Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Search Marketing in an Agency Environment

There’s so much good writing out there covering issues from both the brands’ and consumers’ perspectives, but what about the agencies? For independent consultants or ambitious entrepreneurs looking to build a viable business around search marketing services, there are relatively few resources out there to provide guidance.


With that, I’d like to provide a rudimentary step-by-step guide to building a search marketing business. By maximizing efficiencies and minimizing human error, this process can help you focus your time on delivering quality work – and investing the time to come up with truly innovative solutions.

1. Know the Campaign Brief, Inside and Out

There’s a reason we spend a lot of time up front writing and rewriting the brief before getting it approved; it’s the sacred text by which all is judged. In PPC, you’re constantly venturing into tiny minutia. After all, that’s why they hired you – to muck around in places where they don’t want to get their hands dirty.

But if you constantly have to schedule a conference call to hammer out these little issues, you’ll find out what it really means to work ’til you drop. And you might find that your clients aren’t as happy to hear your voice anymore.

So get it all on paper, and get the nod before doing anything else.

2. Define Critical Inputs Chronologically

The goals you set with your client – and the work it takes to get you there – should all be time-bound. For example:

  • Drive cost-per-acquisition (CPA) down to $2.50 by February
  • Generate 500 qualified leads within three months
  • Send 75,000 unique visitors to the microsite over four weeks.

Furthermore, you can set your own internal benchmarks to help you fight small fires, before they become big ones.

Optimization methodologies should also be organized chronologically. For instance, adding new keywords might happen every two days, whereas negative keywords might not warrant attention more than once a week. If you don’t want to get that granular, you could simply bundle the optimizations into two categories:

  • Short-Term: Check up on these every time you log into the account.
  • Long-Term: You pick a few of these to address at intervals.

For an exhaustive list of all the things you could be doing to look after your PPC campaigns, here are two outstanding resources on building a paid search program from scratch and if you’re taking over an existing PPC account.

3. Use the Tools!

Some of these are obvious. Use AdWords Editor as opposed to working within the web-based AdWords. There are a tools built right into AdWords Editor as well (my favorite is the Keyword Grouper). Google offers standalone resources which are invaluable to anyone managing PPC – Google Insights, URL Builder, and AdWords Keyword Tool. (Too bad they got rid of Google Sets.)

There are also some very good third-party tools worth a look; to avoid digression into that abyss, just read SEW’s intro to bid management tools.

4. Build Some Tools of Your Own

Here’s where the essential processes of search marketing become interwoven with your own business.

An example: we wanted to build a daily pacing model which could tell us how current media spend compares to approved media budgets for the month, and for the duration of the campaign. We also found reconciling media invoices across all our PPC clients to be a tedious affair. With a flick of the wrist, we built an Excel-based resource that uses the same daily input to accomplish both tasks, saving us a ton of time.

Other optimization and management work that can be facilitated with custom tools:

  • Building long keyword lists from a small seed list 
  • Bucketing keywords into campaigns & ad groups 
  • Mapping keywords across all match types

Actually, these three can all be done within one tool: Crosby Grant’s Permutator. And if you’re feeling especially ambitious, you might find yourself building assets of unprecedented value – such as Nate Walton’s Branded Search Volume Estimator

5. Centralize All Account Management & Optimizations

You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor if you can consolidate all your materials in one place. Think of all the assets that accumulate while managing a paid search program:

  • Contracts & campaign briefs 
  • To-do lists & project milestones 
  • Communications, internal & external 
  • Written approvals of day-to-day actions 
  • Performance reports, regular & ad hoc 
  • All the scrap work that leads to those reports 
  • Insights pulled from external data sources 
  • Collaborative idea logs for PPC optimization/expansion opportunities

Just to name a few. Web-based project management software, with its minimal cost and shallow learning curve, would be a great investment toward centralizing all these assets. By making them easily retrievable, pairing them with calendar or email notifications, and allowing multiple users to manage them collaboratively, you create efficiencies which translate into time savings – leaving you with more breathing room to think strategically and creatively about how to exceed your performance targets.

6. Document Processes

If you’re going to be in the agency business, you can count on two things.

  1. Your time is going to be your most precious resource. 
  2. There are a lot of things you’re going to be doing over and over.

Take a little extra time to document everything you’re doing in a workflow, and you’ll be amazed at the payoff down the road.

At my company, before we ever get a new client started on a paid search campaign, we need to setup and configure the root Google account, Google Analytics, and Google AdWords. To manage this efficiently and minimize error, we have a checklist with over three dozen points on it. Over time we’ve improved on a process that can take a few hours… and reduced the risk of a mistake appearing later on down the road.

7. Communicate

With every client relationship, this cardinal rule trumps any marketing philosophy or industry best practice. Keeping your email threads centralized (see above) helps to minimize confusion, but also requires diligence in making sure that all relevant information is spelled out in writing. If important conversations take place in person or by phone, it’s important to document everything relevant to the account (especially client approvals) and clearly identify action items.

If you’re going to have multiple people actually getting their hands on a PPC account, be diligent about role definition. For example, you could have one media planner dealing strictly with ad copy while another handles keyword management, and a third person overseeing budget allocation and campaign/ad group structure. For bigger spending accounts, this kind of coverage can be extremely useful.

Some bid management tools have good collaboration features – and AdWords Editor’s sharing functions are a good option, too.

That’s all, Folks!

There are also a few things you can only fix by first watching them break. If anyone else has words of wisdom from their own experience, let’s hear it!

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