Oct 13

The offline Adwords editor is a godsend for working with ad campaigns that have large sets of keywords. But one of its shortcomings is that there is no easy way to bulk update bid amounts for keywords that fall off the first page of results (or more accurately “there is no easy way to identify these keywords in the offline editor”). I posted this question in their forum but got no love. I’ve since come up with a simple workaround that saves a ton of time over manually adjusting a bunch of bid amounts via the browser:

  1. In the web interface go into your Adwords account, choose the top-level folder on the left and then select the keywords tab.
  2. Filter on the “Status” field. Your list is now sorted by active keywords and various error messages and warnings. Scroll to the very bottom and use the paginated navigation to jump ahead to where the warning about “below first page minimum bid” message starts appearing.
  3. Shift-click on the checkboxes that “bookend” your selection, in this case we’ll just do three. Once selected click the “change status” drop-down and pause these keywords (Note: if you have existing paused keywords they’ll get mixed in when you do this).
  4. Now hop over to your offline editor, get the latest changes and open up the keywords tab. Sort by the “Status” field and now you’ll have your offending keywords all grouped together. Highlight only the ones you want to bulk edit and then click the “Advanced Bid” link at the bottom.
  5. Click the “Raise max CPC bid to first page bid estimate” and bulk apply this change to the ones you’ve selected. Post your changes live and the final step is to reactivate the paused keywords (which should still be selected if you have your same browser window open).

Obviously this technique is overkill if you only need to update 3 keywords. But if you’re dealing with 4000 and need to adjust the bids on 150 (which is the situation I had today) it’s a great time saver. Mad props to the developers that created the offline editor – it’s massively helpful.

Sep 16

Check out the full list of Google services and then think about one that’s not on there now but that could be in a big way: Google Soulmate Finder. If you subscribe to the notions that a) there’s a person out there who uniquely complements you and b) it’s possible to qualify/quantify experiences, traits & behaviors to identify that person and match him/her to you, then Google is in probably the best position of anyone to help you find your soul mate.

Here are the four main reasons why they could (and may choose to at some point) pull this off:

  1. Hands down they have the most comprehensive, indexable data set of both explicit and implicit behavioral, personality and intention info in the world. And they have it for a huge population. Folks drink the Google Koolaid in varying degrees (I would be best classified as an intravenous Google Koolaid consumer at this point) but for even the people who only use search, they have access to an incredible amount of material that could be mined for insight into what makes one tick. For instance, for users of Gmail & Google Apps they know: where you’ve been, what you care about, who you correspond with, activities that define you, etc.
  2. Their core expertise is in serving relevant results – they rule at pattern matching and developing algorithms that weight results based on what’s working. Their whole search business revolves around improving the quality of results that are delivered and they have more expertise than anyone on refining results via empirical data.
  3. Were they to offer a matchmaking service they would have access to a pretty interesting feedback loop by virtue of knowing how things worked out. Their matches might suck at first but pretty quickly the AI could validate which algorithms yielded successful results because they’d know which people stayed together. Other matchmaking services have to rely upon explicit input from the participants to know how well the suggestions worked – Google has data that gives them this implicitly. That means the speed and accuracy with which they could iterate their algorithms isn’t gated by reliance upon explicit feedback from participants.
  4. They’re motivated to do things that draw in new users & drive increased usage across all services. Their stated goal is to index the world’s info and make it more accessible. Anything they can do that gets more people hooked on using their services helps their cause. The matchmaking service would be a killer app for both attracting new people and getting existing ones to further embrace all the Google services. If they reliably demonstrated a string of successes in matching people, I guarantee you’d see a bunch of the people that currently subscribe to paid dating sites flock to the Google equivalent if it were a) free and b) more effective. Provided Google sold the story well about “the more you do on our system, the better the quality of our matches will be,” those new users would be heavily motivated to go all-in on using Google services. They would pick up not just new users but die-hard ones motivated by the promise of finding their soulmate.

Now my hunch is that a significant countervailing force here that prevents them from doing this now is the “creepiness factor.” It would make it all too real how much they truly know about you if they were to offer this service today and it might actually have a detrimental effect of driving users to defect from their service. This is definitely something that changes with the times though, we’ve seen the “boiling frog comfort” effect in the last four years with Facebook. Kids growing up today will have never known life without exposing everything via social networks and may be more comfortable with this type of service. At any rate, if you see a heart icon and the “Google Matchmaker” app appear on Google labs, you heard the prediction here first ;-)

May 22

I love Google Voice. We use it as our main office line at JumpBox and it gives us a lot of flexibility in handling the phones. We can setup call windows for business hours where it rings my cell during the day and goes direct to voicemail in the evenings and on weekends. We get transcribed emails for each voicemail so we can quickly skim the content before listening to a long message. And we can very easily re-route calls to a different phone if I’m out for some reason.

But there is one feature that is so conspicuously absent that either I’m fundamentally misunderstanding the service or it’s a major oversight in how it works. The quickest way to explain the issue is to show what I want added to the voicemail interface (circled in red):

The current problem is this: if Google Voice rings my cell phone and I miss a call during the day it goes to my AT&T voicemail. That’s problematic for a couple reasons, namely: 1) I’m the only one with access to it 2) the caller gets a personal greeting from me instead of the expected company message 3) it fragments where our messages are stored into two places 4) we lose the nicety of call transcription.

The ideal solution here would be to have a threshold setting I can configure so it recognizes when I don’t pick up by the 3rd ring, takes the call back and re-routes it to the GV voicemail.

Is there some obvious setting I’m missing to make it behave this way? If not, Google peeps: this would be a hugely valuable / simple feature to add. I have to imagine others face this situation and could benefit from it.

Apr 15

I read a book on Adwords, watched most of the Google videos and have been tweaking our campaigns for JumpBox for the past 2wks. You can burn a lot of cash during the learning process. Here are ten things I’ve learned that will hopefully save others some time/money:

Custom-designed landing pages were actually detrimental (“jarring” effect)

This was completely counter-intuitive. Our original hypothesis was that it would be worth it to make a professionally-designed landing page stripping away most navigation choices because it would be more aesthetically appealing to a first-time visitor and better “corral” that person to the desired action. What we learned was that it had an adverse effect – conversion rates actually declined when we implemented these specially-designed pages. We achieved a better conversion rate by reverting to a standard page with all the regular look & feel and the same content. Our guess of what’s going on here is that having a landing page that looks nothing like what you get on the next click is either perceived as an ad or is just too visually jarring for the user. Visual consistency trumps design aesthetic and removing normal navigational elements yields no positive effect.

Fear of loss is a stronger motivator than promise of gain (“Fox news” effect)

This is something that my friend Dave Euse told me a long time ago and I’ve seen it confirmed first-hand with our adwords campaigns. While I’m not a fan of “Fox News” style scare tactics- it is more effective to say something like:
“What you don’t know about JumpBox could be costing you days of setup time.”
than something like this:
“You can save days of setup time with JumpBox.”
Think evening news segment teaser just before a commercial comes on. It’s a subtly different message but the idea is that people respond more to stop the prospect of losing $5 of their own money than to an equal opportunity of winning a new $5.

Web Optimizer is good for polishing but not sculpting (“bigger fish” effect)

Kimbro pointed this out and he’s 100% right- the Google Web Optimizer multivariate testing tool is helpful for fine-tuning messaging but it’s premature to use it until you have the fundamentals of the campaign ironed out. Until then there are bigger fish to fry in terms of getting the value proposition clear. We have an educational component to our stuff- the user doesn’t necessarily know how to describe their problem in terms that we can predict. The best thing to do in this situation is to forget about GWO until the point you have a good number of people already responding and then bring it in as an optimization.

Scientific method: control one variable at a time (“Apples to apples” effect)

This one is probably obvious but if you are trying to test a theory, don’t vary multiple elements at the same time. Control all the variables except the one you want to test. With Adwords there are many aspects of the campaign you can tweak and you may be tempted to vary multiple elements simultaneously to speed the testing process. Unfortunately the result will be that you’re unable to attribute the improvement or decline to a single variable when you do so. An example of this might be varying a headline while also changing the display URL – the effect from one may eclipse the other and hide minor effects. The other thing to keep in mind is you need to have a big enough sample size for your tests to be meaningful. There are plenty of free statistical significance calculators that will tell you if your results are truly significant.

The three phases of interaction: acquisition, conversion & retention

It’s helpful to think about the sequence of interaction in terms of these three phases:
Acquisition: the process of getting traffic to your site
Conversion: the process of converting those visitors to customers
Retention: the process of selling more stuff over time to your existing customers
Simple yes, but these are three independent activities with different challenges and different psychology. Thinking about them as three distinct activities will clarify what you need to be doing at each step.

Split test everything you do

Never stop split testing, ever. You should be running different flavors of your messaging in each of the above three phases. Google adwords has a built-in mechanism for running multiple variants of the same ad. Google web optimizer allows you to run multivariate and A/B tests on your site’s pages for the conversion process. And ideally you should be running A/B tests in the retention emails you send. I know Vertical Response is one service that supports A/B testing and I’m sure others do as well.

Analytics can help you visualize your funnel

You can see the click-path from both directions- from an entry page where the visitors went or from a final destination page and the various entry points that got them there. Make sure you have a google analytics account setup and integrated with your adwords and then go to the Content menu selection, click on the page you want to analyze and use the “Navigation Summary” and “Entry points” options. You should also ideally have conversion tracking set up on the thank you page of the intended action so you can tie specific campaigns and keywords to conversion.

Stumbleupon is a great way to get quick traffic for multi-variate testing

Stumbleupon is a firehose of semi-qualified trafic you can turn on at any time to expedite split testing. Keep in mind it’s blind traffic so it’s not a pure substitute to people that come actively searching for something, but it’s a quick way to accelerate the testing process. Have the Google Web Optimizer set up on the landing page and turn on stumble upon ads from an area of interest that most closely matches your target audience. You’ll get a flood of traffic very quickly and depending on how you set your tests up in GWO you’ll either see which version of the page or which combination of individual elements worked best. A/B testing produces a statistically significant result faster since they’re are fewer permutations. The other benefit of Stumbleupon traffic is the secondary wave of clicks that come from the social bookmarking component- you don’t pay for these so your paid campaign can actually seed an organic response if the page is well-received.

Dynamic text insertion

Contrary to what I thought, this is not just a technique relegated to the ebays of the world. These are the ads you see when you search for “steak knives” and see an ad that says “Buy steak knives on ebay.” Anyone can dynamically insert the search term into the text of the ad using this syntax:
{Keyword:search term substitute here}
The substitute word is used in the event that the search term is too long to appear in the ad. This tactic should be done in its own ad group and you should be aware that it generates a high volume of less-qualified traffic (make sure you have a tight daily cap on adspend and monitor closely when you try it). It also works very differently on content network vs. the Google search so you’ll need to experiment with it.

Crazy Egg can help provide clues to usage

Definitely try the free Crazy Egg service out on your landing page. It gives you a heatmap of user clicks and can provide interesting clues about how people are responding to your stuff. We learned the ineffectiveness of presenting a call-to-action too early in the dialogue before the user understood what we offer.

Other Resources

Here are some resources I used to get started: this Adwords book was a good primer- it’s by this guy Perry Marshall who really knows what he’s talking about. It had not just valuable info but it was motivating – all this stuff is useless if you don’t act on it. I posted my visual notes that give a good overview of the important takeaways from that book (I used this same style on the “Made to Stick” book and found it very helpful for retaining concepts). Google’s screencasts are a good starting reference but they’re a little slow – you might be able to figure it out faster via trial & error. Search for a local Adwords meetup in your city- I’m all for “high-bandwidth” face to face interaction in user groups for picking up tricks of the trade and getting answers once you have some experience and a list of questions.

I’m still extremely green to the whole Adwords game and making tons of mistakes as I go but hopefully this summary helps others who are just getting started. Improving conversion rate is crucial and our next big challenge now is to optimize our landing pages to better convert some of this traffic we’re now getting via Adwords. Minor improvements in conversion makes every bit of advertising you do more potent. In theory this process should reach a point where it’s a finely-tuned machine that accepts a dollar at one and and returns five at the other. I’ll report back with more lessons once we get it to that point.

Apr 11

The Google App Engine is the talk of the town this week giving developers access to Google infrastructure and Google customers. If you haven’t heard about it you may be an ostrich and need to read some of these. If you didn’t get one of the 10k beta invites, no worries- you can still play with it. We just made it significantly easier to tinker by releasing a JumpBox for the Google App Engine SDK. This is a freebie and it comes pre-registered so you download it and fire it up and you’re playing with App Engine in minutes. You can leave comments/feedback on it here. And this is our “official” announcement:

Google recently announced a new cloud based application deployment system called Google App Engine. We found this to be a pretty interesting system and since the SDK they released is Open Source we decided to put together a JumpBox for it.
It’s a great solution if you want to play with the Google App Engine SDK without really installing it on your system. It’s also perfect as an integration point for a small team working together on a Google App Engine project.

Google made it possible to build applications for App Engine using several different mechanisms and the JumpBox comes with CGI, Google Webapp and Django environments setup and ready for development. It’s also a really great way to just kick the tires of the different frameworks before committing to development.

Also, since this is a JumpBox our backup system is included which allows you to backup your source code and development data to network shares or Amazon S3.

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Dec 01

What is PPA?

Pay-per-action advertising is a model where the advertiser gets paid only when the visitor completes a specified action on the advertised site. This model has incredible potential for both parties because it circumvents the problem of click fraud (it can be setup so advertisers are paid only when sales are made). From the advertiser’s perspective, you’ll happily pay commission on sales that are made and it’s like having an outsourced affiliate program that you don’t have to manage yourself. From the publisher’s perspective, you can “rep” products that are relevant to your site’s content and (in theory) earn more than you could via adsense because the payouts are much higher. Google’s move into this space disrupts incumbents Commission Junction and which currently charge significant setup fees to get involved as an advertiser (Google charges no setup fees).

Our experience with the Google beta

The unfortunate reality of the current state of the PPA beta on Google is that it appears to be riddled with fraud. “But I thought you said you couldn’t get burned?” – let me explain. We signed up a few months ago and posted a handful of JumpBoxes in their directory offering a generous commission (over 30% for sales generated) to attract affiliates. We saw downloads skyrocket immediately but zero new conversions came from those new downloads. This probably should have been a red flag that the downloads were bogus, but we were still hopeful that it was just a matter of us adapting a landing page for better conversion and continued to run the PPA ads.

About two weeks into it we had seen not one sale originate from the PPA ads- we weren’t losing money on them since the payout was still tied to a sale, but the spurious downloads were throwing off our conversion numbers and tainting our stats. The participants in the Adsense Referrals network (which is this program from the publisher’s side) have a rating system for advertisers and we were concerned that we’d be blacklisted because we hadn’t yet done any payouts so we changed the rewarded action from a sale to the completion of a lead form upon successful download. We dropped the commission significantly to $.50 and treated it as a pure lead generation program. Fortunately we had set the daily cap in adspend because immediately people took advantage of this change and filled out junk emails repeatedly to earn the $.50 payout. I was surprised with how quickly this abuse came. We promptly shut off the PPA ads and discontinued participation in the program – we only lost something like $30 altogether.

Advice for Google

This has got to be a tough problem to combat from Google’s perspective. Juggling both sides of the equation, they have to attract enough quality advertisers with desirable and discreet products that work in the affiliate scenario while at the same time keeping a high quality of publisher in the referral network so as not to alienate the advertisers. Opportunity for fraud abounds – from the advertiser side, there’s no surefire way to enforce that the payout actions are accurately tracked (ie. i could start with the tracking script on our checkout thank you page and then remove it or selectively serve it every fifth purchase to dilute the commissions we pay and nobody would be the wiser). On the side of publisher fraud, it’s easy to participate only in the referral programs where payout doesn’t require a sale and then surf through an anonymizer to emulate people completing those actions via your ads. Google’s system of ratings from publishers is clearly how they are screening advertisers but they don’t seem to have a good way to eliminate the shady publishers. I didn’t see the equivalent ratings system for advertisers to use for this purpose.

Presumably the advice for now is to simply never pay commission on anything other than a sale- unfortunately that reduces the reach of this program to ecommerce sites only. My advice to Google though would be to disallow payment on actions other than sales to “cleanup the streets” in the near term and make it impossible for scammers to game the system. Once it’s economically unviable for them to make money there, they’ll leave and find another shady neighborhood to haunt. This whole thing oddly makes me wish there was an “Internet-wide Boys and Girls Club” to give fraudsters something positive to do- all that clicking just to earn $.50… you’d think there would be a HIT on the Amazon Mechanical Turk where they could legitimately earn more than that will less work…

I hope they figure something out because I love the approach in general of yoking reward as directly as possible to performance. Having studied the negative extremes of this principle with the Learned Helplessness paradigm in school, the idea of tethering reward to successful efforts has appealed to me on a very fundamental level and beyond business. I don’t have a silver-bullet suggestion for Google on how to stamp out fraudulent activity. It’s a very knotted messy problem that could easily spiral out of control scaring away advertisers and creating negative press. Fortunately they have some of the brightest minds on it – having just had lunch on their campus earlier this week, I can attest that it felt like there were definitely more brain cells per capita at Google than any place I’ve been on Earth.

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