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I love competition. I’m not an athlete, but I relish the chance to compete with someone else (or many people). Games are a perfect outlet; board, video, poker – doesn’t matter. The poker boom coincided with my college graduation, so I took a two-year break to play professionally. It was plenty to satisfy my competitive urges (for a while).

When I realized I was never going to make a million dollars playing cards (though I’m no slouch), it was time to find a job. A couple of false starts later, I fell into search engine marketing. My competitive side fell in love – immediately. It just took me a while to figure out the difference between real and perceived PPC success. After a few months in the industry, I realized that many people claiming to be successful were way off the mark.

You could say that any type of business can bring out your competitive side. Capitalism elicits competition (at least it’s supposed to), so businesses are constantly competing. The beauty of PPC is that we get to keep score – in real time. Not just against your competitors but against your own efforts.  Striving to break your own records is incredibly motivating.

So what am I getting at? Simple, really – if PPC allows us to keep score and fires up competitors like myself to keep pushing, why does everyone I meet claim to be a PPC expert? If we’re keeping score, we can’t all be winners. Where are all the SEM losers? The marketplace is large and incredibly diverse, but surely someone is losing at paid search.

The reason you’ll likely never meet an SEM loser is that people aren’t aware of what a genuine success should be. In many cases, profitability targets are established, and just hitting them (or coming really, really close) is considered “success.” Well, you don’t know what you don’t know. Hitting a target doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything or could be called an expert, let alone a winner.

Hitting a target is an accomplishment, sure, but what if the target was wrong in the first place? If you’re running an e-commerce campaign and optimizing to CPA, do you understand how inefficient your program can be? I hear it all the time: “I was able to shave CPA by 30% and grow volume by 50%.” That sounds fantastic – but if you’re still paying $30 a sale to get people to spend $10 on your site, you’re missing the mark.

In many ways, PPC is a lot like poker. Explanations and analyses change depending on circumstances. It’s easy to claim massive PPC growth when you’re riding a wave of positive PR for your startup and 80% of your conversions come from brand KWs. Dominate non-brand auctions, and then we can really start talking about success.

I once took over an account with an incredibly limited KW set. The first order of business was to expand and enter every relevant auction. I tripled revenue in 30 days….YAWN. There is nothing advanced or expert about KW expansion. If you broke records because you added keywords that should have been there in the first place, you’ve accomplished nothing.

Real PPC victories are about taking a fully developed KW set for a static product offering (think an e-tailer that hasn’t added new products in over six months) and STILL growing volume MoM without sacrificing ROI….and without the help of seasonality. PPC mastery is about understanding your business and your audience. Find the ways to differentiate yourself from your competition and steal relevant clicks. Google will happily go out and find new keywords for you, but you need to be an expert to take an existing keyword and continue to grow it even if you aren’t getting new impressions.

It’s very easy to get blinded by big numbers. Numbers without context mean nothing, but people stop caring when they see the magic hockey stick graph. As a marketing manager or agency client, you should always ask: did we really get the most out of our program this month, or was this lift going to happen anyway?

Google will always be coy about sharing competitive data, but understand this – someone is LOSING in your auction. They might still be “growing,” but their missed opportunity is your advantage. If someone tries to sell you hard on their past successes, take a closer look; the results might not be as attractive as you’d imagine.

Sean Marshall, Director of Search Engine Marketing

– Questions? Comments? Email us at bloggers at ppcassociates dot com.