Spotlight on Search: Interview With Andrew Goodman
Andrew Goodman is known as the guy who “wrote the book” on Google AdWords or at least that’s one of the ways I like to think of him. He’s authored/edited Traffick.com since long before blogs became popular, speaks at numerous industry conferences and also has a successful SEM agency, Page Zero Media. In this interview, Andrew explains how he tossed in the towel on his PhD to become, gasp, an internet marketer!
Andrew, we’ve been bumping into each other at conferences for a while now and Ed Kohler is nowhere to be seen. Maybe if he reads this he’ll hit SES New York?
I hope so. I’ve been missing Ed!
Please tell us about your background. How did you get involved with search engine marketing?
Do you want the real answer?
My real entry into all of this came in the form of Traffick.com, a site that was hatched in summer 1999 as a sort of hobby. We thought we’d write about “portals,” as others were writing only about the search engine component of portals. I still think seeing the “search” companies as large monopolists who control the user agenda (and dollar flows) is a productive way to look at it. For pointyheads scoring at home, it’s Marshall McLuhan meets Gabriel Kolko, or something. In case you hadn’t guessed, I was a political scientist nearing completion (we’re talking one chapter short of a finished dissertation) of a PhD when I began dabbling in my side passion, Internet business.
As my friend J.W. once introduced me (after a couple of apple martinis at SES Boston): “This is Andrew Goodman, theinnellexshual.” But it’s been awhile since I had a deep thought. I’m in marketing now.
Traffick.com was getting going as I was still a part-time university lecturer working a couple of jobs in the summer to stay afloat. One of those jobs was as a researcher on a forgettable book called Internet Directory 2000 (Prentice-Hall). A print book containing interesting URL’s — what a concept. Like a kind of bound annual version of “Site of the Day.” I could have consoled myself with the idea that it made a good stocking stuffer, but it was too frickin heavy.
The contacts we (Cory Kleinschmidt and I) made publishing that site were phenomenal. Before I knew it I was in the thick of a few things that seemed like very real business, like consulting here and there, and some other more memorable events like being in the front row of dot-com liquidity events that I can’t discuss here. I decided life was more exciting “on the outside,” and have no plans to ever return to an academic milieu.
I have fond memories of fighting to preserve affordable postsecondary education — the battles were fun, but the reality isn’t. We lost.
“Stars and personalities” like Seth Godin, Danny Sullivan, Jakob Nielsen, and Chris Locke were very important to me carrying on and being interested in all this. I suppose like some kid might be inspired by Richard Branson.
As I observed the emerging Internet economy, and tried to figure out how I’d fit in, a lot of the bubble era stuff made me uncomfortable, with questionable schemes for “cashing out” of non-companies. Remember Flooz? eFront? and 100′s of others like them?
Eventually I decided to figure out how to structure a real search marketing consulting business. Like most, I have learned something new every day, both in terms of working “in” the business, and working “on” the business.
Some veteran search marketers suggest that a combination of paid search and organic might yield the best results when top positions are achieved for both. Have you found that to be true? Is it realistic for a large campaign?
Successful companies — and I don’t mean they have to be large companies — don’t worry about the odd nickel or dime here or there. I do tend to believe that appearing in both paid and organic positions is a benefit. So you’re going to save 50 cents or $3.00 on a click on the paid side by not showing up. Did you just lose a customer worth $1,000 or a media mention worth much more? How can you be sure?
Compared with what’s going on offline, Internet marketers overanalyze strategy and tactics to a fault. Efficiency is king, but it’s such a dynamic medium that every ten minutes you spend working on the nonessential, the essential stuff just cost you $100, or $500, or….
Also, you can’t rely on being in top positions as often as you’d like. I think it’s Guy Kawasaki who said “Get Better Reality.” Firms with exciting realities will have a lot easier time seeing that reality reflected in good search results and an ability to convert sales from paid listings.
On the surface, it might look as if clients choose search marketing consulting vendors. At the top end, it’s more like, the consultants are in search mode for clients they can truly help. That can mean good niche companies with potential, or strong brand names with budgets. It usually doesn’t mean the 486th best refurbished laser printer cartridge company in America. Unless of course you figure out how to make the Purple version (oblique Godin reference), in which case you might now be the only Purple Laser Cartridge Maker.
What are some characteristics of a good paid search marketer? For companies looking to hire a consultant or an agency, what are the main things to look for?
I think most companies today are looking for problem-solvers. They need the most comprehensive solution possible within the available budget. They need a “go-to” person, or two. A “go-to” person has solid domain knowledge, plus secondhand knowledge or in-house knowledge of related areas, plus solid industry connections so that no problem is unfamiliar at the end of the day.
In the past week I’ve read two major features on upstart ad agency Taxi, now taking Madison Avenue by storm, even though they claim they’ll stop taking new clients when they get too big (now at 120 employees). The firm got its name from the founder’s conviction that the “perfect creative team” to supervise even the most demanding ad campaign would be about the number of people you could fit into a taxicab. What’s that, about five?
On a search marketing project, that could be two or three. It could even be one, as long as that one has great resources around them. I wouldn’t look for those who can read from a script, then. I’d look for those who have exhibited depth and breadth.
Those who set themselves up as an “island” of wisdom are suspect. Where, after all, does the knowledge come from?
So … nameless faceless qualifying criteria are not big with me. Most wannabe consultants (including those who work for Yahoo and Google, ha ha) are pretty good at reading from a script. If you’re into sports analogies, the client is looking for that great combination of brawn and brains, a Brett Favre or Annika Sorenstam who can be nearly down for the count and then come back and engineer a victory through persistence and brainpower. Honestly, who do you want to go to war with? Who do you want in your foursome? Annika, who can not only choose the right club and swing to hit the perfect shot into the wind, but actually hit the shot under pressure, or the local club pro, who can maybe show you how to grip a club and align your feet properly?
I think I’m getting too sportsy so I’ll cast about for a quick getaway from this question now. ‘Scuse me…
You’ve “written the book” on Google AdWords, twice. What prompted you to write the first one? The second? How did you manage to write such a comprehensive book and run your business without requiring hospitalization?
The first one, of course, came out in ebook form in March 2002 and really took off the moment I started selling it. A bit later, MarketingSherpa and many others helped to publicize it. Believe it or not, I’d been working on a comprehensive SEO document for eighteen months by that point, but I kept feeling like the subject was too broad and no one would get excited about it, so I never completed it.
In the meantime, I was getting into arguments with pro-Overture folks who swore AdWords (the PPC version, launched in Feb. 2002) was utterly useless and would be a complete flop. I saved a list of my debating points and turned it into a 17-page “rant,” that I was thinking of publishing as an article. It might have been 12 pages. It might have been 23. As my publicist, Lee, I may need to rely on you to fancy up my original myths just a bit, and keep my story straight. Thank you in advance.
Anyway, I decided — hey, why not try to sell an ebook on something very specific, like how to save a failing AdWords campaign?
The SEM world liked the idea so much, at least ten others came up with the same idea and published competing books! But mine sold with no competition for close to 18 months before others came along.
The second book (the print book called Winning Results with Google AdWords) was harder than the first, because it was as much work, but over a much longer time frame. I did it because I liked the idea of having a book on store shelves if I happened to be in an airport with my Mom. But in reality, I guess the request took me a bit off guard. Tara Calishain, who had co-edited Google Hacks, recommended me to the publisher, and the first acquisitions editor I worked with at McGraw-Hill was a delight (as was the second). It never occurred to me *not* to do it.
As I attempt to act as an editorial overviewer for my colleague, Mona Elesseily, as she works on the Yahoo Search Marketing Handbook, I have new respect for the traditional publishing biz. Helping an author organize her material, and prodding her to gather more facts, is plain hard work! (Not half as hard as being the author, but very hard.) I have zero respect for the amount of direct money you can make from it in terms of royalties, but for all their faults, traditional publishing houses have quality control in mind. I think there is a place for both “on demand” and “slow-cook” publishing. Readers are willing to listen to rambly stuff that isn’t quite polished if it solves a business problem for them today. Others prefer a more structured approach.
You’re right though about the near-hospitalization. I’ve talked to a few authors this fall, and there isn’t a single one of them who hasn’t agreed that they got to a point where they wanted to just shout “kiss my ass” and walk away from a book project. It plays tricks with your head, rereading your own material and trying to dig up facts, when you’ve also got a full-time gig. When your “free time” to write an entire chapter is 72 hours, you’d better be long on practical advice because you’re going to be a bit short of the time it takes to create a magical reading experience.
AdWords has been making lots of changes this year. What has the most impact for new users of AdWords? For “grizzled search marketing veterans”?
Andrew: The new Quality Score formula is a black box to advertisers, yet it (along with your bid) determines where your ad ranks on the page. It’s particularly troubling for new advertisers who have no performance history. There’s no simple formula for survival. In practical terms, “good” companies will do better than “evil” companies. We know generally what the Google folks think of as “evil,” and the process of checking this out could include elements of your site itself. That’s right, one of the four components of Quality Score is the landing page. Google doesn’t say what exactly they look at on the landing page, but deceptive companies and irrelevant ads are clearly going to take a hit. Unfortunately, it’s an algorithmic hit, so there is no way to “appeal” a low quality score to a human editor. Weird, but that’s Google.
For long-timers, the new login protocol is going to cause headaches. In addition, it is now time for all advertisers to be concerned that Google has reached a size where “free” isn’t necessarily enough of an incentive to choose Google’s analytics tool (Google Analytics) over a third-party service. Finally, we would love it if Google would stop calling our clients and offering to optimize their campaigns.
But for experienced advertisers, it must be said that much of the story is good. Many features have been improved. I love the new keyword tool, and content bidding, for example.
Budgets for paid search continue to increase year over year and inventory issues don’t seem to be going away. Will there come a day when only the biggest budgets can run successful paid search programs or are search engines getting better at finding new opportunities for search advertising?
That’s the $80 billion question. Search alone isn’t enough to sustain search companies as global advertising powerhouses.
It’s all too easy to generalize about growth, but what’s likely to happen is a kind of sorting process where different types of companies can buy ads and exposure in a way that makes sense for them. It still makes sense to see search (both organic and paid) at the core of that.
Classifieds and local listings are easy to dismiss as small beer, until you add the dollars all together. That’s one mighty keg.
I’d love to see what other experiments happen with offline-online convergence, allowing advertisers to bid on digitized product placement on television, or “post office floor billboard” inventory, and the like.
Getting from here to there raises interesting questions. Google wants to be your ad agency — Eric Schmidt said so. Unfortunately they are nothing like an ad agency, and most people who work there don’t even like advertising. Well really, who does like advertising? Hmm. Ad agencies, and search advertising agencies. Or at least they pretend to, for a living. I think companies like Google will want to accord the agencies more respect going forward. (Yes, that’s my polite way of going all Aretha on them. R-E-S-P-E-C-T!)
Yahoo thinks they’re better positioned to capture branding dollars. But how, exactly?
It looks like we’ll be in for some interesting times.
You’re very active with your discussion list SEM 2.0, search marketing conferences and several other things I’m sure I don’t know about. How has that played into your overall marketing strategy for your company? What other things are you doing that are effective?
It’s about credibility, I suppose. But I do a lot of this stuff for the sheer community spirit of it. We have seen good online communities die, so the reason for trying to make a go of the SEM 2.0 list was to keep the old I-Search spirit going. It’s not only community, then, but friendship. And there is a practical component in terms of referring clients, collaborating on projects, etc.
The forums and discussion groups keep a lot more people going all around the world than we realize. Not everyone is in a position to meet up.
Plus, our businesses depend on information. You can only pick people’s brains if you offer your input some of the time, also.
At times I’ve found it funny when someone has remarked at this or that clever strategy for gaining exposure for my company. Sure, that’s the idea, but long before I had any kind of company I was publishing e-newsletters that had some minimal ad revenue attached to them, and not much else. It was all about building an audience and seeing where it might go.
That type of mentality has been the hallmark of Internet business (and non-business). I reckon most of us — present company included — aren’t hooked up quite right.
Back to your question: lately I’m actually finding that focusing more on local business is rewarding. Toronto is a big city, so it’s not the same as getting business in a small town. You have to work very hard for it. But meeting in person is easier. Trust is key in business. At least that’s what Mr. Trump told me.
What are some improvements you’d like to see in search engines paid search programs? Google, YSM/Overture, MSN AdCenter
With Yahoo, the list is long. Transparency is the common thread in most of our complaints. Yahoo doesn’t do a good job of explaining how its matching options work, even. Yahoo is also poor on international service. They need to install IP-based country targeting, to catch up with Google. This is basic stuff.
Google has already responded to a lot of items on our wish list, but the new formula makes it hard to bid on cheaper inventory.
Near the top of my wish list are making bid management tools free to most advertisers, and taking an even harder look at quality control within the content programs. On the latter point, there’s a fundamental hypocrisy involved in vetting advertisers’ “Quality” so stringently while being so glib about how utterly worthless traffic gets folded into the mix of semi-worthless traffic in the content programs. It’s unfortunate that many small and midsized businesses – and not Google and Yahoo – bear the cost of discovering which publishers are rogues. You can “negative out” bad publishers … once you discover who they are. SME’s can’t afford to be treated like guinea pigs… but they always have been, haven’t they?
I’d also like to see these companies completely scrap their confusing and somewhat condescending “partnership” and “qualifications” programs, and start again fresh somehow.
But I don’t have a huge list of improvements that would somehow turn the experience around 180 degrees. I find the experience positive, or my clients wouldn’t be there. The fundamental challenge is that you’re involved in an auction and the marketplace is telling you something, and depending on you, you might be well-equipped to react and improve based on that market feedback. That has very little to do with what Yahoo or Google do. These companies have made huge strides.
What kinds of tools for paid search would you recommend? Keyword research, bid management, analytics, conversion tracking, any others?
Andrew: Keyword research comes in your basic three flavors: basic, comprehensive, and overkill. Probably you want to get to comprehensive, or overkill if you’ve got a stern taskmaster as a boss. There are a number of great tools out there, so mix and match. People do underrate how much you can do with the in-house (eg. Google AdWords) keyword tools. We have a number of our own research methods that come down to effective use of search tools — it’s not “keyword research” per se. There are quite a few good tricks when it comes to building on existing successes. Find lists of things.
I’m no expert on bid management, except that I want to pay less for it, and do it within reason. And yes, we’ll be forced to be more and more strategic time-wise, seasonally, etc. Rule-based bidding should in fact be free, and no doubt will be before too long. Bid management to ROI is something that those with the budget to require it can research on their own — we’re talking about large retail operations that need full time help on campaigns. The ROI-based bid tools in the marketplace have all had their hiccups, but some of the largest retailers seem to rely on them. I’m waiting for new, more exciting tools to emerge as more developers have access to the AdWords API.
Analytics is very much dependent on your company’s needs. Above all, avoid paralysis by analysis. You need to pick a tool and go with it. If budget is unlimited then you’re not going to go wrong with Omniture Sitecatalyst, Webtrends, etc. Clicktracks Pro seems to be an exciting mid-priced answer. There are a lot of details with customization and buying the right version — selecting a vendor is only the beginning.
At the low end, you can get almost as much in practical terms, but your career might take a hit if you’re generating amateurish-looking reports or failing to build theories about customer behavior. That being said, most companies put too much stock in the sizzle when some very fine products like ConversionRuler, Keyword Max, Indextools, and so forth, have as much steak as they need to gather very detailed conversion data and apply it to their campaigns… for $20-120 per month.
One of the case studies Omniture features is of a client, an interior decor store, that increased ROI 100% by consulting their tracking data. While impressive, what the study actually proves is that this company paid heavily for a premium analytics service and then got all of the benefit out of a tiny part of the available functionality. I’m afraid downward pricing pressure in the analytics space is totally rational. Impressive as all those reports may be, if your competitor is using one simple set of keyword-specific ROI numbers and whipping your butt in the marketplace, what does that tell you? Only a handful of companies can afford to engage in long-term theory-building about customers. In addition, such theory-building isn’t ruled out through the use of inexpensive logfile reports, talking to customers, and so on.
Web analytics isn’t getting the uptake you might think it would in the corporate world. I wonder why this is. I’m pretty sure Jim Sterne could teach a half-day seminar on just that topic.
My favorite tool for paid search, bar none, is the ability to test ad performance in real time. That’s built right into AdWords. The excitement of finding a slightly different way of connecting with a target market — of raising the CTR on a current “best” ad from, say, 3.7% to 4.3%, with one further tweak — never wears off. And what emerges is usually so simple, when you discover it. You reap the benefit of “making sense” to the right person at the right time. That’s where search marketing has to begin. Just make sense. But there is a bit of passion and creativity involved. Empathy. I love the science of it, but don’t let anyone ever tell me that some patented tool will 100% replace my team’s empathy for customers, or we may feel a sudden urge to bungee jump off a cliff. With my luck the bungee would hold up and I’d have to go back to the office and turn on the patented tool.
Seriously though. Science matters. And people matter!
What are some of the resources you rely on for information on paid search? Best practices, news, industry information.
Like everyone else, I have too much info on the go. I do keep a number of RSS feeds on the go, and that seems to be one of the best ways. Current favorites include Matt Cutts, John Battelle, and a few dark horses who observe search from a more techie point of view. And what’s up with this Xooglers deal…
I also read general “stuff”. Business magazines, and if the weather’s warm, books.
I used to enjoy the Sunday Times, but canceled it because my house was entirely full of paper.
Answering that question actually made my head hurt.
The conferences are very important to me. If you can, attend any sessions that are about pure search technology. These tell you more about marketing than you might expect.
It looks like Google is going to start taking into account landing pages for scoring ads. Does “landing page optimization” seem like a worthwhile effort? Any tips?
Andrew: Absolutely not. You shouldn’t do it.
But seriously, we don’t know exactly how they’re taking this into account at present. They could be mainly focusing on penalizing sneaky things they don’t like, and leaving most of the rest of it alone entirely. The formula is 99.9% opaque.
And I have the other 0.1% stashed away here somewhere…
Thank you Andrew. I hope you sell lots of “Winning Results with Google AdWords” books!