AdGrok Emerges from Beta, Simplifying Search Engine Marketing on Google

3/7/11Follow @wroush

San Francisco-based AdGrok is one of those companies that takes something that used to be hazardous for non-professionals—in this case, managing keyword-based ad campaigns on Google—and makes it into a self-service task that average businesspeople can handle without fear. The startup’s CEO, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, compares his service to TurboTax in the tax preparation arena or Charles Schwab in investing.

Strangely enough, though, a lot of large companies and ad agencies that could afford to pay someone to figure out Google’s own search engine marketing tool, called AdWords, are signing up to use AdGrok instead (or, at least, in addition). “This was going to be a long-tail, Mom-and-Pop strategy, but it turns out that most of our biggest users are not small,” says Garcia-Martinez. Eventbrite, Kiva, and smartphone case maker Coveroo are all using AdGrok to manage their search campaigns. The company’s signature service is the “GrokBar,” a friendly little pop-out window that appears above the page for which you’re trying to drum up search-engine traffic.

It’s one more data point in the “consumerization” trend—business users’ tendency to go for a no-hassle, user-friendly, cloud-based service, when one exists, over a complicated piece of business software. Other classic examples include Salesforce.com in the salesforce automation area, and Box.net in business document sharing. AdWords itself is cloud-based, and after years of seeming neglect Google is beginning to spruce it up, but it still lacks basic functions available from AdGrok, such as the ability to quickly find out how a given keyword-based campaign is working on the level of a single Web page within a site (for one product in an online catalog, for example).

AdGrok emerged from the Y Combinator venture incubator last summer, and until this week you needed an invitation to join its beta testing program. But today AdGrok emerged from beta, opening up the site to the general public and explaining how it plans to price the service. It’s free if you manage less than $500 per month in AdWords spending. Above that level, you can sign up for basic service at $50 a month or pro service at $150 to $250 a month; the main difference between these levels, says Garcia-Martinez, is how much customer support you get from AdGrok’s team. The average customer spends about $2,000 per month through AdGrok, and the biggest spend upwards of $70,000, he says.

AdGrok is also talking for the first time about its funding. The company says it has raised $470,000 from Triple Point Capital and a group of individual investors including former Googler Chris Sacca, former KPCB partner Russ Siegelman, and Triple Point partner Ben Narisin. “That’s a pretty small round by today’s standards, but we are going for the gusto and hoping to break even pretty quickly,” says Garcia-Martinez, who co-founded AdGrok with Matthew McEachen and Argyris Zymnis. “So we didn’t want to put up with that much dilution.”

Garcia-Martinez says he is only mildly surprised that many of the 300-plus customers using AdGrok are big companies. It’s easy to set up an AdWords campaign—you merely choose a set of keywords, then tell Google how much you’re willing to bid to make your text ad appear near the top of the stack when Google users do searches related to those keywords. But the complexities multiply rapidly if you’re not sure which keywords to use, or if you’re trying to drive traffic to a large website with lots of pages. That means beginning users need some handholding, but at the same time it means that advanced users appreciate tools that reduce the cognitive load and make it easier to see whether a campaign is working. “You tend to overstate the ignorance of amateurs and understate the competence of professionals,” says Garcia-Martinez.

AdGrok’s tools have evolved quite a bit since I first wrote about the company last fall. For one thing, the GrokBar now includes tabs that let users switch between viewing AdWords performance on the level of an individual page or viewing it across an entire site. For a page or an entire site, the GrokBar condenses the key metrics into a single graphic that Garcia-Martinez calls the “conversion funnel,” which shows how many times your text ad showed up on a Google search result page, how many people clicked on the ad, at what cost per click, how many of those clicks eventually led to a conversion (however the user defines that—a sale, a newsletter signup, etc.), and at what cost per conversion. If you decide that your keywords aren’t working or your ad copy is wrong or you want to bid more for higher placement, you modify your campaign right from the GrokBar, without ever logging into AdWords itself.

One new feature—whose appeal might be clear only to search engine marketing geeks, but which sounds like it can life a lot easier for Web companies running big campaigns—is something Garcia-Martinez calls rubberstamping. It’s the ability to set up a template for a text ad with variable phrases that can change automatically according to a searcher’s keyword or geography. As an example, Garcia-Martinez points to TutorSpree, a company currently participating in the Y Combinator program that matches students with tutors in the Bay Area and the greater New York City area. TutorSpree’s site has “a couple thousand landing pages” that vary by geography, Garcia-Martinez says. In the past, if the startup wanted to set up a campaign to buy AdWords ads for all of those pages, it would have had to create complex spreadsheets containing hand-coded algorithms for each situation and upload them to Google’s AdWords management site. “That’s one of the biggest pain points people have” with AdWords, says Garcia-Martinez. “They basically don’t do it unless they want to pay big money to an agency to do it.”

AdGrok’s rubberstamping tool automates that whole process. TutorSpree, for example, has set up templates that allow it to bid for ads against search queries as specific as “French tutor in Manlius, New York.” In a statement in an AdGrok press release today, TutorSpree co-founder Aaron Harris said the startup’s AdWords campaigns used to “take forever to create, optimize, track, etc. etc. But AdGrok changed all that. Instead of having to deal with the overly cumbersome Google interface, I have all of the most useful information and tools at my fingertips. It’s a huge efficiency boost.”

For customers who don’t even want to figure out that much, AdGrok is also getting into the professional-services game. Through its new “GrokMe” service, the startup will manage customers’ campaigns for them, setting up accounts and managing their performance on a daily basis, with reports going back to the customer each week. GrokMe customers can still log in and monitor their campaigns’ performance through the GrokBar. “From a user’s point of view, it’s an agency model, which small businesses are already trained in,” says Garcia-Martinez. “Say you’re a furniture e-commerce guy in New York and you want to do rubberstamping. You can say ‘Here’s $1,000, go do it.”

Behind the scenes, AdGrok is working on improvements that will make setting up and managing an AdWords campaign even simpler. Garcia-Martinez says Intuit’s TurboTax is a big inspiration. “The genius of TurboTax is that it takes your 1040 and turns it into this next, next, next click flow. If you really want to be self-service for small spenders who don’t know search engine marketing, you have to take that approach.”

Building in a click-by-click workflow for setting up campaigns is “not that far down the road,” Garcia-Martinez says. But first the company wants to bring on more users, watch how they use AdGrok, and identify the hiccups. “It’s less about the technology and more about the user interface,” he says. “No product is perfect, and we’ll quickly see where the pain points are and where we should insert a click-flow process.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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