Selecting a search engine marketing (SEM), pay-per-click (PPC) or search engine optimization (SEO) vendor can be daunting. That assumes you’ve already made the decision to outsource rather than build an in-house team and to work with a boutique SEM/PPC/SEO agency over a freelancer/consultant or even a larger traditional full-service agency. Having had experience selecting and managing marketing vendors can be helpful, but there are unique evaluation criteria when considering SEM/PPC/SEO companies. This post covers both the most common evaluation criteria for digital marketing firms as well as a few less-intuitive value-added considerations to maximize the probability of a successful marketing partnership.
Common Evaluation Criteria for Selecting an SEM/PPC/SEO Agency or Vendor
Whether you prefer asking questions or checking off boxes in the vendor evaluation process, there are six primary criteria to consider minimizing risk and maximize success as partner. Any of the below criteria that cannot be met during evaluation, should be considered a red flag and cause for concern.
1. Proven track record. Does the agency/consultant demonstrate consistent ability to generate a return? Client testimonials, case studies, reviews on industry sites and references are key indicators of desired outcomes. If the agency can’t provide you at least 3 recent client references, there may be a reason.
2. Third party validation. Does the agency have a track record of receiving SEM/PPC/SEO industry or business awards and accolades from third parties (Clutch, CrowdReviews, etc.)? Make sure the awards aren’t “bought” on sites like TopSEOs, but rather earned through a standardized and disciplined review process.
3. Thought leadership. Is the agency a follower or leader? Do they write and speak outside of their walls or are they reading the articles and attending the conferences hosted by experts? Look for syndicated articles on credible third-party publications/blogs, white papers, upcoming speaking engagements, press coverage and quotes in industry press as a subject matter expert. Does the firm have an informed point-of-view (POV) on emerging digital marketing trends like voice search and Amazon marketing strategies?
4. Credentials. How much relevant experience does the executive team have in digital marketing? What type of industry training and certifications does the company provide its employees?
5. Industry experience. Does the agency have relevant industry vertical experience, or will they have to ramp up on your dime? Have they worked with competitors or complementary companies, which may lend helpful insights?
6. Price. If the vendor in question provides a budget that seems like a bargain, especially compared to competitive bids, it probably is too good to be true. Be wary of aggressive pricing that manifests in different ways: a junior team with little experience or oversight that will under-perform, offshoring to another country that isn’t vested in your business and provides questionable quality output or poor management decisions that lead to an unprofitable and therefore unsustainable engagement.
Value-Added Evaluation Criteria for Digital Marketing Vendor Selection
With the common core SEM/PPC/SEO agency evaluation criteria out-of-the-way, we can focus on separating the great from the good. Digital marketing firms that can provide the following value-add will provide exponential value as a partner looking to grow your top and bottom line.
1. Education. At a basic level, an SEM/PPC/SEO vendor should add value by educating you, the client, by sharing its knowledge of digital marketing strategies, tactics, technologies and trends. Be wary of the ‘black box’ and ‘don’t-look-behind-the-curtain’ approach to protecting margin.
2. First-Hand Experience. Has your SEM/PPC/SEO vendor tested or used your product or service? If not, how can they represent your brand and support sales?
3. Proactive Feedback. Does the digital marketing vendor provide input on future iterations of your products and services? Strategic marketers are regularly monitoring and engaging customers and prospects on your behalf and identifying ways to improve your offering. Take advantage.
4. Referrals. Regardless of whether your product or service is useful to an SEM/PPC/SEO firm, your marketing partner should send you prospective customers and strategic partners, especially if they are connected, thoughtful and intentional.
5. Additional Exposure. Though digital marketing companies do not typically offer public relations (PR) services per se, they should look for opportunities to promote your company to the press. On more than one occasion, Anvil has successfully pitched clients to major publications like The New York Times.
6. Strategic Thinking. If you’re the type of company that is always looking for a competitive edge and is open to input from your marketing partners, you should be open to advice that goes beyond the defined engagement (SEM/PPC/SEO) and into integrated marketing, if not business strategy. You’re already paying for experts, no reason not to explore the possibilities and maximize value.
Take the above evaluation criteria and questions to heart as you evaluate an SEM/PPC/SEO vendor or partner, regardless of size or shape. Get the most from the relationship by setting expectations up front, then make sure you deliver on your end by being a good client. For more tips, check out the related articles below. Happy agency hunting!
Lewis is currently Chief Marketing Officer for Deksia, where he is responsible for the overall strategic direction of marketing. After 22 years running Anvil Media, he sold to the Midwest systematic marketing agency. He is a co-founder of SEMpdx and its first President. He speaks internationally, writes for industry publications like SmartBrief and Portland Business Journal and has been an adjunct professor at Portland State University since 2000. He’s founded or co-founded four agencies and two organizations since 1999, including pdxMindShare. Lewis volunteers his time with SCORE, teaching a social media workshop and has been a board member, marketing committee chair and is a volunteer reader for SMART Reading. He’s been named a Top 40 Under 40, Marketer of the Year by AMA Oregon and a Top 100 Digital Marketing Influencer by BuzzSumo.