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Choosing A Search Engine Marketing Firm

Matt McGee
One World Telecommunications

September 12, 2005

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.

As a business owner, you may identify with those stories. And you may 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 may not know how to make that happen yourself.

Thanks to the growth of search engine marketing (SEM), you don't need to. A professional 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: the term "search engine marketing" includes all efforts aimed at increasinf search visibility, including pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, organic search engine optimization (SEO), and pay-for-inclusion (PFI) programs.)

Choosing an SEM company is an important decision: 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 this growth alive over the long-term.


When selecting an SEM 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 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 company answer your questions honestly and completely, or did it avoid certain topics and give fuzzy answers to others? The SEM company should have nothing to hide when it comes to describing how they optimize sites, how they manage ad campaigns, their track record, etc.

Does your SEM company have experience in the industry? If you're hiring them to handle search engine optimization on your web site, 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. If you're hiring the SEM company to handle your PPC campaign, have they managed campaigns successfully for clients of your size?

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 SEM 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.

Which Services?

Search engine marketing includes a variety of methods that can increase a web site's visibility in search engines. Before choosing an SEM company, it's imperative to know which one(s) you need.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making a web site search engine friendly. It typically involves making changes to the web site itself that are designed to help the site rank higher in the organic (i.e. - free) search results.

Some search engines offer pay-for-inclusion (PFI) services, which allow you to pay to have various pages/URLs of your site crawled by the search engine spider, often on a regular basis.

There's also pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, which offer you the chance to pay to have your ad appear when searcher type your chosen keywords into the search engine. 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.

These are just a few of the SEM services a company might offer. Some issues to consider:

Do you need SEO or PPC? Both? Something else? Ask the companies you're considering for their recommendation. Ask them to separate the time and costs of each service when they give you a cost proposal for your project so you can make a more informed decision.

If you need PPC, will the company you're hiring do that part of the project themselves? 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 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, PPC, 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 SEM company to emphasize widgets in general (not enough focus) or red, titanium widgets specifically (wrong focus). The 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 industry professionals 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 business owners :

"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, 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 penalized by search engines). Make sure you and your SEM company are in complete agreement over the methods to be used in your optimization project, and have it clearly defined in the contract.

Executing an SEO Plan

If organic search engine optimization is one of your needs, you'll want to have a clear idea of how the company you hire will execute the project. The 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 company to gain a better understanding of the big picture:

Will the company execute the hands-on aspects of the optimization plan, or are they only providing directions for your webmaster? There's no right or wrong answer to this. Some firms are consultants only; others offer consulting and hands-on optimization. If you don't have a webmaster, and expect the company 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 (hint: avoid link farms and FFA sites at all costs; hint #2: the SEO company should not require a link from your site to theirs as part of the project)
  • search engine submission -- letting search engines know about your site (hint: avoid automated tools; hint #2: avoid any company promising to submit your site to hundreds of search engines; hint #3: search engine submission is essentially obsolete)
  • directory submissions -- letting web directories know about your site (hint: this is often more difficult than it sounds)

How soon will the 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 ten 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 SEM project. Perhaps it's nothing more than an increase in traffic to your site. Expansion of your mailing list subscriber base? 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 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 SEM company can promise long-term top rankings in the organic search results of any search engine because search engines are constantly changing how they index and rank web sites. (In the short-term, however, 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 SEM company provide to indicate your web site's ongoing ranking in various search engines, or the success of your PPC ad campaign? 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 SEM company provide in this process?

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 our 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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