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Choosing A Search Engine Marketing Firm

Matt McGee
One World Telecommunications

July 1, 2003

Mailing lists and message boards -- the online water coolers of the web development and marketing industries -- are filled with stories of businesses whose web sites have "fallen off the map" of search engine success or never made it on the map in the first place. In many cases, the resulting "Why?" discussions lead to one of two conclusions: the web site was poorly optimized for search engine success or it wasn't optimized at all.

Maybe you're a business owner who identifies with those stories. And maybe you know the importance of having your web site rank highly in search engines for the search words and phrases that are appropriate to your business. But you probably don't know how to make that happen yourself.

Thanks to the growth of search engine marketers (SEM) and search engine optimizers (SEO), you don't need to. A professional SEO/SEM company can help put your web site back on the map of search engine success or get it on the map for the very first time.

(A note before we go any further: "SEO" and "SEM" are often used interchangeably even though they're not the same thing. For the purposes of this article, we'll use "search engine marketing" by default or whichever acronym is most appropriate for the content in which it appears.)

Choosing a search engine marketing company is our focus here and the choice you make is an important one. The right choice can lead to tremendous initial growth in your company's online business and create the foundation for a satisfying business relationship that keeps growth alive over the long-term.


When selecting a search engine marketing company, you are first and foremost establishing a business relationship and successful relationships are built on trust. You will be placing your online success in the SEO/SEM company's hands. Most of us can tell pretty quickly if someone deserves our trust. Follow your gut instincts, but also consider these questions:

Does the a search engine marketing company answer your questions honestly and completely or did it avoid certain topics and give fuzzy answers to others? The SEO/SEM company should have nothing to hide when it comes to describing how they optimize sites, their track record, etc.

Does your a search engine marketing company have experience in the industry? Have someone experienced with creating web sites look underneath the hood of a couple sites the company has optimized, looking for any unusual coding that may be hidden from public view.

Do they have a list of references you can contact? Hearing the first-hand experiences of past clients is a great way to learn about the company. (Note that some of the company's past clients may have asked not to be included in a reference list and the company should honor those wishes.)

Does the a search engine marketing company pressure you with sales tactics designed to force a decision before you're ready to make one? Building a relationship isn't about closing the deal; it's about doing what's best for you, the client. You should be able to speak with the individuals who will be doing the actual work on your site, not just with a salesperson.

SEO? SEM? Both?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is one form of search engine marketing (SEM). SEO is the process of making a web site search engine friendly. SEM, on the other hand, can be done without concern for a web site's search engine friendliness.

SEM often involves pure advertising via the cost-per-click (CPC) and pay-per-click (PPC) programs offered by several search engines. In these programs, you bid on certain words or phrases and your advertisement appears when a search is made for those words or phrases -- usually near, but not as part of the traditional search results.

Some issues to consider:

Do you need SEO, SEM, or both? Ask the companies you're considering for their recommendation. Ask them to separate the time and costs of SEO and SEM when they give you a cost proposal for your project so you can make a more informed decision about the value of doing both or just one.

If you need SEM, will the company you're hiring do that part of the project themselves? CPC and PPC advertising is a specialty that not all SEO companies practice. The ones that don't, can often recommend companies to handle that aspect of your project.

If CPC/PPC advertising is part of your project, how long will the campaign last? How much will it cost? Which search engines will you use? What types of tools does the company use for managing your bids? Is the company skilled at writing targeted ad copy?

How will the company identify the best keywords and phrases for your optimization project? Whether you need SEO, SEM, or both, identifying the most appropriate keywords and phrases to target will be a key factor in the overall success of your efforts. Make sure you have input into this process since you, ultimately, know your business and industry more than anyone. If you specialize in and want to promote your blue, graphite widgets, don't allow the SEO/SEM company to emphasize widgets in general (not enough focus) or red, titanium widgets specifically (wrong focus). The SEO/SEM company should be able to provide general statistics indicating how often your preferred keywords and phrases are actually searched for on various search engines.

Know Your Risk Comfort Level

There are many ways to optimize a web site for search engine success. Some methods are more aggressive than others, and many search engines and SEMPO members (including this author) frown on these tactics as being too risky at best, and unethical at worst. Many search engines go so far as to warn the public about these methods, perhaps none so strongly as Google on a page it wrote for webmasters:

"Many SEOs provide useful services for website owners, from writing copy to giving advice on site architecture and helping to find relevant directories to which a site can be submitted. However, there are a few unethical SEOs who have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to unfairly manipulate search engine results."

As a business owner, you have to determine how much risk you're willing to take on. If you're willing to try risky methods such as cloaking, doorway pages, and keyword stuffing (among others), you should also be aware of the potential consequences (which include being blacklisted from search engines). Make sure you and your SEO company are in complete agreement over the methods to be used in your optimization project and have it clearly defined in the contract.

Executing the SEO Plan

The process of optimizing a web site involves more than just rewriting content or improving HTML tags; there are multiple facets to a complete SEO project. The SEO company should develop a plan based on your needs and budget. As the client, you may not want to know -- and may not understand -- every little detail that the project entails. But there are a number of topics you should discuss with the SEO company to gain a better understanding of the big picture:

Will the SEO company execute the hands-on aspects of the optimization plan, or are they only providing directions for your webmaster? There may not be a correct answer to this. Some SEO firms are consultants only; others offer consulting and hands-on optimization. If you don't have a webmaster, and expect the SEO firm to do the actual optimization work, ask about their experience as programmers and make sure they are as skilled at the hands-on work as they are at consulting.

What changes need to be made to your web site to make it more search engine friendly? In other words, what does the SEO company consider the full scope of work to optimize your web site? The project may or may not include things such as:

  • changing the layout or design of your site
  • updating the site architecture -- the menus, navigation, etc.
  • rewriting and editing content -- the visible words on your web site
  • improving HTML tags -- the hidden pieces of information in the code of your web site
  • link building -- finding appropriate web sites and obtaining links from their site to yours
  • search engine submission -- letting search engines know about your site (Note: the frequency and methodology of submissions is sometimes debated among SEO professionals. Ask about their submission schedule/methods, and discuss the pros and cons. Generally, submitting your site to "hundreds of search engines" isn't all that helpful.)
  • directory submissions -- letting web directories know about your site (Hint: this is often more difficult than it sounds.)

How soon will the SEO company begin working on your project, and how long do they expect to take to complete it? It's unrealistic to expect your web site to make the top 10 search results within a week after the project ends, so if you're aiming to increase holiday sales make sure you start (and the SEO company can finish) far enough ahead of time to allow the project to succeed. Which leads us right into...

Measuring Success

It's up to you to determine the goals and definition of success for your SEO/SEM project. Perhaps it's nothing more than an increase in traffic to your site, an expansion of your mailing list subscriber base, or doubling last year's online sales in the holiday season. During the initial meetings with the companies you're considering, you'll need to articulate your ultimate goals and whether they're short-term, long-term, or both.

It will, however, be the SEO/SEM's job to help you calculate success with information and statistics about the project.

Things to consider:

Does the company make promises to acquire you as a customer? Building trust involves setting realistic expectations. No SEO company can promise long-term top rankings in the search results of any search engine because search engines are constantly changing how they index and rank web sites. (In the short-term, however, CPC and PPC advertising might include a guarantee of visibility on the first page of search results if you're bidding/paying enough to be seen there.)

What kind of reports will the SEO company provide to indicate your web site's ongoing ranking in various search engines? How often will you get those reports, and can the company help you understand them? Some companies may be able to provide sample reports to give you an idea of what to expect.

How will you measure your ROI (return on investment) and what role (if any) will the SEO/SEM company provide in this process? A better question here might be, is your company able to accurately assess ROI? Are you generating the needed information internally to be able to measure the results of your SEO/SEM project? Many businesses are not at this stage yet. In a recent study by NetIQ, only 11% of respondents were conducting detailed ROI analysis on their search engine marketing efforts.

These are some of the issues and concerns any business should address when considering which SEO/SEM company to hire for marketing your business online. You might also spend time using the variety of resources available elsewhere on the SEMPO web site to learn more about the value of search engine marketing and the industry itself. (But try to stay away from the water cooler -- hopefully now we won't be reading about your company there, unless it's the story of your SEO/SEM success!)

Thanks to all the SEMPO members who helped in one way or another with the development of this article.


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