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Flexibility = Power in Paid Search

Flexibility and Power

There are many different types of Paid Search agencies. Some rely on the engine’s UI and spreadsheets to do their work, the more sophisticated have either built or rented a tool set to use for bidding, ad management, etc. Some in this last category expose their UI to their clients, while others, like RKG, use their proprietary tools on behalf of their clients.

The tool providers call around and offer tours of their products and I usually take them up on it…once. It’s always interesting to see where others are in the evolution of the industry. Most of these tools do the basics very well and would be a huge help to an agency just wading into the space.

That said, on the all important analytic front the best of these systems is about where RKG was in 2005 — not bad, but nowhere near where we are today. Sometimes they ask: “what would RKG need to see in this tool that would make you seriously consider switching?” “A reflection of my corpse.” is my honest, but not so helpful response.

Without going into the underlying statistics, the data architecture, methodology and other important differences the biggest weakness is perhaps in the limitations of the UI. I’m not talking about specific features that are missing, I’m talking the limitations inherent in any UI.

I’ll show you a screen shot of the most powerful piece of RKG’s UI:

SQL Query Window

Yep, it’s just a blank query window. In that nothingness, our analysts have the flexibility to find and do anything and everything. The power to custom-craft any data, any analysis, any bidding enhancement to fit just the ads and data you intend cannot be hard-coded into a UI.

The drawback to infinite flexibility and that power that comes with it is that we can’t expose our UI to our clients, and we have to hire remarkably sharp people who can learn to be power SQL users and train them. We’ve had to grow slowly relative to others — still 315 on the Inc 500 list, but — and only recently moved from having one full-time sales person to having 2.5 FTEs on Marketing/Sales/PR.

We think the benefits far outweigh these inconveniences. As I’ve argued before, you can’t lead in this space if you’re using the same core technology as others; the ability to add features and tools as needed is irreplaceable, and the power and flexibility gained by having thoroughly trained sharp analysts with the power to code anything they need into the system cannot be supplanted.

It is easier to follow a different path, but we think we’ve found the right one for our firm.

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Comments
16 Responses to “Flexibility = Power in Paid Search”
  1. mschoeffler says:

    Interesting post (like always), but could you explain a little further?

    Are you stating that paid search analysis is so tricky that any UI must include the ability to perform ad-hoc queries on the underlying database? That analysis can’t be done properly without an expert in building queries? I think there’s probably a fair case to be made for either view, but I’m not sure if you’re driving in that direction.

    I may be misreading a Zen post (the UI is a distraction from the data?). Please elaborate.

  2. Thanks for your question, Michael, sorry I didn’t make that clear.

    My argument is that to do the analysis and bid management to the last measure of excellence, you have to be able to wade in the raw data and pull out those small distinctions that are easily missed. No UI allows analysts that infinite flexibility, not only to look at data segmented and aggregated any way you can dream, but to actually be able to roll those findings into the bid management system.

    Now, for many companies the cost of that level of service does not pay for itself in benefits. Wringing out that last 5% or 10% can be worth a small fortune to major advertisers, but might only be worth a couple hundred bucks to a small advertiser.

    I might write another post on “data blindness” related to your other point, though. It’s certainly true that folks can spend so much time looking at cool reports that they forget to actually take actions that impact the numbers.

  3. Jay McCartney says:

    Excellent post George… and spot on as usual. I find that most people are far too enamored with the glitz and glamour of a “sophisticated” UI. A big problem with any UI is that you are left staring at the data through views that someone else has deemed to be useful. There is generally little to no room for the type of creative analysis that turns up actionable gems.

    I’ll take a blank query window over a UI any day of the week.

  4. Thanks Jay, we geeks need to stick together!

  5. Marc Adelman says:

    George,

    Great post. The trouble with creating a UI is that one puts a line in the sand. “This is where our functionality will be until the next update.”

    Therefore a UI is a functionally limiting factor. It may increase some aspects of work flow – but when the UI is put on the ROI scale does it tip the scale towards more return. Not necessarily (I actually think the opposite). SEM is about flexibility. Flexibility of view, flexibility to group and manage, and flexibility to act on.

    Why draw a line in the sand in functionality. Direct change as it happens, rather than wait for the next update to address something from a different strategy or view point. I actually think (for an advanced SEM internal team or outside agency)a software platform for SEM is far inferior to a custom back-end API application.

  6. I couldn’t agree more, Marc.

    Having the open, never-finished platform has led to amazing interplay between our analysts and engineers. Our analysts have led a great deal of the development efforts based on the needs presented by diverse clients. Having super-sharp, trained users means our engineers focus on building functionality rather than pretty GUIs. It also means the analysts have the power to ‘hack’ solutions to their own problems and only task the IT folks when the hacks need to be done repeatedly.

    No substitutes for hiring well.

  7. Billy Ye says:

    This approach definitely nails it in terms of hiring an SQL pro over a GUI monkey for SEM analysts positions. The new requirements should be: “Do you know DOS?”

    If they can write in binary, they would be an instant hire. :)

  8. huayin says:

    Thanks for yet another satisfying read.

    As much as I find agreement with you on the spirit of thing, I am uneasy with the implied notion that the true mastery of paid search is Zen-like – something can’t be embedded in a set of analytics practice.

    Although there is truth in it, what I feel most needed for paid search industry is to get out of piecemeal general observations, tips and wisdoms rooted only in experience but to focus on the development of rigorous analytics practice.

    The limitations of UI in commonly marketed tool and software speak more about the lack of advances in paid search analytics than it is about the nature of knowledge in paid search.

  9. Billy and Huayin, thank you for your comments.

    I agree with you, Huayin, on the notion that so many folks are missing the basics, that talking about the edges of the space is not so helpful.

    Most of our blog is devoted to exactly the kind of “how to”, what should we look at fundamentals of which you speak, and our in-house platform allow our analysts to do these quickly and easily.

    However, my point in this post is about what is need at the very highest level of search; to be able to compete with the very best you must have the ability to access raw data and use it to forge new understanding. Executing the fundamentals well will get you to the 90th percentile, but you can’t get to the summit without the open platform, imho :-)

  10. Chad Summerhill says:

    I know I’m a little late in reading this post, but it relates so closely with my experience that I had to respond.

    As an in-house search marketing analyst, I manage a PPC marketing budget in the millions so I get a lot of request to demo SEM tools.

    4 years ago I was telling the vendors I don’t care about your UI, can I get my data in a format for analysis. Most of the time the answer was no, or with limitations I couldn’t accept.

    So,we built our own web analytics solution and put our clickstream data & ppc data (pulled through the APIs) in our data warehouse with all of our other important data.

    All of the sudden we could ask any question we wanted of our data and tie it to our off-line revenue data–we became much more powerful as a result. We even built software that was driven by this data (bid management, landing page testing, etc.).

    I spend a lot of time writing SQL and pulling data in to Excel or Tableau, so I can relate to your UI screen-shot above. My data warehouse and an Excel pivot table will blow most(all that I’ve demoed) web analytics solution out of the water. We run Google Analytics in parallel to our proprietary solution to answer easy/typical web analytics questions.

  11. Chad Summerhill says:

    I know I’m a little late in reading this post, but it relates so closely with my experience that I had to respond.

    As an in-house search marketing analyst, I manage a PPC marketing budget in the millions so I get a lot of request to demo SEM tools.

    4 years ago I was telling the vendors I don’t care about your UI, can I get my data in a format for analysis. Most of the time the answer was no, or with limitations I couldn’t accept.

    So,we built our own web analytics solution and put our clickstream data & ppc data (pulled through the APIs) in our data warehouse with all of our other important data.

    All of the sudden we could ask any question we wanted of our data and tie it to our off-line revenue data–we became much more powerful as a result. We even built software that was driven by this data (bid management, landing page testing, etc.).

    I spend a lot of time writing SQL and pulling data in to Excel or Tableau, so I can relate to your UI screen-shot above. My data warehouse and an Excel pivot table will blow most(all that I’ve demoed) web analytics solution out of the water. We run Google Analytics in parallel to our proprietary solution to answer easy/typical web analytics questions.

  12. Chad, thanks for joining the discussion.

    The power unleashed by giving smart people full access to the raw data and the tools necessary to act on what they find is indeed remarkable.

    At the highest level paid search can never be a black box, push button program. Absent the sharp analyst with flexible tools, there will always be opportunity left on the table.

    George

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