The web has given us the ability to track amazing amounts of data. However, that data is only easy to track when the actions take place online. When you conduct business via the phone, in-store, or other ways that cause the user to go offline, the reliability of data begins to suffer.
There are several companies that offer different types of call tracking solutions. Some of those solutions are quite expensive, and others lead to data loss. Understanding the different ways of tracking phone calls is important when either selecting a vendor or instituting tracking on your own.
There are five main ways in which you can track phone calls. Of course, there are other methods and variations on these methods.
Unique phone numbers
You can have a unique number for each keyword, ad group, campaign, or account.
With this method, the first thing to determine is if you want to use a static number or a dynamic number. With a static number on the page, you will hard code the number into that page. If you hard code the number, then you will want to make sure that there are not additional ways of navigating to that page. If someone can enter your site from the main page and navigate to that page, then you will not have accurate information about which traffic source led to a phone call.
With dynamic numbers you will first have to determine a way to know what account, campaign, ad group or keyword initiated the traffic. The most common way of isolating these variables is to add parameters to your links that your system will read and display the corresponding phone number.
To further improve the tracking, you can set a cookie that corresponds to the traffic source. Then, regardless of what page someone navigates to on your website, you can display the phone number that is associated with that cookie. This is also useful if someone leaves your site and returns later. Since the cookie will still be set, you can still serve the call tracking number associated with the click to determine the quality of those clicks.
Pros: If you use dynamic parameters and cookies, this is one of the most accurate call tracking solutions that is possible. You will have very little data loss. However, you will have to decide additional business rules (for example, if someone clicks on a second ad, do you set a new cookie with a new phone number or keep the first cookie and the original phone number?). These types of rules will affect the type of optimization you can achieve.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage to this method is that it can become very costly. If you need thousands of numbers you could end up with some hefty phone bills. This method also requires some coding. If you are using a third party vendor, it might be as simple as dropping a script where the phone number appears. If you are coding this in-house, then it can take a bit of development work to coordinate the phone numbers with the ad copy, keywords, ad group or inventory source.
This method is identical to the method above, except instead of using a unique phone number, you will use a unique phone extension. The same rules apply with regards to static versus dynamic phone numbers and additional business rules.
Pros: This method can be much less expensive than using unique phone numbers. However, it can be just as accurate since you are using a unique extension for each ad group, keyword, or campaign.
Cons: The main disadvantage of this method is that not all phone systems support endless extensions, and adding new ones can be difficult or require the intervention of a different department. If your system does not support endless extensions, it might be less expensive to use another method that institute a new phone system. In addition, some consumers could be turned off by calling a number and then having to enter an extension. You should examine how many people call your number but do not enter an extension.
With this method you will generate a unique code that sits just below the phone number. When someone calls your office, the person answering should start with the dialogue, “To best direct your call, can you please read me the code below the phone number?” That person will then record that number (or punch it into the phone system) and then continue the call as normal. This method also relies on either generating a unique code (instead of phone number) listed in the unique phone number above by examining the link parameters or by hard coding the code into the page (which leads to some data loss).
Pros: This method requires a little bit of developer time, which is the same as any of the above methods, but the cost should be lower than buying a large amount of numbers that you pay for each month.
Cons: The biggest challenge of using this system is training those who answer the phone to ask and accurately record the codes.
Search engine conversion tracking script
All of the major engines have a conversion tracking system that allows you to see conversions within your account. However, those actions rely on someone viewing a page of your website that contains the code. If someone is calling you, then they are not viewing pages of your website. However, if you can be creative and get the caller back to a page on your website, then you can trigger the script to record the action. The easiest way to do this is to generate online receipts. When someone views their receipt, then the script is triggered and you can potentially tell which keyword, ad copy and landing page generated the conversion. However, you can also use methods such as receive a coupon, take a survey, etc.
Pros: The biggest advantage of using the engine’s conversion codes is you will be able to see phone calls in your PPC reports. The second advantage is that it requires very little additional coding (beyond adding a simple conversion script to the pages which the engines will walk you through when you sign up to receive the code). This is one of the least expensive solutions.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage is data loss. There will be people who will not revisit your website that triggers the code, or will do so from a different computer. Although this could be seen as a disadvantage, the silver lining is that you need to be creative to get someone to visit specific pages of your website. However, by sending someone back to your website, you do have an other opportunity to continue to engage the caller.
If you have 10,000 keywords, yet only one phone number (or even 100), how do you get keyword level call data? You use confidence factors to determine which keyword is generating the call. For instance, if you time stamp every click, and then track the time that each phone call came through to your business, you can start to see patterns that if this keyword is clicked, there is a percentage chance that our phone will ring in the next ten minutes.
This is a really useful solution for aggregators. Consider a company that does marketing for 1000 plumbers. While each plumber might have a unique phone number, it hurts margins to use multiple numbers for each plumber. While each plumber might only receive 20 calls a month, with 1000 plumbers, you could track 20,000 phone calls per month. In this case, that is enough data to begin learning which keywords, ad copy, keyword, and engine are generating the phone calls. You could even learn that keyword one generates phone calls in Seattle, but keyword two is more likely to generate phone calls in Miami.
If you generate 100 clicks and one phone call in ten minutes, then any one of those keywords could generate the phone call. If in the next ten minutes, you have another hundred clicks, but only two of them are from the first set and you have another phone call, then there’s a higher chance that one of those two keywords generated a phone call, but of course, this is not enough data to make a decision. This method does require a significant amount of phone calls to be able to confidently understand what keywords are leading to calls.
Pros: One of the advantages of this method is that it enables aggregators to affordably understand which keywords are leading to phone calls. Another is that you do not need a significant number of call tracking numbers, which makes this method more affordable than other solutions.
Cons: This method requires a lot of phone calls to gain confidence that a particular keyword is generating phone calls. If your PPC advertising does not generate a significant amount of phone calls, this is not the method for you. In addition, as you are creating confidence numbers, but without a one keyword to one phone call ratio, your data will not be completely accurate. The goal is to understand that when a particular keyword is clicked, you receive a phone call a certain percentage of the time so you can set bids based upon returns.
Note also that this method does not work well with long tail keywords. Long tail words might not have enough traffic for you to be confident in their ability to generate a phone call. In these cases, you might track at the ad group level instead of the keyword level.
Phone number pools
The last method is to keep a pool of phone numbers. This pool is smaller than the total number of items you wish to track. When a click occurs, you dynamically assign that keyword or ad group a phone number. That phone number will be associated to that keyword or ad group for a certain amount of minutes. After a while, that number goes back into the pool to be used by another keyword when necessary. All of the numbers in the same pool should be assigned to the same advertiser so even if a number expires in the tracking system, the number still rings to the correct advertiser. If you are an individual advertiser and like the idea of confidence stamping above, then this is a solution you should investigate.
Pros: Phone number pools work very similarly to the confidence factors (above) at the keyword level, but do not require nearly as much traffic. The more phone numbers you have, the less total traffic you need. This allows you to receive better data on long tail keywords, and have a higher confidence on low to medium trafficked accounts.
Cons: Whenever you use confidence factors, you will have false positives. If you have a lot of traffic and keywords, then you need to buy quite a few phone numbers. While this is not nearly as expensive as the unique phone call method, it can become pricey. Ask the provider what their error rate is in determining what keyword generated the phone call. Then ask their competitors what their error rate is. Hearing a 30% error rate is not uncommon. However, the larger the pool of numbers, the lower the error rate should become over time.
Helpful hints when buying call tracking numbers
Some companies will use one of the more expensive techniques, such as unique phone numbers or phone number pools, for a few months to gain enough data to make reliable bid decisions. Then they will turn off the call tracking for a while to save on expenses. After a while, they might then turn on call tracking again to see what has changed with their phone call leads.
When buying one or more numbers from a call tracking company, one of the most important questions to ask is how long a number been “cleansed” or not used by another party. Do a search for your number and see if that number appears on many web pages. A number that keeps receiving old calls is often called a “dirty number” and can ruin your tracking. Having a number out of commission for 90 days between users is fairly standard. If you receive a significant amount of bad calls from your call tracking number, do not hesitate to inform the call tracking company and request new numbers.
The other conversation to have is how additional minutes are pooled. When you buy a number, you usually pay a flat rate for that number per month and that number comes with X number of minutes each month. If you go over that limit, then you pay a per-minute overage charge. Some companies will keep those limits at the phone number level, meaning you might have one number go over and another under the limit but you still need to pay an overage charge.
A way to control your minutes is to create a pool. Instead of a single number having 30 minutes of talk time, having 20 numbers and 600 minutes of talk time, regardless of the number called, can help lower total costs.
Some other features that are common to see are call recording, API (if you want to hook up the call tracking to your system), call length, number of rings (useful for seeing how fast the phone is being answered), caller phone number (useful for finding patterns, such as telemarketers and blocking those numbers), and call block. Most features that are available on land lines are available with call tracking providers.
It is helpful to first determine a budget and a required feature list before evaluating vendors. As many vendors methods vary, having an idea of your preferred method, budget and features can help you evaluate who is a best fit for your needs.
Call tracking does not have to be an expensive or difficult proposition. At the least, you could buy a call tracking number (or use a Skype, Vonage, or Google Voice number) and use a different number per inventory source (one of adCenter, Yahoo, and AdWords) to understand if your PPC campaigns are generating phone calls. While this method will not give you enough data to set different bids by ad group or keyword, it will give you a high level picture of whether you are even receiving phone calls.
The more you want to track, the more expensive the tracking proposition becomes. If you are buying a large amount of numbers, do not be afraid to negotiate the call tracking costs.
Do not optimize your account for just total calls. You should enter the call information into your system to not just evaluate total calls, but also sales. If you receive a hundred calls a month and no sales, were those really good keywords or phone calls?
Once you have instituted call tracking, then you can use that information to set budgets and bids based upon returns. You can split test ad copy, ad groups, and different video or image ads to determine what is really working for your company. You can even use different numbers for your newspaper, yellow pages, billboards and other media buys.
If you conduct sales over the phone, you should use some level of call tracking to understand the returns you are receiving for your marketing spend. Do not bid blindly. Rather, bid based upon the profits and marketing goals your campaigns achieve.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.