Five Steps For Outsourcing Search Marketing


Hiring a search engine marketing (SEM) firm to perform search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is no easy task.

There are many considerations and just as many choices. But it's also an important decision - SEM, SEO and PPC are all crucial aspects to any online enterprise. So, the selection process should be handled carefully to make the right decision for your business.

When you choose to outsource, the success of your selection process will directly affect your ability to compete and thrive as a business now and well into the future. We are three years behind the technology curve, so the plan you implement today will either have you flourishing in 2010 or dead on the vine by 2008.

What happens if you outsource to a firm that doesn't meet your business goals? A failed partnership can ultimately cost your company in more ways than one. A bad experience can result in resentment from both your colleagues and stakeholders when you see the lift your competitors get with the right combination of SEO and PPC.

On the other hand, hiring the right SEM firm will positively affect you and your company in two ways. First, a successful selection process will make you look good to your colleagues and gain the respect of your stakeholders. Second, a profitable SEM relationship will result in plenty of smiles and high-fives in the board room - and that's good for everyone.

Finding the right SEO/SEM firm to meet your business goals is a five-step process. You must educate yourself and, in that process, you will verify third-party ratings and research the capabilities of various firms. The last two steps include listing your needs and conducting the interview and selection phase.

Step 1: Educate yourself

Today's business leaders depend on education and training to keep their staffs nimble, up-to-date and competitive. Education is your first step toward finding the best outsource solution. Learn the fundamentals of search marketing, as you will need this information to make intelligent decisions regarding outsourcing and your search marketing campaigns as a whole.

We'll review a number of educational resources below. But first, a quick quiz to see what you know right now. Answers appear at the end of this article.

1) What activity on the Web is performed 550 million times per day in the US?
2) Describe the term canonical.
3) What is the most important Web page element for SEO?
4) What is the longtail?
5) What external influence will affect your search engine rankings the most?
6) What single company's revenue represents 20 percent of the global online advertising spend?
7) Describe the most important benefit from SEO.
8) What factors influence ad position in Google AdWords?
9) Describe how to measure website and search marketing campaign success.
10) What distinguishes search marketing from every other form of advertising?

If you had trouble answering these questions, don't worry - below is a brief review of the top SEM educational resources.

- Search Engine Academy provides SEO and SEM certification in two-, three- or five-day workshops, depending on your needs.

- SEMPO.Org Learning Center is a non-profit organization offering many resources including SEM courses through its Search Marketing
Institute, articles, Webinars, research data and case studies.

- SEOToolSet is based on years of search engine research and successful website optimization and training. SEOToolSet training adheres to a strict Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics.

- Interactive media and search marketing publishers such as iMedia Connection and Search Engine Watch are good sources for expert advice on SEM.

- You can also get the latest information from the top search marketing blogs. Pandia lists their top-five pick of SEM blogs and several
others considered to be the best online.

- You can learn a lot about search marketing if you are willing to attend one or more of the major industry trade shows including Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo, Webmaster World Pubcon and ad:tech.

Step 2: Verify third-party ratings

Every SEO/SEM firm will tell you they are the best in the business. So, it's important to find independent, outside sources to help make your decision. There are numerous third-party resources for finding qualified SEO/SEM firms, including publishing sites with resources about qualified Internet marketing firms, industry trade organizations, and/or research firms. You can also seek business referrals from colleagues.

One leader in the publishing space is Crain Communications' Advertising Age, which has been circulating for the past 90 years. Ad Age, as it is commonly called, recently compiled its first comprehensive Search Marketing Fact Pack, an excellent resource for your business.

As part of its 2006 SEM Agency Constellation Report, Jupiter-Research conducted a formal survey of 420 qualified search marketers to identify the top firms. However, of the original respondents only 15 SEMs were included in the paid search constellation and 13 SEOs in the natural search constellation. While these SEM and SEO firms represent the top 28 of 420, based on quantitative and qualitative criteria, it is debatable whether everyone would agree with the validity of the report's choices and rankings.

Piper Jaffray's comprehensive report "The User Revolution," attempts to explain the shift in advertising technology and services. Of particular interest is the chapter on advertising services and technologies, describing key themes in SEM, analytics, and ad serving. You can find a list of the Top 20 SEM and SEO companies on page 267 of the report.

While research from Jupiter, Forrester and Jaffray can attempt to identify the top SEM firms based on various criteria, these lists vary widely depending on the report. There are thousands of SEM providers, making it impossible to evaluate them all. So when a report comes up with a list of 15 or 20 top providers, these lists, understandably, must be taken with a grain of salt.

Other resources include websites dedicated to listing search providers for the purpose of matching them with marketers. registers search vendors, providing resources for firms seeking SEO and SEM services. The site evaluates the registrants, lists vendor information and provides a form for soliciting bids. While such resources can save time needed when contacting multiple companies individually, you may still have to research on your own to find the best vendor.

Finally, the tried and true way to find a good search provider is to ask for referrals. Word-of-mouth is a trusted source for consumers. Ask around at trade associations or industry meetings and seminars.

A good deal of top-level business is conducted on a referral basis. Perhaps a non-competitor colleague, partner or vendor working with your company has optimized a site or used PPC advertising. Ask whom they use and if they are satisfied with the services and results.

Step 3: Research the capabilities of various firms

Often, a company will have multiple needs when it comes to managing their Internet presence. There are short-term tactics and long-term business goals, measurable results, cost-cutting and additional skill sets such as creative, art direction, site analytics, technical website development and programming. Your website may need email marketing, rich interactive media (video), ecommerce, a content management system (CMS) and/or advertising (print, direct mail etc.).

Because of the multiple and varying needs of most businesses, the search for a qualified SEO/SEM firm may require casting a wider net. For instance, measurement is a key factor to search marketing success. You may need a firm that is proficient with A/B and multivariate testing as well as tweaking landing pages. If this describes your company profile, you may want to consider these capabilities in conjunction with your SEO/SEM outsourcing.

Travel, meetings and communication are of paramount concern during the process of managing a search marketing campaign. While email and telephone communication are quick and easy, meeting personally with your selected agency will send a message that you are serious about your business and expect the same level of professionalism from whomever you choose. Ensure both your company and the selected agency has the resources to properly address travel, meetings and day-to-day communications.

At Red Door Interactive we flip the table. Our process begins with a Needs Assessment Report (NAR) conducted on-site to determine client capabilities. This involves documenting a critical path plan for any knowledge-transfer, tools and/or resources required as determined by the NAR. The NAR can then be flipped and used by the client to fill gaps and list the needs to be fulfilled by the SEO/SEM firm.

Step 4: List Your Needs

Once you have identified all potential resources to fulfill your business goals, list and prioritize them clearly and concisely. Weed out those that don't align with your goals and objectives. There are many SEO/SEM firms and agencies to choose from, so it's important to select one that matches your needs rather than a firm that wants you to match theirs.

After you have pre-qualified a list of at least three SEO/SEM partner/vendors, create a Request For Proposal (RFP) document outlining your list of needs and expectations. Then send your RFPs out to the finalists.

Foundstone, a division of McAfee, offers five RFP criteria for consideration depending on your company's requirements.

- Introduction and Background: A description of project objectives plus any additional background about the organization or business objectives.

- Administrative Information: Contact information that the vendor will need to prepare and submit its proposal, as well as major dates and deadlines associated with the RFP submission, evaluation and award process.

- Guidelines for Proposal Preparation: Guidelines for vendor communication with your organization and the preferred proposal format.

- Evaluation Factors For Award: An outline of the criteria used to evaluate the proposal, including operational, technical, cost, and management requirements.

- Statement of Work and Deliverables: Provides sufficient technical details about the environment, allowing a vendor to understand the scope of the effort and be able to price it appropriately. Describe the deliverables required in detail.

Step 5: Interview and select a vendor

Once you have received replies to your RFPs, I recommend a face-to-face opportunity for interviewing and selecting the SEO/SEM firm that best fits your company's structure and goals. Body language says it all. Meet with the team that will be responsible for helping you accomplish your online business goals. Be sincere and up-front as you pre-qualify your prospects and request that prospective vendors present proposals in person.

The Internet has expanded our personal and business capabilities. However, some things still require eye contact and a hand shake - SEO/SEM is one of them. Always meet your search marketing team face to face before signing on the dotted line.

To summarize, outsourcing your search marketing project is a selection process that requires education, research, and careful evaluation to find the right partner to help you meet your business goals. Don't be sparing of your time and resources. It is an important decision that will directly affect your bottom line both now and for several years to come.

About the Author:
Paul Bruemmer is Director of Search Marketing at Red Door Interactive, an Internet Presence Management firm based in San Diego. For more information, visit

Answers to quiz:
1) Search.
2) Refers to the non-www version of a domain (website) indexed as a duplicate of the www version.
3) The Title element.
4) Chris Anderson coined the term long tail, which refers to the economics of abundance. In search marketing, it means that you can make more by selling less with certain infrequently used keyword phrases.
5) Relevant inbound authority links.
6) Google.
7) Organic search engine traffic from relevant non-brand keywords.
8) Bid amount, CTR (click-through-rate), and landing page quality.
9) Define "what success means for you" in the way of business goals, then track changes in performance.
10) Search marketing is a pull-marketing strategy where prospects pull products toward themselves, as distinguished from the push or broadcast marketing used in advertising to push products toward prospects.