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10 tips for scrutinizing paid search agencies

10 tips for scrutinizing paid search agencies Noah Elkin

As search engine marketing becomes more ingrained as part of the media mix, the debate over whether to handle paid media campaigns in-house or outsource to an agency continues to rage. Any number of factors can motivate marketers to go the latter route. Issues surrounding scale and efficiency often drive brands to seek outside help, and in many cases, marketers prefer to entrust their campaign to a specialist, much as they do with other aspects of their marketing communications.

Unlike the case with unscrupulous SEO consultants, the subject of a recent iMedia article, clients are in little danger of being "ripped off" by an agency handling their paid search campaign. Paid search is fairly unique in that ROI can be tracked down to the keyword level in many cases, meaning that you can keep a close tab on what you are spending at any given time.

However, you do need to ensure that you are getting sufficient value for your money when you work with an agency. Choosing an agency is no small decision given what's at stake for your company and the fees you'll be paying the agency to create and manage your campaign. The field of agencies that provide paid search services is a crowded one, so you want to ensure you select a partner that best matches your requirements.

You will be best served by doing some internal homework first, specifically in assessing your needs, goals and budget. Consider the nature of the relationship you want to develop: Are you looking to build a long-term partnership or are you working on more of a one-off project? Bear in mind that most agencies, even search specialists, are more interested in the former because they regard themselves as a strategic partner and want to be in it for the long haul. By going the long-term route, you're more likely to command the agency's full attention and have access to its best people. That said, if your project is short-term, make sure you clearly define the scope and scale of the work so the agency knows what to expect. 

Consider also the "quality" of the agency. It goes without saying that you want to work with the best, but what does that mean to you? Some marketers feel most comfortable working with an agency of similar scale, but the biggest agency isn't necessarily the best for everyone. Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Each approach has benefits -- whether it's contact with senior resources or access to improved technology and more capabilities. Be sure to take into account qualities that are important to you in an agency partner, such as the size of the firm, the number of offices it has, the proximity of those offices to yours, your need for face-time and so on.

Any partner needs to understand not only your business and brand, but also your industry. However, the most important consideration is this: Does the agency have experience in solving your specific challenges? If you're in financial services, you might easily find an agency that has done great work in that space, but does that agency have enough experience in solving your specific goals? It might be that another agency without that same vertical expertise has a better understanding of how to solve a specific challenge. Go with an agency that brings solutions to the table, not just an understanding of your space.

Put some forethought into the goals of your search marketing campaign. The more specific you can be about the target audience you want to reach, key milestones you expect to achieve, any pain points you have and messaging and tactics you would like to use, the more you are going to get out of your agency relationship.

Finally, examine the coffers; how much do you have to spend? It's worth being honest with yourself about this because it will help prevent you from overreaching. Many agencies may have minimum spend requirements, so there's no sense in pricing yourself out of the market.

With the answers to these questions firmly in mind, you can begin drawing up a list of potential agency partners that meet your criteria. Cast a wide net at first -- you can always winnow down the list, and you don't want to be scrambling at the last minute to find the one firm you left off but should have included in the consideration set. Once you have a list of potential candidates, you can begin to narrow the field. Make sure the following 10 questions are on your checklist when evaluating the candidates.

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Question #1: How transparent is the agency?
As noted above, paid search is unique in terms of the visibility you should be able to get into the ROI of your campaign. However, when an agency manages your campaign, it also controls access to some of that visibility. Any agency worth its salt will want to provide you with logins to your accounts so you can monitor how different keywords or keyword groups are performing, keep tabs on your media spend and track the overall performance of the campaign. The reporting the agency provides should be both transparent and robust. Not being able to see what you're getting for your money is a major red flag.

Question #2: Is the agency ethical in its billing and account management practices?
Some agencies use ownership over your account as a bargaining chip when negotiating a new or the renewal of an existing contract. In addition to unprofessional, this approach can have adverse effects on the performance of your paid search campaign. If there are shared intellectual property innovations to be considered, let that be something both parties get to enjoy. Your agency is working for you, and the greater the success and innovations, the better everyone comes out looking. Similarly, be wary of agencies that charge either by the click or for one-off projects. Likewise, make sure an agency isn't profiting outside the agreed-upon fee structure. While passing through costs is perfectly acceptable, marking them up is not. Your agency should regard adding value to your business as its primary mission.

Question #3: Does the agency rely too heavily on black box technologies?
Search in general, and paid search in particular, started life as more of a technological discipline than a marketing one. Although it has shifted decidedly in favor of marketing, a technological vein continues to run throughout the industry. Agencies still rely heavily on bid management and campaign automation systems, and many try to sell clients on using their particular technology. Sometimes a platform developed in-house will be competitive, but rarely will be it best-of-breed. Agencies are primarily in the business of providing marketing services; technology development requires an entirely different skill set. Consider agencies that are technology-neutral and that can advise you on the most appropriate tools to manage, track and measure your campaign. Either way, make sure a) you get a thorough explanation of how the technology works and specifically how it will benefit your campaign, and b) that your agency does not rely too heavily on it. The best agencies use technology to facilitate their skills as marketers, not as a substitute for expertise relative to your business.

Question #4: Is the agency working hard and smart?
Watch out for agencies that claim they change bids every hour. Any decent bid management system can do this, but the reality is that 90 percent of keywords don't require bid changes more than once per week. Thus, an agency that claims to be making hourly changes is either relying too heavily on technology or exaggerating or misplacing its efforts on your behalf. Your campaign is best served by an agency that complements its use of technology with extensive manual analysis of your keyword sets and their performance.

Question #5: Does the agency rely too much on Google?
We all know that Google enjoys disproportionate weight in the search marketplace, making Google an obvious target for the lion's share of your search budget. However, relying solely on Google is a sign of laziness. Any agency looking after its clients' best interests always should be seeking out opportunities to further their campaigns on other engines as well.

Question #6: To what extent does the agency use tools for keyword research?
The search marketplace is littered with tools that can be valuable aids in the all-important keyword research process. As previously noted in question #3, tools and technology can be helpful, but since search is a marketing discipline, their use must be balanced by basic marketing best practices. A good agency will try to understand consumer intent as a part of the keyword discovery process, and ideally will take motivation into account as much as technology. Taking the time to understand your business, the challenges you hope to solve together and how your customers' motivations factor in can produce equally (if not more) valuable insights.

Question #7: What factors does the agency emphasize when structuring campaigns?
Choosing the right keywords obviously has an important bearing on the success of a paid search campaign. However, neither the right quantity nor quality of keywords alone will ensure that success. Consider the degree to which the agency takes the relevancy of the search ads themselves into account and the agency's ability to understand the entire conversion path. A good agency will focus beyond the search engine results pages through to a landing page and tie into the whole consumer experience with your brand. These factors are as important as choosing the right keywords where campaign scale and cost efficiency are concerned.

Question #8: What steps does the agency take to educate its clients?
Client-side knowledge of search marketing strategies and tactics spans a broad range. In an industry that is in a constant state of rapid evolution, part of an agency's role is to keep you abreast of changes that will affect your campaign and your business. This includes everything from new offerings from the search engines to emerging media and technologies worth considering to thought leadership to international opportunities. Above all, your agency should be working hard to educate everyone from the group directly responsible for search marketing to the C-suite on how to apply the intelligence from search to all of your marketing channels. Anything less means missing out on vital opportunities for your brand.

Question #9: Does the agency work well with others?
Although a growing emphasis on integration is beginning to break down media silos on both the marketer and agency sides of the business, the likelihood is that you are still working with a number of different firms on different aspects of your campaign. As a result, your success depends in large part on your above- and below-the-line agencies working well together. Look for a firm that will proactively share paid search insights not only with your internal teams but also your other agency partners. Search insights can be highly useful in shaping your other marketing communications. The more you can get your agency partners working together with this common goal in mind, the better off your campaign will be. Steer clear of any agency that withholds information and seems more comfortable building walls rather than trying to break them down.

Question #10: How stable is the agency?
Reputation is everything in advertising, even (or perhaps especially) in search. If your agency is changing your account team more frequently than you're changing your landing pages, you might want to inquire further. Stability can be hard to come by in the interactive world, but to the extent that it is possible, you want to work with an agency that develops and keeps good people. You don't want to be in the position of having to dump your agency because it has dumped your favorite staffers. Make sure you ask for references and case studies from current and/or former clients. They may give you some of your best insight into the pluses and minuses of working with a given agency. If you sense any reluctance to give references, take that as a sign to move on.

Keep these questions (and the answers you find) in mind with the agencies you ask to prepare a formal pitch or those you include in a RFP. At the same time, keep the lines of communication open both ways. Agencies need to know that they can call you for any reason, no matter how seemingly insignificant it might seem to you. Open exchanges will help agencies better understand your needs and objectives and result in a more rewarding relationship over time. Finally, since paid search marketing is distinguished by the measurability of its results, make certain the agency you're considering has a clear method for measuring effectiveness. Well-performing agencies should be delivering reports and insights on a regular basis, providing you with agreed-upon metrics and delivering the value you expect from your investment.

Noah Elkin is vice president of corporate strategy for international search-inspired digital agency Steak.

Noah Elkin, Ph.D., is a 15+-year digital industry veteran whose career has revolved around the intersection of technology, marketing and content. He formerly served as Chief Product Officer at Industry Index, the ratings and reviews platform...

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Commenter: Jeanette Mahnke

2009, November 12