I’ve been spending a lot of time working on brand-new search programs. Like any form of start-up, it’s a gamble – but a gamble worth taking. When evaluating which programs to gamble on, my first question often is: are people searching for what you sell? Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to be the guy trying to sell TiVo on Google when the product first came out. There’s just no demand to fulfill.

Even then, failure rates are high. So many variables to consider…so little time.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s OK to fail. Move fast and break things. Fail and fail fast. These are near holy phrases in the startup world. While search has earned a reputation as a must-do channel, it won’t always work. The trick is (surprise) setting the right expectations. If you’re thinking of getting a new program going, expect any of the following three outcomes:



I promise I’ll get positive again soon, but you can’t hide from failure. There are so many roadblocks to running a successful search program, and pitfalls to avoid, that your first goal should be to find the right resource to manage it. I’ll spare you the agency sales pitch, but you need a certified expert to run your program, otherwise you’ll never know if your failures where due to market conditions or the amateur you hired.

Some products and services just aren’t a fit for PPC. Even with a ton of demand for your product, the auction could be plain too expensive. Try breaking into crowded auctions with some established lead aggregators – even the savviest disruptors are beholden to their margins. You’d need some pretty amazing conversion rates to compete with someone who gets to sell their leads 10x over.

The trick to all of this is failing conclusively. You need an expert to give you options, and you need a measurement system that gives you reliable data. Whitepapers vs. Demos? Sign-Up overlay vs. Product pages? What happens to the top-of-the-funnel conversions as time passes? Are you attributing back sales to the right source? Are you creating clean cohort reports to tie actions back to the money you spend on the day you spend it?

Every new program has at least 4-5 major tests they can run to swing performance by 2-10x in one shot. Older programs don’t have that luxury, but the goal for start-up SEM should be testing offers that are not only differentiated from their competitors but from each other (never hurts to try copying the competition and see if it works for you).

Push comes to shove, if you’re in the business of selling the cheapest TVs around, buy the keyword [cheap tvs], drive users to a page filled with cheap tvs, and have a halfway decent checkout path – but still can’t hit your margins because CPCs are too high – PPC isn’t for you. That said, just because search is more expensive than another channel doesn’t mean it’s a loser. Sometimes there’s enough there to work with. Just don’t expect the same conversion rates as organic and email – it’s not the same.


Steady State

Starting a new search program is a lot like getting a plane off the ground – you burn a lot of fuel on take-off but once you reach cruising altitude, there are opportunities to coast. Now, every program needs some sort of maintenance (I’d hate to be in bad turbulence while my pilot is taking a nap), but some programs need so little they feel more like metronomes: steady as she goes.

This is all relative to the complexity of the account. You could be running a small $5K/mo. program that has enough intricacies to keep you busy for hours (try closing the loop on lead quality with a lead gen team for a program where 1 lead can mean six-figure revenue) or a $100K/mo. program made up of 20 high-value terms that don’t need a ton of effort to manage. The determining factor as to whether something is steady state is its ability to grow.

Are there more KWs to buy? Has display been tested? Are you just budget-impacted and couldn’t spend more if you wanted to?

These guys are few and far between, and if you think you have one, chances are you’re leaving some opportunity on the table. The key here is figuring out just how much SEM knowledge you need to keep the ship afloat. A couple months with a semi-competent SEM could actually be cost-effective depending on what you paid your expert. Problem there is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll probably need the expert again eventually.



A while back I wrote a piece called “Where Are the SEM Losers?” Chances are a lot of folks who are “succeeding” at SEM are probably just coasting – unaware of how bad of a job they’re doing. Their programs are making money and people are happy but they could probably do better. In reality, these shouldn’t be steady-state accounts but, instead, growing. At least doing better than they are now.

These accounts are what get search marketers excited. Always something new to test, some data to segment capitalize on, new channels and strategies to explore. If you can’t find a way to improve and grow, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Not every action will lead to a win. In many instances, the work of the search marketer is to offset some crazy change in an auction – chiefly new competitors or an existing one with a new offer. Hopefully you aren’t putting competitor fires constantly and you can focus on growing.

Growing doesn’t always mean bigger numbers. In a down season, flat is the equivalent of up. You can’t expect hockey stick graphs in December if you’re selling air conditioners.

Maybe “growth” is the wrong term. Maybe “evolving” is more appropriate. If your program can pass the smell test and be, at minimum, within striking distance of your ROI objectives, you’ve got something to work with. If so, consider yourself lucky and don’t waste the opportunity! Treat it like a good lead and nurture it.

Very few programs fall into the middle bucket (possibly zero). You either have a terrible fit for search, or a never-ending treasure trove of things to do to make the program better and grow. Everyone wants to have the latter, but as long as you know what to expect – don’t be disappointed by the channel. It’s not the slam dunk everyone wants it to be.

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Sean Marshall
Sean Marshall is the CEO of Intended, an SEM agency founded in 2013 to provide industry-best service for SMB clients. Before Intended, Sean was the VP of Business Development of PPC Associates (now 3Q Digital). He is a huge Cal fan and has been known to win a buck or two playing online poker.