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Alan Coleman (Wolfgang Digital): “With Google Ads search terms you can literally read minds”

22 January 2019

Alan Coleman is the founder and CEO of Wolfgang Digital, one of Europe’s leading digital marketing agencies based in Dublin, Ireland. He and his colleague Brendan Almack will talk about their secret conversion boosting tactics at Friends of Search. In anticipation of their keynote, we had the opportunity to pick Alan’s brain about AdWords, the future of Search and his company.

How long have you been working with AdWords – or as we’re supposed to call it nowadays: Google Ads? Can you describe what it looked like when you started working with it?

I started in 2007. I went for a job in Google in Dublin and although I didn’t get the job, I fell in love with AdWords. I felt it was the best advertising platform the world had ever seen and it was going to be huge. So when they rang me up and said “Sorry, we gave the job to someone else”, I thought: I’m going to do it anyway. I quit what I was doing at the time and started learning Google AdWords by online tutorials. It took me about 3 months to get AdWords certified, I remember I was one of the first people outside of Google in Ireland to become AdWords certified. Then I started freelancing.

Every now and then, I go to the Google AdWords blog and I count how many innovations there have been. For the first 5 years I was working with AdWords, there would be around 1 or 2 a month. Now, there’s often 2 to 4 a month. So if you’re talking about AdWords over the past 10 years there have been 24 meaningful innovations per year, that’s 240 innovation since I started. It is dramatically different now. It was called AdWords, a combination of the words ‘ad’ and ‘word’, and that was pretty much all there was to it. You had broad, phrase, exact and negative match keywords and bidding and that was about it. When I started learning AdWords, conversion tracking was just coming out and that was huge!

What do you think has been the most impactful change over the past 10 years?

We do a lot of work in retail, so I’d say getting started: Conversion tracking, and then Google Shopping.

The reason Google and Facebook are amongst the largest companies on planet Earth right now is that they’ve been successful at bringing conversion metrics into advertising. So conversion tracking is the fundamental one.

Within retail: Google Shopping. In a lot of larger markets, it has been available for a number of years now. That was a game changer. Lots of retailers doubled their conversion when Google Shopping was launched in Ireland, for example.

Right now I think the next massive innovation for retailers is underway. All Google’s innovations are geared towards conversion: they are either geared towards generating more conversations or measuring more conversions. The most recent innovation is all about measuring conversions that we were not able to measure until now.

Google currently runs a beta that’s called ‘Store Sales Direct’. The basis on this is a very small number of multichannel retailers in Europe right now and we’re very privileged that we’re managing two of the base campaigns. The results so far have been fascinating. We’re seeing typically for every Euro measured in online sales, we’re now measuring an additional two Euros in store.

You can imagine what it does to a marketing budget when marketing directors can actually see that their digital budget is generating three times more revenue than they realized. I think that when this launches this year it could be a game changer for marketing. Google Shopping pulls a lot of digital marketing budget towards Google, but I think this one will just pull loads of marketing budget towards online.

Do you still believe Google Ads is the best advertising platform out there? Or do you see Bing, Facebook or Amazon dethrone Google in the future?

I think it’s evolved now. It’s no longer as simple as just getting one platform right. In Wolfgang we’ve evolved from an AdWords-only agency to an integrated agency. I believe now the big wins happen not when you’re an AdWords superuser or an SEO superstar or even a Social superstar: I believe the big wins happen when you have all these channels singing in unison. It’s all about making those channels work together to deliver almost a conversational experience to the user.

What’s your favorite feature within Google Ads?

My favorite report within Google AdWords is the ‘Search Terms’ report. I think this is AdWords most underutilized feature. We all know AdWords is a brilliant direct response medium and a fantastic way of getting right in front of somebody who’s looking for what you do today. However, what most people overlook is that it’s a phenomenal market research tool as well. When you’re reading a search term report, you’re literally reading the minds of your target market. You’re seeing the precise words they are putting into Google and you can get really good insights, not just on how to optimize your search marketing campaigns, but also on how to optimize your marketing in general and even on how to optimize your business.

I can give you an example. One of my very first clients was an in-home care provider, Comfort Keepers. It’s an alternative to a nursing home, their clients are taken care of in their own home.
When I took over their AdWords campaign – and this was back in maybe 2009 so we were still pretty much in the economic crisis – I ran the Search Terms report. What it was saying was that a third of the traffic they were paying for, were job seekers. People were searching for ‘home care jobs’, ‘home care careers’ and ‘home care training’. I sat down with the client and told them a third of their budget wasn’t spent on potential clients, it was spent on job seekers. Obviously, we used negative keywords to make sure that they were not paying for those queries anymore, but also we had learned something about the client’s market here.

This client was particularly entrepreneurial and two weeks later the phone rang: the clients had launched a new website, They already had a training center for their employees and they decided then to open this up and point it at the market. We sent all those job seekers to the new training website and in a few months, they had a new business turning over tens of thousands of Euros every month. That’s a brilliant example of how the Search Terms report can be of value not only for search marketers but also at the very top level of a business.

How do you think AdWords will look like in 2020?

The relentless pace of innovation isn’t slowing down, I think AdWords is probably changing more rapidly now than ever and a lot of the more developed markets are close to saturation point. So that means that the auction is going to get more competitive and CPCs are going to go up. What marketers need to do now is to find a way of getting in front of that person before they search.

Typically what happens is: when a person searches for flights to Mexico for example, if they are already familiar with one of the listings being there in the organic or the paid search results, they are much more likely to click on that website and because they are familiar, they are much more likely to convert.

I think there’s more opportunity for people to go a bit further up the funnel and go after the brand side of things. Certainly, in AdWords they have been focusing on that for a number of years, trying to do more brand advertising.

Do Search marketers still have jobs in 5 years or are the machines taking over?

I believe that people will still be at the center of exceptional digital marketing going forward. There will be ‘automate everything’ agencies. The agencies that say you don’t need people and you can automate everything. It’s like flying Ryanair. There will now be solid options at the bottom of the market.

I think the ‘automate everything’ agencies will prosper there but for people who favor marketing, there will always be extra value to expert humans managing the machine. I think Google, for example, is the evidence of this. Google says they are an AI-first company and have they stopped hiring people? No, they still are hiring people! They probably are world leaders when it comes to AI and Machine Learning, yet they are hiring more and more people all the time.

I firmly believe there are brilliant jobs for marketers going forward, marketing is just going to get more interesting. We don’t have to do keyword optimizations anymore, we don’t have to do ad text optimizations anymore: we can do far more interesting things with that saved time.

Aaron Levy of Elite SEM believes 2019 will be the year the keyword dies, as advertisers shift toward context and people. What are your thoughts on this?

This has been a conversation in search marketing since Dynamic Search Ads launched. I think the audience and context things are great additions to AdWords, but when a person sits down with a credit card between their teeth and is searching for flights to Mexico, there’s always money to be made.

Like the point that I made earlier about that person is probably more likely to buy from someone, they are familiar with. Meaning yes, you can use audiences and you can use people to manufacture additional touchpoints to that person. But if you don’t win that search, when they have their credit card between their teeth and they are looking to book, your other touch points have been a wasted investment.

I believe that the audience and people advertising are all incremental. At the core of it all, if you’re not front and center with the person who is about to spend money and they are searching the money-making terms, your marketing will fail.

Over the past ten years, you’ve grown your company Wolfgang Digital from your kitchen table to multiple award-winning digital marketing agencies.
How did you manage that?

Our reason for being is very simple: to do great digital marketing and be known to do great digital marketing, that’s it. So in every decision, we make it comes back to that. I think that the fundamental thing we do differently than other digital marketing agencies is how we spend our time.

Most marketing agencies expect their marketers to bill 120 hours a month. Their business model, their salaries, their prices, everything is based around that. We only expect our marketers to bill 100 hours a month. People are in the office for 150 hours. With 30 hours of admin in general, we have an extra 20 hours that we’ve created there. This time is used to learn from each other. We have a mini-conference in the office every week. Every Tuesday the whole organization comes together and learns about the latest in digital marketing land. Every week we hope that people finish the week a little bit smarter than they went into it.

What has been your biggest win?

Certainly, that would be winning Best Large Agency in the European Search Awards last year. For the first five years, the goal of the business was to be the best AdWords agency in Ireland and then for the second five years, the goal was to be the best-integrated agency in Europe. So, actually, that was a dream come true to me to win that award.

What’s the most fun project you guys have been working on lately?

The one we take most pride from this year is a referendum in Ireland. I’m not sure if the news reached the Netherlands, but abortion has been illegal in Ireland and there was a referendum to try and repeal that. We volunteered our time to work on the campaign and we ended up being the online agency for the campaign.

We were inspired by some Cambridge Analytica style segmentation – without the hacking, just the strategic part of segmenting different people and we built some other tactics on top of that. Going into the referendum it was 50/50, nobody knew which way it was going to go, and it ended up being a landslide. It was a huge moment for Ireland and we’re really proud that we were the online part of the campaign.

Your colleagues Brendan and Ciaran spoke at Friends of Search back in 2016, one of the best-rated presentations of that day. What will you guys be talking about next February? Why should no one miss it?

We’ll be covering our 2019 E-Commerce KPI Benchmark Report. We’ve extracted must-know insights for conversion focused digital marketers including for example:
The average e-commerce conversion rates are broken down by industry and country;

  • Conversion rates for social media engagers;
  • Where travel & retail websites generate the most revenue;
  • The single biggest failure of e-commerce websites right now.

We’re also going to gaze into our crystal ball and predict what’s going to be one of the most important new platforms, new strategies even for marketers for 2019. Great stuff.

Alan Coleman and Brendan Almack will speak at Friend of Search on February 6. Get your tickets here.