SEM Vendor Checklist

We've all heard anecdotes regarding the unfortunate results of under-qualified or downright deceptive search engine marketing (SEM) vendors. Common disasters include set-it-and-forget-it pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns that suddenly blow through obscene amounts of Content Match cash, organic prominence destroyed by Universal Search, PageRank decimated by obsolete link-farm schemes, declining sales, embarrassing lack of conversion, and other ancient or self-destructive tactics.

The good news is that there are an increasing number of wonderful service providers out there to be discovered. Remember that you may be looking for multiple specialists, as opposed to a single full-service agency.

Search is complicated, increasingly specialized, and there are challenges to vetting prospective SEM agencies. In light of demand, good search marketing firms are rare, and finding a vendor perfectly suited to your needs requires legwork, research, and persistence.

To assist you in that process, I've put together a one-page questionnaire you can use for initial screenings of potential SEM vendors. You don't need to ask all of these questions of every potential partner. Eliminate questions that don't apply to your company's specific marketing application, or fall outside of your comfort zone.


Dear [Prospective SEM Vendor”,

Thank you for entering into a dialog with us as we vet potential SEM vendors for [Name of Company”. In order to keep the process as streamlined as possible, please take a few minutes to respond to this questionnaire. Our goal is to make sure we are a right fit for each other before getting too far along in the process, and to make sure we do not waste your time.

The answers can be as detailed or short as you deem appropriate. We look forward to the process of getting to know your company better. We're happy to read articles on-topic originating from your agency, if you provide the URL in any question's answer. Thank you in advance for your efforts.

Pay Per Click

  1. Is anyone in your firm AdWords Qualified or a Yahoo Ambassador?
  2. Does your agency have a designated Google or Yahoo representative?
  3. What is your agency's billing model for PPC: percentage of spend, percentage of revenue, monthly fee, hybrid?
  4. Do you have a monthly PPC minimum spend or fee?
  5. What method does your firm use to manage PPC: by hand, by automation (what tool), hybrid?
  6. Do you use our credit card, your agency's or another method? How will you invoice us?
  7. What reports do you typically send clients, and at what interval?
  8. What PPC channels are you experienced with (Google, MSN, Yahoo, Facebook, etc.)?
  9. How does your agency measure PPC conversion and ROI?
  10. Is it in your vocabulary to do multivariate landing page and ad message testing?
  11. How much PPC spend-cash do you handle annually?
  12. Please submit 2 short PPC case studies highlighting success.
  13. Please submit 1 short PPC case study highlighting failure.
  14. Please submit 2 PPC client-references.

Organic Optimization

  1. What link-building tactics and methods will be employed?
  2. Does your agency have a content creation practice, or will you guide us in building out our content?
  3. How do you measure organic prominence in light of Personalized Search?
  4. What keyword research tools do you use?
  5. How does your agency measure organic conversion and ROI?
  6. What methods will be used to mine competitive intelligence about our competitors?
  7. What is the billing model for organic-related services? (retainer, hourly, flat monthly fee, etc.)
  8. Do you test organic landing page performance with PPC?
  9. What steps do you take to insulate clients from becoming too dependent on Google?
  10. Please submit 2 short organic case studies highlighting success.
  11. Please submit 1 short organic optimization case study highlighting failure.
  12. Please submit 2 organic optimization client-references.

Social Media

  1. What social media channels are you currently active in for clients? (StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook, etc.)
  2. Give examples of how those channels might be used to bolster the overall SEM effort.
  3. What reputation monitoring tools will be used?
  4. What is the frequency and substance of your reputation reporting?
  5. What is your experience with open source blogging software like WordPress?
  6. What are your typical non-blogging uses of blog-style software?
  7. Please submit 2 short social media case studies highlighting success.
  8. Please submit 1 short social media case study highlighting failure.

General Vendor Qualifications

  1. How many full-time employees are in the agency? What are their roles?
  2. What SEM conferences did you attend in the past year, and which do you plan to attend this year? (SES, PubCon, SMX, etc.)
  3. What SEM conferences have members of your staff spoken at, and which ones will your staff speak at this year?
  4. What trade publications (online or paper) do members of your staff write for, and on what topics?
  5. Please submit 3 links to articles you or your employees have written.
  6. In which forums is your agency "known"? (SEW, Sphinn, Cre8asite, High Rankings, etc.)
  7. Please provide links to your social media and forum profile pages.
  8. What traditional business affiliations (BBB, Chambers of Commerce, etc.) does your firm have?
  9. Are you a SEMPO member?
  10. Does your agency have in-house programmers and designers, or do you outsource?
  11. If outsourcing, what are your partner-vendors' URLs?
  12. What analytics applications, other than Google Analytics, are used?
  13. Is there an in-house method to measure offline conversions (phone, etc.)?
  14. What experience does your agency have in local/mobile?


The "correct" answers to a few of these questions will be unique to your needs and may be a little out of your personal expertise. I suggest you research the questions raised yourself, or even hire a consultant to help you vet potential firms. Typically you'll spend $350+ per hour for help in the evaluation process, but that's an expense you'll recoup if it helps you find the right partner.

Even if you're not totally familiar with the rationale behind the above questions, the SEM firm you're querying should respect the thumbnail-depth of your evaluation process. Any agency that's worth its salt will welcome the opportunity to participate in a focused vetting process.

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About the author

Marty is author of "Killer Facebook Ads" (Wiley/Sybex 2011) and CEO of aimClear, an online marketing agency that has managed Facebook ad campaigns generating over 10 billion impressions internationally. Client credits include MarthaStewart.com, Siemens, Second Life, Budget Direct, and other global brands.

He’s written extensively for respected Internet marketing trade publications and been quoted in many others. aimClear Blog has been cited as among the Technorati Top 10 Small Business Blogs, Cison Top Ten Social Media Blogs, PRWeb’s 25 Essential Public Relations Blogs You Should Be Reading, and listed in the AdAge Power150.

A fixture on the international conference circuit, Marty speaks regularly at Search Engine Strategies (SES). Marty founded and produces the aimClear Full Day Facebook Marketing Intensive Workshop.

He has been described as “not your typical agency type.” A “social media maverick” and “more innovator than follower.” aimClear has become internationally recognized for its work in demographic research, especially as pertains to search, Facebook, and LInkedIn.

Marty and his aimClear team specialize in paid and organic search and social online marketing. aimClear’s services include blended search and social demographic research; search engine optimization (SEO) technical and semantic audits, analytics monitoring, and consulting; pay-per-click (PPC) audits, setup, testing, and ongoing management; online reputation management (ORM) dashboard configuration and ongoing monitoring; social media marketing consulting and data-driven community management; public relations; and copywriting.