Outsourcing SEM – Finding the Perfect Agency

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Are you thinking of outsourcing your search engine marketing (SEM)? Many businesses elect to outsource because they know that the use of experts can help increase traffic faster and achieve better search performance. The dilemma lies in knowing which firm to hire as an outside vendor. It’s an extremely important decision, because search is mission-critical and your selection affects the ability of your business to compete in today’s demanding business environment.

Search is a vital marketing strategy. It can pay big dividends by delivering high conversion rates and top marketing ROI if you get it right. However, it’s becoming harder to succeed in search because search engine algorithm changes are complex and continuous, resulting in ever-changing SEM tactics that become more sophisticated and detailed every year.

Why Outsource?

Industry research shows that approximately two-thirds of American firms perform search marketing in-house (MarketingSherpa Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2008). However, many of these firms outsource a part of their efforts. Jupiter Research reports that, “63 percent of large search marketers outsource at least one SEM function to agencies” (SEMPO press release). Experts say the question is not “do we bring search in-house,” but “how much do we do in-house versus outsourcing?”

Selecting the Right Vendor

Many firms outsource search marketing, and there are numerous vendors to choose from – some are reputable, while some use questionable tactics. This article will get you up to speed on what you should know before you begin, and provide tips from industry experts to help you put the issues in perspective.

When it comes to selecting the right search agency to meet your business goals, it boils down to educating yourself and exercising due diligence so you have the knowledge to make the right decision.

The Search Vendor Selection Process

The term “search marketing” encompasses two functions: search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search marketing. Paid search may include pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and/or other forms of marketing through search engines. Some vendors use the acronyms SEM and PPC interchangeably, so you may need to clarify what the terms mean to each vendor you are considering.

Another possible vendor specialization is in the provision of training to an in-house search marketing team.

Vendors come in different flavors – interactive agencies specializing in search marketing and pure-play search vendors offering SEO services, PPC advertising, or both. Choosing between a specialist and a more-inclusive search agency can be a tough call. The specialist might provide customized tools and experience, while a more diverse company offers the efficiencies gained by having SEO, PPC, and display teams working together across clients. Both types have advantages.

The fragmentation of search vendor services and the complexity of the discipline itself make the vendor selection process more difficult than ever before, but it can be simplified by dividing the search vendor selection process into six steps and tackling the problem one step at a time.

Step 1: Gain Search Education and Knowledge

There are many ways to educate yourself about search engine marketing, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s an ongoing process. Here are some suggestions for resources to help you get up to speed on the topic of search engine marketing.

  • Search industry conferences such as Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo, SMX Search Marketing Expo, Webmaster World Pubcon, Search Insider Summit, and ad:tech.
  • Online marketing publications with SEM articles, including Search Engine Land, SearchEngineWatch, iMedia Connection, and ClickZ. Print publications include Search Marketing Standard, Revenue, Omma, and Website Magazine.
  • Search marketing blogs provide information on the latest search tactics.
  • SEM training courses, such as SEMPO Institute (Fundamental and Advanced SEO/PPC), DMA Search Engine Optimization Certification Program, Bruce Clay’s SEOToolSetTM, Search Engine Workshops, SEOClass, Search Engine College, and Fresh Egg SEM Training.
  • SEMPO’s Learning Center provides articles, case studies, webinars, and research data on search engine marketing.

It is important to be familiar with basic SEO/PPC tactics and terminology. Bruce Clay, president of Bruce Clay Inc., tells us, “We require every one of our clients to attend our SEO training class because an educated client makes a much better project partner. Without basic knowledge of SEO methodology, we won’t be speaking the same language and clients will question every change we propose.” Clearly, the more you know about search methodology, the better you can manage your search initiatives.

Some SEO/PPC tasks are similar in scope, such as keyword discovery and aspects of competitor analysis. Therefore, you may think it would be more efficient to hire a vendor that handles both specialties. However, Kevin Lee, chairman of DidIt, has this advice: “Know if you want organic SEO and PPC search under the same vendor. While they share a keyword list, the two practices are quite different, and one-stop shopping means you are more constrained should the vendor not perform in one of the areas. Like advertising and PR, one stop shopping comes with risks.”

With so many considerations to keep in mind when selecting a vendor, knowing your priorities to begin with is a big plus.

One frequent source of confusion is whether PPC bid management tools are a necessity. They are certainly warranted for large campaigns and for complicated, cross-engine bidding. However, they may not be needed by smaller companies, especially those with a media spend under $10k per month, or smaller advertisers on Google or Yahoo! who can benefit from using the free tools already provided. A vendor should recommend PPC management automation only if it seems appropriate based on the expected media spend and where the client plans to advertise.

Nearly every paid search vendor can do keyword research, campaign reorganization, creative testing, and all the basic campaign work. The factors differentiating agencies are their strategic insights, their ability to leverage learning from one client to the next, their technology, and their ties with the engines. Good relationships with search engine personnel can be important. Getting a heads-up on paid search algorithm changes is a definite advantage (unfortunately, the engines don’t share organic changes ahead of time).

As with selecting an SEO partner, you want to ensure that a PPC agency has the right culture or can adapt to your philosophy. Marketing plans can be conservative or aggressive. Look for an agency that can execute in your preferred fashion. For example, high testing of new elements is an aggressive philosophy that can help you find new media options quickly, but it can go through your budget just as quickly. Conservative clients may not want to take that much risk.

In addition, Matt Van Wagner, president of Find Me Faster, warns, “Make sure your SEM [search engine marketer] does not currently work with your competitors and agrees not to accept business from your competitors. This has always been a core principle for traditional advertising agencies, but it does not seem to be the same case in the fast and loose world of SEO-SEM.”

Step 2: Define Business Goals/Scope of SEO/PPC Services

Before approaching potential agencies for evaluation, you must define your business goals and the scope of your SEO/PPC project. Your goal may be to increase conversions, introduce a new product, or gain more leads. It can take one or more internal meetings to establish your goals and define success metrics.

The person in charge of selecting a vendor should conduct a meeting that includes people ranging from senior executives to marketing, IT, and financial personnel to identify and document your business goals, the scope of your project, the kind of results you’d like to see, and a desired timeline. This documentation will make your selection process easier because it provides a means of comparing prospects when they answer your request for a quote or RFP (request for proposal).

Step 3: Seek Recommendations From Colleagues/Associations

There are hundreds of qualified SEM providers, so how do you know whom to query for bids? A good approach is to ask trusted colleagues or use third-party resources like industry trade organizations or industry resource sites to help you make a list of potential vendors.

Some online resources list reputable SEO/PPC firms. A couple of examples are:

  • Crain Communications (Advertising Age), in association with eMarketer, compiled a comprehensive Search Marketing Fact Pack in 2007, which includes a listing of the “Top 20 Search Marketing Agencies.”
  • Piper Jaffray’s 2007 report, The User Revolution, lists the “Top 20 SEM and SEO Companies” in a chapter on advertising services and technologies (page 267).

Step 4: Solicit Search Marketing Bids

One way to solicit bids is to send out RFPs to the vendors that best fit your market and budget. Another way is to solicit bids through business and marketing strategy discussions with vendors.

Kevin Lee is one who recommends against sending out RFPs for search marketing bids, He suggests you “avoid the temptation to use an RFP. RFPs are for the selection of vendors where the deliverable is identical and the service is a commodity. Like hiring an ad agency or a lawyer, there are more important factors that tend to get uncovered only through business discussions and marketing strategy discussions.”

Before sending RFPs or entering into high-level business discussions with vendors, be familiar with the different types of firms providing search services.

  • Traditional and Interactive Ad Agencies Specializing in SEO/PPC: The advantage of selecting this type of firm is the media integration offered by ad agencies. If you select an ad agency, ask how they obtained their search expertise. If it was via an acquisition, research the search vendor’s reputation. Did the agency train its own people in SEM? Did they hire a search veteran to head and train the search department?
  • Pure-Play Search Vendors Expanding to Full-Service Agency: Some search vendors have expanded into traditional and online media strategies such as email marketing, branding, PR, and direct mail. In this case, ask questions about their expertise in media buying, email marketing, branding, and analytics. Did they hire experts in those fields?
  • Pure-Play Search Vendors Specializing in SEO, PPC, or Both: These vendors should have expertise in SEO and/or PPC. Ask them how they developed their search methodology and trained their search personnel. Do they have a search guru who speaks at search conferences and writes articles or blogs in the online search press?
  • One-Person Consultancy Specializing in SEO or PPC: Some practitioners excel in their field, have made a lot of money, and can afford to limit themselves to a few top clients. If you head up a Fortune 500 company, you might hire such a person. Other consultants may be starting on their own after gaining experience with a larger firm – they may offer their services at very competitive rates. Question one-person consultancies about methodology, experience, and past clients.

5.  Evaluate and Compare Vendors

Experience and reputation are important. Once you receive replies to your RFPs, the best way to verify vendor experience and track record is to ask the candidates to point you to live examples of rankings and provide references you can check out.

Catherine Seda, search strategist and author of “How to Win Sales & Influence Spiders,” writes, “Don’t expect a vendor to give you a client list to call when you’re in the early stages of your research. Vendors can’t let their favorite clients be pestered by a bunch of prospects. If you want to talk to a vendor’s client(s), wait until that’s the final step before signing a deal with that vendor.”

Call each reference and ask questions such as: How easy was the vendor to work with? Did the vendor help you achieve improved search performance and how? Did the vendor provide timely responses to important questions? Would you recommend this vendor? How did they handle disagreements?

Ask each candidate how many search projects the agency they work for has managed. Avoid vendors that guarantee top-ten rankings or make what seem like impossible claims. Avoid those that say they will submit your site to hundreds of search engines and directories.

Mark Jackson, CEO of Vizion Interactive, has this tip: “Avoid SEO packages; every search project has a unique set of challenges as no two sites are alike and no two competitive landscapes are the same. Really, each project is unique in terms of goals, scope of work, and competitive landscape.”

You will also want to make sure that the SEO work is done on your website and on your server. Do not accept third-party optimized pages from an outside server. A similar admonition applies to paid search. Make it clear to your vendor that you, not the agency, own the campaigns and ensure you have access to all campaign logins, keyword lists, ads, reports, and other information about your campaigns.

There are many aspects to consider in SEO/PPC. Some of the skill sets required include: creative, art direction, web analytics, copywriting, link building, site development, and programming.

SEO copywriting, for example, should focus on both users and search engines. Ensure that your vendor can provide professional copyrighting services for both SEO and PPC if you cannot provide this in-house. Cindy Turrietta, founder and host of eMarketing Talk Show, notes, “Content is still king. While keyword density should not be taken too seriously, the search engines still need to know what your pages are about, so your pages should be themed around selected keywords and keyphrases for clarity.”

This also applies to PPC campaigns. “The search engines are looking for continuity between your selected search terms, your ad creative, and your landing pages. By introducing landing pages into the quality score equation, the search engines effectively brought the concept of SEO and PPC a little closer together,” adds Turrietta.

Your site may also need email marketing, rich interactive media (video), e-commerce capability, content management (CMS), and/or traditional advertising (print, direct mail etc.). The trend is to integrate online and traditional media strategies, so keep this and your requirements in mind when choosing a search vendor.

In fact, Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, reminds us, “When selecting a search vendor, don’t forget the connection between brand advertising and search. Sites that are well branded get better search performance than those that are less known. You can get ultimate branding by combining SEO with paid search. This not only gives you more brand equity; it’ll boost your conversions as well.”

Likewise, link building is critical for SEO success. Does the vendor provide competitive link research and analysis? Justilien Gaspard, link consultant and columnist, cautions, “It is extremely important to ask a lot of questions about link building methods as some tactics, like the excessive use of low-substance press releases, will only provide short-term gains with no impact on long-term rankings. Other tactics, like indiscriminate blog comments, can get your site labeled as a spammer.” He suggests you ask for specific examples. While many companies are under NDA (non-disclosure agreements), they can still give examples of the types of sites and links they are targeting.

Ask for written methodology. Some search vendors won’t divulge their tactics. Others will provide them in written form because they know educated clients make better business partners. The more you understand about SEO/PPC, the easier it is for agencies to work with you. When SEO/PPC recommendations are understood, they are easily and more promptly implemented. Search campaigns become less frustrating and more successful.

As Paul Bruemmer, search director at Red Door Interactive, suggests, “Ask for a report providing a brief overview of your market share, the competitive landscape, and your site’s compliance of technical and editorial factors typically hindering natural search rankings. This points out strengths and weaknesses, giving both parties a benchmark foundation for starting a strategic partnership.”

It is also important to understand analytics reports on your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), so you can see how well your SEO campaign is working. KeyRelevance President Churchill cautions, “Does the vendor rely on standard ranking reports, or do they provide true insights on your KPI’s in their reporting? There is a difference between data and actionable insight. Make sure the vendor is not just ‘checking a box’ by providing a canned ranking report that does nothing to actually move the web site forward. When reviewing their monthly reports, ask yourself, ‘Given this report, what actions should I take for the site?’  If no actions are forthcoming, the reports are not helping move the site forward. I would look for insights and recommendations rather than just data.”

Because business and site goals can vary widely, the search for a qualified vendor requires careful cherry picking. If paid search is a major requirement, you may need a firm with expertise in A/B and multivariate testing for tweaking keywords, ad copy, ad groups, and landing page performance. Don’t be afraid to ask vendors which tools they use to track your SEO and PPC campaign performance. You might ask them to share an example of a problem they solved or an unexpected gain identified through the use of these tools.

Get a clear description of deliverables and pricing up front. While some firms might be evasive, a reputable firm will provide a detailed listing of costs by task.

Step 6: Interview Finalists/Award Contract

Narrow your list to the top three vendors. At this point, you can decide whether to interview the finalists by phone or invite them to present their proposals in person at your place of business. This may depend on geographic proximity or the size of the contract and extent of the work to be performed. When possible, meeting the team that will be responsible for helping you achieve your online business goals is preferred, to help you select a search partner that fits in with your company’s corporate culture and personnel. A handshake is a great way to seal a partnership before signing on the dotted line.

Chris Boggs, SEO Manager for eMergent Marketing, believes the following question should be asked of any vendor under consideration: “Are the people who are selling me on their experience and personality also going to be servicing my account, or will they disappear and give way to one or two people seemingly doing all the work?” It is important to know exactly with whom you will be dealing on a day-to-day basis.

This is also the time to be up front about clarifying any questions from either side so tasks and goals are clear both verbally and in writing.

Conclusion

Selecting an SEM vendor requires search knowledge, research, and careful evaluation to help you find the right partner to assist you in meeting your business goals. Don’t choose this moment to be stingy with your time or resources. This is an important decision that will directly affect your bottom line now and for years to come, so give it the time and attention it deserves. Consult the resources available to narrow the field of possible vendors, and use the knowledge you have gained about the pros and cons of outsourcing search to make the right choice for your search engine marketing needs.

About the Author

Claudia Bruemmer (cb@claudiabruemmer.com) was Managing Editor of ClickZ from 1998-2001. As freelance writer-editor and Internet marketing consultant at ClaudiaBruemmer.com, clients include Bruce Clay Inc., Red Door Interactive, Search Engine Watch, SEMPO, JP Communications, Justilien.com, and Laptevsky.com.

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