1 How To Choose A Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Agency Introduction During the last four years, in both good and bad economies, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) has continued to grow. According to MarketingSherpa s Search Marketing Benchmark Guide, whether it s in PPC (Pay Per Click) or in SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the dollars spent by American companies on SEM has consistently grown. Even as marketing budgets have been cut, it appears that the SEM portions of the budgets have either stayed the same or increased. If there has been a shift in spending in SEM, it s been more toward the SEO side and away from PPC. SEM agencies and consultants have also benefited from this growth. Many new firms have proliferated across the country and beyond. While very small companies still have difficulty justifying the hiring of an outside agency for a long term contract, companies with bigger, more complex and more ingrained marketing strategies have traditionally looked to outside SEM firms for help and guidance. But as they get more sophisticated about SEM and realistic about how SEO and PPC can help them, they are also scrutinizing the ROI from these SEM agencies. And that s a good thing. When choosing an SEM firm, there are several things you need to do before you make any decision. FIRST is to establish your own goals what you hope to achieve through SEM for your company. SECOND is being realistic about your expectations. THIRD is to determine whether to outsource or not. Once you ve accomplished these three objectives, and you ve decided to find an SEM agency that can help you reach your goals, the final stage is to interview firms and ask as many questions as you can think of. In this white paper we ll not only give you the questions, but we ll also provide you with guidance on the answers you need to hear.
2 Establishing Goals Every company s goals are different. For a B2B company, your SEM goal could be attracting more qualified leads. For a consumer company, your SEM goal could be increased online sales. If you are a new company, you may want your SEO to improve your brand awareness. If you rely on PPC to drive traffic, you may want to increase conversions and lower cost-per-acquisition (CPA). Most important of all is making sure your SEM goals are fully integrated with your overall marketing goals and strategies. If your overall marketing goal is to be recognized the leader in your industry, then you need to understand how your SEM goals will support that effort. There are, however, common SEM goals that companies seem to share frequently. These are: Increase quality traffic and conversion rates on your website Drive leads and sales cost effectively Generate online sales, leads and/or registrations Improve brand awareness With the exception of the last bullet, all of these goals are easily measurable (and there are ways to measure brand awareness, but that s another white paper). This is important because with marketing budgets being as tight as they are these days, you need to be aware of the ROI of your SEO and PPC. Managing Expectations You probably noticed that getting your listing to the first page of Google is not one of the common goals listed. Getting your company higher up the search engines will help you reach those goals, but it s not an end in itself. Furthermore, you need to be realistic about what SEM can or can t do in relation to your web history, your industry and the level of competition. Search rankings are highly competitive, and every day the competition increases. Google spiders over a trillion websites each month*. On most searches for your keywords, you compete with million other web pages to get to the top. It can even be hard to get high rankings for keyword phrases that appear to be rarely sought after. *
3 This is all because more and more companies are becoming more sophisticated with their SEM. They recognize the high ROI that SEO can provide. So what should your expectations be? Simply stated, it should be measured improvement and ROI. For SEO, depending on where you are currently in the rankings, it s going to take you months before you see an improvement. You re going to need to go through analysis of your website and keywords, create a link building campaign and so on. It could take 3 months before you see movement and 6 months before you experience significant improvement. For PPC, the key factors are ROI and qualified traffic. Anyone can get you to the top of the PPC rankings. It just takes money. But if your products costs $5 and you re paying $100 for each click, you won t be in business very long. Furthermore, if you are a B2B company and 95% of click-through traffic are consumers, your PPC campaign needs to be re-thought. What you should expect from your PPC is ongoing improvement of your ROI. How you accomplish that is through a well managed campaign that is constantly being tested, evaluated and adjusted. To Outsource Or Not Effective SEO and PPC are managed on a daily basis. In SEO search engine spiders crawl and recognize new content on your site, and often reward you by bumping up your rankings. In PPC, competitors are constantly changing their bids and that has a direct impact on your campaign. Knowing that, here are some questions to consider. Who will manage your daily SEO efforts and PPC campaigns? Do you have a budget for full time staff and paying their benefits? Will you be measuring your efforts against your competitors? Do you know what specific measurement tools you need, and how to use them?
4 Time and human resources are the biggest factors in deciding whether to use an in-house solution. Here are some pros and cons for in-house SEO. Pros Complete control over campaigns Direct and daily interaction to allow instant changes In-house expertise about the inner workings of your website and search engines Cost savings if you hire fresh out of college Cons Lack of measurement tools, expert knowledge and resources It takes time to learn SEO Lack of competitive analysis and resources across data points Increase in headcount and fixed overhead Here are some pros and cons for hiring an agency. Pros No need to use internal staff/ resources so you can focus on running your business Wealth of industry experts for information and resources across all data points Total accountability A partner to align with to achieve your business goals Cons Cost and the need to have a working budget Takes time to find the right one to build the relationship and trust Less flexibility to direct change in an instant Potential lack of continuity when switching agencies
5 Oftentimes, when you re looking for an agency you experience sticker shock from their quotes. After you ve calmed down, here are ways that you can manage your agency s ROI and effectiveness. Key Performance Indicators like Achievement Index Measure the amount of metrics met or exceeded by the total number of metrics provided on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. Milestone and Indicators Measure the total milestones over the total amount of time allocated for the project. Formal Reviews Measure and document the level of performance and the required expectations on either a monthly or quarterly basis. Budget Reviews Measure the need to ramp up or ramp down campaigns based on results achieved so far. Warranty & Early Termination Measure the agency s level of competence and honesty in its dealings. Contracts you sign should have some form of warranty to fix areas you as a client are not happy about. It should also include some form of early termination based on non-performance. Another factor to consider is the size of your website and the competition for keywords. The higher the number of pages on your website that you need to optimize with content, the more time and commitment you ll need to make your SEO see measured improvement. The more competitive your space is for keywords, the more you ll need to come up with strategies that will help you reach your goals, and the ability to adjust them.
6 Questions to Ask a Search Engine Marketing Company You are now ready to interview SEM agencies. There are hundreds of questions you can ask. Here are the main ones you need to ask, and what to look for in their answers. 1. Do you offer guarantees on performance? Another way of asking this question is can you guarantee rankings? The only honest answer is no. You should agree on how performance will be measured, and then evaluate the firm based on those measurements. But also keep in mind, a good SEO firm wants to get your rankings to the top because they know that 68% of searchers never get beyond page 1 of the search results.* 2. How do you charge? There are different ways that SEM firms earn their money. Some ask for a percent of media or a cost per action. Others want a flat fee or an hourly rate. The bottom line comes down to ROI. This is one answer where you need to do the math to see which works better for you. 3. Do you believe in educating your clients about SEO and PPC? Some firms are afraid of a well-educated client, because they think they will take their business inhouse. Other firms believe that a well-educated client can only help the cause. Think about it. The more you know, the more the agency can help you reach your goals. The more you understand the process, the better able you are to convince others in your organization why search marketing is so essential. 4. Do you have a proprietary method of conducting SEO? Every search firm has their own way of conducting SEO. Many of them do it the same way. What you are looking for is a company that fully understands the complexity of SEO and is not afraid to think outside the box. *iprospect research study 2008
7 5. How do you evaluate or determine your keyword recommendations? This is what separates one SEO firm from another. Good SEO firms should have in-house tools and software that they refine constantly, so much so that they can call it proprietary software. 6. Is your organization transparent? ie. Can I come to your office? Will you show me how your company works? This is a nice way of asking if the agency personnel works in their pajamas or not. It s really up to you who you want to work with, but with the proliferation of SEO and PPC companies, you need to find out whether the firm works in someone s home office, whether it s a virtual organization, or one that has a thriving office where people share ideas and solve challenges together. 7. What is your approach to dealing with clients? Some firms want you to go away and let them do what you paid them to do once they ve signed you up. Some want to work with you as partners. Others go one step further into wanting to make you into a SEM hero by working closely with you to make sure that you exceed your SEM goals. 8. Can you give me a list of clients that I can call? The answer had better be Yes with no hesitation. The list should be extensive and include current as well as past clients. Also don t be afraid to ask for a client that s not on the list they give you. If you get a client who does not give a rave review, give the agency a chance to explain. There are always two sides to a story, and you can learn a lot about an agency when they are on the defensive.
8 9. Can you give me examples of taking a company from low ranking to page one ranking? If they can t give you one, that means one of two things; they are either very new to SEM and haven t got the track record, or they aren t very good at SEM. Fundamentally, what you are looking for are case studies that present the challenges and show how the SEM firm met or exceeded them. 10. How do you submit your clients sites to the search engines? Submitting your site to search engines is pretty simple, so be a little wary of those firms that make too big a deal about it. There are also services that say they will submit your website to thousands of search engines. That s all well and good, but when you consider the top search engines generate almost all of the traffic to your website, do you need that kind of service? 11. How much link building do you do? Two of the main pillars to successful SEO relate to link building. These include inbound links and internal links where you link pages on your website together and group them by topic. There are many different ways to build inbound links and it can t be done overnight. It takes a good strategy, a commitment to relevant content and the ability to place links to your site and other highly-regarded relevant sites, directories, e- Zines, blogs, and press release syndication sites. 12. What is your range for monthly advertising spend? This gives you an idea of the size of the agency s clients and their expertise. If they have no clients that spend more than $5,000 a month, are they able to handle a client that spends $50,000 or more a month? Conversely, if their smallest account is $50,000 a month, will they pay enough attention to your $5,000 a month?
9 13. What tools do you use to manage your search campaigns? If the answer is one size fits all, they re giving you a clue about how they operate. Because there are so many tools available to help manage natural search and PPC campaigns, you want to have the tools match up with the size and scope of your SEM. Plus you want a firm that listens and adjusts and if they only do it one way, that says a lot about their lack of listening skills. 14. How many people work on an account at one time? You are hiring a firm, not an individual. If you wanted only one person to work on your SEM, you might as well go in-house. You also don t want to have 5 people working on an account when two is all you need. Find out how the company manages each account, what the reporting methods are, how often and what they will report to you. 15. What are bid limits and how do you calculate them? A bid limit is the maximum you can spend per click for a particular keyword. They should be calculated on a keyword by keyword basis. Beyond these basics, firms will give you their formulas for calculating the bid limits. See if it makes sense to you, and have them continue explaining the rationale for their calculations until it does make sense. After all, it s your money and your ROI. You have the right to know all the details required to ensure your campaign is successful. 16. How do you test and measure results? This is where the hard work on developing your measurable goals pays off. Improvements in search rankings are one way to measure your search ranking results, but more important are measurable traffic, conversion rates and quality leads. Also there needs to be a way to track from where the sale or lead came and a way to manage all of the tests that will show you how to improve your conversion rates.
10 17. What is the range for active key phrases you manage for clients? This tells you how sophisticated the agency s search capabilities are. For PPC a large company might need to focus on thousands of key phrases. Obviously this is more difficult to do than focusing on a handful. But for SEO, you want to focus on a smaller number of key phrases. You ll also want to know their philosophy on short-tail versus long-tail keyword phrases, and have them explain how this philosophy applies to your company. 18. How often do you perform key phrase research? The answer gives you an indication about how they will manage your account. Keep in mind, you want to work with a firm that is constantly making the needed adjustments to keep improving your rankings. Because search engines frequently change their algorithms and your competitive landscape changes, you need to optimize your site in response to the changes in search engine ranking criteria. 19. Have you worked in my industry before? Some companies feel that only people who know their industry well can help them with SEM. There is value with working with an SEM agency that understands your competitive marketplace. But ask yourself the question Would you prefer to work with an SEM company that knows your business and gets average results or with an SEM company that can learn about your industry and consistently gets outstanding results? 20. Is it better to start with PPC or organic search? It all depends on your goals. With PPC you can get immediate results. You can also get data on which key phrases work best - Data that you can then use for your natural search campaign. You can start with natural search but you won t get any meaningful results until at least 3-6 months.
11 Since your gains in SEO will be long term, the longer you wait to start your SEO, the longer you ll have to wait for results. In the spirit of full disclosure, keep in mind that SEM firms make more profit on natural search than PPC, since most of the PPC money goes for media buying. If you want to dominate both paid and organic search results, you should consider using both organic search and paid search methods. The data you get from PPC is unique and completely different from SEO and they can both complement each other to enhance your online strategy. 21. Do you have to alter my website at all? The answer had better be yes. Making changes to your website is critical to SEO. How much? That depends on a number of factors, but find out the kinds of things they could change (from Meta content to keyword incorporation to site architecture and URLs and increases in amount of relevant content). 22. How long until I start seeing results? For PPC, you should start seeing results pretty quickly. Whether they are the results you want or not, is another question. But after a couple months your PPC should be running smoothly, demonstrating a positive ROI. For natural search you might see some results in 3 months, but it s more likely that you will see substantial results by 6 months. It s very dependent on where you start from, the competitive nature of your market, and size of your website. 23. How long have you been in business? There are a lot of fly- by- night SEO and PPC firms. Make sure you don t hire one of them. Neither would you want to hire a firm who says they have been doing SEO for the last 15 years - Because SEO did not exist then.
12 24. Can you perform an analysis on my competitors websites? The answer should be yes. At a minimum they should be able to find a keyword analysis of your competitors in other words, where you stand in search rankings compared to your competitors. 25. Do you understand what it takes to create sales conversion? Keep in mind there are two critical parts to SEO; finding and converting. It s great if you can point people to your website, but what good is it if they can t figure out your value proposition and you have terrible conversion rates? Your SEM firm had also better be expert at optimizing landing pages and A/B and Multivariate testing. 26. Do you adhere to a search engine's posted best practices, and have any of your clients been blacklisted by the search engines? Hopefully the answer is yes and no. The best SEO techniques work in harmony with search engines and operate within their parameters. The good news is that the days of writing your website just for the search engines and diluting your message in order to improve your rankings are over. Search engines now reward you both for making sense on your website and for your relevance. But there are still those practitioners who will push the limits to give you faster results. That may work for a while until the search engines find out you ve been tricking the system. At that point you ll be penalized and maybe even taken off the search engine's index. It s very hard getting back once you've been blacklisted.
13 27. What type of reports do you create and how often do you send them? Make them show you their reports and go over it with them until you fully understand the value of the reports. You should expect monthly reports. Some firms will give you overkill on reports, and while it may look impressive, you are paying for them, and those are dollars you re not spending on SEO and PPC. If the information in the reports helps support and measure your goals, then they are worth it. Anything else is overkill. [Earlier in this white paper we discuss ways you can manage your agency s ROI and effectiveness.] 28. How will you measure ROI? Whether you are a B2B or ecommerce company, it s all about conversions. The only difference is if it s a LEAD or a SALE. Transparent PPC reporting will clearly show you how well your investment is performing because you will be able to see exactly how many conversions your PPC campaign is providing each month. SEO is notorious for being known as trickier to see clear ROI but that should not be the case. Properly set-up metrics and analytics will allow you to track each conversion on your site. Each conversion should be traceable and matched to the exact keyword which created that conversion.
14 About WebMarketing123 Webmarketing123.com is a full-service search marketing agency dedicated to making our clients marketing heroes through developing, implementing, and managing natural Search Engine Optimization, Paid Search and Social Media campaigns for your website. We help you: Dramatically increase the quality and quantity of prospects visiting your website, Significantly improve the rate at which those visitors convert to customers, and Maximize the return on your marketing investment. We believe in the power of search marketing, and we have a dedicated and passionate team of SEO and PPC experts who are committed to researching the most cutting edge search marketing techniques. We make education of our team, clients, and prospective clients a top priority. We apply our expertise to your site to help your business grow, and in every interaction, our clients are increasingly impressed by our knowledge, ability, and flawless execution. Because of these high standards, you receive campaign strategies and levels of client service that are world-class and you will achieve results that exceed your marketing goal. To find out how Webmarketing123 can help your business increase site traffic and conversions, contact Devon Paguio at