Finding the Right SEM Contractor
By Paul J. Bruemmer

There is much to learn about making an informed decision when it comes to selecting a search engine marketing (SEM) contractor. As in most industries, some are reputable and some are flaky.

An important consideration is the definition of the services themselves, so you know what you're getting for the money. Other factors include pricing, vendor experience and proficiency, customer service, and vendor contracting and reporting practices. Below is a description of issues to consider before making a selection.

SEM Services
Services can be categorized into four areas: site analysis and optimization, manual submission, offsite development, and monthly reporting.

1. Site Analysis and Optimization
·Category and keyword research. Development of strategic keyword phrases, beginning with client suggestions and requiring further research and analysis. The number of terms will be proportional to the campaign cost. Tweaking of keyword phrases should be included.

·Homepage optimization. Specific HTML optimization of your homepage and subpages (title, description, keyword meta-tags, etc.) and general site suggestions (navigation, subpage guidelines, site map, etc.).

·Content review. Ensures that your strategic keywords are reflected throughout well-written site content. Includes a review of content quality and placement with suggestions for improvement.

·Directory compliance. Directories like Yahoo!, LookSmart, and ODP (Open Directory Project) have specific guidelines for good placement. Ensures strategic category selection and site compliance, suggesting necessary changes.

·Dynamic site optimization. Many search engine spiders can't crawl dynamic sites. Provides home-page optimization, site modifications (creation of crawlable dynamic pages), additional content creation, and specific subpage submissions to certain directories.

·Frame site optimization. Subpages within framed sites are sometimes incompatible with search engine spiders. Site modifications to ensure subpage indexing and proper display of framed sites from subpage listings.

2. Manual Submission
·Free Submissions. ODP submission of homepage and subpages requires working with editors to identify the best possible category. An ODP listing is critical because it provides search results for numerous search portals, boosting link popularity. Also includes submission and monitoring of your homepage in major search engines.

·Paid directory submissions. A yearly review of directory submissions helps determine which paid-inclusion programs are advantageous for your positioning campaign.

·Yahoo Business Express. A Yahoo! Business Directory listing is mandatory. It requires working with Yahoo! editors to acquire your best possible category and to submit in compliance with guidelines.

·LookListings and LookListings Small Business. LookSmart just changed from a paid-inclusion to a paid-placement (pay-per-click) model. Despite some of the bad press, a LookSmart listing can be important because its partner network reaches 77 percent of Internet users. This service requires working with LookSmart editors to acquire your best possible category and to submit in compliance with guidelines.

3. Offsite Development
·Keyword optimized pages. High rankings can be obtained by customizing Web pages for submission to search engines based on unique requirements. Requires research to determine the requirements for each search engine specified. Creation of keyword optimized pages for each strategic key phrase, customized for each specified search engine. Customized pages are then submitted, monitored, reported on, and resubmitted to the robot engines specified.

·Robust link popularity. Professional technicians can provide specific and relevant content links created from content-rich Web sites linking directly to your site. Requires analyzing your site to determine and match your content with relevant content from cataloged content pages, online publicati ons, and topic-focused articles.

4. Monthly Reporting
·Search-based position reports. Reports positioning for each URL and keyword phrase once a month. See where your homepage, subpages, and optimized keyword pages are located. Reports list page number and location (numbered 1 through 50) of each keyword phrase search.

  • Log file analysis. Evaluation of server logs to identify SEM results.

    SEM Pricing
    Some industries require more SEM resources than others, so you may not need all the above services when pricing an SEM campaign. Get an itemized proposal specifying one-time versus monthly costs. Each recommended service should be clearly described in a technical support document explaining the need for every item in your campaign.

    Search engine positioning requires a long-term commitment and a realistic understanding of the technical and human resources required. Most campaigns average $12,000 to $60,000 a year, whether in-house or outsourced.

    Vendor Experience and Proficiency
    Core competency is important when selecting an SEM provider. You might ask the following questions:
    Customer Service

    Customer service is important and often overlooked. You should be able to discuss your SEM plan with a qualified technician or account manager who understands every aspect of your campaign.
    Contracts and Reporting Practices

    Find out what the minimum contract includes, the cost of consulting, whether any guarantees are offered, and the hosting of domains used. SEM results are usually not guaranteed because they change continuously. That's why it's important to find out if maintenance and reporting are provided. Ask the following questions:
    Making the Right Decision
    Gather the information above to compare vendors and make the right decision. If you need more information on selecting a vendor, MarketingSherpa's "Buyers' Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Firms" reviews reputable SEM firms.

    About the Author

    Paul J. Bruemmer is the CEO of Web Ignite, a search engine marketing company founded in 1995. Web-Ignite earned a top grade in the Buyers' Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms and has helped promote over 15,000 Web sites. Client testimonials report traffic increases of 150 to 500 percent.