A Guide To Choosing Your Paid Search Management Tool

For SEM pros, a search management tool is one of the most important pieces of technologies they own, so it’s obviously critical to have the best tool for the job. I’ve referenced Bonnie Jo Davis’s list of the ten capabilities a PPC management tool must have before in this column, but let’s review again.

Paid search management tool basics

  1. Allows you to manage your campaigns from anywhere in the world at any time.
  2. A simple and intuitive interface that does not require a degree in engineering.
  3. The ability to manage the most popular PPC advertising vehicles: Google AdWords and Yahoo! Search Marketing.
  4. A wizard or step-by-step instructions on setting up an account and campaigns, determining a budget, selecting keywords and writing ads.
  5. The option of monitoring multiple campaigns with multiple goals at the same time.
  6. The ability to set goals and use several different bidding strategies automatically without human intervention.
  7. The flexibility for you to fine-tune your campaign keywords, ads, goals and budget at any time.
  8. The option to set-up e-mail alerts for performance changes that you define based on your own criteria.
  9. A history or summary screen that gives you an overall picture of your campaigns without having to run reports.
  10. A robust reporting function that allows you to generate reports using many different variables that you choose on your own.

Many tools on the market allow you to do these ten tasks and much more, so it can be hard to navigate through the field in order to find the right one. They certainly all say they have the best customer service, show off their extensive client list, and boast about how their approach and their technology is the best in the market. Certainly companies that have been in business for awhile could may at first seem to have the advantage over newer startups, but you may find that it’s these more nimble players that have the most cutting edge solutions. And even if it’s easy to cut out most of the field immediately, it can get really tough to pick a winner from the final, worthy candidates.

One good piece of advice I can pass along is that no matter how many features the current tools have to offer, there probably never will be one that has all of the bells and whistles you really want. We often end up choosing a solution that we know isn’t going to meet one hundred percent of our needs, but  enough so that it sets itself apart from the field. In the end, we hope that our final decision will bring to our team a tool that fits the bill enough to be a valuable partner for years.

Choosing the right tool can be paralysis by analysis. The final decision could be more about chemistry and a gut feeling than the technology itself. You want to make the right decision, but without a crystal ball, who could possibly know what your experience will be until your team really gets into the tool and puts it through the wringer?

I’ve seen demos for about every SEM tool on the market, sat through countless pitches, and worked in at least a half dozen of the top tools available. Having recently performed an SEM tool review (and switch) for my company, I’d like to share some of the best practices and things to consider when in the market for a new search engine management tool.

  • First of all, do you really need something new? Switching tools is not like switching which laundry detergent you use. It can be an absolute nightmare. Just the training and getting your entire team comfortable with a new SEM platform can be a two to six month process. No matter how great the new tool is, be prepared to hear the moans and groans of your team when they find something in there that isn’t as good as the previous one. Make sure your current pain points are truly a justification for making a switch.
  • Don’t just go with the first guy. Do your due diligence. Even if the first tool you demo seems like it’s the right fit, you owe it to yourself and your team to make sure you look at least one or two others to see what’s out there.
  • Know what’s most important to you. For SEM tools, the main points which influence the final decision are usually price, technology, track record, look/feel of the interface, bells & whistles, and support. I know that many companies just look for the safest option. Even if there are other, newer tools that seem to have more robust features, they don’t want to take a chance that their search data will be handled poorly. For some companies that are short on resources, having a SEM tool that provides more of a full service approach could be key. For others, especially online retailers, a tool that has the best bid optimization to handle millions of keywords towards a CPA goal is the biggest factor. Before going into this review process, make sure you have truly gathered all of the feedback from your team so that you can set you criteria.
  • Remember, no one tool will be 100%. I have literally never seen any tool (let alone a search management one) that completely fulfills all needs. It just doesn’t exist. Even if your find a tool that fits most of your needs, you will have to settle. This tip isn’t meant to be negative, it’s just the truth. The point is, don’t feel discouraged that you’re not finding the perfect platform.  The goal of your review will be to find the best one for you out of what is available.
  • Ask around. Personal recommendations from other professionals are going to be your best source of data.  Word of mouth is always a very powerful influence in buying decisions for good reason. Try to find a SEM pro that you respect and get their opinion. Find out what tools they use and why. You may uncover some excellent intel to help you make your decision.
  • What’s on the product road map? Is the vendor constantly updating their tool? They should be able to share with you which features are currently being developed and what will be added in the near future. However, take this information with a grain of salt. When they tell you a feature will be available in six months, just know the development process can sometimes have unforeseen delays. Do not hold your SEM vendor to a tight product roadmap schedule. My best advice is to base your decision on the state of the tool today and not what it could be next year.
  • Bring your team into the process. Everyone who is going to be using the tool should have some say into the final decision. Once you’ve narrowed the vendor consideration set down to a few of the best, have them take your team through their demos. Urge your team to address every question/concern they have and collect feedback immediately after the session.  They could uncover issues that you may have not thought to ask.
  • What is the level of support? This is actually one of my most important criteria. Will you get an experienced account manager or is the tool more of a self-service solution? Can you reach an actual technical support person on the phone 24/7, just during business hours, or is it an email ticket system where you may have to wait hours for an answer? Also, what level of initial training is provided? What is available to you after the setup phase? Training videos? A robust knowledge base? Do they even have a manual for you? 
  • Find out exactly what the deal is. There can be hidden soft costs such as setup fees, overages, etc.  Be especially aware of your minimum spends…tools need to have monthly/quarterly/yearly minimums in place to make sure they have enough support bandwidth in place to handle the volume of business. But what happens if your spend levels drop?  Will you have to pay them thousands of dollars at the end of the quarter? Minimums are actually a good business practice but just know what you’re getting into.
  • Ask each vendor what questions you should ask their competitors. Search management software is their business. They know the industry better than anyone. Some of the best advice I’ve received about a tool is from competitors. Don’t try to get them to talk poorly of the other tools on the market, but they may certainly have some insight regarding the other vendors that could prove to be invaluable.
  • Make sure you have an “out clause”. You never know what you’re actually getting into. At first, it may seem like the perfect partnership, but if you’re two months into the relationship and it’s become obvious that they aren’t the tool for you, make sure you have an out clause in place so you can bail if you need to. It should be fair to both sides and usually is in the thirty day notice range.

Choosing the right search marketing tool for your company is not an easy decision. Just make sure you get as much information as possible and follow the tips above.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Toolbox


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.

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  • http://alexavery.com.au Alex Avery

    Great article. I would add to the list:

    * Integration with website analytics/CRM/APIs (shopping portals, display media, social media etc).
    * Push/pull integration with Search Engines’ tools.

    The latter is critical, as double handling updates is a nightmare when PPC campaign get large and complicated. The former is – IMHO – the “killer app” in bid management.

  • http://agoramedia.co.uk/blog GianluigiCuccureddu


    Good article.
    Agree with Alex, an integration with analytics and CRM is important to understand causal effects. (ad vs site vs product/service).

    Josh, what equilibrium do you seek in campaign management tools in order to successfully execute and understand advertising efforts? (automation versus human intel)
    Our view can be read here:

    Best regards,


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