My Top 10 Insights From 10 Years In Search

I recently reached my nine year anniversary in the search industry, which means I’m now on my tenth year in SEM.

I started buying keywords on Overture with a company I wasn’t even doing marketing for, which got me into some early e-commerce activity, and then to the agency world.

It definitely feels like a marriage…there have been some good times, some bad times. Some amazing times, and some really down in the dumps times. I’m nowhere near the person I was when I started and neither is the search biz.

We’ve both grown tremendously in the last decade and I don’t think either of us realized just how big this thing was really going to be. I feel like a proud spouse watching my significant other’s success with a huge smile.

I’ve learned a lot in ten years too — usually by making mistakes. Aptly, here are ten insights I’ve gained in ten years. Maybe some of you folks new to search won’t have to learn like I did — the hard way.

1.  Test. Optimize. Repeat.

This was one of the first major best practices I learned all of those years ago. Everything you do in paid search is just an experiment waiting for its testing period and analysis. No tactic is set in stone. No result is considered the best; performance can always get better if you can get smarter.

2.  The Most Granular Level Is Not The Keyword

I’ll credit SearchRev with really hammering this home when I worked with them in 2008. Their paid search management tool was the first one I had seen that allowed each ad or keyword to have multiple landing pages loaded in.

Just the same way you would test multiple ads with each keyword, why not test multiple landing pages for each keyword/ad combination –  because conversion rates will definitely be affected and optimized at that level?

Now, years later, the most granular level of paid search might be more like:  keyword + match type + bid + geotargeting + ad + landing page.

I feel that if you treat the keyword as the most granular level, you’ll make clunky, high-level adjustments to the campaign elements which could end sending ripple negative affects across the account.

3.  Put More Into The Upfront Work

Some of the grunt work of SEM such as research, keyword building, ad group and campaign grouping, etc. have a tremendous effect on the success and management of the account. If you put really great effort into the research, the insights you uncover will pay dividends during the flight of the campaign.

Sometimes, we overdo the research just to ensure we’ve done enough. And just really thinking through the architecture of how you build your ad groups and campaigns before you begin can make future reporting, analyzing, and optimization more efficient.

4.  Short Head/Fat Middle/Long Tail

I detailed my philosophy on this in a column a few years ago and it’s still the way that I approach paid search management.

The Short Head are your top handful of terms that really drive most of your spend and conversions — usually these are your branded and product terms. I recommend looking at those every day manually as those have the biggest effect on your account.

The Long Tail (at least how it’s been bastardized for SEM from Chris Anderson’s original vision) are all of those hundreds or thousands (maybe even hundreds of thousands) of keywords that just get minimal searches per month. Usually, some sort of tech solution or management tool is best utilized to handle these at scale using auto-optimization technology.

The Fat Middle terms are the ones between the Short Head and the Long Tail.  They don’t necessarily warrant to be checked every day,but they’re certainly more important to the account the tail terms and do require some manual attention on a reoccurring basis.

5.  Don’t Get Complacent When Performance Is Great

Even the most professional SEM pros probably struggle with this one. You spend months, if not years, getting the account in a great place and its performance is knocking the socks off your boss (or your client). You just don’t think you can squeeze any more water out of that stone, especially with other accounts waiting on optimization which may not be performing so well.

To combat this at my agency, we institute an optimization plan of attach at either the campaign start or on a reoccurring basis for ongoing accounts. The optimization team can go off the menu at any time if they feel that an account doesn’t need the scheduled optimization that week, but they have to replace it with something better.

6.  Never Stop With Your Education

Another best practice that I learned fairly early… Things change so often in this industry that you have to stay on top of it, even if you think there’s nothing new going on.

I especially credit Google and their aggressive product roadmap with AdWords. Their innovation schedule is unbelievable and that product grows in power every year it seems. Plus, as the digital marketing industry in general grows and evolves, it affects the way search is used and perceived.

7.  Have The Right Tech Stack

Get good at evaluating SEM vendors and understand what’s on the market and available to you. Yes, you could do paid search with just AdWords and AdWords editor. But I think there are major limitations if you don’t use some of the advanced tools that are out there. Some of them are even free! Check out my Giant List of Keyword Tools post from last year for some ideas.

8.  Get Up To Speed On Your New Tools As Quickly As Possible

This took me years to learn. Many times, when you start with a new tool, there’s so much to learn and you’re already busy with other things, that the tendency is to phase out the onboarding process.

However, I’ve completely turned around on that way of thinking. What I learned was many live, account mistakes occurred during the onboarding process that could have been avoided with training. Also, time is money. You’re probably bringing in this new tool for a reason—so whatever that reason is, why not get it going ASAP?

9.  Everyone Needs To Be Great (Not Just Good) At Excel

For the lucky few of you out there that have been able to completely wean themselves off of Excel, I applaud you. But most of us have to spend some at least some time in spreadsheets.

That being the case, everyone in your organization (except maybe the cleaning lady) needs to be great at Excel. We utilize on-demand Excel video training as well as our own on the job learning.

10.  The Search Industry Is (Still) A Small World

Today’s colleagues may be tomorrow’s clients. Your local engine rep could be at another engine next year. This is the nature of our little world and it’s a good idea to read the trades, follow the industry (hires/fires/acquisitions/etc.) and attend conferences.

Most importantly: be nice to Google.

I’ve had my fair share of issues and screaming matches over the years with them, but the hard fact is that Google is search at least for now and the foreseeable future. It’s not always easy to work with them, and I’m not always easy to work with either, but if I want to work in search marketing, I have to have a good relationship with the Big G. I’m glad to say my relationship with them is better now than ever.

Ultimately, it’s still just a company of people and they do hire great folks. Usually the issues are more about policy the individual folks have zero control over, so they’re just as frustrated as you when they can’t help you out.

Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.

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.

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


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  • Greg Moore

    What’s your fav on demand excel training solution?

  • Greg V

    Thanks for your insight, especially about the stay on top of new tools. There are a “million” articles out there, but yours seem to emphasize staying grounded with your nose to the grindstone.


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