Plan, Do, Check, Act

Plan Do Check Act

The image shown here represents a summary of the classic approach to quality control broadly known as continuous improvement. It is sometimes called the Deming Wheel because it was popularized by quality control pioneer Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

Applying the principles of continuous improvement
to SEM

Interview with RevClick president Howie Cheney

While change is never easy, the Plan, Do, Check, Act process provides a simple framework that helps guide the process. Here, RevClick president Howie Cheney discusses his views on the framework and how it applies to search engine marketing.

Q: RevClick uses the Plan, Do, Check, Act model in its SEM practice. Could you give us an overview of the model?

A: At the highest level, the PDCA model is a guiding principle to ensure that you are constantly monitoring the outputs of your efforts and making any corrections necessary to attain your business goals. The cycle of Plan, Do, Check, and Act is repeated until the desired results are achieved.

Q: Some of the words here sound the same (especially Do and Act). Can you walk us through the four steps?

A: Planning should be a bounded activity. Sometimes we get so caught up in making the perfect plan that we never act. In continuous improvement, planning is very focused. It’s a matter of working with clients to understand their objectives and then defining them and establishing a process by which to meet them. The objectives are defined according to the specifications for the project.

For an SEM project, the client might have a simple objective such as improving its organic Search Engine Results Page (SERP) rank. In other cases, the objective might be more complex. Maybe the client’s Return on Advertising Spend has dropped. Maybe they want to increase brand awareness on the Internet, or change their brand identity. These various goals would require completely different plans.

The Do step is a matter of implementing the planned process, and Check is just what it sounds like—look to see what results have been achieved. The results are compared to the plan. The Act step then follows up on that assessment—if the results are as desired, the original plan may continue. If not, another plan will be made.

Q: Where did these ideas originate?

A: The continuous improvement process originated in the manufacturing arena. For any producer of a manufactured good – be it a car, a computer, or a software program – quality systems are developed to ensure a consistent quality level of product is delivered. With constant monitoring, if the system breaks down, or has a hiccup, changes can be made as soon as possible to reduce waste and prevent the delivery of sub-quality goods to customers.

Just as a quality monitoring system is critical for a manufacturer to reduce waste, it’s critical in Internet Marketing to make sure we are getting the maximum results for each marketing dollar spent.

It’s actually easier to apply these principles to SEM than to manufacturing, because with search marketing there is a certain level of inherent traceability within the system. We know what keywords customer use to locate the product. We know which version of the Advertising copy they responded to. We know how far they clicked through our site and how much time they spent there. And we have the ability to directly correlate revenue to most of these events.

Q: Tell us more about how you apply Plan, Do, Check, Act to SEM.

A: Again, the key point is to keep at it, so that you learn as you go. One of Deming’s insights is that we have to act without perfect knowledge. Continuous improvement takes that reality as a given—we simply don’t know everything, and in some cases there’s a lot we don’t know, but we have to act anyway. By using a clear framework, we keep track of what we do and don’t know and we add knowledge each time we move through the cycle. If we’re paying attention, we should get smarter and smarter.

Search engine marketing is a perfect place to apply these principles because it is so full of unknowns. Everything is constantly changing.

The Search Engines themselves are firmly planted in the Internet reality and therefore they change, and they change often The SEs are constantly modifying their algorithms to ensure that they are presenting to their users the most pertinent results for their search terms. Things like the variables that they use to rank web pages within their indexes, the weighting that they apply to each variable, the introduction or deletion of weighting factors are always undergoing evaluation by the SE. They themselves are practicing PDCA continuous improvement and we, as users, or suppliers of information to the SEs, must also continuously improve our supply to them.

When you look at all the aspects of SEO, there are so many techniques – on-page vs. off-page optimization, link building, press releases, directory submissions, just to mention a few. But no matter what you are doing, you need to know how the change has affected the SERP results – because what worked yesterday might not necessarily work tomorrow. Without continuous improvement and a clear system in place to monitor the changes and the results, the long-term value of your SEO will decline as business and technological evolution passes it by.

Q: What’s the difference between SEM and Internet Marketing – does continuous improvement apply to both?

A: Everyone seems to have slightly different definitions. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is often used by people as the broad brush to paint their internet marketing activities.

In my view, SEM has two main components: Search Engine Optimization and the broader category of Internet Marketing.

SEO is very specific in its goal – gain as high a rank possible for your web pages within the organic Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Internet Marketing aims at a much broader goal. It includes everything you use to proactively push your message to customers, such as pay-per-click, ad networks, affiliate marketing, and other contributing components. Internet Marketing’s objective is to display the company message to as many prospective customers as you can, as repeatedly as possible. If your objective is to establish your brand identity you might be willing to pay a premium for those views, if your budget allows. If your main goal is increasing sales revenue, you need to pay close attention to your Internet Marketing spend and the return that it provides in terms of sales, leads, donations, or whatever you are measuring.

Continuous improvement definitely applies to all of these activities. No matter what goal you are pursuing, for a successful campaign you need measurement, metrics, and traceability, plus the constant monitoring of the results, followed by any required adjustments to the campaign. Over and over again. That’s continuous improvement. And it works!