2003 Search Engine Marketing Buyers Guide
by Steve Winkler

As your company finalizes budgets for 2003 and allocates funds 
accordingly, if you are like most businesses a significant 
portion will be allocated towards Search Engine Marketing (SEM). 
The success or failure of your ventures may lay solely in the 
hands of an outside firm. With the potential for failure being 
an option, if the wrong provider is chosen, what criteria should 
a decision be based upon? The proper choice of SEM providers 
should all but eliminate the risk of failure. The following 
guidelines will enable you to come to an informed and educated 
decision with peace of mind as your provider helps you achieve 
and maintain excellent search engine exposure. 

The Criteria

1. Specialization - Many firms are general practice Internet 
firms that offer a multitude of services and rarely specialize 
in any of the areas that they provide to the consumer. While 
this "one stop shop" may be a good option for Website design, 
hosting and email support, be reluctant to spend your marketing 
dollars here. Proper SEM marketing takes time, dedicated 
resources and specialized technicians who first and foremost 
can keep up with the regular changes imposed by the main search 
engines. No more than you would trust a mason to landscape your 
yard should you put faith in a general service provider to assist 
you with your SEM needs.
2. Marketing Focus -- You have now made the determination that 
company that you have chosen is not a Website design company who 
dabbles in marketing. Probe the company that you plan to choose 
on their knowledge of marketing. SEM is not privy to opinion as 
much as it is designed to apply fact and demographic information 
to you. The proper firm for you should understand the dynamics 
of running and online business and show you how you can make 
more of your presence and better reach your target market.

3. Expertise - While most tout their services as more than 
satisfactory, ask probing questions to see how effective these 
services are in reality. Length of time offering service is not 
alone a basis of judgment, but rather client satisfaction should 
be the judge of expertise. A proper firm will be able to satisfy 
nearly 100% of all clients. Internal staff experts should be 
internationally known and be well published in SEM industry 
publications and will often conduct overviews and instruction 
for individuals interested in learning more on SEM marketing.
4. Customer Service - It has been said that there are two things 
that are for certain, death and taxes. In SEM issues that 
compromise your satisfaction are almost guaranteed to arise 
during the course of your tenure with your service provider. On 
a daily basis techniques and fail-safes are being devolved to 
stifle the occurrence of issues that compromise your 
satisfaction. However, a strong customer service department is 
not an admittance of failure, but rather a commitment to client 
satisfaction. Prompt, knowledgeable, and courteous staff should 
be available during regular business hours to address your needs. 
You should expect to wait no longer than 72 hours for responses 
in addressing your needs. 

5. Technique and Technology - SEM marketing now relies less on 
trial and error and more on the adaptation of proven technique 
and principle to your Website. In addition you should be wary 
of firms that use unethical or illegal techniques to achieve 
traffic to your Website. Do not accept that you cannot host an 
"optimized" page and stay far away from firms that build doorway 
pages, regardless of what the firm calls the extra pages. Only 
choose a firm that utilizes your own Website and information 
contained therein. You should also understand that any ranking 
achieved for your site must be on terms relevant to your cause. 
Research and consultation should be ongoing aspects of your 
relationship with this company. They should either possess 
demographic and sales information that can be applied to your 
situation or they should have ability to access such information 
and help you apply it to your needs. 

6. Keyword Selection - You must be able to choose the keywords 
that you feel comfortable with. Too often firms choose keywords 
and keyword phrases that are fabricated or drive irrelevant 
traffic if any at all. Insist that upon completion of any keyword 
analyses that you get to have a say in the keywords that are 
promoted for your Website. Do not accept a firm that arbitrarily 
selects terms that contain erroneous characters on your behalf 
as doing so can adversely affect the public that you intend to 
reach. i.e. choose "Diamond Jewelry" instead of "Diamond_Jewelry.

7. Target Search Engines - A reputable firm will only work with 
the industry's top search engines. An upstanding firm will also 
understand your particular needs and tailor your marketing 
program to focus energies on a select set of search engines 
while approaching the entire set of popular engines with a 
purpose of reaching all individuals.

8. Acceptable Time Frame - True SEM programs do not need 12 
months of time to achieve success. On the same token it is just 
as unrealistic to think that all work will take 2 weeks to 
achieve success. Rather expect that it could take 60 to 90 days 
to achieve results. One factor that is beyond the control of 
your SEM provider are the index rates of the major search 
engines. In your relationship with your SEM provider have them 
define what their typical time frame for achieving positioning 
is. Ensure that any foreseeable marketing campaigns properly 
coincide with the achievement of positioning. Allow sufficient 
time prior to marketing campaigns for your SEM provider to obtain 
stable positioning.

9. Continued Support and Tracking - Along with the requirements 
of a strong customer service department to address your ongoing 
questions and needs, you should also have access to reporting 
and results tracking for your program.

10. Ethics - An ethical firm will only make choices for you 
in your best interest. Understand that a firm who cannot or will 
not disclose information to you on how it is that they obtain 
ranking is withholding information vital to the success of your 
business. Since all traffic is not created equal, understand the 
source of your traffic and make sure that it's coming to you via 
your own Website and your information. Also understand that you 
should own any work that you pay for and should not be tied to 
your provider through pages that do not belong to you or do not 
reside on your server. 

11. ROI Focus - More likely than not, you expanded your 
marketing to include SEM because you are focused on your Return 
on Investment. The proper SEM firm will care just as much about 
your ROI as you do. An SEM firm that cares about their own 
future must care about whether you stay as a client as long as you 
are marketing your wares or services online. Through consultation 
and constant changes to improve the usability and functionality 
of your Website you can dramatically increase your conversion 
rate. Couple a strong conversion rate with a high and steady 
stream of new visitors and you should have some of the main 
components for the success of your business.

While it can be a daunting task to select a SEM firm, it never 
hurts to ask for verification of the aforementioned details. 
The details make the difference between your service being 
successful or being unsuccessful. Each day new "expert" firms 
seem to have the solution to your SEM needs, but in reality very 
few have the necessary knowledge and background.

An old saying goes that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound 
of cure". This adage could not be truer in the world of SEM. The 
right choice can mean amazing success, while the wrong choice 
can mean many thousands of dollars lost and, more importantly, 
time lost which provides your competitors with the opportunity to 
solidify their search engine stature. 

Steve Winkler is the Business Development Manager of the 
www.KeywordRanking.com team of marketing and search engine 
professionals. Steve Winkler has experience in demographic based 
marketing and interactive marketing programs and business 
efficiency consultation. He can be reached via email: