Why an SEM RFP Is a Mistake, Part 1

Last week, I had the flu, but didn’t have a doctor. So I drafted an RFP (Request For Proposal). I sent it to 10 local doctors and requested specifics: What types of shots do they typically give their patients? How do they conduct physicals? I asked how they would treat me if I were to develop something serious, cancer for example. I asked which pharmaceuticals they favored; did they prefer Pfizer or Merck drugs?

I also decided to file a lawsuit against my tenth grade math teacher. I realized I was having trouble calculating a tip (truth be told, I do hate math and blame that teacher). I knew she was to blame for my inadequate preparation and emotional distress over fractions. I drafted an RFP and sent it to five local law firms. I asked about strategy, arguments, precedents they’d cite, who they’d depose and why. And their rates.

Hopefully, you see the absurdity in these examples. Companies needing a reputable firm or agency to perform search engine marketing should understand why the RFP process doesn’t necessarily help.

Why wouldn’t you select a family physician by RFP? Why not choose a law firm that way? Why is it we don’t use the RFP process to get great prices on plastic surgery, a kidney transplant, an accountant, psychologist, chiropractor or any other professional service? Several reasons, but chief among them: you’re buying expertise.

You’re also buying experience. Most important, you’re entering a relationship that (hopefully) will span a number of years. You’ll see these people a lot.

Expertise, relationship and experience cannot and will not be quantified in an RFP because an RFP necessarily limits the dialogue. The very act of developing an RFP assumes you have equal or greater knowledge in a subject area and are therefore qualified to develop specifications and evaluate answers.

Consider that most companies issuing RFPs for search engine marketing services are selecting their first, maybe their second, vendor. They don’t have the experience or expertise to develop specifications, nor the sophistication to evaluate responses. The process won’t help them select the best vendor. There’s a better way.

What RFPs Were Designed For

Those who purchase at corporations, large and small, designed the RFP process with good results in mind. They believed those selling goods and services to their organization would benefit from a fair, open competition based on the merits of their offerings.

They saw a benefit in creating a common language for expressing detailed specifications, which make up the body of the requests for proposals. Finally, they saw a way to shield internal customers from the letters, email, phone calls and other tools of persuasion that tend to introduce elements beyond the factual in the decision-making process.

Why RFP’s Don’t Deliver for SEM Evaluation

When an organization has lengthy, significant experience in buying certain types of goods and services, the RFP process usually works as planned. Key vendors are contacted; competitive bids generated and evaluated. Significant money is saved.

Companies in the plastic injection molding business purchase large quantities of pellets as raw material for their process. Over time, they become aware of differences between the various vendors. Often the differences are not in the product itself, but in the buying, shipping and delivery surrounding the product.

Based on its knowledge of service variables, a molding company could send an RFP to all well-known, reputable vendors. In return, they’d get an array of proposals to compare, apples to apples. The purchaser can confidently chose a vendor based on total cost.

At first glance, an SEM services buyer might believe similar “commoditization” took place. A cursory review of vendor Web sites would lead one to believe the same services are universally offered: link popularity improvement, PPC management, keyword research, site remediation and related tactics.

What’s less apparent are different ways different tactics are selected and executed by each vendor, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the tactics themselves.

These can result in dramatically different results.

Successful RFPs are dependent on buyer knowledge, born from experience. Such buyers know how to spot the differences in product and service offerings.

A first or second-time buyer of SEM services is forced to draw on limited (or no) experience in assessing an ever-changing array of offerings and tactics, many still continuing to evolve. An SEM RFP fails to provide the buyer with two key decision-making prerequisites:

  • Objective, meaningful specifications.

  • Distinctive, cost-effective options.

What Goes Wrong Regarding Specifications?

The RFP process generally assumes the buyer has a great deal of information about the services or products offered by most or all the key vendors.

To competently evaluate competitive offerings, one must assume the buyer has superior knowledge of the features, functionality and benefits. Otherwise, what do they ask in the more detailed RFP sections?

Buyers must know if their company Web sites can support specific SEM tactics, or if extensive changes are first required. A level of technical knowledge is required from the buyer.

Many buyers seek help from a trusted SEM vendor or agency. Who can blame an advisor for recommending a solution they’re capable of providing, or could profit by recommending?

So what can the buyer do to level the playing field?

Two obvious, if unattractive choices: (1) forbid the “advisor” to bid; (2) exercise a final edit on the RFP to soften areas where bias is obvious. Choice #1 won’t go over well with the advisor unless they’re otherwise compensated. Choice #2 is less realistic. If the buyer knows enough to eliminate bias, he wouldn’t need an advisor in the first place.

Next week, how to develop an RFI for SEM services: a Request For Information. You’ll learn how to ask potential vendors broader questions; to evaluate your current situation and their strategy in order to make a good vendor selection. I’ll provide you with some high hoops vendors can jump through to earn your business.

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