The absence of a reliable resource in creating an honest to goodness checklist for evaluating search expertise and potential partner disciplines has led to plethora of less than adequate and overtly biased data coming to marketers.
Of course, there are guides or annual reports to help you find potential experts in their field. Often, the "guide" publishers have search marketing firms on their client list and protecting their buttered bread takes priority over offering sound advice. Numerous websites offer listings of highly ranked search experts that pay nothing more than a fee for said qualification.
Well, I can't just stand by and let these sorts of things go on. My own interests as an agency employee be darned, here I come to save the day. Spare me the guides, tutorials and rankings: here is a no-nonsense checklist for getting search assistance.
1. Sufficient scope of business, number of employees in house
Things to look for: Actual employees working in the discipline you seek along with enough business to make sure you aren't going to make or break the firm. Popular trends of late have placed an emphasis on smaller boutique shops, but larger firms tend have greater resources and clout with publishers.
Traps and pitfalls: Firms that belong to much larger holding companies love to emphasize billings and expertise, yet none of those people are likely to ever see your account. Since so many holding companies have a habit of deploying a token "search expert" and considering the matter closed, be sure you know what you are getting.
2. Sufficient dedicated resources: senior managers and discipline specialists
Things to look for: Ask about the account teams and specific people working on your business and what they will be doing. Small shops offer access to senior management on a consistent basis, but larger firms have dedicated think tank or skunk works folks that do nothing but focus on specific areas like local, mobile, et cetera.
Traps and pitfalls: The biggest mistake you can make here is not asking the right questions. Just because a firm might have the resources doesn't mean you will have access to them.
3. RFI Disclosures: in-house and outsourced resources
Things to look for: This actually depends on what you place emphasis in services required. Firms that outsource everything from natural search to search advertising bid management may not be bad for you and may actually offer a better way to integrate-- so long as you can achieve balance with search and other services offered.
Traps and pitfalls: 100 percent outsourcing of everything you might need is usually a bad thing. In this instance you might be better suited to staffing up internally. Also, a multitude of white label tech options make it difficult to determine who owns what, so make sure you ask and be specific.
4. Discipline expertise: paid (inclusion + PPC) versus natural
Things to look for: Search advertising disciplines are irrevocably linked and controversially misunderstood. Look for resource areas you need, and make sure you have access to them.
Traps and pitfalls: Don't fall for CEO vision. That is to say, promising the world and delivering later is a very common and evil habit of sales people everywhere. Additionally, some clients have complained that senior manager demagoguery has reached epic proportions; e.g., "You know, the president of my search firm has big plans for you as our next client."
If the plans were so big, why isn't the president on the phone telling the potential client about them? I have trouble believing people that actually fall for that, but they do.)
5. Ancillary services and fees: affiliate, CMS, analytics
Things to look for: Get exactly what you need and nothing else. If you seek best of breed, then avoid the one-stop-shopping themed partners.
Traps and pitfalls: Remember that nothing is free. Some paid search specialists offer "free" natural optimization that is usually only in place to justify exorbitantly high fees elsewhere.
The justifications include, "once you know the rules, SEO is easy." Yes of course it is, particularly if your business model can't support natural search. I understand the rules of mountain climbing very well, that doesn't mean I am heading off to climb Everest next week.
6. Industry leadership: SEMPO, IAB, AAAAs, ANA
Things to look for: Great, you know how to join the club with the popular kids, but what have you really done? Ask and you shall get answers, and make sure your BS detector is on.
Traps and pitfalls: SEMPO is a search cheerleading organization, not much more. The IAB has set the standard for, well, standards for a long time, but remember that it is a publisher-focused organization. AAAAs and the ANA work with advertisers and agencies and typically sit on the opposite side of the IAB table.
7. Search site relationships: Google, Yahoo! certification
Things to look for: Certifications while important only mean that a firm is -- in fact -- qualified to sell advertising on Google or Yahoo.
Traps and pitfalls: Hijacking a certification logo is easy enough, but remember this not the be-all and end-all for getting help with your search marketing. If it were, you could just use Yahoo or Google directly rather than a third party-- and that may not be a bad idea either.
8. White hat natural search techniques
Things to look for: Only the smartest search-engine-compliant search practices carry the coveted (depending on your perspective) title of white hat search engine optimizer. Ask for evidence of compliance in a firm's current practice.
Traps and pitfalls: Ten years ago, people figured out how to game the search engines and get better rankings for their clients. Later, search engines decided they were bad and those nasty fellows were labeled black hats. Don't judge a firm but what it did ten years ago; judge them by what they are doing now.
If expertise is what you need, be exactly certain what you need prior to selecting a partner. Ask to see samples, demos, case studies and explore tax benefits of retaining minority-owned enterprises. RFIs (not to be confused with RFP) can be cumbersome, but they will also weed out the genuine firms from the "also rans" and third bedroom "agencies."
Above all, advise your team to be fair and responsive. Experts at the top of their field and doing well will look for this in potential partners. Even if you have a big brand behind you, a smart agency will walk away from a potentially bad situation.
Meet Kevin Ryan at ad:tech New York and Shanghai.