I recently attended a presentation by Jupiter Media titled, How to Select a Search Marketing Partner. The presentation was good, covering elements most of us know about but probably never thought to put in a checklist. As the webinar streamed I processed and typed detailed notes for your enjoyment. Don't consider these quotes but rather a paraphrase of what was said. I'm sure there are some discrepancies between the material presented and what I typed as well as a few typos but I think you'll get the overall message of the presentation.

Chris Sherman, who is the associate editor over at Search Engine Watch did the majority of the presenting. I felt he did a good job of hitting on the main points of selecting a firm / partner in the time he had allotted. Some of the more interesting details were the questions attendees presented after the presentation portion was over. I figured there the audience would be mostly search engine marketers looking to put an ear to the ground and find out exactly what folks are looking for but it seemed like the majority of folks were business owners and marketing department types looking for solid advice and answers. My judgement was based on the fact that most questions related more towards specific business scenarios rather than the "stump the chump" questions search engine marketing types like to ask industry experts.

Without any further delay, here's my summary of the presentation on how to select a search marketing partner.

Search engine marketing is comprised of these elements.
1. Paid Placement
2. Paid Inclusion
3. Natural Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
4. Paid Search Advertising
5. Website Enhancement

You must determine which combination of those elements you need and then select a firm that addresses your needs best.

Chris Sherman
Associate editor at SearchEngineWatch
President of SearchWise.net

Different types of search engine marketing
1. Organic Search Engine Optimization
2. Directory Paid Inclusion - Yahoo, Looksmart (Losing prominence but still important.)
3. Paid Inclusion - Becoming less important and only Yahoo is still doing it.
4. Paid Placement - Paying for top positioning in the sponsored results section (PPC)
5. Contextual Advertising - A text add distributed across a network of sites (ex: Google AdWords)
6. Specialized Search Engine Marketing - Focused on niche vertical markets, directories like shopping.com, asksimon.com, etc...

Before you can select a firm you must define your strategy

A. What are you seeking?
1. Short Term & Temporary? - use paid placement (Overture, AdWords)
2. Controlling which pages are indexed by the search engines?
a. Including & excluding particular pages
3. Long term continuous traffic? - use natural SEO
4. Combination of 1, 2, 3?

Goals determine what you're trying to accomplish with your marketing plan. While a good firm can help you reach your goals, ultimately it's your responsibility to determine what those goals are.

Issues with each type of Search Engine Marketing

A. Paid Placement - generating nearly all revenues for Google & yahoo on search side
1. Very easy to start, especially with Google but also easy to fail at.
a. Copywriting is critical
b. Competitors are out there and may not care about cost
c. Bid Gapping - running up a bid for the first position so you're forced to bid higher.

2. Myth: Only the top 3 positions are worth anything.
a. Chris quoted study about positioning and click thru ratios recently released by Aquantive. The result is all positions have good returns and ROI must be the key to determining your strategy.

3. Timing may be important.
a. Time of day may play a role but ultimately it's case by case.

4. Broad Matching?
a. Can be dilutive & bring in unqualified prospects

5. Will Ads be Effective?
a. Distributed to content partners
1a. When users are searching they're in acquisition mode but not necessarily someone surfing around the NYTimes site

B.Organic SEO
1. Takes into account dozens of variables in order to do well
a. Not just link popularity, title, keywords, description and content.
b. Poor SEO is a major issue. Using the wrong company can be a major problem (one firm is in major trouble right now for unethical practices)
c. Is paid inclusion necessary?
Controversial - doesn't have to do with ranking (per se's) & se's have admitted it's hard to keep the bias out of the rankings and it's too hard to blend pages spiders have found with those who have been paid to be found.
* MSN no longer accepts paid inclusion
* Yahoo is the only one that still does it out of the major se's (inclusion fee plus PPC) and it is extremely controversial and is probably evaluating their current stance.
d. Interesting Statistic
1d. 85% of commercial results are found through natural results

2. Does SEO actually work?
a. Companies using SEO report much higher satisfaction rate than those not using it.
b. Can coordinate with paid inclusion programs
c. Link building campaigns
d. Resolving dynamic server issues
e. Keyword & HTML optimization
f. Address landing pages

C. Does SEM Work?
1. Small and large companies are having a hard time managing their keywords
a. An SEM can help you manage them
b. 48% of small firms are using SEM firms
c. 50% of large companies are having trouble managing keywords and SEM in-house.
d. Bid mgmt (very important factor - I'd like to see stats on this one)
e. Position monitoring critical as well

D. Both SEO and SEM Should Include
1. Post click analysis
a. Where does the visitor go once they get to the site
b. Which keywords are resulting in positive actions taken by visitors?

2. ROI analysis
a. How much money are keywords generating (natural and PPC)?

Determine Your Own Needs First

Are your needs... 1. Make site more se friendly?
2. Want a full service firm?
3. Interested in specific services?
4. Want them to be part of your team or be independent?
5. Want a one time or ongoing service?

Search engine marketing firm website should have clear descriptors
1. A search for "search engine optimization" or "search engine marketing" isn't the most important thing. Clear description of services is critical, less fluff more stuff... no jargon!
2. Client list is a must
3. Case studies are great
4. About people section, especially mgmt of company
5. Detailed resources - free tools, articles, best firms aren't afraid to give this away.
a. They know by educating their visitors they'll be better customers.
6. Look for confidence boosters: code of ethics, practices used, etc...

Selecting a firm
1. Write your own RFP and send it to firms - detail your goals and needs.
a. While this may not always work, it's definitely a good idea.
2. Avoid top 10 guarantees
3. Be prepared to pay - you get what you pay for and it isn't cheap
there is a short supply of qualified firms out there.

During the webinar there were some questions raised to the attendants.
Here are the results of some of them.

Attendees said case studies and challenges similar to theirs is the most important factor, second is conversations with existing clients and references followed by references from industry analysts.

Then there were a slew of plugs
Plug for Shari Thurow's book
Plug for Mike Grehan's book
Plug for Buyer's guide for SEO firms by Marketing Sherpa
Plug for SEMPO
SemList.com - Jupiter Media

Sites Referred To
Webmasterworld - beware of people that think they're experts
SEW forums
iSearch forums just shut down
HighRankings - Jill Whalen's forum

Questions from Audience
1. Audience wants a list of firms. If they're not suppose to search in the search engines then where is a good list?

Chris: a. SEMPO Directory at sempo.org - does not rate firms
b. SemList.com
c. SeoConsultants.com

2. Can you explain what kind of usability analysis should be included in a good SEO firms technique?

Chris: Websites are built for people, not search engines. If a site is people friendly then more folks will want to link to your site.

3. Can you shed some light on how linguistic issues might affect rankings?

Chris: Great Question! Search engines want well crafted (English) sentences. They want language written for people and can understand the diff between a well formed sentence and just repeating keywords. Focus on the craft of good writing and effective communication.

4. Should paid inclusion really be an insurance policy rather than a requirement?
Chris: Yes, because 85% of commercial traffic comes from natural results.

5. What percentage of a company's marketing trend should be spend on search engine marketing?

Chris: Small percentage of overall budget at the moment, it's still a very young field. Especially for b2b companies. As people move from tradl. marketing to search engine marketing the number will continue to rise. The key is measuring your ROI and putting money where your getting the most return. Some b2b companies are seeing high quality returns because the result set is very small and one client can bring in a huge amount of business.

6. Aren't some search engines dealing with Bid Gapping?

Chris: Yes but it depends on the keyword. In competitive areas the change can happen so quickly that the engines can't keep up with it. Especially if you're using a program to manage your bids.

7. How are Google AdWords different than other sem tactics?

Chris: AdWords are paid placement and you only pay when someone clicks on your listing. These listings can appear on many major media sites in addition to the search engine results. Overture's program is similar.

8. What % of bid mgmt. is software driven vs. human driven?

Chris: No one has a clear number on that yet but as the number of keywords managed increases the number of software driven mgmt systems will continue to rise. Similar to when phone switches and operators became automated.

9. What are your thoughts for paying for a paid listing on Yahoo when you already have a top 3 listing for a keyword?

Chris: It is advisable and suggests you're a player in your field. It goes well towards brand mgmt. but should be driven by your marketing goals.

10. Other than lower cost, are there any advantages to going to pos. 4 or 5 rather than position 1 or 2?

Chris: Aquantive's research shows the higher positions in general are more valuable to be in. However, all positions have value and the determining factor should be your keywords and the ROI on each of those keywords. If a lower position still converts well and you're generating high quality traffic then a lower position is advisable. Depends on your campaign goals and how well you measure the ROI. You must experiment to determine your own needs.

11. What is your opinion of building information pages? a.k.a. doorway pages, gateway pages, etc...

Chris: Google says they don't like them but if the page has lots of good useful information and is a valuable search result then there's nothing wrong with it. Boils down to your motivation. Are you trying to trick the search engines or users or are you providing valuable information a user would enjoy?

Overall I thought the webinar was almost as good as attending a Search Engine Strategies conference session without having to sit in an uncomfortable conference room chair.
July 23, 2004

Jason is a nationally-recognized SEO expert and is the go to seo consultant of Fortune 100 companies like AT&T, Motorola & Microsoft as well as major brands like YellowBook and LA Times. He is the Director of Search at Triangle Direct Media and responsible for the development and capabilities of SEO Tool - TDM's automated seo platform. Prior to joining TDM Jason was Founder / CEO of search engine optimization firm Global Promoter, which was acquired by Kowabunga in 2004. In a previous life Jason was an Information Systems Engineer for NASA and a systems analyst at Oracle Corp.

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