless in isolation. It needs to be used in a trend or a comparison. It has to tell you something dynamic -- how you're performing over time, or how your performance compares to that of others.

Data doesn't match


Compare the same number from two different web analytics systems, and you'll almost certainly get two different figures. This is a big problem, and it most commonly occurs when you start independently checking the numbers your agencies or outlets are claiming. Whenever two different web metrics systems compare numbers, you inevitably get disagreements. The problems stems from the fact that there are no standards regarding how web metrics technology should be measured or calculated. Everyone does it differently. Different systems can even use the same name for completely different things.


A common example can be seen in ad assessment of multi-touch conversions. A multi-touch conversion occurs when someone makes multiple visits ("touches") to the site before converting. By default, Google Analytics attributes the conversion to the source of the last visit. Ad people like to attribute conversions to the first visit. Their logic is that if the ad introduced the visitor to the site for the first time, the ad should be credited for the eventual conversion. If this happens to present their work in the best possible light, I'm sure that's just a happy coincidence. It's debatable whether you can really credit an ad with a conversion if there are six months and ten visits in between. To be really accurate we should attribute something from every visit in the multi-touch sales sequence. However, the result is that AdWords conversion reports from Google Analytics won't match the numbers from the advertiser's ad management system.


Google Analytics doesn't make this any better by sampling. Once your traffic gets above a certain level, Google Analytics stops counting every visit. Instead, it starts taking a sample, keeping its own workload within limits. The busier your site, the smaller the portion of traffic Google will sample. It estimates the missing data from the samples. Google sampling can range from 50 percent of your traffic to less than 10 percent. Naturally, the more sampling, the less accurate the estimates. It's very difficult to compare sampled Google Analytics data with complete data from another system because you have no way of assessing the accuracy of Google's estimates. However, if you've got so much traffic Google Analytics drops into sampling mode, you've probably outgrown the free web metrics model. With that much traffic, you should be able to justify paying for something better.


This is never a hopeless situation. Once you understand how two systems are calculating the same metric, it's always possible to bring them into line. For example, Google Analytics can be configured to use first-touch attribution very easily, bringing it into line with ad delivery systems. Sometimes you have to do this manipulation outside the two reporting systems in something like Excel or Numbers. However, once you understand how the two systems work, it is always possible to bring them into alignment.

Summary


Let's summarize this by turning it around. What are the signs your data does have value (that it is information and not just noise)?


Your organization understands it
You don't need to understand every web metric, but there should be someone in the organization who can comprehend each one. Understanding a metric means knowing what it measures and how that measurement is technically calculated.


The data is independently verifiable
Where people produce the data that is used to check their performance, that data should be checked.


Actionable metrics
Web metrics should be directly relatable to things you can do. Data you can't act on amounts to mere vanity metrics.


Comparative numbers
Web metrics should compare performance over time or against comparable figures (such as benchmarks and competitor performance).


The same numbers from different systems should match
This is unlikely to be the case when you first look, but it is always possible to achieve with a little effort.


Remember, you don't want data; you want information. That means data you can understand, trust, and do something about.


Brandt Dainow is the CEO of ThinkMetrics.


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"Computer gibberish printout" image via Shutterstock.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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