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Year in Search 2020 | Interview with Kirk Williams

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PPC hubbub asked the leading industry experts 3 questions about what they thought about 2020 and what might happen for Search in 2021. Today we talked to the legend that is Kirk Williams.

Kirk is the owner of ZATO, his micro-agency focused solely on Paid Search Advertising, and has been working in Digital Marketing since 2009. He has been named one of the Top 25 Most Influential PPCers in the world by PPC Hero the past 5 years, and is known for his Ecommerce PPC articles across various industry publications. Pre-COVID, he was an international conference speaker presenting on all things Paid Search (especially Shopping Ads) around the world but now sticks to podcasts and online conferences to share his latest tips on Google Shopping Ads.  He recently wrote a book “Ponderings of a PPC Professional” that takes a more philosophical swing at PPC best practices and can be purchased on Amazon. Kirk currently resides in Billings, MT with his wife, 5 children, Trek bikes, Taylor guitar, books, and little sleep.

1. What did you love about Search in 2020?

Besides the PPC book I wrote, that your readers should buy? *Kirk pauses to stare directly into the camera, holding up a copy of his book*

Okay, shameful plug aside… as I reflect on this question, I am struck by the fact that Search is still Search… which is why I was drawn to making a career in it a decade ago. What I mean by that is, we still have the ability to connect with individuals asking specific questions, hoping to immediately receive specific answers. Search has always been powerful because it is the advertiser’s chance to connect with an individual revealing their personal intent. This is more powerful than a grouping of people based on common characteristics (audiences), though certainly, those additional demographical data points can be helpful in guiding a bidding algorithm. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that search is search. It is an individual (perhaps surprising the one tracking their “demographic” by) asking something inherently unexpected and random… but the very asking reveals their personal intent in a more powerful way than someone looking at past-tense audience behavioral stats could ever hope to accomplish.

So to answer the question in a long-winded way, I’m thankful that we could still advertise with keywords on Search in 2020 and that is the thing I most “loved” as I realized how fragile our relationship with the keyword is becoming. I cannot promise we will always be able to advertise on keywords in the future (though I think this would be a mortal mistake by a “search” engine who lives and dies, not with the audience, but with the individual search term itself), but I was thankful we had another year with it.

2. What did you hate about Search in 2020?

Jokingly: See the above response, inverted!

Seriously: While a naysayer of my viewpoints may accuse me of being anti-automation, anti-forward thinking, and anti-progress, I was alarmed by the amount of control the advertiser lost in 2020. I don’t mean this simply because of the control-freakish natures we PPCers can often (always?) possess. Even then, the best PPCers care about the results they get and the tests they run, so they are frustrated by anything outside of their control because they actually feel, deep within them, a sense of ownership and responsibility. Of course, we shouldn’t be against progress and I am personally impressed by the amount of growth machine learning has experienced within PPC Marketing.

However, Google continues a march of not simply shifting algorithmic control from the hands of the marketers to machines but of obfuscating the data as well. Mike Ryan of SMEC said it best in a 2020 post describing Smart Shopping Campaigns (SSC). He called SSC a “black hole” rather than a “black box”. This distinction is crucial, because the former hides the process and the latter hides the data. We don’t need to understand all of the workings of proprietary technology that happens in order for SSC to perform well. However, for them to completely, and unnecessarily I would add, hide nearly all data points that could be used for additional analysis and strategic advantage is alarming. This seems to be the direction Google is moving with Google Ads, not simply in using technology to help marketers, but to replace them by obfuscating the data offered.

We also saw this with a remarkable number of Search Terms being hidden in 2020. I have heard the arguments: “stop complaining about losing Search Terms, the best marketers figure out ways around these obstacles.” Surely, we can’t live in a world where the two of those things can’t live together? Surely, we can both evolve with the system and figure out ways to adapt, while we also voice concern about this alarming trend Google has set itself on which can only hurt (other) businesses. Obfuscating previously realized data will harm broader strategy plays and cross-channel discovery, and we saw movement in 2020 in this regard which should cause even the most nonchalant PPCer to stand up and take notice.

3. What do you think 2021 will bring?

While we have anticipated automation’s role (even as it has played an increased part) in PPC for awhile now, I do think 2021 will be the year it practically leaps forward in usage and advancements. There is still much control over various elements in Google Ads such as location targeting, device targeting, Channel segmentation, etc and I anticipate far more aggressive moves in line with campaign types such as Smart Shopping in the other Google Ads channels. There is a light and a dark side to this. I would be the world’s foremost Smart Shopping evangelist if it weren’t for the data obfuscation, but even then we still use it in my agency because of how successful it can be when wielded correctly (though we also use a variety of strategies to also get data from Standard campaigns as well). Technology has progressed remarkably, and as Patrick Gilbert’s new PPC book, Join or Die is named… we must learn to wield it well. Hopefully, we can also bend Google’s ear in the meantime, to not strip all the data away even as their machines begin to take away the manual labor. After all, without that labor we can be more invested in strategic guidance… well, as long as we have some data to use for strategy, that is.

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