10 Bad Assumptions About SEM That Might Get You Fired — Part 1

I’ve been a search engine marketer (both paid and organic) for over ten years, and in that time I have made my share of mistakes. I’m not talking about pure accidents here — most of these mistakes were caused by poor assumptions on my part which turned out to be horribly wrong.

These mistakes cost me. In fact, some of them almost got me fired!

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

One of my mentors hammered home to me that every interaction you have with someone is an opportunity to either build or erode trust. I also learned over time that it’s much easier to erode trust than it is to build it. When you consider that every mistake you make could tear down the trust you’ve built, it’s important to make sure you cut down on your errors.

It’s okay to make mistakes. You just need to learn not to repeat them. My hope is that by sharing some of my poor assumptions that led to past mistakes, I will help some of you avoid the terrible feeling of your stomach churning on that slow walk of shame back to your desk after realizing you’ve made a major blunder.

Assumption #1: You Have All The Info (Or Don’t Have Enough)

The inherent problem with making decisions is that you will never know when you have all of the info. There’s a skill to knowing when you’ve gathered enough information and data to make an informed decision, something that takes experience to recognize. Pull the trigger too soon and there’s more of a chance you could be wrong; wait too long and there the cost of lost opportunity.

Acting too prematurely and optimizing your search engine marketing efforts based on a small subset of data can yield dreadful results. It’s always best to assume you don’t have enough data — that will keep you hungry for that next powerful insight which can actually turn out to be the difference maker on your accounts. Of course, the converse problem arises when you are too afraid that you don’t have enough information and are paralyzed to take action because of it….

Tip: Create data standards within your marketing organization on how much time, how many conversions, how much budget spent, etc., are required before making any decisions. I’ve seen marketers pull the plug on new campaigns just days after launch because they’re not hitting their numbers when great performance could just have been a few more days away. I’ve also witnessed marketers who wait too long to pull the trigger on a decision that could have been made weeks or months ealier. Having a solid benchmarking practice is crucial to knowing when you have enough (or not enough) info to act.

Assumption #2: Everyone Understands What You’re Talking About

Sometimes as practitioners, we are so close to the medium that we don’t realize how much it may sound like gibberish to others. You can’t always expect everyone around you to raise their hand and ask for clarification — especially in a room full of peers.

I’ve been in meetings where I’ve presented data insights and had the entire room nodding in agreement on my recommended course of action, yet found myself defending the same position weeks later. It’s the job of every search marketer to know your audience – and a major part of that job is to ensure that you’re understood by your own people!

Tip: Spend some one-on-one time with members of your team (even your boss) that you think might be struggling to understand key concepts that are important to your objectives. This way they can ask questions they may think would sound dumb to others. If you begin to notice that a certain topic is widely misunderstood, set some time aside to put on a group session to go through it in depth.

Assumption #3: All Of The Goals Are Aligned Across Stakeholders

I remember a situation back in my agency days when our client’s main point-of-contact for paid search told us to drop our branded term bids mid-quarter. Weeks later, during the quarterly review, we got reamed out by that person’s boss for not bidding on branded terms — and the point-of-contact sat there quietly and let us take the fall.

Let’s face it: Most of us have multiple bosses — and each is focused on making sure that they’re maximizing the piece of business that they own. Whether it’s different clients, managers, co-owners, or even just someone more senior than you, it’s important to learn how to juggle conflicting orders.

This is especially difficult in search where, to be most effective, each keyword should have its own strategy. It’s hard to run an effective search campaign when one stakeholder is telling you that first position is the only thing that matters and another is looking for value across the portfolio, or when separate business unit owners think the visitor should be sent to their section of the website.

Tip: Learn to recognize conflicts of interest early, and set the tone that they need to be solved quickly. It’s your right to demand clarity on what the primary business goals are in order to perform your job. Before each quarter, campaign, account, etc., write out the current goals and float them around for everyone to sign off on. Then, next time you review the performance, start off with the stated goals to make sure everyone remembers what was agreed upon.

Assumption #4: The Account Is Doing So Well It’s On Auto-Pilot

This is truly a sin for search marketing and an assumption I made very early on in my career. Let’s face it, after months and months of solid performance from a campaign, it’s very easy to turn your attention elsewhere. But, that’s the moment when everything can go awry. Seasons change. New competitors come into the market. Consumer trends or world events can spike and dip your performance. The very best search marketers always keep their hands on the wheel.

Tip: We all try to get more accomplished in a day than we have time for. Shortcuts — good shortcuts — can increase productivity. If you aren’t able to really spend time every day on every campaign, try using automation such as scheduled reports sent to your email in the morning, alerts that signal you when something severe is happening, etc.

Assumption #5: People Around You Are Checking Their Work

Okay, this assumption isn’t limited to just search engine marketing. In every company, sloppy work can sink the ship. However, within the marketing industry, there isn’t a more numbers-driven, granular practice than SEM. As reports get handed from person to person, even a slight error in a spreadsheet can lead to major issues. You just can’t take anything for granted. Your colleague’s poor work may be the product of having been out late the night before, being slightly under the weather, or just plain apathy.

Tip: Have a very strict Quality Assurance (QA) process that ensures that multiple checks are conducted before any report is finalized. At my previous agency, we had a three-point process.

First, the practitioner grabbed someone on the team who was free to perform a quick spot check. Then it went to their manager who had a 10 minute checklist of things to go through which included pulling up the engine and checking multiple metrics. Finally, the account manager would go through the report and make sure it looked right based on the business (for example, if the client was spending $100k/mo. this year, why would it show $120k so far this month?).

I’m not done yet! Next time, I’ll share the final five worst assumptions I’ve ever made — including the one that almost got me fired.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • http://brian23.com Brian

    5, 10 hey it’s all the same lol

  • Chase Anderson

    Still counting, haven’t made it to 10 yet.

  • Guest

    Obviously people around you are not checking the work…

  • Daniel

    “10 Bad Assumptions About SEM That Might Get You Fired — Part 1″. This is a wild guess, but I think there might be a part 2 to come. ;)

  • Wolfgang Rienhard Bloomfield

    I know what you mean by having a boss, I have stopped working for local businesses, they don’t understand what you are doing, and want you to change things that you know will hurt their business.

    If you do what they are asking you to do, quite often it can ruin what you are working towards, but they don’t want to understand.

    A lot of what they want is to do is with their own pride or ego, and you can’t work with that.

    So now I build e-commerce stores, and don’t worry about what the local business wants me to do.


  • Rajesh_magar

    Truly Inspiring…. will love to read across whole 10.

  • Matthew Jancosek

    Know your audience – Is probably my biggest mistake in the past. I take pride that I speak two languages (tech and common), but at time when talking to clients you think you are talking on their level but you really are still over their head. They will look at you and agree and nod their head, but in reality they do not know what is going on and probably embarrassed to admit it.

    That is why now I ALWAYS follow up with an email which I break it down even further. This way your client had the meeting and then an email (a written document) going over what was just talked about. The email is broken down into several broken down facts. This is where I usually get the questions that should have been brought up in the meeting.

  • http://www.swayamdas.com/ Swayam Das

    The part 1 is really cool :-) When’s Part 2 releasing?

  • buginsoup

    Not just for SEM, Its applicable for developers, designers, PMs and anyone who is involved in a collaborative world of project development.

  • Jonathan Hatton

    Great article really like #4 and #5 !

  • Jonathan Hatton

    Great article really like #4 and #5 !


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