I don't hunt, but my cat does, and I've come to admire her professionalism, judgment and efficiency. Sometimes it's hard to tell that she's working. She sits quietly staring at a pile of leaves, or a rock wall, or a patch of thick grass for hours on end. Experience has taught her that chasing squirrels is waste of time and energy, so she focuses on what works. At the end of the day, there is a pile of small rodents lovingly laid on our doorstep to be admired and possibly served for dinner if we followed the cat's intent.
Contrast the cat's approach to the average dog. The average dog dashes madly about the yard chasing squirrels, birds, bees, leaves, its own tail and anything else that moves. The dog will bark and bark and make a great show of its efforts, but at the end of the day the dog will have nothing to show for its work.
If you're interested in catching rodents get a cat. If you're interested in showmanship get a dog.
PPC firms fall into two camps along similar lines. Those who understand how to make search cost effective for their clients are analytical, empirical and know which rat-holes to avoid (remember "click-to-call"?) Less sophisticated firms focus on the external trappings of "Best Practices" published by the engines. These folks furiously rearrange deck chairs and do a great deal of barking about campaign structure, quality score and conversion funnels.
Oftentimes you can tell whether a firm is a "hunter" or a "barker" by the way they go to market. Barkers can promise huge performance benefits without looking at conversion data from the existing program. That's always struck me as an amazing talent. Hunters on the other hand study the data carefully before evaluating the success of a program, and are uncomfortable about promising results recognizing what is and what is not within their control.
In some respects, the "dogs" are more comforting, particularly during difficult times. "Look at that! He's chasing everything, he's goin' wild, that's a good boy. He's optimizing, he's fine tuning, he's leveraging, he's bridging gaps between the strategic and the tactical...he's awesome!"
Pretty clearly, the right way to evaluate a PPC agency isn't by the number of initiatives they chase, but by the results they generate at the end of the day. Action for the sake of action isn't simply unhelpful, it's a distraction from the tasks at hand.
In the next week we'll discuss the right way to evaluate your program in a down economy, and provide more tips on how to distinguish between quality PPC management firms and the barkers.