Closing the knowledge gap: how do you ensure paid search transparency?

As the debate around programmatic transparency rages on and the traditional agency model of media markups and kickbacks crumbles, very little is said about transparency across other marketing channels.

Take paid search, for example. With many mid-tier brands spending considerably more on PPC than programmatic, there are often fundamental gaps or flaws in the data and information that is passed between agencies and advertisers.

We’re not talking about financial or commercial transparency (though there was a time when Google was giving agencies kickbacks on PPC spend) – but transparency in relation to campaign management, activity and performance.

This lack of transparency can have a significant negative impact on an advertiser’s performance in the channel.

Here are some practical steps that agencies and advertisers can take to achieve a more transparent paid search relationship and therefore greater return.

Open data is the foundation

Long gone are the days when clients should be waiting for a report to land in their inbox – the report should be ready for the clients whenever they choose to access it.

Advertisers should have instant access to all the same data their agency has access to, in a format that works for them. This open approach to data really is the foundation of a transparent paid search relationship – enabling an analyst and client to work closely together, accessing the same data, and optimizing daily to improve performance and outmaneuver the competition.

Financially and operationally, it shouldn’t be a challenge to take this approach. Through using Google Sheets and relatively cheap tools like Supermetrics, you can build a real-time, auto-updating report that pulls data from Adwords, Bing, Google Analytics, Search Console and, in fact, just about any other advertising or analytics platform.

Transparent attribution of sales

There are several ways of looking at attribution and the thought behind which model should be used is unique to each advertiser. What should always be made clear, however, is whether a cross-channel or intra-channel model is being used.

An intra-channel model for paid search, such as those available from within AdWords, looks only at users’ paths within paid search. These models certainly have their merits such as showing the value of different areas of that account, which in turn can help inform where to focus budget within AdWords.

The potential issue with an intra-channel model is that they ignore any touchpoints from other channels and can cause duplication in the sales being reported. This may inflate the figures a particular channel is reporting, which, although great for the egos of those running the channel, is not going to help a client plan budgets effectively and drive the best return.

A cross-channel model is more relevant for holistic reporting purposes as it will give you a more transparent view of the worth of each channel.

Man or machine?

Automation and machine learning are playing an increasingly important part in the world of PPC. But there’s often little transparency about the technology that’s being used.

There’s often a strong case for technology to do much of the heavy-lifting associated with the management of paid search, but there’s still significant value associated with hands-on and experienced analysts driving strategy, optimization and testing.

There is no one-size fits all approach, however, so as with anything in PPC – testing is crucial. Auto-applying technology regardless of campaign context or need is rarely wise.

What’s crucial for a client is to have complete transparency regarding the relationship between man and machine – what impact is the technology having, what is the cost associated and therefore what value is it adding.

Future of search

There is a huge amount of discussion about voice search at the moment, but in practice, there is almost no transparency about how this changing user behavior is impacting paid search activity.

Therefore, there are no data for analysts to optimize towards the long-tail, question-based search queries which come naturally to those speaking to Siri, Cortana or Alexa. It is reminiscent of not being able to change bids independently across desktop, tablet and mobile.

It’s therefore key for an agency to be transparent with their clients and have open conversations about the development of these emerging trends, devoting test budgets to better understand their potential future impact.

Still progress to be made

While paid search offers greater transparency than many other advertising channels, it’s clear there is still progress to be made, particular in regards to the sharing of data, attribution, technology and new behaviors like voice search.

As an industry, we must continue to always drive transparency across all channels. The more open we can be with data, technology and practices the better, as this leads to deeper insight, stronger relationships and ultimately, better results.

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