5 Signs That Your SEO Agency May Be Ripping You Off

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Agencies all claim the same thing: that they get your business “on the first page of Google” (or Bing, Baidu, etc).

This pitch alone is usually enough to convince a business owner to “try SEO” — which typically entails paying an agency a hefty setup fee and additional monthly “maintenance” (sometimes to the tune of $10,000 USD/month or more).

Unfortunately, many business owners have no way of knowing whether these SEO services are a good investment or not. Even after the initial phone consultation, there are often unanswered questions around specifics (“what is this agency actually doing?”) and success metrics (“how do we know if this SEO stuff is even working?”). Not many have the time and/or patience to dig into the weeds and figure out what’s going on.

For business owners, it all boils down to one question: “is my SEO Agency adding value, or are they taking me for a ride? Am I being ripped off?

Here are five potential warning signs that you’re (seriously) overpaying for SEO “services”:

Sign #1: Your target keyword search rankings aren’t improving over time 

The whole point of SEO is to appear higher up on the search results pages; if your keyword ranking isn’t steadily going up, something is seriously wrong.

Google Search Console rankings

Search position stagnation (from the Google Search Console)

While you can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to see rapid gains, there should be a clear month-over-month trend. If you ranking is flatlining—or declining—it’s possible that your SEO Agency is simply not doing much.

Here’s how to verify what’s going on:

  • If you haven’t already, sign up for Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools and register your web properties on both services (it’s free)
  • Start checking the Search Analytics reports on a regular basis to monitor your organic search ranking over time (for the keywords you’re interested in). Hint: the lower the “average position” number, the better (i.e. “position 1” means your site is the first search result)
  • If you notice that your keyword ranking isn’t showing marked improvement over time, ask your SEO Agency to explain why!

While this is definitely the #1 giveaway that something is off, there are a few other ways to spot a less-than-honest operation.

Sign #2: Your search ranking is only great for low-volume keywords

Don’t get me wrong—ranking well for “long tail” (i.e. more obscure) keywords certainly has its benefits. For one, you’ll have a leg up over the competition if that keyword becomes more popular over time. Secondly, ranking highly for many low-volume keywords could result in the same amount of traffic as ranking decently for a broader term.

There is a problem, however, if your SEO Agency is focusing on improving the ranking for keywords you never agreed on.

Consider the following scenario:

  • An SEO Agency approaches a New York area plumbing company with a promise to rank them #1 for “plumbing related keywords”
  • A few months pass, and the plumbing company notices it’s only on the first page of results for keywords that are not even tied to purchase intent (e.g. “plumber meaning” or “how to be a plumber“). Meanwhile, it’s not even on the first page of results for the keywords that would actually drive additional business (e.g. “find a plumber” or “emergency plumber“)

While the above sounds an egregious case, it’s more common than you may think. As in any other large and unregulated industry, there are plenty that make a living by preying on unsuspecting clients.

Here’s how you can check the situation for yourself:

  • If you haven’t already, sign up for a free Google AdWords account
  • Inside AdWords, navigate to Tools > Keyword Planner (direct link) and perform a search for a broad keyword that describes what you sell in 1-2 words (e.g. “home insurance” or “pizza”). Make sure to limit your targeting to only those locations where your business is present. Also: flip the setting for “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms” to ON.
  • Sort the results (keyword ideas) by their estimated average monthly volume. As a general rule, you should be trying to rank for keywords that have the potential to bring in the most revenue—these are almost always the ones where the “Suggested bid” (if you were to bid on those keywords within AdWords) is high. Note: “Competition” in this report isn’t referring to SEO competition, but rather to the raw number of advertisers bidding for that keyword (vs. the baseline).

Note the differences in Volume, Competition, and Bid Estimate (from Google Keyword Planner)

In a nutshell: do your due diligence to make sure that the keywords your agency is trying to rank you for are actually (a) seeing significant monthly search volume in your area and (b) are tied to purchase intent.

Sign #3: Your site’s On-Page Factors aren’t absolutely, positively tip top

While no one (outside of Google’s search team) truly knows how their ranking algorithm currently works, there is a general consensus that two categories of factors play a large part in the calculation: content and backlinks.

While building quality “backlinks” (links to your site from other websites) is a core part of any SEO strategy, the first step almost always should be making sure that the on-page content is actually optimized for search engines.

Think of this stuff as the low hanging fruit for SEO: it’s easy to implement, and there’s an almost immediate benefit (you’ll likely see better rankings in days as opposed to weeks).

If there’s at least one self-proclaimed SEO professional working on your website, there is absolutely no excuse for:

  • Missing (or duplicate) page titles
  • Missing meta descriptions (the descriptive snippets of text that are displayed on search engine results pages)
  • Missing (or poorly chosen) meta tags
  • Missing image titles
  • No internal links (i.e. links between pages on your site)
  • Lack of content structure (via body tags such as <h1>, <h2>, etc.)
  • Lack of search engine friendly page URL structure (i.e. https://admend.com/blog/sample-post/ is better than https://admend.com/blog/?p=123)
  • … and a whole bunch of other, easy-to-implement on-page SEO techniques (additional reading: On-Page Factors by Moz).

While a business owner will probably not have the time to learn about all these things, there are ways to quickly check if your site’s on-page factors are optimized or not.

Here’s how you can perform a quick “On-Page” check-up of your site for free:

  • Register for a free trial of Moz Pro (I’m not affiliated with them)
  • Within the Moz Pro interface, Run a Site Crawl report for your site’s URL
  • After 30 minutes or so, you’ll get a report showing all the obvious on-page issues—along with tips about how to resolve them

Examples of on-page site issues detected by Moz Pro

Bottom line: if you’ve been working with an SEO Agency for months and there are still glaring on-page issues, you’ve probably been taken for a ride. C’est la vie.

Sign #4: They use unnatural (“spammy”) link building techniques that court hurt your ranking in the long run

As mentioned earlier, backlinks (external links to your site) play a significant part in determining your search ranking.

Not all backlinks are created equal, however.

Examples of “good” backlinks: links from .gov or .edu domains, links from major publications (e.g. New York Times), links from authority sites in your niche (a link from Moz to this site would likely give my site a significant boost)

Examples of “bad” backlinks: links from auto-generated content farms, links from sites that have been caught openly selling backlinks, links from sites completely unrelated to your niche, etc.

As a general rule, you should aim to be building backlinks from high-quality, authoritative websites.

Don’t be tempted by “silver bullet” link acquisition techniques (i.e. anything that sounds too good to be true).  Search engines are becoming scarily good at detecting unusual link activity—what may sound like a cunning “growth hack” today could haunt you in the long term if your property gets slapped with a ranking penalty.

Some obvious red flags:

  • A sudden influx of links (dozens or hundreds of new links to your site in a short period of time)
  • High proportion of backlinks (>2%) with keyword-rich anchor text (e.g. AdMend and this blog post look like typical links, while Performance Marketing Consultancy looks like an obvious attempt to stuff my target keyword in the link text)

If you have access to Moz Pro (alternatives: Ahrefs, Majestic SEO), you can run an Inbound link report on your domain to see all the links that are currently pointing to the site. As shown in the screenshot below, Moz will output a clean list of all external links—along with page/domain authority metrics and an evaluation of how “spammy” each linking domain is. While this is far from a “perfect” solution, it’s a quick way to get a sense of what’s going on.

Basic backlink analysis (screenshot from Moz Pro)

Any reputable SEO Agency should be well aware of what constitutes a “good” backlink—and should only be building quality, relevant links to your properties. If you suspect they are doing otherwise, I recommend firing them immediately.

Pro tip: before working with any SEO agency, warn them upfront that you’ll be actively monitoring your inbound link quality.

Sign #5: The content pieces they produce are too short and/or don’t add much value to your site’s audience

There’s only room for a few websites on the first page of search results—this is truly a “winner-take-most” situation where only the most relevant content can ever claim a spot at the top.

This isn’t rocket science. If you want your website to be scored highly by search engines, make sure the content delivers real value to the reader (or viewer). Where possible, strive to produce content that is 10 times better than the competition’s.

The easiest way to produce “better” content is to think about what your audience would find the most valuable. Instead of merely entertaining the reader, aim to inform them—give out information that they would find useful. The more value you can create with your content, the more you’ll be rewarded for it by humans and search engines (robots) alike.

Sure, there was a time when uploading thousands of “spun” and “re-spun” 250-word articles was a legitimate SEO strategy. Before search engines wised up to what was going on, industrious marketers got away with such shenanigans—essentially passing off a low-effort content farm as a large, authoritative portal (don’t even get me started on keyword “stuffing”).

Those “Wild West” days are behind us, however. Search engines are highly sophisticated now, and are regularly updating their predictive models with additional signals. It’s getting harder and harder to trick any major engine into thinking your subpar content is any more valuable than generic filler text.

[Aside: I can almost hear some of you muttering, “do you even PBN bro?” Well, PBNs will get K.O.’d soon too, just watch.]

Smart marketers know that if you’re going to create content, you might as well focus on making it as valuable as possible. Unsurprisingly, there’s now a trend of writing very long (3,000+ word) articles—comprehensive pieces that are structured (and read) like a short book. In the majority of niches, you simply can’t add much value with just 250 words and a stock photo.

Unfortunately, many SEO Agencies haven’t quite moved on. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they continue to pump out generic articles for their clients’ blogs (with the actual writing typically outsourced to a freelancer). Instead of getting to know a client’s business and producing “cornerstone” content that readers would find most valuable, they simply focus on meeting some minimum word count and churn out the articles as quickly as possible. Sometimes, these are so poorly written that they require a re-write by someone on the client’s marketing department.

If you want to ensure that your content is valuable, just take a look at the Top 10 search results for your target keywords. At minimum, aim to deliver more value than your competitors—and encourage anyone working for you (such as an SEO Agency) to do likewise.

Otherwise, continuing to churn out generic blog posts in 2018 is well and truly a waste of time.

* * *

Bonus Warning Sign: They blatantly lie to your face about timing or capabilities

Here’s another obvious (but somewhat overlooked) sign: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Sure, we let marketers and “advertising people” in general occasionally get away with “harmless” lies. Examples:

  • “We’re the best in the industry”
  • “All our clients are absolutely in love with us”
  • … and other pompous self-assertions of that nature.

Alarm bells should go off, however, when mere chest-beating turns into con-artistry. Claims such as the following should not be forgiven:

  • “We know exactly how the Google algorithm works”
  • “We can get you on the first page in a week” 
  • “We can trick search engine crawlers”
  • Our proprietary algorithms keep us one step ahead of search engines”

When you hear something outlandish, just ask them to clarify what they mean—and to provide a case study that demonstrates the claim. Chances are, this is where they’ll decide that you’d be “too difficult” to work with. Do yourself a favor and avoid these kinds of operations.

* * *

I know I’ve made some bold claims of my own in this article—now is a good time to remind everyone that there are always exceptions to every rule. I certainly haven’t considered every edge case (far from it).

Even if you notice one of the warning signs, it’s not 100% evidence that you’re being taken for a ride. There may even be a legitimate reason for it. But I will say this: where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.

I hope this short guide has given you some ideas about what to look for in an SEO Agency—or how start a productive conversation with your existing one.

Good luck out there! As always, feel free to reach out if you’re looking for assistance with your online ad campaigns.

P.S. I realize the on-page settings for this post (and blog) are far from optimized. It’s a work in progress!

Yoast SEO readability warnings

What the Yoast WordPress plugin is saying about this blog article

How Fast Does Your Homepage Load? Benchmarking Top E-Commerce Sites (Black Friday Weekend 2017)

How many seconds does it take for your website to load?

As many marketers and site owners are discovering, website speed is critically important. A survey conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Akamai revealed that:

  • Users expect a web page to load in 2 seconds
  • 40% of shoppers will wait up to 3 seconds before abandoning a shopping or travel website
  • 79% of web shoppers who experience a “dissatisfying visit” are less likely to buy from the site again

It should be noted that this survey was from 2009, practically a century ago in Internet terms. As people become increasingly Internet savvy, it is not unreasonable to assume that consumers have become even more demanding of website performance. Closing an unresponsive browser window is trivially easy (unlike leaving a physical store).

While average Internet speeds may be going up, not everyone has access to ultra-fast web connectivity. At the same time, the proliferation of interactive site elements and embedded media (images, videos, audio) means that it is more important than ever to keep track of web site speed and size.

We were curious about the state of things today.

To benchmark key metrics related to page speed, we analyzed the Alexa Top 50 Shopping sites with the help of Pingdom’s Website Speed Test.

The averages for the top E-Commerce sites were:

  • Load time (average): 2.73 seconds
  • Page size (average): 3.06 MB
  • # of Requests (average): 221.1
  • # JavaScript Requests (average):  47.2

As tested on Saturday Nov 25 7:00 AM PST, pinged from the San Jose server. Three of the 50 were excluded from the summary stats due to blocked requests from Pingdom’s servers.

And now for some Top 3’s in each category:

The fastest homepages (by load time):

  1. B&H Photo Video (0.76 sec)
  2. 6pm.com (0.99 sec)
  3. Google Shopping (0.99 sec)

The slowest homepages:

  1. Oxford University Press (4.77 sec)
  2. Cambridge.org (4.5 sec)
  3. Yoox.com (4.42 sec)

The largest homepages (by file size):

  1. Amazon.com (7.5 MB)
  2. Amazon.co.uk (7.1 MB)
  3. H&M (6.5 MB)

The smallest (lightest?) homepages:

  1. Autotrader (0.7 MB)
  2. Overstock (1 MB)
  3. Wiley (1 MB)

Homepages with the most JavaScript:

  1. Kohl’s (173 JS requests)
  2. Macy’s (104 JS requests)
  3. Bodybuilding.com (102 JS requests)

Homepages with the least JavaScript:

  1. Oxford University Press (1 JS request)
  2. Google Shopping (4 JS requests)
  3. Netflix (6 JS requests)

Note: we singled out JavaScript requests (as opposed to all requests) as these are typically instances of code fired by analytics, advertising, and e-commerce technologies. Commonly known as “pixels,” these third-party information collecting methods often contribute to slow load times. Tracker count is a rough, yet useful, way to size up whether a website owner is prioritizing site speed (and user experience).

Of the 48 websites used in our calculations, only 16 loaded in under 2 seconds. In other words, 67% of top E-Commerce websites took longer than 2 seconds to load (when accessed from a San Jose, CA server). Given how important site speed is to an online shopper’s browsing experience, this is a worrying statistic.

It is no coincidence that our 5-step process for marketing optimization begins with “Optimize User Experience.” The visitor’s experience on-site must be as smooth and pleasant as possible. This is the key to keeping bounce rate low (the % of visitors who leave after seeing only one page). In our opinion, it is inefficient–and wasteful of marketing budget–to send paid traffic to a site that hasn’t been optimized for UX.

A classic example to illustrate this point:

  • Your conversion rate (for new site visitors) is 1% (of ~1,000 new visitors/month, 10 purchase a widget)
  • To increase sales by 20%, you can either attract ~200 more visitors/month or increase CVR to 1.20%

Which seems easier? Sure, adding 200 more visitors could be achieved through paid traffic. However, ensuring that the conversion rate (CVR) is as high as possible will pay off tremendously in the long run.

TL;DR: if you’re selling anything online, make sure your site loads as fast as possible. Check your page load times often, from multiple locations and different devices (e.g. desktop, tablet, phone). See our Resources page for some useful links.

You can download the full dataset here (Excel file).

Local Business Marketing: How To Promote Your Bar or Restaurant Online

When it comes to running a restaurant (or bar), it’s a challenge simply to stay afloat.

There are many things that can go wrong (at any time).

Customer complaints, defective product(s), safety evaluations, permit renewal delays, absentee employees, sudden rent increases, equipment breakdowns… the list goes on. On top of the usual challenges of running a business, restaurant owners and managers have to contend with razor thin margins and the competition from VC-backed food delivery services.

So how does one even find the time for marketing and promotion? And where to begin?

We recommend a simple strategy: stick to the basics, find out what seems to be working, and repeat every day (or at least once a week). In greater detail:

Step 0. Refine your offering until it’s best it can possibly be.

Would you take your mother to your own restaurant? If not, improve the product (and/or service) until you would be proud to serve anyone. This is a marketing plan, after all – there’s little point marketing a bad offer.

Of course, there are cases where product or service refinement might not even be necessary. Maybe your restaurant is the only place that serves Mexican food in the entire city. Or you own a bar that has exclusive access to out-of-state microbreweries. If there’s demand and no competition, you win by default.

In a competitive market, however, you will have to stand out – through a superior product, exemplary service, or both. Ideally, the experience of eating at your establishment is so enjoyable that patrons start raving about your business to their friends and family. Once the word starts getting out, it’s time to move on to Step 1: laying the groundwork for a full restaurant marketing strategy.

Step 1. Set up your local business listings on Google and Bing.

Forget the Yellow Pages – it’s all online now. People use search engines to look up just about everything, and it’s exactly how they would find your business (even if accidentally). Google and Bing together comprise almost 100% of the U.S. search market, so getting listed by those two should be done quickly.

Important things to remember as you’re doing this:

  • Make sure you fill out as many fields as possible (e.g. address, opening hours, telephone). Double check to make sure that the address is accurate, as this will show up as a pin on the Maps interface (regardless of search engine).
  • Include photos! This will make your listing stand out.

Step 2. If there’s a local listing directory site that’s popular in your area (e.g. Yelp), get on it!

In many markets (e.g. major cities), Yelp has become the default site/app that people check for local business recommendations.

When you get a chance, claim your business page and complete the listing profile (filling out all details).

Note: there have been many complaints about Yelp in the past, both from customers and business owners. Ultimately, it’s up to them as to how they decide to rank restaurants (in search results) or treat overly critical customer reviews. We still feel that it’s better to be on Yelp (or similar sites) than not – there’s just too much site traffic to pass up.

Bad reviews, by the way, do not have to spell the end of your business. On both Google and Yelp, a business owner has the ability to respond directly (and publicly) to all reviews. Even if there’s a particularly nasty comment, you can take the high road and simply thank the user for their input. Even showing up on the comments section is a great indicator to anyone reading that you’re aware of the situation, and actively try to improve on past mistakes. Don’t shy away from online customer interaction.

OPTIONAL: Set up a separate business website.

Given that so many online directory services already exist for local businesses, a separate website (e.g. your own .com) is not 100% required. With that said, it may make sense to spin one up anyway, as a way to keep all your links and social media profiles organized.

These days, we recommend going with one of the major “website builder” services – Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. The first two offer free plans, and all three make it very easy to get a website live in minutes. Better yet, all of them feature a wide range of pre-made templates to use (make sure you select a “mobile responsive” theme – one that will scale well across all devices).

Our advice is to keep all the writing on your site as simple as possible. Less words, more pictures. Make sure the key information is visible at all times–your physical address, telephone number, and opening hours. If possible, include a picture of the menu.

If you set up a website, don’t forget to update all the previous profile pages (Google, Bing, Yelp, etc.) with your website URL.

So now you’ve got a great product, and a way for people to find you online. Now it’s time to give your customers the tools to talk about the business.

Step 3. Register social media profiles (Instagram, Twitter) and create a Facebook Page.

There are a hundred places where you could register a social media account – we recommend keeping it simple and sticking to these three. What to do with each one:

Instagram: this is all about photos. Use this account to post pictures of your offerings (dishes, cocktails) or document significant events at your business (party, milestone, etc.). Always post with the same hashtag, and encourage your customers to do the same.

Twitter: a great way to keep people informed of what’s new – whether it’s a promotion, seasonal special, or even a change of address.

Facebook Business Page: there are a lot of features to make use of here. You can upload pictures, post updates, and get customer feedback. In addition, you can even use Facebook Ads to promote your listing to particular groups of users. For many local businesses, this could even serve in place of a separate website.

On any of these services, don’t expect thousands of “followers” or “likes” overnight. A strong social media profile will come with time. The key, as we discuss in the next section, is being consistent and staying the course.

Step 4. Set up a regular social media posting routine.

At this point, you have probably registered half a dozen accounts on various sites and services. For now, there’s no need to sign up for anything else online. The goal is to make good use of all the tools you already have.

Your search engine listings (Google/Bing), directory profile (Yelp), and website serve as a solid foundation – while customer reviews will appear over time, the general information stays the same. Check in at least once every two weeks to make sure all the details are updated and consistent. Try to use just one phone number, one way of writing your address, opening hours, etc. If any particularly polarizing reviews appear (i.e. good or bad), take a few minutes to respond.

The social media profiles (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) are a way for your loyal customers to get the word out. Additionally, these services allow you to easily demonstrate that you’re still in business (based on the recency of updates), web savvy, and serious about customer service. Try to set up a routine. Just as with your directory pages, check in every 1-2 weeks on your social media accounts and post anything that your customers would genuinely find useful. You don’t have to post every day, or outsource this work to someone else. A personal touch once a month is better than repetitive clickbait daily.

Step 5. Experiment with other promotion strategies (both online and offline).

Once you have figured out a basic social media marketing strategy and have a gotten a better sense of your audience (e.g. what kind of people seem to be most attracted to your business), you can then experiment with other, one-off promotion strategies. These may include:

  • Daily deal sites (e.g. Groupon). The jury is still out on whether these one-off promotions are a net positive for the business or not. While many jump on the chance to try something out for 80% off, they may be the type of customer who is simply seeking cheap deals and may never actually return to eat or drink at full price. May be most effective as a quick burst of initial traffic, or as a supplement in low season.
  • Event catering (e.g. for a local community festival). This is a particularly effective strategy if your restaurant is especially popular with a particular demographic.
  • Partnering with businesses nearby. If there are any hotels near you that don’t have their own restaurant, this could be an easy deal to strike – they can offer a 10% discount coupon for your restaurant to all its guests. It makes them look good and brings you additional business. Alternatively, you could find out if there are any local walking tours in the area and partner up with the guides to include your restaurant as part of their itinerary. As cliché as it sounds, the possibilities here are endless.
  • Give an interview (to a local newspaper or blogger). While social media is great for many small updates, a full Q&A session is a great way for people to find out more about you, your story, and the history behind the business. Bloggers (e.g. self proclaimed foodies) can be highly influential, and may be just the thing you need to get your business name out to a much wider audience (this is how major publications are increasingly getting their news from anyway).

To sum it up, there’s no need to overcomplicate things when it comes to marketing your restaurant or bar online.

Take matters into your own hands, but keep things simple. Good luck!

The 5 Most Common Online Advertising Attribution Models (and How To Game Them)

Let’s pretend that you’re a marketing manager, in charge of allocating millions of dollars of online display advertising spend. In other words, you’ve got a lot of money to give out, but don’t know which vendor (or combination of vendors) should get the media budget.

Determined to be objective and fair, you reject all martini lunch invitations and inform the vendors that their fate will be decided through brute logic – a third-party attribution system will assign credit where it’s due. Then, you can simply tally up the spends at the end and figure out the true CPA (Cost Per Acquisition) for each one.

Sounds easy, yes?

Actually, yeah. It’s not too difficult – provided all the impression and conversion tagging is set up properly before the whole show begins (we won’t get into that here). As long as you just pick a model and stick to it, you will get to an answer. There will be a ranking of vendors at the end.

But it may not be the right ranking. In fact, it could represent the exact opposite of the actual value that each of your vendors is delivering. How could this be?

Every common attribution model can be easily gamed.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1.) Last Touch Attribution Model

Last Touch Attribution

Last Touch Attribution Model

How credit is assigned: the last touch (e.g. last click, impression, or interaction) gets all the credit for the conversion.

How to game it: a whole lot of retargeting. While it’s possible that almost all the visitors to a particular advertiser’s website convert on the first visit (perhaps a time limited form fill offer), most of the time the conversion event gets trigged on subsequent site visits. This is particularly common for e-commerce campaigns: to beat your competition, simply retarget every cookie that has visited the advertiser’s page – keep serving ads to them, because these are the cookies that are more likely to convert.

How to dominate the media plan: this is such a common scenario that most companies have already figured it out. As long as you have any kind of visibility into the advertiser’s site visitors (i.e. you have placed tracking codes on any subset of the website pages), you’re able to play the retargeting game.

So how do you ensure your retargeting is leaner and meaner than the others?

Some ideas:

  • Increase your bids substantially for the cookies in the retargeting pool
  • Increase your bids even more for cookies that have made it farther through the conversion funnel (e.g. have added items to cart, but haven’t converted yet)
  • Increase the bids on inventory that is more likely to be visited immediately prior to a conversion (e.g. if the advertiser is a clothing retailer, coupon code aggregators are great places to find that “last touch”
  • If the attribution model is not distinguishing between clicks and impressions, don’t even worry about clicks
  • Intensify the bidding with each passing day on any retargeted cookie that still hasn’t converted

Ironically, a non-trivial amount of R&D efforts in the advertising industry are being assigned to game this particular attribution model. Much like flared jeans and MySpace, this method of assigning credit belongs in the 2000’s.

Do the other models pose any more of a challenge? Let’s find out.

2.) First Touch Attribution Model

First Touch Attribution

First Touch Attribution Model

How credit is assigned: first click, impression, or interaction takes it all! If you didn’t serve the first ad, you get nothing.

How to game it: serve one ad to as many people as possible. In other words, stop serving ads to a cookie after just one impression – within the attribution window, of course (so if the window is 30 days, set your system to serve at most 1 ad to each cookie every 30 days).

This one requires a bit more effort than the Last Touch model, seeing as how you need access to a large cookie pool to play this game (if you’re on any major ad exchange, you’re good to go). Don’t worry about bidding too low, as an ad doesn’t even need to be seen by a user for it to count towards the conversion credit – low quality, cheap below-the-fold inventory is your friend here.

How to dominate: if by some chance there’s a competitor on the media plan who has also figured out the above, you’ll need a way to win more overall credit.

First, you could ask the advertiser to lower the agreed-upon CPM rate, thereby giving you more impressions to work with for the same amount of media spend (quality of impressions doesn’t matter too much here). And if your competitors have figured that out too, well, this is where the actual value creation actually begins. You’ll have to do some analytical work to determine which cookies are more likely to eventually convert – and prioritize bids on those.

3.) Linear Attribution Model

Linear Attribution Model

Linear Attribution Model

How credit is assigned: every touch point (e.g. click or impression) gets an equal share of the conversion credit.

How to game it: while Socialism sounds good on paper, we know by now that there are some serious challenges in practice – even with this model, some impressions are more equal than others. You can win this game one of two ways: bid on cookies that others are undervaluing (i.e. find diamonds in the rough that will convert in the future), or… just retarget like crazy, knowing that most cookies are unlikely to convert on the first visit anyway. Retargeting for the win, once again.

How to dominate: OK, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this model is really flawed. Everyone will be retargeting to get as many impressions in prior to conversion. In other words, it’s a race to the bottom.

To complete our Cold War analogy, the trick here is disappointingly simple: outspend and outbid the competition, regardless of your profit margin. It’s an arms race. Lose money if you have to, just so you can prove that you’re delivering more value in a given month (the hope is that the advertiser will then choose you as the sole ad partner for this channel, at which point you can go back to bidding very little).

4.) Time Decay Attribution Model

Time Decay Attribution Model

Time Decay Attribution Model

How credit is assigned: according to some pre-set parameters, a certain portion of the credit is reserved for touches (e.g. clicks or impressions) that happened just prior to the conversion. A little less credit goes to the touches prior to those, and so on. The parameters can sometimes be toggled – there’s usually a window to set (e.g. 14 days) and a rate of decay (a chance to use “half-life” in the world of advertising!)

How to game it: while this model seems more complex (and is arguably more sensible than the ones above), it’s not difficult to game. In fact, you can safely apply the same techniques as recommended in the Last Touch Model section.

If you’re limited to a certain number of retargeting impressions (i.e. you have to also prospect new cookies), spend as little as possible on the prospecting portion so you have more budget to outbid others on the retargeting. Forget the time-decayed long tail – accrue conversion credit on the touches nearest to the conversion.

5.) Weighted Attribution Model (a.k.a. the “Position Based Attribution Model”)

Weighted Attribution Model

Weighted Attribution Model

How credit is assigned: according to (adjustable) parameters, a significant portion of the credit is assigned to the first and last touches. The remainder of the credit is split among the touches in between. So if there were 5 impressions total (as in the diagram above), the middle 3 touches will have to split whatever credit is left over after the first and last are rewarded.

How to game it: this one is easy – it just requires you to pay attention. At the onset, you can try both tactics (from the First Touch Model and Last Touch Model sections) simultaneously. That is, have 50% of your budget dedicated to gaming the First Touch, and the 50% to winning Last Touch credit. Forget trying to collect credit from the middle touches (they’re not worth it).

How to dominate: the first to get a detailed conversion credit report wins. In other words, request reporting from the advertiser as soon as possible – and adjust your strategy accordingly. If you’re spending 50% of your money on the Last Touch strategy but only getting 20% of the total plan credit, reassign more budget to the First Touch technique. Often, vendors will just be going for Last Touch, anyway. Don’t engage in races to the bottom, and you should be fine.

OK, so all that is low hanging fruit. What about the custom attribution models?

Let’s suppose that you come across a completely different attribution model in the wild. This “custom” model could be based on extensive research and testing, or it could simply be based on someone’s creative pivoting in Microsoft Excel.

In any case, it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to game it after just a few rounds of trial and error. Even if you don’t get regular (or any) conversion credit reporting to gauge how well your tactics are working, you may be able to reverse-engineer the attribution logic. Or you may discover that, once again, that the model strongly favours retargeting.

All this cynicism is simply a reflection of the online advertising industry’s state today. Here’s hoping that more conversations happen regarding the flawed nature of common conversion attribution models. And that we ditch the Last Touch Model, at the very least.

Finally, we believe that assigning conversion credit within the same channel (e.g. among display advertising vendors) is premature unless you have first taken the time to carefully and systematically allocate credit among channels. Worry about whether you should even be running this much search advertising. Or display. Or social. That’s an important topic that we’ll save for another post.

Before You Give Up on Facebook Ads, Try These 10 Campaign “Quick Fixes”

“Facebook ads don’t work.”

“All my clicks probably came from click farms.”

“I am never going to spend another dollar on Facebook ads again.”

If you’ve ever found yourself saying these things… you’re not alone. Many business owners have tried running Facebook ad campaigns, only to have the entire affair end in frustration.

Scenarios like this really turn people off the platform: $853.23 in ad spend, 232 clicks, 359 page likes, 0 sales.

If you have a failed ad campaign on Facebook, don’t despair. There may be things you could do to get it working and generating enough in sales/leads to justify the cost.

Here are 10 quick tactics you could try right now to try and bring an unprofitable campaign back to life:

1.) Turn off the Audience Network 

Facebook Ad Manager interface screenshot Audience Network Screenshot

Check the performance by Platform to see if there are any obvious patterns

In your Adverts Manager interface, select Breakdown > Platform for campaigns and ad sets you have already run. You might notice that certain platforms perform a lot better than others.

Specifically, the Audience Network (essentially ads that appear on other mobile apps) may not be giving you as much performance as the other platforms.

Of course, this will depend on the kind of campaign you’re running and on your performance goals. Regardless, make sure you check on this.

2.) Turn off geos (countries, regions, DMAs) that don’t perform

This is the same exact deal as Tactic #1.

In your Adverts Manager interface, select Breakdown > Country (as well as “Region” and “DMA Region”) and take a look at the campaign performance.

If you were targeting an entire continent (e.g. “Asia”), this is almost always going to yield some interesting insights.

Best practice: don’t target more than one country at a time (unless you’re Coca Cola or something). Your campaign audience targeting should be more specific than that.

Another danger when targeting multiple countries: Facebook will just end up serving ads to the places  where the inventory tends to be cheaper, so you may end up with 0 delivery to countries with higher GDP/capita.

3.) Narrow down your audience targeting to < 300k people

Facebook Ads Audience Size Estimator

“Fairly broad” = Understatement of the Year

If you’re targeting too many people at once with your ads, it will be hard to determine what is working and what isn’t.

For test campaigns, pick a test group of a reasonable size (50,000 to 300,000 people). You may have to use a combination of Interest, Demographic, and Behavioral targeting to do this.

The smaller your audience, the more tailor-made your message can be. Take advantage of Facebook’s extensive audience targeting options!

4.) Stop using CPM (pay per impression) bidding

Facebook Ad Bid Settings

Use manual bidding and pay per action

If you use CPM bidding, you’re going to pay very high CPMs (CPM = cost per 1,000 ad impressions).

If the campaign objective is anything other than reach or brand awareness, always bid per action (e.g. per click, per conversion, per app install).

Note: if the ad account has a low spend (< $10), the option to pay per action (“CPA bidding”) may be disabled. Try flipping the same Ad Set to per action bidding after you’ve spent $10 dollars.

5.) Don’t always use Facebook’s “suggested bid” 

If it’s efficiency you’re after, you should aim to pay the least possible to hit your campaign performance goals.

Sure – if you’re not getting enough volume, you can certainly try increasing the bid to open up the delivery.

Otherwise, try experimenting with lower bids to see if you can still get reasonable volume at that (lower) bid. Maybe paying 50% less per click is all it would take to get to positive ROI on your campaign.

6.) Use different Ad Sets for each Gender and Age Group

If the target demographic is Men and Women aged 18 – 30, this is how I would set up the Ad Sets:

  • Ad Set 1: Women Age 18-24
  • Ad Set 2: Women Age 25-30
  • Ad Set 3: Men Age 18-24
  • Ad Set 4: Men Age 25-30

Men and women will respond differently to ad creatives and the messages within them. Be specific with your targeting, and use age buckets of 4-6 years to speak to people from the same generation.

7.) Get better images and test them

Benefits vs Features in advertising campaigns

When possible, show the BENEFITS (i.e. the end result)

It’s the responsibility of your ad image to grab a person’s attention.

If you don’t get someone’s attention, you won’t even get a chance to tell them anything (through the advert Headline and Body Text).

You’re competing with hundreds of pieces of exciting and distracting social media content. If your image isn’t more interesting to your audience than the latest BuzzFeed article, your campaign is going to struggle.

If you’re getting low CTRs (anything below 0.2%), you need to find some new images to test in your creatives.

Some general tips for images that work well:

  • If your product is targeted at men, show men in your images. If you’re selling to women, show women. Show people the result they seek!
  • Show the final product, not the ingredients.
  • Benefits over features – always. If you’re selling toothpaste, don’t show a picture of the toothpaste tube. Show a smiling face with bright white teeth!
  • Your image should sell the product. If you just go for shock value, you might get stupidly high CTRs but few conversions.
  • Follow Facebook’s recommended image guidelines (typically 1200 x 628 pixels) to make sure the image looks decent on as many ad placements as possible.
  • Use bold, bright colors.
  • If in doubt, project optimism and happiness. Dreary, gray images don’t do the job nearly as well.

Start paying attention to the images used by major brands (whether online or offline). These people have figured out what works long ago.

A great image could get up to 10x higher CTR (and conversions) vs. a boring image.

[Pro tip: if you don’t have images of your own, you can get great attribution-free photos from Unsplash.com and Pexels.com].

8.) Run at least 2 creative variants at any given time

You should be always testing variations of image, headline, body text, and call to action!

At the start, test 4-6 different images (then move on to testing the other variables once you have picked a winning image).

9.) At the beginning, start small (with a USD $10 to 20 daily budget)

Start small–don’t blow your entire ad budget on the first day. If it works, you can easily scale it up. If it doesn’t work, you’ll just have wasted money (unless the ad delivery data proves useful somehow).

Also: some days of the week might perform much better for you than others. Give your test campaign a few days before concluding it doesn’t work.

If your test budget is $150, better to spend $20 every day for a whole week (you can spend the extra $10 on a copy of “Scientific Advertising” by Claude Hopkins).

10.) Change your mindset about the Facebook Ad Platform

Morpheus Believe meme

Approximately $26.9 Billion was spent on Facebook Ads in 2016.

Marketers are spending money on this platform because it works.

Chances are, there’s a way you can get great performance and volume out of Facebook Ads. Perhaps the best “quick fix” is simply to change the way you look at the platform.

You must start to believe that you can make it work!

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If you’ve tried any of the above, let us know how it went in the comments section below.