SearchTHIS: Selecting a Search Firm

As we round out 2004, here are a few thoughts to ponder. Search got hot this year. Anytime an industry experiences that type of hard and fast growth, there are going to be some problems. For example, how (or if) you should select a search firm. Search grows more complex by the day and finding someone to help with the process is fast becoming a requirement rather than merely a nice idea.

There are few industry standards in search. Similarly, there are not many industry organizations built around search to help with the partner selection process. Loosely formed best practices, various thousand-word essays released on a weekly basis and the occasional advertorial guide book form the help squad for search.

One brand marketer approached me last week at the iMedia Agency Summit and likened the search firm selection process to opting in for a prostate exam with a jackhammer. In lieu of painful cancer preventative measures, you may want to check out Jupiter Research’s Search Engine Marketing Agency Constellation report; it might shed a little light on the search firm selection process.

The search outline

Jupiter studied about fourteen firms and really put them through their paces. Analysts spent two months digging into their search business. They studied product offerings (i.e. search tools) and viewed product demonstrations. They listened to hundreds of clients, and they collected qualitative and quantitative information about the search specialized firms.

Most interesting are the variables that went into ranking the firms, about 15 according to Jupiter analyst Nate Elliot. “Weighted variables included market suitabilility, which included their tenure in the industry and the scope of their offerings,” says Elliot. “Other variables included the size of the firm, a combination of the number of clients and net billings.”

Jupiter also talked to clients, asking them probing questions about the firms they worked with. For two examples, how would you rate the employees' knowledge and the technology they use? And, would you recommend them to another client?

Of course, one has to ask the question, where did you find these fourteen firms? Equally predictable is the follow-up question: There are hundreds of firms out there doing search, why aren’t they represented?

According to Elliot, the list of firms reviewed were a combination of client requests, industry knowledge, and responses from marketers in Jupiter surveys. There were even a few that were left out when they couldn't send in all the necessary information or comply with requests.

In this life, there are winners and there are losers

Since the bulk of specialist organizations have split into paid and unpaid search results, Jupiter separated the search firm rankings accordingly. Although few firms turned out well in both categories, top rated firms on the unpaid, natural or organic search included Impaqt and iProspect. On the paid side, firms that received high markings included, Impaqt, Performics and AvenueA/Razorfish.

So there it is, all in a neatly wrapped package. Just hire one of these firms for search and call it a day, right? If the firm you are currently working with is not on this list, fire them immediately and hire one of these firms.

Wait just a cotton pickin’ minute.

If you retain nothing else from what I have written in these weekly 1,000-word essays, please pay close attention to the following. Though the Jupiter report represents the soundest methodology I have seen to date in ranking search firms, this does not mean you should limit your selection possibilities to these firms.

As I mentioned before, there are hundreds of firms that you can engage for search engine marketing. If you want to find lists of them, simply visit the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization’s (SEMPO) Web site. SEMPO even offers a convenient method of getting in touch with member firms. You can also find them at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s site.

Searching for a best practice

Findings from the report also suggest that a greater number of agencies, or search agencies, represent the lion’s share of paid search budgetary control. Surprisingly, while only 31 percent of the marketers surveyed indicated they use a search marketing firm, that third represent slightly more than half of search spending.

Note to search sites: Be kind to your agencies.

At long last, here it is. Bob Heyman recently declared that search engine marketing needs to grow up. I agree with him whole-heartedly and would add the process of selecting a search firm needs to grow up as well. While research reports are extremely helpful in determining best practices for selecting partners, this does not mean existing selection criteria should be ignored.

Gut feelings, demonstrated success, client accomplishment stories, expertise or experience in your line of business, along with financial viability are all still key factors in determining who you wish to work with in search. While I commend Jupiter Research for their dedication and obvious hard work in helping their clients to understand the online space, by no means is their list complete.

Small and large firms alike are capable of innovation and excellence in search. Go forth and seek them out. 

Ryan finds a search firm

Speaking of selecting a search firm and in case you missed the press release this morning, I have a little announcement of my own. As with many New York City expats who end up in Southern California, I have grown weary of 364 days of sunshine per year and little or no change in climate. I long to freeze my posterior off in winter and sweat like a WW2 submariner in the summer again.

In short, Mamma I’m coming home. In lieu of spending a year or two living off the fat of Southern California real estate investments and after a few weeks off and a psycho-vocational cleansing in Europe I will return to the states in January as a member of the search engine marketing team.

Look out New Yawk, I’m back baby!

Additional resources:

Get the Jupiter Research report here.

Bob Heyman’s article: SEM, Still an Adolescent?

SearchTHIS: Why Search is Slowing 

SearchTHIS: Why Can’t We All Get Along?

About the Author: iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Kevin volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. This week, Ryan is packing most of his worldly goods to move back home to New York City.