Why Ad Agencies Fail at Search Marketing

Marketing blitzes are quite common in the ad industry. Produce a great TV spot, mention a Web address, and deliver a great user experience. What if your audience searches for your products on Google or Overture? Ensure your company appears in the top position. Make sure affiliate sites can appear in all top results for increased sales and branding.

From an ad agency’s perspective, it’s a great scenario.

According to an affiliate marketer who recently emailed me, having the main site and affiliate sites top-ranked “forces” consumers to the advertiser’s site rather than to a competitor’s. Agencies aren’t too concerned with potential negative effects.

Yet search engine marketing (SEM) is very different from traditional marketing. The above scenario might be great for ad agencies, but it could spell big trouble with the search engines.

When Less Is More

Redundant content is problematic from a search engine perspective. Search engine representatives understand no one wants to go to a search results page and click on the top 10 or 20 links, only to find the links all direct to the same company. From the end users’ point of view, if they weren’t interested in the product or service the first time, they aren’t interested the second, third, fourth, or fifteenth time.

Most affiliate sites are considered spam by search engines. As discussed in in an earlier column, search engine spam is defined as “pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor-quality search results.” Reasons affiliate sites are considered spammy include the fact they can:

  • Contain thousands (or millions) of illegible doorway pages
  • Contain redirects to pages on your Web site
  • Cloak from human viewing
  • Participate in free-for-all (FFA) link farms to gain link popularity

Not all affiliates sites use FFA link farms for link popularity, but a considerable number do. Amazon.com affiliates are especially problematic. As cloaking can become expensive and time-consuming, many affiliate sites don’t cloak.

If affiliate sites offer unique content, it’s a different story. Search engines and end users want unique content. But most affiliates don’t take the time to produce unique, useful content.

Search engines don’t want a single company to dominate “natural” search results. If a single company dominates, Google will eventually penalize or ban the sites, affiliates and all. In the past few months, Google removed many sites with affiliates, doorway pages, and mirror pages. In other words, it removed a large number of sites with redundant content.

Less is more as far as search engine results pages are concerned.


My high school English teachers actually helped me in SEM. Teachers would give their classes vocabulary lists. We had to write essays using these words. It was a great exercise in vocabulary-building and grammar.

Extrapolate this example to SEM. To write effective copy for both search engines and your target audience, you must learn to write in keywords. This applies equally to search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine advertising. With optimization, a Web page must appear focused on a specific topic or category. With ads, target audiences respond to specific words and phrases. In other words, if you offer a 30-day free trial of your CRM software, people want to see those words both in the ads and on your Web pages.

SEM is so new, colleges and universities don’t yet offer courses in search engine copywriting. Many ad agency copywriters don’t feel they must write in keywords. Instead, they rely on traditional copywriting, using flowery words people just don’t type into search queries.

Ego Sites

The number one reason ad agencies fail at SEO is ego. Building what I call “ego sites” isn’t confined to ad agencies, of course. Many businesses’ first Web sites are often ego sites rather than user-friendly ones.

I can always tell when an ad agency has designed a Web site. Usually, the color scheme is outstanding. If there’s one thing I’ll give agencies credit for, it’s color schemes. All those years dealing with print and TV provide a good sense of which colors people respond to. Agency production artists certainly understand the psychology of color.

The problem is many agencies do both print and Web design for their clients. There’s nothing wrong with that — except when agencies mistakenly believe a brochure and a Web site must follow the same format. A Web site should never be a brochure site, especially when it comes to SEM. People don’t search to look at brochures. They don’t search to look at ads. They search to find information.

Creative directors and production artists can have conflicting issues. Many are more interested in building neat, pretty ads and sites for their portfolios. Their excuse? Branding first, sales will follow. Never mind the vast majority of people who become irritated.

Ad agencies and business owners must put their personal preferences in check when designing and copywriting for sites. Fact is, ad agencies won’t spend thousands or millions of dollars to buy your products and services. The CEO of your company won’t spend thousands or millions of dollars on your products or services. Your target audience will. And if your target audience prefers a site that doesn’t quite fit the CEO’s idea of how it should be categorized, who will you satisfy? Ad agencies (and many SEM agencies) like those million-dollar checks. They make the CEOs happy.

At whose expense? You guessed it: the target audience.

Believe me, I’ve designed plenty of sites that aren’t included in my portfolio. I don’t like the color selection. Or maybe the layout. But if my clients make thousands or millions of dollars from their sites? Great! My personal preferences aren’t important. Professional expertise and guidance are. Personal preferences should never be part of the design equation.


Not all ad agencies and marketing firms fail at SEM. But for many agencies, formal education and traditional marketing experience are barriers to SEM success.

If ad agencies truly comprehended SEM’s uniqueness and kept personal preferences in check, maybe the search experience would improve for everyone.

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