Brands and agencies have a myriad of choices when it comes to search tools, requiring time and effort to determine their current needs and anticipate future needs, all while staying within their budget. In this process, they must also consider what tools they will actually use in the long run, not just which tools fit an approved checklist of features.
To help sort through some of the available tools and services offered, we recently spoke with Larry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream, a company that offers search marketing software and helps to run various PPC services. GinzaMetrics CEO Ray Grieselhuber and COO Erin Robbins O’Brien chatted with Larry during a FOUND Friday Google Hangout.

Determining What Your Brand Needs

Erin began the discussion by asking Ray and Larry what factors are important for helping someone to evaluate their search needs. “Does every brand need to be involved in search? In allocating resources towards it?” Erin asked.
“The types of businesses that do best in search tend to be types of businesses where people kind of know what they are looking for and not particularly knowing where to get it from,” Larry said. “If you’re old enough, you can think about the Yellow Pages when that used to exist. There used to be defined categories of things. You know, lawyers or this and that. There were categories of things that you could actually look for.”
“Within those categories the companies that tend to do the best, in terms of search marketing, are companies that have kind of a differentiated product with a higher average selling price point,” Larry explained. He explained that higher price tags and the opportunity for repeat or ongoing business were what helped these businesses to be successful and are great factors for deciding on search needs.
“I think you really need to understand what the right model is for your business,” said Ray. “Because of how difficult it is for any business to focus on more than a handful of acquisition channels at any given time, you really have to pick one.”
Ray went on to state that, in extreme cases, people must choose between paying for advertising, creating a viral marketing system, or relying on search. “I think that any time a business is the type of business that sells to consumers where those consumers are specifically looking for something, that you’re going to have a much better chance with being successful with search based acquisition.”

Types of Search

“Paid search and organic search are treated as two different channels quite often but, in my view, there’s a lot of similarities to them that people don’t pay enough attention to,” Ray said.
Erin said that in many organizations, especially small and mid-sized businesses that there are limited resources to go around for multiple acquisition channels. “If people have multiple different types of people working there, so say they’ve got a marketing manager, a digital strategist, a content manager, an SEO person, maybe a social media expert of sorts. Do you think that all of these people need different tools because they have different titles or do you think that there is a way to kind of consolidate efforts under a single tool?”
Larry replied, “I’m not aware of that many tools that do a fantastic job of covering both the paid and organic type of spectrum of workflow, going from content creation to link building, social media, and AdWords and Bing.” Larry explained that, as a tools vendor, he sees most of the equipment as being very segmented. “I would be kind of surprised if there were great options to do both at the same time.”
“There is kind of a long term standing dream of the part of tool vendors, as well as buyers, to have kind of the be-all one-all tool that does everything,” said Ray. “The reality is just that each of these channels is so complex that you can build something potentially providing broad coverage on maybe one slice of what a company would need, like say reporting or workflow or that sort of thing. But trying to do everything that you actually need across every single channel in a way that works really well, you end up probably harming your overall customer experience more than anything else.”

Free Search Tools

“For the difference of free and paid tools, are there good free tools out there and can they work for larger organizations? Or do you think that there’s a time when most brands really need to graduate to a paid solution?” Erin asked.
“There’s definitely plenty of free tools on the marketplace,” said Larry. “There’s a handful of free tools that I use every day in my workflow. I would point to Google Apps, so just using the spreadsheets and Docs for content collaboration.” Larry also noted that Google Analytics is another widely used free tool. “I don’t know if you have to stop using the free stuff, but there’s definitely lots of opportunity to augment the capabilities of these more limited free tools with paid options.”
“I think that Google Docs is a really good example of one of those free tools that you probably don’t think of right off the bat when you think of marketing tools, but that’s actually a really great example,” said Ray. “You kind of have to look at the entire package. The reason Google is able to produce such great free tools is because of all the other benefits that they get as having you as one of their audience members.” Ray went on to say that he likes a lot of different free options, but believes that there is also a time and a place for paid tools.

Fourth Generation Search Tools

“Because search tools have actually been around for a number of years now, at GinzaMetrics we kind of look at search tools in terms of generations,” Erin said. She explained that search tools have evolved over time, developing new features with each new generation. “If we look at what the fourth generation might include moving forward, you know real time, content marketing insights, automation. Larry, where do you think this fourth generation of tools might go?”
“I think that these tools need to better handle the notion of workflow,” he responded. “Evolving from a bag of tools, think of like a toolbox that has a hammer and a saw and a wrench, as time goes on I think that they’re going to evolve to more seamlessly providing workflow for doing certain tasks that involve using these different tools.”
“We’ve thought a lot about this as a provider of both keyword research tools, which are used by both organic search practitioners as well as paid search practitioners because keywords are important for both activities, and also we provide paid search tools,” Larry continued. “One of the challenges we’ve had, that we’ve learned on our own dime here, and it was a little painful even, it had to do with the learning that there are different people. Like in most organizations, like even today, these different channels, like the buyers of these tools, are in siloed areas within an organization.”
Ray agreed with Larry and added, “It’s an interesting conundrum in the sense that when you look at the technology vendor, unless you’re able to bootstrap to a certain point by yourself, a lot of times newer technology vendors will need to break into the space and see a need for workflow type tools and the investment community does not really have a huge appreciation for that.”  Ray said, “They always want the next great algorithm or the thing that’s the real ‘differentiator.’”

How Tools Impact Departments

“Do you guys think that tools can actually help consolidate some of these departments?” Erin asked.
“The underlying data is the same in terms of clicks and conversions,” Larry said. “In theory there could be some consolidation. Where I see what is more likely to happen is just sort of the consolidation of tools within a silo.” Larry explained that there are hundreds of small tools that offer slightly different features. “I think that some of those are going to go away or be consolidated.”
“There’s always going to be those sorts of tools out there,” countered Ray.
Larry explained that these tools have a novel quality to them, but typically lack longevity. “It’s a really hard business to be in so its not a great sustainable business model.”
Ray also noted that while the search landscape is huge and continues to grow, it hasn’t grown as quickly as social media has. “Customers that were paying for these sorts of technologies on the search side were probably much more demanding because there is a real integration point that has to happen into the workflow.”
“Just to add to that, let’s talk about three channels here: social media marketing, organic search and paid search,” responded Larry. “Each of these areas are very important parts of various companies marketing strategies. One thing I notice is with social and paid search, I think it’s slightly easier to draw a box around those workflows.”
Larry explained that social media has a finite number of options for companies to utilize. “Content workflow I think is a little more unbounded in terms of your imagination comes into play, in terms of all the different content ideation stuff that you can possibly do.”
“Social is a really interesting space,” said Erin. “It emerged, in a lot of regards, after search had already been around for a while. All the monitoring and management tools for social, everything from analytics to engagement, really has been kind of scooped up by a lot of large enterprise tech companies.” She went on to explain that social media also works in real time and that both timing and popularity play a big role in content visibility.

The Rise of Real-Time Content 

Erin used her previous statements to segway into the next question. “Do you guys think that if we’re talking about real time being maybe one of the next things for search, do we think that the marketing industry is ready for another real time channel?”
Larry asked Ray if he wanted to talk about the issue.
“The things that we’ve seen on the real time side of technology is the vendors are, when we talked a little earlier about generations, the vendors are somewhat enabled by newer classes of technology that come out every couple of years. When I first got into this space back in 2006, the technology stacks that were available were vastly different than what are availible now.” Ray continued explaining that things have continuously moved towards real time and way from older models such as batch processing. “One way to look at it is that the technology will drive new sorts of technologies.”

Historical Ranking Data

“People will talk about ‘well, I want to see things from two, three, four, five years ago and I want it to be stored.’ How important is that data to customers moving forward?” Erin asked.
“I do a lot of search engine optimization for my own website,” said Larry. “In terms of like what are the key metrics that I track as I’m doing this kind of work, the historical rankings I was probably more interested in that previously and these days I don’t really look at that at all.” Larry stated that there is so much flux that it’s very difficult to get an actual understanding of why data is ranked where it is. He explained that content creation was more important than checking rankings. “I might be more inclined on producing a new article,” he said when discussing how he would focus his time.
Ray agreed with this statement. “Rankings in particular are really a small part of the overall story in terms of what you need to do in order to really be effective.” Ray then noted that companies still use historical data rankings as a benchmark. “It’s still, by far, one of the most requested features.”
While Ray felt there were better ways to spend time, he didn’t feel that ranking data was useless. “The real value of that sort of data is not really just in that rankings data of itself but really in how you use it.”
Larry added to Ray’s statement, “It’s less about tracking the fluctuations on my keywords because there’s just so many fluctuations that you’d just go blind. What I typically do is more, using the ranking reports to help with targeting.”
Larry went on to give an example of what he was saying. “It used to be possible that I could look at a rank report, and I could just see ‘oh, I dropped a few ranks on X keyword,’ and so there were like 10 little gimmicky things that you could do to that article to get it to rank. Well that’s not even like an option anymore.”
He continued, “What I typically use this ranking data for today is more along the lines of targeting for new content. When I look for a new article I’m looking for a keyword that has a decent amount of search volume where I’m not currently ranking on.” Larry finished his explanation by stating, “It’s almost like the solution to a bad rank is actually trying to come up with a better answer.”

What to Watch Out For When Evaluating Search Tools

Erin asked if there were any things that marketers needed to be wary of when selecting a tool to use. “Are there common mistakes, overlooked needs, any recommendations you guys would give people?”
“I would find a reference,” said Larry. “Not a reference provided by the company, but someone who you trust. like another expert.”
Ray agreed. “Make sure you have a chance to really put any platform you’re checking out through it’s paces. Through a trial. Where you’re actually able to involve your other team members.”
Be sure to watch the full discussion and to subscribe to our FOUND Friday hangout for more great discussions and information.