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Search Engine Ad Reps: Friend or Foe?

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Search engines employ advertising representatives to help search marketers, but sometimes relations between ad reps and search marketers can be difficult or even downright adversarial.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 8-11, 2005, San Jose, CA.

Panelists during the "Ad Reps, Friend or Foe" session showed their frustration as they related their search engine representative stories.

"Don't tell me that you want to be my partner, and then go behind my back," said Mikkel DeMib Svendsen from RedZone Global.

Dana Todd, president of SEMPO, was even more blunt. "There's a tiny piece of me that thinks, 'Dammit, we built this industry. We're the ones who convinced advertisers that this was the best investment of their money. We built this thing, and how dare you treat us like dirt," said Todd. "So there's a certain sense of anger I feel at times."

Why the palpable frustration? Each panelist told a story about a search engine representative contacting their existing and prospective PPC clients. According to their reports, search engine reps would offer free SEO consulting, insider research and other assistance in an effort to woo the client into "going direct" with the engine—and cutting out the agency/SEO middleman.

Rather than pegging this as an isolated problem, the panelists stressed that the issue was widespread, affecting all search marketers and agencies.

"If you do your job, this will happen to you, " said Misty Locke of Range Online Media. "Partnering increases your risk of losing a client," said Svendsen.

The search marketer/search engine rep "partnership" problem

Ryan Lash from Infuse Creative discussed two incidents that happened with their prospect, a major automotive manufacturer. In one example, his agency engaged in a test program with AdWords. Google's direct sales channel offered to "help" set up the campaign, which Lash's agency declined. Google continued to pursue the client independently, and provided free consulting to the client.

Yahoo ad reps also offered to "help" his client, after admitting that they had downloaded his client data. Lash's agency declined the invitation to help—yet Yahoo still independently pursues the client, according to Lash.

Svendsen offered an example from a Scandinavian SEO agency. The agency had signed a large client only to have the Google sales team say that the agency wasn't allowed to have that client.

"The Google sales team makes it very clear that they consider AdWords advertisers to be their clients—not the agency's," said Svendsen. "Google is more of a competitor than a partner."

Why the conflict? According to Lash, "aggressive selling" is all about ad reps making money. Search engine direct sales reps are commission-driven, which incentivizes them to tempt clients into going direct.

"Do not enable client communication with direct sales channels. Never forward emails or set up any in-person meetings," Lash advises.

This competitive relationship between the agency and the engine can cause a secretive approach which costs the client more time and hassle. Locke reported how her search engine rep had informed her that vertical research wasn't available—yet the rep had provided that very same research to her client.

"Whenever you (the engine) do go around us, we always find out, because the client asks us our point-of-view" she said. "It causes more work for you, for me, and for my client. And causing more work for the client does not work out for the best."

Showing value to paid search clients

Some clients may feel it's sexy to work directly with an engine. Especially when they are being fed "insider" reports that their agency or SEO doesn't have, and special "tips" that the SEO didn't mention. So how can agencies and SEO's demonstrate value, despite the search engine "sexy" factor?

"Prove your value and why your clients should be working with you, and not the engines directly" said Lash. "You have to continue to evolve and enhance your value proposition."

"If I can't justify my existence, I don't deserve to be there" They [the client” should go direct," said Stacy Williams of Prominent Placement, Inc.

Many clients may not clearly understand what an agency offers versus going direct. Without clearly understanding those benefits, it's easier for clients to make an uninformed decision about their PPC provider—and fall prey to ad rep claims.

"You need to explain what you can do for them that Google can't or won't do," says Svendsen.

"We will not recommend a solution just to spend money," said Locke.

"Add real value, and show it," said Svendsen. He outlined some differentiating benefits that search marketers and agencies enjoy in the PPC space, including:

  • Search marketers will transfer budget to other PPC engines and/or organic SEO
  • Search marketers will optimize the campaign based on experience across all search channels and programs
  • Search marketers utilize external budgeting, tracking and optimization tools rather than internal
  • Search marketers will track fraudulent behavior and collect independent evidence

Can search engines and SEO's work together successfully?

Why can't ad reps and agencies just get along? According to Danny Sullivan, panel moderator, "There doesn't seem to be clear answers for a lot of this stuff. It doesn't look like we have this worked out on the search side."

"I don't know if we'll be able to fix it overnight. I think that conversations are occurring at the bottom level, the top level, and every level in between," said Todd. "We don't want to cut you out."

Conversation and communication seems to be key to settling the ad rep/search marketer feud. Both sides are working toward a common goal—helping clients understand and benefit from paid search advertising.

"If we [the search marketer” win, you win," said Locke.

All panelists agreed that they would be happy to partner with an engine—assuming that "partnering" did not have a competitive agenda. "Engines need to decide if search marketers are competitors or partners," said Svendsen.

"If we partner, then partner—send research and product releases to us before you send them to our clients, and before I have to call you," said Locke.

Williams outlined three wishes for working with search engine representatives. "If a search engine calls an agency and say they 'want to help,' I wish it really meant that you want to help—and have that include technical support, management, etc.

"Don't treat us schizophrenically. Treat the agency as a whole agency. Google gave me a lot of attention for one of my accounts, and ignored the other 19 accounts.

Finally, "Give us respect. We're educating them, we're holding their hand, we're doing it right. We're measuring, we're tracking, and we're getting people to spend more because it benefits them. They need to support us," said Williams.

Additionally, the current ad rep commission structure may need to be examined. Eliminating an overly aggressive commission structure may quash search engine quarrels, helping a partnership be a true partnership.

"If the commission structure were improved upon, it would avoid conflicts," says Lash.

Are search engine representatives money-grubbing pigs hell-bent on running Search marketers out of business? No. Panelists did share success stories where the rep truly did help the search marketer—resulting in a win for the client, search engine and the search marketer.

"When it's good, it's great," said Todd.

With a reduction in channel conflicts and additional communication, ad reps can truly be a friend to both clients and search marketers alike. It just may take some time to work through the growing pains and build a successful—and real—partnership.

Heather Lloyd-Martin is the CEO of SuccessWorks and author of the book, "Successful Search Engine Copywriting." She is also the chair of the DMA's Search Engine Marketing Council.


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