The Top Mistakes Search Marketing Agencies (Still) Make in 2021

Here’s a list of why search marketing is still underestimated by brand managers in 2021 but also what search marketers can do to assuage those concerns.

Published On: May 14, 202112 min readCategories: Blog, SEM

Machine Learning Can’t Fix a Bad Strategy

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a machine behind the helm of locomotive that’s about to plummet off the side of cliff: a train wreck is still a train wreck. The same can be said of a search campaign that doesn’t have a clearly defined game plan, regardless of whether it’s automated of optimized manually. 

There’s a lot of mysticism nowadays around how machines learn, and that’s led to a common perception that algorithms can create miracles from thin air. But that’s simply not true, and many brand managers have been burned by the promise of machine learning magic.

In basic terms, here’s how machines learn:

  • First and foremost, machines are given a hypothesis to test. An algorithm is the process the machine uses to test that hypothesis. In digital marketing, the ubiquitous hypothesis is determining the optimal to bid on an impression or click so that it leads to a conversion or sale.
  • Next, the machine is given variable to evaluate to see whether or not they impact the end result. This could include evaluating things like age, interests, past browsing behaviour, what people are looking up (keywords).
  • The machine then goes over past data if available, or it simply begins testing and evaluating all variables equally.
  • It then analyzes how different combinations of variables impact the result and determines the probability of it happening again. 
  • Lastly, it adjusts the weighting or importance of variables while narrowing its focus to only the variables that result in the desired outcome.
The high level Machine Learning process

Source: Machine Learning is for Muggles Too, March 2016

Ask any data scientist and they’ll tell you: garbage in, garbage out. The more useless data the machine must sift through, the longer it will take to get to the desired result.

How Can Search Marketers Do Better?

  • Think more carefully about what you’re trying to achieve and how each variable (keyword, demographics, device, location, etc.) relates to it.
  • Group variables you think relate to each other into their own ad groups/ ad sets and give them a name that makes it easy to understand the relationship (for example, ‘Parents in Toronto looking for a Babysitter’
  • Pair those groups with creative that speaks to those personas.
  • Add in all relevant inputs related to those variables (For example, keywords related to babysitting or interest attributes related to parenting)
  • Add in your exclusions for things you do not want to test. Don’t worry, you can always create new groups with those variables.
  • Closely monitor the performance of those groupings to determine whether you need to switch up the creative or if results are unsatisfactory across the board, pause them altogether.
  • Continue to test and optimize against these groupings until clear patterns emerge. When this happens, increase investment.
  • As your account gains efficiencies, set aside an incremental budget to continue to test, or prospect, for new groupings. This will ensure your program doesn’t miss out on emerging opportunities.

Reporting on In-Platform Metrics Is Not the Same As Providing Actionable Insights

If the “insights” section of your performance report starts to sound like a broken record, then I’m willing to wager your search strategy won’t be breaking new ground any time soon.

All too often, search marketers report on KPI, and their increases and decreases, as the entire story. But their analysis omits the most important question: why?

Metrics are all related to each other and should be used to make strategic tweaks to how campaigns are setup. In a nutshell, here’s a summary of the key metrics, but also what they represent:

Metric How It’s Calculated What It Measures What It Teaches You
CTR (Click-through-Rate) Clicks divided by impressions How often your ads are clicked vs how many times they’re seen A low CTR means that your ads are being seen but the messaging or creative does not compel people to actually take action.To troubleshoot a low CTR you have to review the ad creative or offer and make sure it’s something that interests your target audience.
Conv. Rate(Conversion Rate) Conversions (or Goal Completions/ Transactions) (or visits) divided by Clicks (or Website Visits) How often your ad is clicked or your site is visited vs how often people take an action that you deem to be beneficial to your business.  A low Conv. Rate means that the content of your landing page or the product listings page does not match what people are looking for or what they expect to see after having clicked your ad.To troubleshoot, first make sure the information on your ad clearly matches the information shown on the landing page. If you observe a high Bounce Rate, that is a good indicator this is happening.Next, ensure your site loads quickly and is easy to navigate. Finally, compare your offering with that of your competitors to ensure that it’s a good value. (Note: by value, I don’t necessarily mean price)Conv Rate could also be impacted by seasonality or increased competition in the market. You can use the Auction Insights section of the platform to see if there are more brands bidding on the same keywords, or if your market share has decreased.A low Conv. Rate can often, but does not always, go hand-in-hand with a high CPA.
CPA (Cost-per-Acquisition/Action) The total cost or amount spent on ads divided by Conversions (or Goal Completions)  How efficiently you’re closing deals, as determined by a cost per action A high CPA (relative to past performance or to your competitors) could mean several things.A high CPA is the first flag account managers look for. This could denote that ad spend is being wasted on targeting methods that are not relevant to your target market. If CTR is also low, that is a good indicator for low relevance. It could be seasonal. Certain periods of the year are more competitive than others. If you observe the same spikes in CPA during the same time period year-over-year, then your CPA has been seasonally affected. You can determine whether you want to continue to spend during this period of if you want to reserve your spend for less competitive periods.It could also be attributed to low landing page relevance (High Bounce Rate). Or if your product is not competitive to what’s being offered in the marketplace.A high CPA can often, but does not always, go hand-in-hand with a  low Conv. Rate

How Can Search Marketers Do Better?

  • Better explain what each metric represents to your clients and how they relate to what’s being done in your program
  • Create an action plan based on the elements of your campaign (targeting; creative, bids) to address the issues
  • Structure your accounts so that it’s easy to observe, at a glance, how each of the variable related to one another

Goal Completions and Conversions Are Not the Same as ROI

Contrary to what some search marketers would desperately try to have their clients believe, a click is not the same as an actual sale. A viewable impression is not the same as creating meaningful brand recall. And a form fill is not the same as a qualified lead. 

Every good marketer knows that the real measure of a successful search marketing program is the ability to accurately attribute efforts to a quantifiable impact to a business.

A common criticism I hear from clients that I’m onboarding from other agencies is that they were never really given a breakdown of what value their marketing programs actually provided: just a regurgitation of metrics month-over-month. 

A Conversion or Goal Completion should always be tied into a business impact. It should be qualified and quantified. It doesn’t matter if your program delivers a large amount of form fills if all of those submissions are either spam or if those leads aren’t a good fit for what’s being offered.

How Can Search Marketers Do Better?

  • Work with your client to determine at the start of your program to determine how marketing can help them achieve their sales and business development needs
  • Create benchmarks and forecasting to help determine how many form fills, on average, it takes to get a qualified lead. Next, determine how many qualified leads, on average, it takes to get a sale or closed deal. 
  • Use these figures to establish a CPA goal at the start of the program to gain a better sense of whether your channel strategy is viable
  • Use a CRM or solicit continual feedback regarding the quality of the leads that you’re providing. Don’t just be satisfied with the number of conversions, but strive to deliver a higher value of conversions
  • Lastly, educate your clients that marketing isn’t only about net-new acquisitions. It’s also about creating a Lifetime Value by increasing upsells and decreasing churn. More often than not, marketing programs deliver a solid ROI, but discussions are centred too heavily on short-term gains.

Citing Technical Jargon Doesn’t Always Make the Story True

Quiz time: which of these sentences doesn’t make you want to scratch your eyes out?

“With regards to the aforementioned matter at hand, I postulate that should the perambulation method or auditory function of the river fowl resemble that of a member of the Anatidae family, then so shall it be established that the probability of the river fowl truly being a member of the Anatidae family, is very probably indeed.”  


“If it walks like a duck. Quacks like a duck. It’s a duck.”

The second option clearly gets the point across. The first option represents seven seconds of your life that you’re unfortunately never getting back. 

More often than not, search marketers are guilty of relying on technical jargon to get clients to believe what they’re saying. Even worse, they use technical jargon to conceal poor performance or a lack of knowledge altogether. 

Jargon not only confuses clients unnecessarily, but more problematic, is that is makes the entire practice of digital marketing less accessible to those without that technical background. 

The strength of search marketing and digital marketing is that everything is quantifiable. But data means nothing to clients without context and insight. As a result, it can all too often become a struggle for clients to see the true value or to invest in newer channels and technologies. This puts them at a disadvantage against their competitors who better understand the true value of search marketing.  

How Can Search Marketers Do Better?

  • Facts are facts. Regardless of how they’re worded. So keep it simple, silly!
  • Tie technical components back into the impact they have on the business
  • Better engage your clients in the strategy development and keep them informed of your progress
  • Simplify complex technologies into their features and benefits, and justify the additional cost and resources required vs the potential gains you expect to receive

Search Marketing Only Works for the Bottom Funnel Targeting

Common knowledge dictates that the higher the perceived level of intent for a keyword or targeting method is (“bottom-funnel”), the higher the chance of conversion. The problem with common knowledge is that, like it’s name suggests, it’s common and everybody has access to it.

The thing is: marketing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

You’re likely not the only game in town. Clicks and impressions are based on an auction format. The more players there are in the same space, the more expensive it will be to play the game. If everybody’s bidding on the same bottom-funnel targeting methods, the cost per click or impression gets that much more expensive.

The sad economic truth is that in hyper-saturated markets, the cost-per-click or impression frequently exceeds the profit margin for what’s being advertised. Factor in the reality that it often takes more than one ad interaction to close the sale, and you have the most common reason why marketing programs fail to generate a level of ROI that merits clients to keep investing.

Mark runs an online store that sells premium sneakers. His average profit on a pair is about $30. He hires a global agency to run a search campaign on Google Ads. Naturally, they launch a bottom-funnel campaign with a monthly budget of $5,000 that includes keywords like “buy premium sneakers online” and “online shoe store”.

Due to a global pandemic everybody’s shopping online and those keywords cost, on average, around $9 per click. Luckily, Mark’s site has an above average E-Commerce Conversion Rate of 15%, but people only buy 1.2 products on average at checkout. 

How Can Search Marketers Do Better?

  • Ask your clients about the profit margins of the products or services they’re trying to sell. Remember, a Return on Ad Spend – for your clients  – also has to factor in their overhead costs, including the fees they’re paging to the agency
  • Be upfront and transparent with your clients about the predicted Return on Investment 

And the Moral of the Story Is…

Despite these common concerns, search marketing remains one of the most powerful channels that brands can use to not only increase visibility of their offering, but to also create meaningful interactions with their customers. 

Are you a brand manager who’s struggling to unlock the full potential of your search marketing program? 

Jot down your concern and fire off an email to [email protected] and I’ll get back to you with a high-level analysis of the issue, as well as some practical advice to help improve the performance of your campaigns.

  • Real-time customer complaints and feedback
  • Customer complaints and feedback visible and open for scrutiny from the public
  • Increased usage of business and personal resources to manage your social media campaign
  • Training and expertise necessary to manage social media to the optimum
  • Your digital footprint becomes too much to handle – Turn to negative online reputation
  • Negative employee influence – internally and externally to your business
  • Not enough ROI for the amount of risk and effort
  • Not enough knowledge to take the right steps and follow an optimized process