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WARNING: This is a controversial post… so enjoy it.

Pay-per-click advertising is often thought of as a numbers game, and in fact it’s rarely thought of as advertising. But it’s the same old-fashioned advertising we’ve always had, just with a little more sophisticated reporting. However, this reporting is a double-edged sword and can very easily be interpreted (and sold) as the Holy Grail that the industry has been working towards over the past hundred years or so. But this mathematical disguise that PPC takes on is completely unwarranted.

tip of the iceberg

The numbers are only ever that – numbers; they’re not truth; they’re digital calculations which occurred on a computer somewhere and were reported back to a central place. When lined up in a clinical row as they are in PPC reports, it’s easy to interpret them as laying out a straightforward action and consequence, but at the very most they’re listing one action that occurred prior to another. Yes a user clicked on your PPC ad and then converted, but we have no idea how influential that ad was to the conversion.

The buying process is so incredibly more complex than we’d ever like to imagine – very rarely do we make any decisions based on only one piece of information (a touchpoint in this case), and measuring how much each one of these touchpoints contributed to the conversion is impossible because it’s going to be different for every single customer. Some sales funnels will be very tight indeed, and you could guess that the single exposure to your ad was almost 100% responsible for getting that user to your site, but how much was your site’s copy responsible for the conversion? Multi-channel funnels can give a bit more background to the variety of online touchpoints, but there’s no way of determining the value of each one of them. A lot of the time individual keywords get credited with generating conversions, but that suggests you can identify a person by the search query they use – and I just don’t believe that. Users with certain intentions may cluster around certain search query patterns, but it’s ultimately pretty random which search query they’ll choose to use before they visit your site to convert.

why you’re not in control

And this gets me to my main point: you don’t control PPC – AT ALL! Even if the numbers accurately detailed cause and reaction, you can’t calculate a change and then expect to see an accurate result, because you’re trying to predict the actions of a relatively small number of human beings. The numbers are only an indication of the actions of these humans, and while you can control numbers with maths as much as you want you will never be able to control humans. Raising bids will not make someone turn on their laptop and click one of your ads. The most we can do is watch for patterns, cast out a net and hope we get lucky. Anyone who’s worked on a fishing boat will tell you how difficult it is to build a business under these constantly shifting conditions. PPC is often considered to be part science part art, but a major part of it is also just plain luck.

The metrics of a PPC campaign should only be used at most so it can ‘wash it’s face’, and even then, don’t think much of it. The real way to get the most out of a PPC account is common sense and experience – and trusting your experience is the hard part. If you believe a search query is definitely right for your account but you’re not seeing enough conversions being attributed to it, keep it anyway – it’ll be doing good somewhere, and trust yourself that you know your business. And this means PPC account managers need to really know their client’s businesses too – which is about how their business model works, not just the products they sell.

Build an account that you believe is relevant and use it to help customers find your site. This is the role of PPC, not to control sales with maths, and I think any website owner that appreciates brand equity, the lifetime value of a customer and channels other than just PPC will understand this. PPC tracking just doesn’t work with acquisition and retention models, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Get your head out of the stats and never optimise an account based purely on numbers, it’s humans who you’re trying to help. This is where good social media campaigns (and almost every other type of advertising medium) work, because they aren’t burdened with trying to justify their existence by making the numbers they have add up. Use the numbers you have available to point you in the right direction, but have faith in your PPC account like your social media, and free it from being completely dependent on what you can measure.

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