ONE OF THE challenges I find most frustrating in paid search and search engine marketing is the task of goal setting. Goal setting in an environment that has the capability of becoming unstable rather quickly is a great challenge especially when there are parts of the process that are out of one’s control. In general I am speaking about post-click parts of the search marketing process like search engine algorithms, after-click behavior, inventory levels, competition etc. which adds to the challenge and the potential for instability of a paid search program or other search engine marketing efforts.
To me these are quality related issues – trying to set goals in an unstable environment when the true capability of an account is unknown. This scenario can easily be identified as non-value added work or simply a waste of time. I am not in any way saying that goal setting is unnecessary because there are internal and external expectations to meet. Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D., Dean’s Professor (Emeritus) of Leadership and Motivation at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park makes a great case for the use of goal setting. However, in my experience, less focus on goal setting and more focus on process is a long term strategy that has greater benefit. Get the process right and reaching short and long terms goals will be much easier to obtain.
In order to justify my position on this topic I looked to advice handed down by W. Edwards Deming and one of his 14 Points of Management that applies to my case. In his book “Out of the Crisis” point 11b speaks to the elimination of numeric goals for people in management. The important parts paraphrased and responded to below.
Goals without method are burlesque. Examples: 1. Decrease cost by 10 percent next year; 2. Increase sales by 10 percent 3. Increase productivity 3 percent next year. A natural fluctuation in the right direction (usually plotted with inaccurate data) is interpreted as success. A fluctuation in in the opposite direction sends everyone scurrying for explanations and into bold forays whose only achievements are more frustration and more problems.
Wow does that sound familiar. The method of determining goals is usually standard practice but will be modified from client to client. It’s when this method does not align with the client’s goal setting methods that things become difficult.Proper upfront discovery and planning should help in making sure than both you and the client are on the same page for the long haul.
The second part of this should be obvious especially when it comes to web analytics data – it is never accurate from application to application. Google Analytics will never align with other third party analytics data. Trying to determine the ‘why’ they are different is a waste of time – it’s the nature of the business. As long as the differences between data sets remain constant move on to more value added tasks.
The other point here is ’scurrying for explanations’ also known as fire-drills. In a stable environment it’s easier to manage this part, but differences in cookie durations, competition, budgets and other moving targets make looking at data in smaller time frames a waste. It is important to identify trends and potential red flags, but rushing to fix a perceived problem before it is a real problem can create bigger problems.
A man in the Postal Service wanted to increase productivity 3 percent next year. Enquiry about the plan for this task brought forth the usual answer: no plan – they were simply going to improve.
Planning is the first part of the PDCA continuous process improvement method. It is silly to even address this but it happens. I recently assessed an AdWords account for a small clothing retailer who had been spending $500 a month for the last 4 months without any analytics in place to measure success. When asked about how they were attributing revenue to AdWords all they could tell me was that they were getting clicks and impressions… Clearly there was no plan or thought given to how critical step in managing paid search was supposed to happen.
If you have a stable system, then there is no point in setting goals. You will get whatever the system will deliver. A goal beyond the capability will not be reached.
This I don’t entirely agree with since there is always is room for improvement. This statement would be more along the lines of a campaign or ad group in its current state. You’ll only generate x amount of conversions with a current set of keywords, ad creatives and landing pages. Expecting more without increasing budget, expanding keywords, implementing negatives or improving landing pages or user experience is a waste of time.
If you do not have stable system, then again there is no point in setting a goal. There is no way to know what the system will produce: it has no capability.
This is the most important point because I imagine there are very few paid search accounts that are 100% stable. Stability here means all ad groups are highly targeted, destination URLs are accurate and functioning, ad creatives are in the right position at the right time for the right customer who is ready to convert, all conversion tags are in place, reporting on performance takes as little effort as possible, etc. If anyone lives in this world please let me know.
I would not say that there is no capability though, it’s more like limited capability. Although there are times where ad groups or keywords just do not produce conversions regardless of targeting.
Focus on outcome is not an effective way to improve a process or an activity.
Again, this is where the focus on the process is the priority is more important that focusing on false goals. The focus on making a paid search account more stable so it has more capability should be the priority. It goes back to the whole Results vs. Process argument – focus on process and you will eventually meet or exceed desired results. Focusing on the number of keywords in an account or why an ad group had 2 fewer conversions from the day prior is a waste of time and takes away from the bigger picture. Again it is silly to address these things but they happen far more often than they should.
Abandoning goal setting is by no means and easy task to overcome because it’s our nature to obsess about outcomes and results. Changing the way we think along with a level of education required to make the jump from results to process with a mindful dose of non-striving would do us all some good. This change in thinking also takes a level of discipline and patience which does not integrate well with the ‘instant-results’ nature of paid search and search engine marketing. One recommendation would be to start small and gain the confidence of your internal and external customers. Another suggestion, especially in cases where things are so unorganized and out of control, would be to step back (or take however many steps back…) and reset the foundation of campaign structure and analytics before moving forward with process that will eventually produce winning results.