Never at a Loss for Words
A Conversation About Search Engine Marketing With Marin Software
ou see them everywhere – there next to your Google search results, tucked into a box on your favorite website, and there next to your news feed on Facebook. Search advertising is the lifeblood of the Internet — pumping nearly $11 billion into the coffers of Google, Yahoo!, Bing and other search providers last year – by far the largest ad revenue generator, according to the IAB.i The search market is a keyword casino, with advertisers bidding against each other for the terms users click most. For big advertisers, managing campaigns with thousands of keywords is a huge juggling act, and that's where Marin Software comes in. Marin provides online software that helps large advertisers organize their keyword inventory, optimize their bids, and manage reporting, generating millions of reports every month in the process. Keeping all that data flowing is the job of Christopher Ng, Marin's Director of Technical Operations. Benchmark caught up with Chris to talk about how Marin keeps the systems going that keep track of massive amounts of search marketing data.
Benchmark: So give us your elevator pitch — who is Marin Software, what's your business proposition?
Christopher Ng: Marin Software started in 2006 and we launched commercially in 2007. We provide enterprise-class paid search management for advertisers and agencies. We focus on those that are spending about $100,000 per month on paid search, and address the problems around workflow, analysis and optimization for large-scale SEM campaigns. We help them save time and really help them improve their financial performance.
Right now we have over 180 customers collectively, managing in excess of $1 billion of annual spend. Some of our customers are the University of Phoenix, RazorFish, PriceGrabber, Kayak, ZipRealty, neo@Ogilvy —so quite a number of good names. And we're obviously getting more as we go along.
Benchmark: And what’s your role at Marin?
Christopher Ng: My official title is Director of Technical Operations.
Benchmark: So you’re really responsible for keeping everything rolling.
Christopher Ng: Yes, myself and my team really make sure that all the products are online. And that we're performing based on our customer's requirements and expectations for scale, performance, and availability.
Benchmark: OK, so at the level you’re talking, spends of $100 thousand a month by a number of clients across a number of search engines — you’re managing huge quantities of data that’s flowing between many places. How do you make sure everything is working? What are your processes and procedures to make sure all this happens the way it’s supposed to happen?
Christopher Ng: A lot of it really starts with visibility. So we have quite a number of monitoring tools. They range from open-source to some paid monitoring solutions like Keynote that give us broad visibility into our systems.
But we also have some homegrown scripts that we use. You know, utilizing the right tool for the right job is going to help us understand where either some of our processing is bottlenecking, or where our processing is actually completing on time.
So by joining all the various features and utilities out there we've been able to keep a handle on how our system's functioning. By using the right tool for the tasks at hand, we ensure that our environment is performing at optimal levels.
Benchmark: So with a number of different monitoring tools in place, you must be expecting different types of data from each. How does Keynote fit into your mix?
Christopher Ng: We are a global provider. We do have customers that are out in the UK, for example. And we're really expanding out to other areas of the globe.
So with Keynote's ability to have remote agents poll our site and check how performance is doing, for example, out of the UK — that really gives us a lot more insight into whether we need to improve things, or change our process or our network.
And so by just that sheer feature alone, that gives us a really good level of understanding of how our overall site performance is.
Benchmark: Do you use Keynote for domestic monitoring as well?
Christopher Ng: We do as well. We're using both their Transaction Perspective and Application Perspective.
Benchmark: And how long have you been a Keynote client?
Christopher Ng: We've just started with Keynote this year. But at my previous organizations, I have used Keynote for many years.
Benchmark: So did you bring them with you?
Christopher Ng: I did.
Benchmark: Looking at what you do, it seems almost like the stock market. Everything is very time-contingent, and you have to get bids in when the opportunities are there. Timeliness is critical, is it not?
Christopher Ng: It is. Every night we actually sync terabytes of data across 350 million-plus search terms. So our nightly sync really enables our search marketers to optimize their ad spend across their keywords and campaigns.
We generate just about 1.2 million reports and alerts each month across a broad range of performance indicators. So making sure that our customers get that data accurately, so they can modify their campaigns as they need to, is really critical.
Benchmark: Beyond the SEM management process and the data aggregation, are there times when Marin saves the day for a client — where you’ve provided insight that empowered them for much greater success?
Christopher Ng: Yes, there's definitely a lot of times when some customers come in and they're not necessarily making as much money on certain keywords as they would like to. So we go in and say look, this is actually costing you a lot of money — you really need to change that out or remove that from your search terms.
A common case that you could see is, say someone is selling some kind of window siding. If you add a keyword of window, you could get Microsoft Windows. That's not really going to help the search marketer focus their target audience toward their site.
There are definitely a lot of cases where we help the agencies get to where they need to go.
Benchmark: On your site, you’re promoting 99.9 percent up time. Do you have SLAs in place with your clients to ensure that kind of performance? And how do you handle the reporting with them?
Christopher Ng: We do have SLAs with our customers for performance and other metrics. Keynote is one of the many tools we use to monitor our site availability and performance. It allows us to track performance across points across the globe and different areas of our applications. We also, as I mentioned before, have some internal tools around how and when our reports are generated. We really work with our customers on how they want to see that data.
Benchmark: What are the financial implications if you go down?
Christopher Ng: You know, for us, because we're a SaaS provider, we're really trying to make sure that our application is always available. We're focused on delivering enterprise-grade reliability and availability for our clients. We're not like an e-tailer in the sense of, say, Best Buy, where if someone goes to the Best Buy site and it's down, they're just going to go to the Best Buy store.
So the financial implications are fairly large. Customer satisfaction is what's going to keep renewals going. And it's really the branding of ourselves. We want to make sure that we are associated with availability and performance and features. If we lose one of those key indicators, we start being uncompetitive in this market space.
So we really strive to make sure that our application is available, that it's quick and that it's as competitive, if not more competitive, than our other competitors.
Benchmark: What are those competitive advantages that you offer? And who is your competition?
Christopher Ng: Our main competition is actually Excel sheets, unfortunately. This is how a lot of this analysis is done today. And trying to get people to change their habits becomes somewhat difficult.
So we really want to make sure that they're seeing not only the ease of use of our product, but that they are also realizing that they are spending less time sitting inside Excel sheets, and really more time managing their marketing campaigns.
Benchmark: So are you the first fully automated SaaS solution in this space?
Christopher Ng: We are pioneers in this space. You can see that with our Facebook offering. Not to mention the amount of reporting, analysis, and SLAs that we offer. The long list of name brand customers is a testament to our quality and reliability.
Benchmark: So what are the biggest challenges you face in keeping everything up and running?
Christopher Ng: One of our challenges is that the cost reports from our search engines aren't always there on time. And we try to get that data to our customers as quickly as possible.
But because we are one of the largest aggregators of ad spends on search engines, we do quite a bit of collaborative work with the large entities such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing, and now Facebook. So we can work with them to get that data out quickly if we need to.
Benchmark: There’s a big marquee on your site that says you’re integrating with Facebook now. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Christopher Ng: Yes, Facebook is the new trend. If you really look at it, on some reports they are exceeding Google in the sense of the traffic they're taking. They are really the new platform where people are going to start doing search ads. And the thing about Facebook that you're going to get is a lot more targeted search ads.
So for example, a lot of your personal information is on Facebook. Say I drive a Volvo and I drink espresso and I have children that go play soccer.
On Google you're not really getting that data, whereas on Facebook you can. So I can target my ads more specifically to those end-user types and I can get a better return on that spend.
Benchmark: So it’s another part of the mix of what you’re managing for your clients.
Christopher Ng: Yes.
Benchmark: What about Twitter, do you see that happening on the horizon?
Christopher Ng: Twitter is definitely something that we are discussing. But Facebook is really our big launch. And we do have quite a number of things in our pipeline as far as what other platforms we’re going to integrate.
Benchmark: Are you doing anything in the mobile space?
Christopher Ng: We definitely have tools inside our portfolio that will help individuals target ads in the mobile area. The engines allow marketers to target individuals by mobile network. We help marketers do this through the ability to quickly structure mobile-specific campaigns, test ad copy, and bid mobile keywords easily.
Benchmark: As someone who is on the cutting edge, what do you see as the future for search engine marketing and search engine optimization?
Christopher Ng: I think you hit the head on two of them. I think Facebook is definitely the way of the future, as well as the mobile area.
If you look at the current trends — now everyone's got a phone. And the browsers are getting smarter. A lot of people are porting their Web sites to support the smaller Web browsers on phones, and the ad content is there as well. And in many parts of the world, a mobile device is the only way to access the Internet. As advertisers try to reach this segment, we will probably see interesting changes in how ad spend is measured and targeted.
Facebook, as I mentioned before, definitely has a lot of traffic. So we are integrated with that, which is a big effort for us.
And I think the third thing is location-based services. If you're looking at the trends like Foursquare, there are a lot of people that are really getting out there and want to see ads directly related to them.
I mean, I don't personally care if there is something that's happening out in Kansas. But I do care if something's happening within these three zip codes near where I am.
Benchmark: Where do you see Marin Software in the next three to five years? Where do you think the market's going to be? And what's your place going to be in it?
Christopher Ng: I definitely think we will continue to provide services around ads. We'll have a lot more integrations with various other services. We already do a lot. It’s a proven product that definitely works.
About Christopher Ng
Christopher Ng currently director of technical operations at Marin Software, where he is responsible for enterprise-wide technology support. Chris has more than 15 years of experience managing IT for e-commerce and SaasS environments. Previously, he was the Manager of Technology at Verizon Business, where his responsibilities included managing core business applications, vendor management, and due diligence in purchasing out-of-box solutions.