Three Questions To Ask When Selecting An Enterprise SEM Tool Provider

Having just experienced a round of demos from some of the major enterprise PPC tools, I can’t help but love my job. It’s always fun because I get to peek under the hood of some of the biggest, baddest, most robust search management tools on the market.

Within these demos, we talk about thin data, dynamic clustering, Bayesian math and other light topics such as attribution management, profit curves and media mix modeling.

The reason I do this, other than the fact that I like to hang out with both sales people and applied mathematics PhDs, is that for certain businesses at Yahoo!, is because we’ve historically built some of our own in-house search management technology. As such, I have to keep track of the latest developments and features in the enterprise SEM management tools market.

Truth is, these tools have come a long way in the past couple of years and they’re aggressively coming after large enterprise SEM campaigns like the ones we manage. Since most people don’t have the opportunity to build in-house SEM tools, I thought my experience here might benefit those who are considering building and/or buying tools.

Who Needs Enterprise SEM Tools Anyway?

Let’s take a step back first. How do you know if you should be using Enterprise SEM Tools? In my experience, there’s a somewhat logical decision tree here.

Ask yourself a few simple questions: First and most importantly, is SEM core to my business? Another way to think of this is, does SEM provide the majority of my business’ revenue?

If yes, then strongly consider building your own tools but beware, it’s a big, expensive commitment so you better have significant SEM revenue (and corporate backing) to support it.

If you answered “no”, then consider head count constraints. Can you hire, train and maintain an in-house PPC team or would it be more advantageous to outsource SEM to an agency? If you’re still leaning toward in-house management then you should think about scale. How big is my program? Is this US only or multinational?

The bigger and more complex your program is, the better a candidate you’ll be for an Enterprise SEM toolset. So, how do you choose a tool?

PPC Management Tools vendors

A few examples of Enterprise SEM tools providers


Integration: Know Your Data

Regardless of what tool you end up with, there’s going to be a data integration of sorts. For large companies with proprietary data systems, or in places where conversion events have variable, dynamic revenue attached to them, this can be a big deal.

If, however, your company is selling widgets or subscriptions to widget services, the integration will be less onerous, as you can probably cover this requirement with a third-party tracking system (and many enterprise SEM tools have their own tracking technology if you don’t).

All that said, having been through at least one failed integration, I’m here to tell you that this is critical. Get it right, and you can move on to actually using a toolset. Get it wrong, and you’re back to square one.

So before you even entertain an engagement with a tools vendor, get control of your conversion or revenue data (the cost data will come from the search engines directly, so don’t worry about that now). Understand where the conversion data comes from, what it looks like, how often it’s delivered, if there’s a database what’s the structure, etc., and how you’re going to deliver your data to the provider.

Also, you’ll need to understand URLs and how they’ll be handled by your internal data systems. Can they handle dynamic parameters, or will they need to be hard-coded? It makes a big difference once you get down to comparing tool feature sets so pay attention.

With regard to the integration itself, every tool provider will say they can handle it (whether or not they actually can), so the more you know about your data going in, the more skillfully you’ll be able to sniff out the posers and move on.

Problem Solving

Once you understand the data integration piece of the puzzle, it’s time to sit down and think seriously about what problem you’re really trying to solve. Is it most important to be able to report on SEM results globally to executives every month? Or it is paramount to optimize your search campaigns to a complex set of business metrics? Some tools are built to seamlessly integrate global enterprise SEM programs, delivering slick user interfaces with drag and drop custom report builders.

Others are built to drill mercilessly deep into your data stack to uncover the most obfuscated details of your data and leverage that to relentlessly squeeze the last basis points of operating margins out of your smallest optimizable unit of data. So how’s a search marketer able to make a smart decision? Most tools are going to have a bias one way or the other, so the more you have a feel for this going in, the better choice you’re going to make in the end.

Bake Off?

Ok, so now you have a good sense of your data picture, and you know what are the most (and least) important goals you have to hit, you’re ready to pick a provider. But how do you choose? I know, let’s give three tools providers different parts of my keyword portfolio at the same time, and see which one provides the best ROI.

Hold on a minute – this is where I tend to disagree with the way most search marketers operate. If you’ve done your homework, I think you should RFP a small number of providers and pick the one that best matched up with the criteria we’ve outlined above.

Why? First of all, because with search marketing it’s very difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison if you’re splitting up a campaign (or a time period, or whatever). There are simply too many variables that affect the outcome of a program to pretend that this would be a fair comparison.

Secondly, and most importantly, you are a search marketer. It’s your job to make decisions like this, not to rely on some half-baked bake-off scenario to make the decision for you. Make a call based on what you know, and if you fail, fail fast, and try again.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Enterprise SEM


About The Author: is Vice President, Marketing at Move, Inc., parent company of and other significant real estate-focused web properties. In this capacity, Roth oversees Paid and Organic Search, Affiliate, Mobile and Social Marketing for the Company. Prior to his arrival at Move, Dave was Sr. Director of Search and Affiliate Marketing at Yahoo!, Inc.

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  • Rodney Taylor

    Hi what a coincidence that you post this article, I am actually searching a PPC tool for auto bidding and reporting. I think Marin is a good choice, but since it’s only part of our Agency Buisiness it’s quite expensive (5% of our spend…). I was thinking about Adobe Efficent Frontier, but I can’t see the pricing and their staff dosen’t answer.
    Doses somebody know a good software for small PPC / SEO Agencies (we need a PPC only tool).
    Could be realy helpfull! Thanks!

  • Brooks McMahon

    And if you are looking for an SEM platform plus managed service to create and manage campaigns for small businesses, please check out  

    Brooks McMahon

  • George Michie

    David, all of your stuff is great, but this is particularly spot on.  RKG has been trying to figure out a mechanism to hold a bake off against competing platforms for years, but there simply isn’t one.  I wish there were, but as you identify there are just too many variables to control.

  • marc hoeft

    I do not believe that it really is still an option to build own in-house
    bidding and campaign management tools. Here in Germany even the largest PPC
    agencies start to abandon their own tools because it is getting impossible to
    keep up with all the new features and API changes that Google, Yahoo, Bing, Baidu,
    Facebook etc. are throwing at them. In my opinion with RTB and Social getting
    bigger and more fragmented a single platform to manage and optimize all these
    channels can never be build and maintained in-house.    

  • Dustin Sedlacek

    An experienced SEM can build out automated rules in Adwords that can automate a lot of the process and leave it on cruise control. 

  • Marc Poirier

    Full disclosure: I’m one of the founders – but have you taken a look at Acquisio? 

  • Omeed Nosrati

    My firm, eSearchVision provides a platform that is being leveraged effectively by several agencies and we employ a competitive pricing structure. Our technology is competitive with those of the organizations above. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more.

  • Omeed Nosrati

    Hi Rodney, my firm eSearchVision provides a complete PPC management tool that is competitive with those that you’ve mentioned. We offer competitive pricing and are currently engaged in successful partnerships with several agencies. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more. 


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