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How to Choose an International Search Agency

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A vast majority of international search marketing resourcing decisions made this month will be taken by people who've never had to make such decisions -- at least in an international context. They may well have experience selecting agencies or partners in their domestic market, but probably need some help with more specific international questions.

It's time to step in and give guidance on how to do that and what questions to ask. Although I run an international search marketing agency, my aim is to give a balanced view of the wide varieties of solutions clients need.

Decide Your Objectives

There are two key parts to this process. First, decide on your objectives, which means asking yourself certain questions. Second, raise questions, possibly via a Request For Proposal (RFP).

Let's start with the objectives:

  1. Will the campaign be managed centrally or locally?

  2. Which markets do you plan to target?

  3. Do you plan to start in one market or roll out to many at once?

  4. Do you already have a presence in those markets or will you be starting from scratch?

  5. How will you monitor performance and best practice?

  6. What is your lead KPI?

Once you have a clear idea of your plans, it's time to put your vendors on the spot. Here are some questions you should consider asking:

Who Will Undertake the International Work?

This is partly a question for you. Many clients will turn first to their existing domestic vendor, which may well be the right approach. But you need to know who will actually be doing the work. Vague answers aren't any good.

It's fine for your agency to partner with another agency and manage that relationship -- but in that case, it would be wise to obtain more information on that partner. After all, you're depending on them for your global roll out!

A vendor with a multi-country operation and offices everywhere may be a ready-made solution, but you still need to check it out. Are there really search people in those offices? And who will coordinate the project?

Are the People on my Account 'Native Speakers' of the Language?

This question may be less significant if your project is "international" in the sense of international English. But this is a key question if you'll be working in languages other than English.

The people working on your account must be native-speakers of the target language. My definition of native-speaker is someone who learned the language at their mother's knee while living in the country. It's less significant where they live now, but without that early upbringing in the language they won't have the intuitive use of it that you really need.

Beware of statements like John "speaks" the language. I "speak" a lot of languages (I trained as a linguist), but I won't be working on your campaign and you'll want much more than "two beers, please!"

Are the People Involved Trained in Search Marketing?

Sadly, non-search marketers, but speakers of a particular language, are commonly dropped onto an international campaign. This is probably the most common solution, and often isn't terribly transparent.

This isn't what you want. The people working on your campaign need to have search training, and work for a search marketing organization.

Will my Reporting Be in English? Will I Receive Back Translations to English?

Most agencies will say yes to this, but you actually need a little more -- especially if your campaign is in several languages as no one will be able to speak them all. Make "back translation" a requirement. This simply means that for things such as your target keywords or creatives for paid search, you should be given translations of those back into English to facilitate management and understanding of what's going on in the campaign.

Will Anyone Translate my Keywords?

This is a trick question. If the answer is "yes," walk away. You don't want your keywords translated.

Keywords should be researched from scratch exactly as you would in English. Nothing else is acceptable.

Does the Vendor Supply Tools That Work in the Target Language?

Many of the readily available tools, for things like Web analytics or bid management, don't work in some languages. This includes some of the best-known tools. You may also find that they have difficulties working with multiple currencies.

A search marketing vendor specializing in international will have already solved this problem. So pick their brains.

My Site Will Need Translating. How Will This be Done?

If the body content (not the keywords) of your site needs translation, then check out the process for doing this. It should be SEO-friendly, or at least involve an SEO review step. Translators don't choose keywords when they're working by default!

How Will Meetings be Organized?

Working internationally might sound glamorous at first, but the appeal begins to fade after you've done a few midnight teleconferences. It's best to find a provider who will provide teleconferences or calls during your working day if at all possible, or one that has people located in your time zone.

Good luck with your global ventures -- it will be worth it!


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