SEM Firms: Search Engine Friend or Foe?

Search engine marketing (SEM) firms often appear to be at odds with the search engines. For example, if a client hires an SEM firm that practices cloaking, the client achieves top search engine positions and the SEM firm receives payment. And the search engine? It may or may not receive the most relevant content. Search engines receive no income from natural optimization.

Enter pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and paid-inclusion services. Search engines can now profit from SEM firms and direct client relationships. This is where the adversarial relationship rears its ugly head. Do SEM firms take away a share of potential profits from the search engines?

Search Engine Advertising Firms

A colleague recently sent me an email about some forthcoming Overture workshops. The message stated, “To keep the focus of the workshops on the strategies and best practices that advertisers can implement to optimize their results, SEOs and SEMs are not eligible to attend.”

When I first read this statement, I was amused Overture’s sales department doesn’t understand the differences between search engine optimization (SEO), SEM, and search engine advertising. As I outlined in a previous column, SEM encompasses a wide variety of skills: branding, sales, PR, shopping search, and so forth. SEO and search engine advertising are SEM subsets.

After my initial amusement, I understood why the two groups sometimes have such an adversarial relationship. If a client purchases enough ads, an Overture sales rep will help with its campaigns. This isn’t limited to just Overture. Other search engines offer the same service.

What if a search engine marketer offers advice that differs from a search engine sales rep’s? What edge might a sales rep have over an SEM firm?

Case Study: Yahoo

Although this case study doesn’t involve PPC search engine advertising at Yahoo, it does involve keyword purchases. Specifically, it involves banner advertising campaigns rather than text ads.

Yahoo came out with a new feature. When we contacted our client about it, we learned an overzealous Yahoo sales rep had already contacted this client… before the news was released to the general public. Needless to say, it was embarrassing to us as long-term Yahoo supporters. We had to do damage control because clearly the sales rep wanted to steal our client.

Fortunately, we kept the client. Here’s why:

  • Though search engine sales reps have search data SEMs don’t, they aren’t always the most knowledgeable search experts. A newbie sales rep’s knowledge is no match against a search engine marketer who’s analyzed user behavior and tested for years.

  • The search engine sales rep is devoted to the search engine, not the advertiser. Search engines make money every time a user clicks on an ad. Therefore (understandably), their reps encourage as many clicks as possible.
  • Search engine marketers focus on conversions, not clicks. At least, the good ones do. An ad can receive lots of clicks but have a low conversion rate. Or, it can receive few clicks and enjoy high conversions.

In this instance, the Yahoo rep wasn’t a graphic designer; she couldn’t design banners. Thanks to her lack of search experience (she was a newbie), Web analytics and behavior tracking experience, and graphic design skills, we were able to keep our client.

But we no longer trust that rep. We switched to a Yahoo rep in a different state, one we find more trustworthy.

The moral? When we found a sales rep to work with us rather than against us, all parties benefited: the client, the search engine (directory), and the SEM firm.

SEO Firms

I completely understand why search engines are at odds with SEO firms:spam. I’m amazed at the lengths search engine optimizers will go to to get top positions, including, but not limited to:

  • Hidden text and links

  • Link farms to artificially boost site popularity
  • Keyword stuffing
  • JavaScript redirects
  • Gibberish doorway pages
  • CSS spam
  • Cloaking to hide inappropriate content

Note: Cloaking in and of itself isn’t search engine spam. However, cloaking is commonly used to deliver content to search engines that isn’t delivered to end users. In other words, cloaking is commonly used to spam search engines.

Interestingly, an argument in favor of an SEM firm over a search engine sales rep is actually an argument for optimization. If an SEO firm looks out for the client’s best interests, it may not be looking out for the search engine’s best interests. Search engines aren’t paying the SEO firm; the client is.

So what’s the solution?


Cooperation delivers the best SEO results. As long as optimizers follow the terms and conditions set forth by search engines and don’t exploit any loopholes, all parties benefit.

With search engine advertising, search engine sales reps should learn to work with, rather than against, us. We understand search engines need income to maintain their existence. We’ll purchase advertising if it truly benefits our clients. We will test, test, test. We will regularly A/B test before a new Web site’s launch to determine page-design viability.

Naive as it may sound, if search engine reps and ethical SEMs work together, everybody wins.

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

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