How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?

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Search controls also have the power to either help or destroy people’s work (and sometimes careers).

And honestly? This is a good thing.

SEM controls are powerful. External and internal audits are needed for the direct and indirect value they bring to your operation.


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Control types

Let’s talk first, not comprehensiveAbout the most common types of audits:

  • New we pitch control: These are simple – the goal is to find holes in current efforts (usually at surface level). Expect lots of remote calls and shadowing your IP. You will likely use third-party tools such as SimilarWeb, Semrush, Adthena, and SpyFu to estimate competitor spend and determine their approach. No doubt, these are not fun. But the payoff could be literally new business dollars.
  • “Under the hood” inspection: This is done when starting a new business and the brand is already above its existing agency. The business gives the keys to some extent to the castle with access to Google Analytics and their Google and Microsoft ad accounts. These are fun. There will be very few unanswered questions, if any. It’s also easier to earn business and is a great way to stomach an operation when it’s already down.
  • “Consultant” audit: The great pain that the brand brings in an all-knowing “advisor” who questions the smallest things, forcing you to question your best practices and decide if it is truly the best in class.
  • Self-control: This is a noble and surprisingly useful self-check script. This is a semi-regular (monthly, quarterly, annual, etc.) gut-check of your own business. It also helps you find out when the engines changed something due to a glitch or forgot to tell you, and you can justifiably call them back and claim your money back.
  • “Invited third party” inspection: Honestly, these are my favourites. Anyone working on an account for long enough gets “account fatigue” and cannot see the forest behind the trees. Here, you bring in a trusted third party (someone outside the operation or in-house) to monitor the work. Less pressure, more trust, less ‘handling’. This would be educational for everyone more than anything else.

Whatever the type of audit, the end goal is the same: to find a way to drive the brand more profit, directly or indirectly – through increased revenue generation or cost-saving operations.

Making a great audit

How do you do a great search account audit? “Great” is a relative term in search controls.

It really depends on the level of access you have. This will decide your next steps for the audit.

But it always starts with a handy QA checklist of settings that need to be reviewed, ranging from simple things like GTM on site, GA on site, to more advanced scenarios like whether geotargeting is present: search partners are unique ads with conversions for the ARYPL audience, and low of the day are open/closed advertisements during sales periods.

image 7 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?

This QA checklist will have hundreds of checkpoints to review. It is designed to help you successfully launch a new campaign. But an audit is basically a reverse QA checklist.

What makes controls so powerful?

Well, it is easier to explain the findings than to explain their potential. All of these findings are from actual audits:

  • Scenario 1: A credit reporting brand refused to allow the team to bid on the term “free credit report.” An audit found multiple keywords that matched that term in an SQR, all with higher CPCs. They accounted for 73% of these keyword traffic. Each keyword has a Quality Score of 3. If the brand actively bids for the term “free credit report” with appropriate ad copy, it approaches QS 5. financial quarter.
  • Scenario 2: A car wash brand was trying to figure out how to save money while getting more visits to their location. It has been documented that the average target consumer will travel a maximum of five miles to a car wash in their home market and will only research the car wash an hour before they go. It was discovered that geotargeting has a 10-mile radius for the ad, ads run 24/7, and no local search campaigns run. Roughly 30% of the advertising budget was spent on consumers who were far away and/or unlikely given the time of day they arrived. Adjustments were made in both the geography and the day section to allocate funds to local campaigns.
  • Scenario 3: Sports nutrition CPG has been notified by their agency that they have achieved excellent performance on YouTube front-end metrics, and they received it. However, the data was only at the surface level. Content control that triggers ads. Keep in mind that sports nutrition means lightly dressed individuals, sweating, drinking protein shakes and pre-workout powder. The content audit noted that the agency did not enforce negative parameters for brand safety. 40% of the one-year spend was spent on videos related to Cocomelon, BabyBus and Super Simple Songs. Eventually, the brand took legal action against the agency that manages YouTube based on the audit. Claiming compensation for the amount improperly spent.
image 8 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?image 8 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?
  • Scenario 4: A QSR brand was under review for a new agency, giving an “under the hood” look to all competing operations in RFP. To the surprise of all operations, it was observed that the brand had pretty poor SEO while not using brand keywords. In addition, 10% of budget spend was used during breakfast hours, which accounted for less than 3% of total revenue, effectively losing impression share due to the budget. This finding (after acquiring the business) led to bidding on brand terms (and the good old “SEM+SEO: 1+1=3” theory), resulting in a 10% increase in SEM+SEO revenue. In addition, stopping SEM during breakfast hours allowed the budget to be reallocated later in the day during peak periods and reduced the loss of impression share from the budget.
image 9 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?image 9 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?
  • Scenario 5: This was a well-timed internal review, and to be honest, it still sends a cold shiver down my spine. About 10 years ago we had to lay off an employee and he was incredibly dissatisfied. On its way out, it had set up automated rules to increase manual bids by 100% every day, 3 times a day, and increase budget limits by 1,000% per week. Best of all, it had created a rule to automatically reactivate if campaigns were paused every two hours. The audit of the planned activities and rules revealed all this and was carried out the day after departure. In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, he lost his severance pay. We were required to make a legal statement and an anonymous search engine was instructed by various legal teams to operate based on IP address.
  • Scenario 6: Honestly, this was the weirdest audit of my career. In 2011, my team was understaffed and we were running a well-known credit card brand business. This brand promoted a self-created holiday to encourage holiday shopping from local stores rather than online. It was decided to run an online video campaign with the brand. The targeting was pretty clear. We just had a negative keyword list. We asked the video platform to run it for us and they had to. It was a very short run, a total of five days. To understand why the performance was so bad, we audited the strangely terrible performance after the run. The well-known video platform used our list of negative keywords (a list full of a wide variety of terms showing the worst of human morality) as the target list. This audit resulted in the reimbursement of US$500,000 in media spending, on top of which 25% for pain and suffering.

I share all these scenarios to inform and not to scare.

There are controls. Protect your job.

In the last five years, I have passed four audits of my work. Why? Because a consultant said that a brand is needed.

It’s frustrating and worrying, partly because every operation has a different perspective on the right way to deal with the job.

However, my team conducts internal audits regularly, starting with a simple QA document. So we were able to keep our business because “our house was in order”.

Creating a QA document does not take much time. It just requires you to prepare an excel spreadsheet with every setting in one UI and an hour to review it regularly.

An audit, especially by an uninvited stranger, is never a welcome experience. However, if you regularly audit yourself and/or your team’s work, it will be fine for you to have an outsider do this.

Doing so will give you as much power as possible in the world of search marketing.


The views expressed in this article are those of the guest author and are not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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About the author

Jonathan Kagan 1 e1652132428766 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?Jonathan Kagan 1 e1652132428766 How can a self-auditing SEM checklist protect your work from external audits?

Jonathan Kagan entered the online marketing business in 2005 – he started in the SEM world. It has progressed from there and expanded into other sectors of the digital marketing world. He is currently the Vice President of search and biddable media for 9Rooftops|Cogniscient Media. Previously, Jonathan led search marketing teams for Mediacom, Forbes, and Digitas. Overseeing corporate search operations for clients that include American Express, Revlon, GlaxoSmithKline, Equifax, Mead Johnson and Abbvie. He also created and led Digitas Central America’s search engine marketing operation. You may have seen some of his presentations on mobile, programmatic and multi-screen marketing at conferences like Search Insider Summit, Digital Summit, ClickZ Live, Connect, and SMX.