Selling SEM Upstream in the Enterprise

As thousands of online marketing managers gather this week at SES San Jose to learn new techniques, meet up with old friends, and in many cases, shop around for SEM (define) vendors, it’s a good time to discuss the difficulties these managers may face after the vendor is on board.

One real joy of my job is working with a client representative who truly understands what we do and knows what’s required to achieve results. But while people like this make my job easier, they often have a hard time themselves, selling the SEM concept upstream in their own organizations to IT, legal, and even some of their more traditional marketing colleagues.

This column will assist marketing managers in that process by helping them explain the benefits and requirements of solid SEM work before that work actually begins.

Recommendations Come Frequently

Long-term SEM with a site is a large initial process followed by frequent, minor refinements. When a marketing manager describes SEM to other departments within his organization, leaving out the “frequent refinements” part is tempting. I know this because SEM vendors suffer that same temptation. Instead, many vendors hint at a one-time process that produces strong year-over-year growth. That may happen, but it’s very rare.

In the end, despite initial apprehension, laying groundwork for frequent recommendations is more productive and beneficial to site health and intra-organization harmony.

Recommendations Challenge Your Thoughts on Brand Image

Several years ago, I butted up against a branding team whose on-page copy consisted only of pithy euphemisms and abstractions. Phrases like “function inspired by obsession” and similar bits of cotton candy littered the page. Stylish? Sure. But this company was getting clobbered in SERPs (define). On-page elements were a big factor. It took several months of convincing, led by case studies, compromise, and downright begging, to show the branding team that including the brand name and product name on the page wouldn’t ruin the brand’s image.

Situations aren’t always as clear-cut as that, but some old-school copywriters can be extraordinarily territorial (I know because I used to be an old-school copywriter). It’s worth the effort to make them feel comfortable prior to giving them a set of copy recommendations and to explain their text will find a much larger audience with just a few search-friendly enhancements.

Changes Threaten the Autonomy of IT Departments

If IT departments implement SEO changes, they don’t often get upset when changing things such as title tags, meta descriptions, or body copy or even when adding content such as a search-friendly site map. But when SEM firms begin to meddle with architectural issues such as URL design, many IT people can become unhinged.

This is normal and unavoidable, and it’s one of the most difficult parts of vendor-client relationships. Qualified search marketers have experience in the diplomacy required to let tech teams know what’s “wrong” with current architecture and why it must be changed for search engine visibility. Compromise frequently plays a large part in both sides reaching their goals.

Sometimes We Change Our Minds

In general, best-practices SEO advice stays pretty steady over time. If your vendor consistently offers advice that’s 180 degrees from what he said a few months ago, that may be cause for alarm.

But sometimes, updated advice is inevitable due to clarifying statements from search engines themselves. Just last month, I revised my own stance on image replacement techniques (such as SIFR) based on a Google Webmaster Central blog post. In the post, Google stated what I’d long hoped and assumed to be the case: image replacement is an accepted practice for stylized, search-friendly typography. Until that post, image replacement had been on my “yellow light” status list. I typically told clients that while I believed it was acceptable, engines hadn’t expressed an official opinion, and the technique should be used with caution.

To make it easier on in-house contacts, SEM vendors need to provide them with documentation about the engines’ clarifications. Though this might seem unnecessary, it’s a big help in justifying new recommendations.


SEM can be dirty work. It’s inexact and in many ways, unscientific. It flops about based on the incessant fickleness of algorithms and human searchers. But that doesn’t make it any less important or any less beneficial when it’s done right. When we describe it honestly throughout the enterprise and when we explain what it will require throughout a given period, we may face more adversity at the front end of a project, but it’s less than you’ll face later on.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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