Selecting a Search Marketing Firm: What you should ask.

What makes a good Search Marketing Firm?

As a business owner, CMO or Marketing Director, the choice of a Search Marketing Firm will be one of your most important decisions.  In order to fully realize the benefits of Search Marketing, it is crucial to understand what role Search Marketing will play in your organization and choose a service provider that supports this role.

What is the focus of the Firm?

It is very important to understand what the prospective service provider specializes in.  Lately, it seems that everyone is getting into Search Marketing.  There are hosting companies, web design firms, web development shops and traditional agencies all trying to get a piece of the market.  It is often the case that no firm can do it all, or at least not do it all well.   It is best to choose a firm that specializes in Search Marketing.  There is no strong argument for using your web developer or your hosting company for your paid search management to keep it under one roof.  The worst combination is a traditional advertising agency that offers Search Marketing services.  That is like getting heart surgery from your pharmacist, they may have heard about it, maybe even read about it, and may be able to talk the talk, but they don’t do it day in and day out.   No matter what type of firm you are talking to, ask them who will be managing and performing the Search Marketing work.  Is it handled in-house or outsourced to another firm?

How do they view Search Marketing?

Do they believe that one aspect of Search Marketing is more important than the other?  Or do they believe that all initiatives work together and view search holistically?  As you interview service providers it is highly recommended to learn a little about the space.  You don’t have to become an expert, just have some basic knowledge.  Unfortunately there are a lot of charlatan’s and snake oil salesman out there.  By doing an hour or so of prep work on your own, you’ll find it is much easier to avoid many of these scammers.

What are their Search Engine Optimization tactics?

White Hat or Black Hat?  Learn this terminology, especially if your company’s reputation and long term success are important.  Basically White Hat SEO Firms play by the rules of the search engines and understand the uncertainty involved in playing by the rules.  Black Hat SEO Firms will tout quick and/or guaranteed results.  Never has it been more accurate that “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”  Black Hat SEO Firms stretch the rules and manipulate them often to the eventual detriment of their clients.  There is nothing wrong with preferring the Black Hat Route, it does work, usually, but not for long.  Getting banned from Google is real, and blaming it on an SEO firm will not get any sympathy or get you back in.  Make sure you know which side of the fence they are on.

What is their Paid Search Pitch?

Are they guaranteeing clicks, traffic or sales?  Ask how.  Beware of the “We have a relationship with Google”.  I get cold calls on my cell phone from firms claiming this all the time; some of the pitches are quite smooth.  If they had a relationship with Google they wouldn’t be talking to you or offering services, they would be using their relationship for their own benefit.  Saying they know a guy at Google is like knowing a guy at the Lottery Commission.  It is common for an agency to have a Rep at Google, we do too, but that does not in any way indicate an inside track or special arrangement.  Beware the Google Partners or Resellers claim; that means they make a cut off your Paid Search spend.

Do they stress bid management and special software as their competitive edge?  While this was the answer many years ago, times have changed.  Every major Paid Search venue uses some variation of a quality score and smart pricing.  This means that the entire campaign from keyword to landing page needs to be tested and managed, not just the bids.

If fact, the bids are pretty much the least important factor since they are derivative of the account performance as a whole.  Google made $16.4 billion last year from people clicking on ads.  They don’t care if you bid a million dollars a click; if your account has low relevancy to the search term your ad won’t show. If you have a significant spend budget in a highly competitive and fast moving niche there can be a benefit to bid management tools, but only as an enhancement to active management, not a replacement.

And another thing; taking Google or Yahoo! or MSNs advice on how to manage a campaign, or worse yet having them manage the campaign is like having the IRS do your taxes.  Enough said.

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