Now that you have analyzed the search marketing tasks to perform and made some preliminary decisions about who in your organization will perform them, it's time to decide exactly how to get started. Do you have the expertise on your team to do this? Or do you need to hire some outside help?
You might hear people talk about the choice between outsourcing search marketing and "doing it in-house," but that is a false choice. Certain search marketing tasks, such as changing the content or doing proper redirects, are almost never done by outsidersyour extended team does them. You will always do some of the work in-house.
The real question is whether you hire an external vendor to help you. Do you conduct your search marketing program with completely internal resources, or do you also hire an outside firm to augment your own personnel? To answer that question, you need to consider several factors:
After assessing these factors in your situation, you might still not be able to decide what to do. If you are undecided, you can interview several search marketing firms to see whether they convince you to hire their firm. They can develop proposals for you to help estimate what your search marketing costs might bemany will do that for a modest fee (or perhaps no fee if you are a large company that could make them a lot of money). Next, we look at how to engage a search marketing firm and select one if you are interested.
Select an External Search Marketing Vendor
As discussed briefly in Chapter 1, "Why Search Marketing Is Important … and Difficult," the search business is becoming big business. There are many companies clamoring to become your search marketing vendor, and more firms enter the industry each year. How do you decide which one is right for you?
Any time you select a vendor to provide services to your company, it makes sense to follow a methodical step-by-step process. Your procurement department can help you with some of these steps, but there are specific tips you need to know. We provide those tips as we walk through each step.
Decide Your Vendor Requirements
"Common sense is not so common," goes the old saying. And so it is with selecting vendors. You would think that every company would make a list of what is needed before buying, but many do not. Because we know how sensible you are (hey, you were so smart you bought this book), we are confident that your first step is thinking through your requirements for a search marketing vendor.
You have already made a decision in Chapter 7 on which search techniques you would like to use, so you should ensure that your vendor has expertise in organic, paid, or both, depending on what you picked. Some vendors do much more of one kind of search marketing. Know what you need.
Decide which search marketing tasks you would like the vendor to perform. Help you with the strategy? Keyword planning? Make your list so that you can check the firm's expertise for each task that you want help with. Your list will drive the questions you ask when you talk to each firm.
Do you have any other requirements? Do you want the firm to be available for in-person meetings (so maybe they should have an office located near you) or is it okay that they do the work remotely? Do they need international experience?
Make a list of every requirement and decide how you will grade each one. For example, if you require that your vendor meet your team frequently in person, you might use specific criteria to grade each company:
Think carefully about every requirement you have. Decide up front what you are looking for from a vendor to meet that requirement. Then prioritize your requirements. Which ones are criticalno vendor can be selected unless they qualifyas opposed to those that are of medium importance or just nice to have? After you have chosen your requirements, your scoring criteria, and your priorities, you can look for the search marketing vendors that meet them.
Create Your List of Vendor Candidates
Before you can start listing individual firms, you should first decide whether a particular type of search marketing vendor meets your needs better than others. You can consider three major types of firms:
Perhaps one type of company fits your situation better than the others, or maybe you want to interview a couple of firms in each category, so that you can evaluate the full gamut of vendors available. Regardless, you must put together a list of firms to consider.
Recommendations from others, Web searches, and trade association lists (such as Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) can all help you compile your list. You can visit each firm's Web site and read comparisons of each firm to come up with your "short list" of vendors to consider. In Chapter 16, "What's Next?," we list several industry conferences where you will find vendors selling their waresit never hurts to meet them and hear a five-minute sales pitch before going further. Depending on your organization's location, you can also consult Buyer's Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms: US, UK & Canada by Marketing Sherpa (www.marketingsherpa.com), which contains ratings of more than 100 organic search vendors.
After you have your short list of vendors, you can use your requirements list to put together a matrix to assess each vendor against the others. Snap Electronics put together such a matrix, as shown in Table 8-2. (The vendors shown, like Snap itself, are fictitious operations that are not intended to bear any resemblance to real firms.)
In the interest of space, we are showing a short list of both requirements and vendors for Snap. Yours would likely be considerably longer for both. Right now, there are no ratings for each vendor in that table, but we will fill them in as we meet each one.
Meet the Vendors
Now that you have a scorecard, it's time to start the game. Depending on the size of your company, and the size of the deal the vendor anticipates from you, you might be able to get a free proposal for your search marketing plan. If you have a small organization, you can at least get them to conduct a teleconference with you during which they "strut their stuff" and answer your questions. So what questions should you ask? That's what we will show you here.
The first set of questions should cover the vendor's methodology. After reading this book, you should be able to ask specific questions about each technique that your vendor proposes to use. You need to ensure that your vendor does not use unethical spamming techniques and that your consultant's approach is right for your situation. You should expect a document or presentation that lays out the strategy the firm intends to use.
Each firm should be able to itemize the steps they will take to diagnose any problems on your site and work with you to correct them. How specific they can be depends on whether they have done only a quick site audit or a full-blown proposal for you.
You need to be realistic in your expectations. If you are a small company looking for a $10,000 contract, you cannot expect any vendor to provide you a 30-page proposal before you have signed a deal with them. On the other hand, a large corporation that wants a long-term relationship should expect a free detailed proposal before signing a six-figure agreement.
Some vendors will perform a site audit that clues you in to search marketing challenges before you sign up with them. Even if they do not, you should be able to review a step-by-step pro forma project planmaybe your plan will be a bit different, but each vendor should be able to show what they typically do. Unless a vendor has done a site audit, you cannot expect a specific plan for your site, but they should be able to tell you what they do in certain hypothetical situations.
One last methodology question might be important to you. You might care deeply how wedded your vendor is to their own methodology. If you work in a large, inflexible organization, you might require supreme flexibility in your search marketing vendor's methodology. If your vendor insists on only one right way to do its work, you might not be able to carry out the plan.
Beyond methodology questions, there are the normal business questions you would ask of any prospective vendor. Your procurement experts can help you analyze the pricing, contract terms, and the firm's financial viability. Remember that in the fast-moving Internet world, a company's financial health can change rapidly, so be sure to check out a firm's records, not its past reputation. Your procurement specialist should also weigh in on whether liability insurance is required.
Perhaps the most important set of questions center on the account team that will be assigned to your company by the vendor. A high-priced dream team might call on you before you sign the deal, but are they going to be your actual account team after you sign? Insist on meeting your account team beforehand. Those folks will be working with you every day and their opinions and experience will prove far more important than the rainmakers who close the deal. There's nothing wrong with a junior staff member doing preliminary keyword research or running reports or other preparation workthat saves you a lot of moneybut the real brain work must be done by experienced senior search marketers.
Ask the members of your account team how long they have been employed by the firm, and whether they are permanent employees (who get W-2 statements) or are contractors (receiving 1099s). Team members that are longstanding permanent employees provide reassurance that your account team might remain stable, without members jumping to new jobs and leaving you with a rookie to break in. All team members should be covered by nondisclosure agreements for confidential information. If possible, ensure that team members do not also work on search marketing for your competitors.
Question account team members about their specific expertise and search marketing experience. They should be able to name their other accounts and supply references you can contact. Those references should testify to the team's results in previous search campaigns. Insist on talking to former clients, not just current ones. Firms routinely recite long lists of impressive clients, but you should only be impressed by the clients that you verify are satisfied.
As you ask these questions, fill in your scorecard. Table 8-3 shows Snap's scorecard.
Snap used its interviews with each vendor to decide its rating on the requirements. Not all of the assessments were clear-cut, and no real leader emerged. The final decision came next.
Make Your Decision
If you have done a good job recruiting strong candidates to become your search marketing vendor, your final decision will not be easy. You need to return to your original priorities. Which requirements are the most important and how does each vendor stack up on those?
Snap faced a difficult decision among the three vendors on its short list. To simplify the choice, Snap focused on its highest priorities: organic search experience, keyword planning, and technical expertise. Boutique SEO was rated "strong" on all three counts. Boutique's only weakness was business reliability, due to its small size and short experience. Snap decided to take that risk, negotiating a low-priced deal to compensate for the risk. Boutique, as a hungry small firm, was eager to land the high-profile Snap account as a great reference customer (that will help persuade new customers to sign with them).
Your decision might be just as difficult as Snap's. Before you decide, however, also consider whether you should run your program completely in-house, with no search marketing vendor on your payroll.
Run a Completely In-House Search Marketing Program
It is not easy to go it alonewithout hiring an outside vendorbut it can work, if you know what you are doing.
The biggest benefit to doing it in-house is that your program will take an "inside-out" approach rather than an outsider's approach. Your in-house team understands your organization. Your depth of knowledge will allow you to set your priorities based on which campaigns are the easiest to dothat can be good. Sometimes external vendors know a lot about search marketing but not much about your companythey can possibly lead you astray. Of course, if you manage the vendor properly, you will not run this risk.
The hard part of going it alone is in finding the needed expertise in-house. It is rare that you can find search marketing experts inside an organization that, up until now, has not been doing any search marketing. It is possible you can find such skills if your search marketing program is run on a small scale (one division, perhaps) and you want to expand to an enterprise-wide program.
Failing to find the needed expertise, you can develop your search experts from within. You can send folks to classes and conferences, and buy them books (they each need three copies of this one), teaching them what they need to know. This approach can work, but it is slowusually taking months of startup time before you really get rolling.
Typically, you will be in a hurry, forcing you to hire experts from the outside. The best of both worlds can be to hire an "embedded strategist" who acts as a facilitator to the organizationyou try to hire the same kind of person who a search marketing vendor hires.
If you can locate, develop, or hire the search marketing experts that you need, you will likely find that you still do not have the same experience that hiring an outside vendor brings. Vendors work with many different companies and see myriad situations. You are unlikely to replicate that experience in a one- or two-person search team. You will, however, save a lot of money. Internal search experts are typically cheaper than buying the same expertise from outside. With a few key hires and an investment in training, you can staff a strong internal team and create additional loyalty from employees gaining new skills.
And that loyalty might prove vital, because a 100 percent in-house approach has a key danger of employee attrition. Search marketing skills are hot and getting hotter in today's job market. External search marketing vendors can usually pay more for your employees than you do (because those companies charge more to cover the costs). If you lose your key team members to competitors or vendors, your search marketing efforts can be severely damaged, at least in the short term. Although members of a vendor account team also might depart, the vendor is more easily able to withstand those changes and replace people with others of high skill. Replacing defectors from your in-house team with equally talented people might be considerably more challenging.
In short, it is possible for you to run a successful search marketing program with no outside vendor, but it has its own set of challenges and risks. If you can find, train, or hire the experts you needand retain themyour search marketing efforts will bear strong results while also costing less than using an external firm. You might find, however, that the slow "ramp up" time to start your program, coupled with the risks of hiring less-skilled resources and unexpected employee defections, might not make the cost savings worth the pain.