Overture UK Launches Accreditation Program

Overture UK Launches Accreditation Program

By Danny Sullivan, Editor
The Search Engine Update,
Jan. 22, 2003

Accreditation of search engine marketers is an issue that's been much discussed over the years. "OK search engines, how about you giving us some criteria and if we agree to them, you give us your accreditation blessing," has been the pitch by those in favor of such a plan. Now, for the first time that I know of, a major search engine has done exactly this: Overture.

Of course, it's only Overture UK so far that's offering accreditation, so sorry to all of you who work outside the UK. Also, this accreditation deals only Overture's paid listings, while demand for accreditation has been primarily by those who work with editorial listings.

For example, SEMs involved with optimizing site content would dearly love to have Google officially approve of their firms. Instead, those closest Google has come is to offer general guidelines about what consumers might look for in SEM firms.

Paid Inclusion's Pseudo-Accreditation

To some degree, we have had pseudo-accreditation for some time, through paid inclusion programs. Anyone involved in giving a search engine a "trusted feed," for example, has some legitimacy in telling their clients that they have a partnership and some approval from a particular search engine. Indeed, some people who only use the very basic flat-fee pain inclusion submit options will proudly display themselves as "partners" of a particular search engine, in hopes of gaining legitimacy with would-be clients.

There's been good and bad to all of this. For example, it's good that some SEM firms have dropped certain bad tactics as they've dived into paid inclusion as partners, so as not to lose out on a new and major source of revenue. In fact, it's amazing to see some firms that might have been tagged as spammers in the past now embraced by search engines offering paid inclusion. However, its bad that the programs can also give some firms that should be avoided an indirect blessing.

Overture UK's Program & "Best Practices"

The Overture UK program is different in the sense that it is true accreditation. Overture's not just saying the firms it has selected are "partners" or "resellers" but that they've agreed to follow certain "best practices." But what best practices do you really need to enforce, when it comes to paid listings? There are definitely abuses that Overture would like to curb.

"There are some companies that would, for example, sell a guaranteed first place position for 12 months when in actual fact, our marketplace is dynamic," said Julian Persaud, who oversees online self-serve ad sales and those through SEM partners, for Overture UK.

Such tactics indirectly harm Overture by causing potential advertisers to lose trust in search engine marketing, so the accreditation program is seen as a way to promote good standards.

"It injures not just us but the industry. It's a young medium for marketers, and if people are being mislead by marketers, it hurts an embryonic industry," Persaud said.

Ten UK-based companies have been named in what Persaud called the "first round" of accreditation. These are:

  • Ambergreen Internet Marketing
  • Corporem Global Limited
  • Dial E For Business
  • e-InBusiness
  • Make Me Top
  • Neutralize
  • Receptional
  • Scotti
  • Web Diversity
  • WSPS

All are entitled to place an image on their sites saying they are an "Overture Accredited SEM," which in turn links to a page at the Overture UK site itself. That page names the company, serves to authenticate the claim and explains more about what the code of conduct that the company has agreed to follow. Here's an example for one of the firms, Make Me Top.

Up Close With Guidelines

In particular, the guidelines require the SEM company to be "transparent" about its use of Overture, with these specific guidelines:

  1. Ensure our clients are made aware of the dynamic nature of the PPC marketplace.
  2. Supply the broadest possible spread of relevant keywords for our clients' campaigns to help engineer consistent return on their PPC investment.
  3. Not submit search listings leading to sites which: are still 'in construction', have disabled back buttons or unrelated content or are in any way in breach of Overture's Editorial Guidelines.
  4. Always ensure that bidded search terms are reflected in titles and description, and that urls are 'deep-linked' where possible.
  5. Mark-up our client's spend only to a level that can reasonably be demonstrated to still offer that client 'value for money'.
  6. Assist Overture and other Accredited Search Engine Marketers by proactively participating in the accreditation program and any related initiatives.

Earlier, I gave an example of the type of abuse the first guideline is meant to curb. How about the second?

"We have known people who would sell a keyword like 'specialist cheese,' which gets no searches what so ever, and then charge them a flat fee. What the company buying into this deal doesn't know is that not many people are going to search for that keyword, but they get charged hundreds or thousands of [UK” pounds," Persaud said.

In short, such an action fails to meet the second criteria because the terms being sold were selected based on the ability to deliver top visibility, rather than actual traffic, with the intent of making money off the visibility portion. Such a tactic also goes against the overall "transparency" idea that Overture is trying to promote.

The third and fourth points are fairly self-explanatory, in that the companies won't be doing things that cause Overture's editorial team to spend more time processing listings. "You'd be surprised how many people don't do the basic very well," Persaud said.

How about the "mark-up" guideline? Unlike the US, those in the UK do receive commissions from Overture, if they generate revenues of a certain level, Persaud said. That reduces pressure to mark-up prices that are passed on to clients. However, there are still abuses, such as charging thousands for a single keyword or setting prices based on number of searches estimated to have happened for a term, rather than number of clicks.

And the last guideline? The idea here is that the companies involved promote themselves as accredited and explain to their clients and potential clients what they agree to follow, which Overture hopes will help educate the industry, Persaud said.

Anointment Of The First Ten

So how did the ten firms who are now accredited get selected?

"We've worked with them for some time, and we know what their practices are. We didn't want to be deluged by hundreds of SEMs, Persaud said. "Just because we haven't accredited someone now doesn't mean we've looked down on them. These are just companies we know well and started with," he said.

Hopefully, Overture will move quickly to include other good companies, which Persaud admits are other there. While Overture says it doesn't look down on these other companies, there's no doubt those lacking Overture's approval are at a disadvantage when competing against the ten that are.

Indeed, a similar thing happened with the MarketingSherpa guide began rating search engine marketing firms last year, causing some companies that hadn't been yet rated to be questioned more closely by clients. Moreover, such questions are exactly what Overture wants to have happen, with its program.

"The accreditation should hopefully give those SEMs who are accredited some strength when they go into pitches against so called rogue resellers," Persaud said.

While Persaud sees large telesales operations as a examples of such "rouge resellers," the fact remains that now anyone without accreditation -- good firms included -- may get dismissed by would-be clients.

Unfortunately, those companies currently left out will have to be patient. Overture is waiting a bit until doing a second round of accreditation.

"We're going to let this scheme bed down for a few months then look a next round of accreditation," Persaud said.

Many have already contacted Overture UK about accreditation, Persaud said. If you haven't and are interested, then contact Overture UK's SEM manager Daniel Mohacek, who you should know if you are already in the SEM program. If not, then contact your Overture account manager and say you are interested in accreditation, Persaud said.

Accreditation For Overture UK Only

Remember, this program is currently only for Overture UK. Other Overture operations, such as in the US, haven't announced similar programs.

Persaud also stressed that this program only accredits a company for working with Overture. It makes no promises or assurances of how the company works with other search engines.

"This is purely about how they run their Overture account. We're not in a position to assess how well they do SEO or work with our competitors," he said.