So Many Choices, So Little Time: Finding the Right Search Marketing Firm

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If you have ever tried to find search marketing services, odds are you have been overwhelmed with conflicting opinions and countless debates about what is right for your business. Topics like SEO vs. PPC, white hat vs. black hat, outsourced vs. in-house, and search marketing’s legitimacy are just a few of the hotly contested topics in today’s search engine landscape. Since the debates are unlikely to end anytime soon, let’s go ahead and add to the chaos.

A quick Yahoo! directory search lists more than 350 search marketing companies. MarketingSherpa analyzes more than 100 SEO firms and 60+ PPC agencies in its 2007 Buyer’s Guide. There are literally thousands more in lists of companies and consultants in the U.S. alone. Out of all the options, what’s best for your business?

Big Lake or Small Pond?

Only a minority of established search marketing organizations have 50+ full-time employees. A handful of these providers have eclipsed the 200 employee mark, with offices nationwide. Some benefits you can expect with a larger agency include defined service procedures, company stability, and less risk. These companies are not the largest by chance, but by client retention, investment, employee morale, and momentum. In most cases, diving into the big lake is a safe choice for your company, as many others are swimming with you. The typical drawbacks of a large SEM firm are reductions in customization, service diminishment due to client-to-staff ratios, and the squeaky wheel syndrome (unhappy clients get the attention).

If your company requires a high level of attention, you may want to dip your toes in the small pond. The majority of search marketing providers are either independent consultants or established companies with less than 25 employees.  Benefits of these smaller agencies include more campaign customization, attention to detail, and an all-hands-on-deck concept; as a marquee client, your business is very important to their bottom line and future success. The negatives typical to small SEM firms include limited resources for heavy lifting, limits in service diversity, and limitations for full campaign execution. Clients of smaller agencies ideally already have some seasoned, in-house staff to assist with the grunt work, working hand-in-hand with their provider.

All-You-Can-Eat or A La Carte?

Do you require consulting, in-house training, full-service delivery, proprietary tools and technologies, or a combination of everything? Prior to approaching SEM firms, evaluate your in-house resources, expertise, and capabilities. Once you know how much work you can confidently handle in-house (site design, copy development, day-to-day management, etc.), you can identify the appropriate partners.

The search marketing buffet is ideal for smaller companies that simply do not have the staff or resources to execute campaigns. This can include full SEO delivery and/or complete PPC management.

Typical SEO arrangements (while varying in magnitude and innovation) should include keyword research, meta tags, copywriting, link building, reporting, analytics, etc. Ethical SEO is an ongoing practice – not a one-time event, as some want you to believe. Its perpetuity and innovation are the keys to ultimate success. Closely investigate the methods used to avoid search engine penalties and no-no’s. Standard PPC management campaigns (while also varying in magnitude and tools) at a minimum should involve keyword research, bid management, ad copy and landing page development, analysis, and detailed reporting on ROI.

A MarketingSherpa report reveals a shift in outsourced search marketing versus in-house. In 2006, 74% of advertisers reported conducting SEO in-house, while 26% outsourced. In 2005, these numbers were 55% and 45%, respectively. That is nearly a 20% shift in favor of in-house SEO efforts, year over year!

If your company, like the majority of advertisers, has elected to manage search efforts, look for SEM firms that are willing to offer “a la carte” services. Odds are your team can execute many common elements associated with SEO and PPC, and having a very strategic working relationship with a highly-talented firm can deliver significant results to larger advertisers because you not only eliminate your weaknesses, but you magnify your strengths and consequently, your success.

Jack-Of-All-Trades or Master-Of-One?

Another crucial factor is whether or not you require a firm with expertise in both natural search optimization and paid search. While SEO and PPC have some overlap, they are distinct disciplines, each requiring advanced expertise. If your company expects great success from each channel, it is highly recommended that you research providers specializing in each practice. The slight inconvenience of dealing with two different providers will be greatly overshadowed by their expertise and results.

While there are exceptions to the rule, many one-stop providers cut corners and attempt to overlap techniques associated with PPC and SEO, such as keyword research, copy development, and reporting. These providers are typically good at SEO and PPC, but not superbly great at either.

More importantly, specialty firms that are truly dedicated to one practice over the other often have developed innovative processes, proprietary tools and technologies, and a significant talent pool of experts. Their dedication and emphasis on being the masters of SEO or PPC is your safety net. Their client results should speak volumes.

An important question to ask is “has the search marketing firm developed proprietary technology?” Innovation, competitive intelligence, and key insights are fundamental elements in today’s competitive search engine marketplace. If the companies up for consideration do not leverage cutting-edge technologies, they are behind the times. They do not necessarily have to possess proprietary, homegrown technology, but they should at least white-label and integrate useful tools for campaign success rates. Investigate the purposes of their technologies and specific applications to your business. Are they solving a significant problem associated with the practice of SEO and/or PPC or are they merely providing reports on rankings and traffic? Find out what makes their technology unique and how it will give you a competitive advantage in your own industry!

Search marketing firms come in all shapes and sizes. Some are innovative organizations leveraging the fly-wheel effect for momentum and growth, while others are fading like dormant stars due to their inability to adapt to a fluid marketplace. Take the above factors into consideration when choosing your next search marketing partner(s) and take a step towards success.

About the Author

Scott Gardner is a sales and marketing advisor. Since 2000, he has held executive leadership positions at both large and small search marketing firms. If you need advice on finding marquee search consultancy services or evaluating SEM vendors, he can be reached at newmediaconsultancy@gmail.com.

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