Our Blog

What do paid search advertising optimization and the Legend of John Henry have in common?

Tom Kuthy - Friday, August 06, 2010

As a school boy, I was taught the Legend of John Henry and for whatever reason this story has stuck with me over the years.  The legend is about a railroad worker in the 19th century who was the biggest and strongest worker on the crew.  The big railroads of the day were racing to be the first to cross the continent and connect the rail networks of the west with those of the east. The company to do it would have a huge competitive advantage over their rivals, so they were competing to lay track across the mountains as quickly as possible.

John Henry was a little baby

Sittin’ on his daddy’s knee

He picked up a hammer and

A little piece of steel

And cried, “Hammers gonna

Be the death of me, Lord, Lord

Hammers gonna be the death of me”


John Henry was said to have been born at 33 pounds with a hammer in his hand.  He grew to become the fastest steel driver of his day.  However, in the push to beat their rivals, the railroad bought a steam powered drill to increase productivity and speed.  In a competition, John Henry was pitted against the steam powered diver to see who could lay track faster.  John Henry actually beats the machine, but collapses in utter exhaustion and dies of a heart attack.

John Henry driving

On the right side

That steam drill on the left

Says, “Fore I let your

Steam drill beat me down,

I’m gonna hammer myself to death, Lord, Lord,

I’ll hammer my fool self to death”


Believe it or not, Pay per Click advertising optimization is in a similar situation as the railroads of the 19th century.  Most small and medium sized businesses that I meet with are still trying to improve their cost per lead by pausing non-converting key words and manually changing key word bids.  Even if they were born with a “keyboard in their hands” they will be unlikely to be able to beat technology that automatically does the same thing. 

For example, our WSI Local AdWorks platform typically optimizes a campaign with 1,500 keywords across four engines by making 75,000 keyword bid adjustments per month and 100 monthly spending pacing adjustments.  If I were to try to keep up with that kind of optimization activity, my guess is that I could, but I would end up just like John Henry – dead with a keyboard in my hand.

John Henry he hammered

 In the mountains

His hammer was striking fire

But he worked so hard;

It broke his heart

John Henry laid down his hammer

And died, Lord, Lord


John Henry laid down his

Hammer and died


Lyrics to the Song John Henry.  Traditional -Composer unknown.

Trackback Link
Post has no trackbacks.

Stay Connected

© Copyright © 2014 WSI. All rights reserved.