SEM – Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a field where companies now spend tens of thousands of marketing dollars annually. In the field of Search Engine Marketing, like any other field, there are the good guys and the bad guys so buyers need to be informed and have some basic knowledge to effectively ascertain whether or not they are getting value for the dollar spent. Also, you need to do your due diligence (check references, results, etc.) to avoid unethical firms. Some may not realize what part ethics play in effective SEM, but beware that an unethical firm can actually make your web site’s ranking worse, and sometimes you can suffer the ultimate fate of having your site banned from a search engine based on an SEM firms unethical practices.
What are your goals for your search engine marketing campaign?
Perhaps you are launching a new web site or a new business and need a web site. It is critical that you include search engine marketing in your overall marketing plan regardless as this can save you lots of money in the end. I recently spoke with a business owner who, after a short period, was going out of business. One of his chief complaints was how much money he had spent on advertising and received little or nothing in the end for it. I can’t help but to think how much more effectively that money would have been spent in SEM, as the results do not go away in a few weeks like print advertising.
Perhaps you have an established web site and you want to increase your sites ranking or increase your conversion rate, or just make the site more profitable. Make sure you have clearly identifiable goals for your SEM campaign with regard to how many search engines you are looking to get listed in, how many monthly visitors you are looking for, and the like. It is CRITICAL that you have an effective web stats program to monitor this; otherwise you are throwing your money away. Also, you need to look at your stats yourself, don’t just leave it up to the company. Let them know in advance that you will be monitoring the stats along with them as this will build in some accountability. If they have any problem with this that is a sure sign to stop the negotiations right there. Make sure you have consultation time built in to your contract, so you know what is going on with the process. You should speak with the firm at least monthly to monitor progress or analyze any reports that you receive from them. You should also establish up front whether or not you want written reports, which range from simple to elaborate with prices from inexpensive to very costly. I am not a big fan of large elaborate reports because they are not cheap and in the end you might be paying a lot of money for fluff, hype, and broken promises for the future. Here are the basics of what you need to know about your SEM campaign:
1) are we getting web traffic?
2) where is it coming from?
3) are we converting visitors?
4) if not – why not, if yes – how can we get more visitors to convert?
5) what is being done to increase web traffic or customer conversions?
6) am I spending more money on SEM than I am making? (which might make sense initially, but can’t sustain your business for the long haul).
Did you hire the right search engine marketing firm?
First, lets talk about the Good Guys (a.k.a. white hat SEO firms) – The good guys work hard to get your web site ranked well in the search engines across the board. They usually employ a broad spectrum of techniques which include maximizing your exposure in quality search engines and directories, as well as web coding and content analysis, and increasing quality content through techniques such as copy-writing, article submission, and blogging. This is a time consuming process and they should be paid accordingly. You need to be willing to commit to a minimum of 6 months, and ideally a year to truly evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign, which is why it is so important to start off with the right firm. The questions always remain:
– what happens if you don’t see any results?
– how much should I pay?
– can I get my money back?
Let’s take these in order. First, depending on the age of your site and what you are looking to accomplish, your results may vary. A new site will see a huge increase in traffic, as it is not hard to go from zero to anything. If the site has been established for a while and you are seeking to improve your rankings and traffic, you should see slow but steady increases of traffic, but you may see some (upward) spikes if they are able to get you some strong inbound links or good press.
Pricing for SEM is all over the board. In the end, you should pay what you can afford. If you have a limited budget, you NEED to become a student of SEM and learn how to do this yourself otherwise you may go broke in the process. If you are launching a new site, it is not unrealistic to have over $1,000 just in fees paid to the directories to be listed. Make sure your contract spells out what you are paying for and while I do believe that companies should charge to do submissions, I don’t believe they should mark up the search engine directory fees (they are high enough already). Make sure you know what will be done with respect to pay-per-click campaigns, as you do not want to just have someone using your money to buy traffic. Once the money is gone, the traffic will be gone as well if you do not have a long-term plan. I do think it is helpful to use some paid search as you are growing your site, because it is one of the fastest ways to get visitors to your site. I prefer to use the big boys such as Yahoo (Overture), MSN, or Google over the smaller pay-per-click sites such as 7Search or aggregators such as Enhance. It is my experience, that the quality of traffic is just not as good at the secondary pay-per-click sites. Some people swear by the little guys (pay-per-click sites), saying it is more traffic for less money, but I believe you get what you pay for. How much you spend on actual paid traffic depends on your industry and how competitive the terms are, some are pennies per click, and some are several dollars per click.
Most companies do not offer a money back guarantee as you are usually paying for consulting or actual work that is performed. If you feel that something illegal or unethical has taken place, or if the company you choose breaches their contract, then by all means pursue your refund legally (call your lawyer, go to small claims court, file complaints with the Better Business Bureau and/or the Federal Trade Commission).
This leads us to talking about the bad guys of SEM. It isn’t always easy to spot a fraud, but there are some sure signs. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. This sounds cliche, but I investigate companies and “opportunities” every single week, and it is sad what I see out there because so many of these companies have such a strong appearing web presence, but if you do just a little research, you will find out that it is a sham. Here are a couple of pointers with regard to staying away from bad SEM firms:
1) No one can guarantee results – PERIOD. No SEM firm has any control over ranking, other than if pay-per-click is used and that is a moving target which is costly and competitive to stay #1 in.
2) Always check out the firm. Do a Google search on the company by name, and perhaps the owner or CEO if you can find that information.
3) Do a whois search on the domain and make sure the addresses match what is on the site. If the site says they are in Ohio, but the domain is registered in the UK to a UK address, you may have reason to question that.
4) Never work with a firm that uses automated web site submissions or cloaking. These are two of the most common black hat SEM practices that will very likely get your web site banned. Visit the Google Webmaster Help Center for more info on unethical SEM techniques.
5) Get a second opinion. When a doctor recommends a procedure or a new medicine, most of us will do our research and may even ask another doctor. Your SEM campaign will very likely cost you more than most doctor visits, so it should be worth it to call another firm for a consultation. It is not unreasonable for a firm to charge for such a consultation and it can be money well spent.
6) Look for the firms affiliation with a search marketing or Internet advertising organization. The key here is to make sure that organization is legitimate and not made up or owned by the SEM firm you are checking out (a whois check will usually let you know). Do your research on that organization as well to know what practices that firm has committed to upholding. Our firm, for example, is a member of SEO Pros, an organization of SEM firms committed to best practices in the field of Search Engine Marketing.
You are now armed and dangerous! You have been empowered to make a wise choice in your SEM firm selection, after making the wise choice to perform a search engine marketing campaign.