Searching for and Selecting a Search Marketing Partner

I usually suggest partnering with an expert in the field when looking to undertake search marketing. Unless you have pre-existing expertise or a lot of time on your hands, you probably won’t have the expertise or resources in-house to do it yourself – at least in such a way as to create maximum value.

So that means you will probably be looking for a third-party partner or vendor to help with these activities. Now this might sound like a relatively easy feat – there are tons of companies that offer search marketing services, right?

That’s true, but not all services are rendered equally. You need to have a solid idea of what you’re looking for, and what you’re not, to weed out the good from the great and the bad from the bearable.

The Search

To actually find some potential candidates, the easiest place to start is with a referral. Ask around to colleagues in your industry to see whom they’re working with. If you don’t have any suggested partners, the quickest place to research vendors is using (what else?) a search engine. If a vendor isn’t coming in the search engine results, they probably aren’t that good at what they do (as the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach!).

Once you have identified at least five vendors (depending on your budget size, you may want to identify up to 10), you should reach out informally to learn a bit about them before deciding to issue a formal request for proposal (RFP). Some of these questions may be answered by trolling through their website, but it may be worthwhile to have an initial conversation with the company.

The Screening

Some initial questions could include:

  • Is search marketing a core area of practice/focus for the business and/or what proportion of their revenues come from search?
  • How long has the company been in business/doing search marketing and/or what is the experience of their search marketing team?
  • Do they have some case studies of successful projects they’ve executed and/or do they have proof of their ability to achieve results?
  • Do they have experience in your industry and are they working with any competitive brands?
  • Do they currently have capacity/scale to take a project of this size on?

After this initial screening, your list will probably have dwindled in size, but you will avoid wasting time on companies that will be unqualified to meet your needs (or unable to do so – e.g., working with a competitor)

It is suggested that you issue a formal request for proposal that outlines what you are looking for in a potential vendor and send this to those that you believe meet your needs after your initial evaluation.

The Solicitation

Your request for proposal should ask all of the pertinent things you’d want to know about a vendor, including but not limited to:

  • Company overview (history, industry focus, clients, core offerings, differentiators)
  • Service offerings and scope of work
  • Project team structure and bios
  • Pricing model and project costing (production costs, media costs, commission fees)

Here are some services you might want to request of your vendor:

Paid Search/SEM

  • Search vendor selection
  • Account administration (set-up, billing, invoicing, etc.)
  • Keyword research, selection, and grouping
  • Ad copy development (messaging, ad testing framework, etc.)
  • Campaign upload, QA, and launch
  • On-going campaign optimization and refinement
  • Regular campaign reporting and analysis (look for explicit statement of frequency)

Organic Search

  • Guidance/recommendations on SEO design and development best practices (e.g., content map/information architecture, navigation, layout, design, coding standards, file naming conventions, and tagging)
  • External link building recommendations/opportunities (e.g., potential link partners for solicitation, content, and social media strategies to encourage inbound links)
  • Page-level keyword research and identification of specific keywords for targeting (evaluation of keywords based on volume, competition, and feasibility)
  • Page-level meta-data creation and copy suggestions (changes to copy or meta-data to incorporate identified keywords)
  • Performance benchmarking and reporting (including SEO metrics such as organic traffic, conversions, rankings, and inbound links)
  • On-going SEO maintenance/enhancement (recommendations provided regularly to improve/sustain results achieved)

The Selection

Which vendor you ultimately choose will depend on many things, often including but not limited to:

  • Project pricing/cost efficiency/affordability
  • Expertise and core area of focus in search marketing
  • Ability to execute on all desired services
  • Familiarity and experience in your industry/category
  • High quality customer service and responsiveness

While pricing is listed first, it should absolutely not be your sole guiding force in the selection. Often times the cheapest proposal is the cheapest for a reason – the company is desperate for business, hires junior people, or produces lower quality work. For that reason, you need to strike a balance between cost and quality – choosing the proposal that has the highest overall value.

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