As the cottage industry of search engine marketing continues to mature into a legitimate form of brand and conversion marketing, traditional ad agencies are actively stepping in to take advantage of the growth in search industry dollars.
Fundamental differences in the way SEO firms and ad agencies approached online marketing have made this transition difficult in the past, as SEO consultants initially focused on the game of achieving top-ranking "organic" search results. While Ad Agencies were smitten with the early days of flashing banners and ad impressions for the branding exposure, soon the world of cost-per-click (CPC) advertising exploded into a highly effective and measurable form of online advertising that could no longer be ignored.
Fundamental Differences in Approach
Clearly this was a point of agreement for the speakers at Boston's Search Engine Strategies conference in March, with all acknowledging that Ad Agencies faced significant challenges when shifting their attention to the search marketing world, and similarly, skilled SEO's ran into roadblocks trying to describe the intricacies of optimization.
A pronounced shift is taking place from non-traditional (SEM) agencies to traditional agencies taking advantage of paid search models. Both types of agencies are also finding synergy working together, once they develop a mutual language and understanding of goals agreeable to all parties involved. Education on the basics of SEO for the Ad Agency and the client are a key factor in the initial stages of planning a successful search marketing strategy.
Dan Boberg of Overture pointed out that paid search meets the needs for all involved: the consumer, advertisers, agencies, web designers and marketers, and creates valuable offline impact. Boberg mentioned that some traditional agencies struggle with some barriers to entry in text-based advertising: limited creative focus, CPC vs. CPM models, and lack of measurement tools and metrics.
Boberg went on to say that SEM firms often have access to the technical tools Ad Agencies need to track and manage paid search campaigns, and partnering can help deliver value to clients by creating broader coverage, increasing speed to market and maximizing ROI. Enrolling in Overture's agency ambassador or strategic provider partner programs are also beneficial to SEO firms and Ad Agencies, as they provide higher levels of service, customized proposals, and access to advanced tools.
Agencies that "get it" are incorporating a mix of search strategies either in-house or by partnering with highly focused, SEO boutique shops, said Carolyn Griffin of Carat Interactive, a global leader in media services. Traditional agencies still want to "own" the client relationship but need SEO consultants to help manage client expectations and split the responsibilities, as well as educate the agency employees.
Dana Todd of Site Lab says that there may be some competition brewing between agency types, but consolidation and cooperation would actually help grow the industry as a whole. Dealing with traditional agencies can be less painful if you take the path of least resistance and speak to them in a way they can understand -- the direct marketing model that SEM mirrors makes sense to agencies, said Todd. Compromise, training the design teams and sharing SEO success with developers help create a better working relationship.
Self proclaimed agency refugee Matt Bailey firmly staked his position when stating that being an SEO in a web shop is much easier than within a traditional agency, where conflicts can arise due to the mentality of how SEO is perceived. Clients rely on the agency to implement the work, said Bailey, but the SEO needs to be involved with client conversations and documentation in order to ensure a realistic expectations and achieve overall project goals.
Bill Hunt from Outrider also rejected the agency models, saying that communication breakdown often leads to problems integrating search marketing among agency groups. Industry consultant Chris Churchill, who has agency experience and worked with Ask Jeeves to slim ad products and syndication, agrees.
Creating thousands of individual listings for relevant keywords aligned with the proper messaging can be a serious pain point, but the ability to control costs with SEO compared to CPC, setting timelines and capping CPC with tools can be beneficial. Internal decisions on handling large volume CPC buys while integrating overall branding strategies need to be clear to avoid conflicts. However, Hunt recommends that agencies make SEM a line item of any client budget and present the end results as a portion of the total campaign.
Metrics Need to Evolve, Mean Something
The most difficult issue facing SEOs and Ad Agencies is determining a method for reporting meaningful data without discrepancies. With pay-per-click, numbers are fairly straightforward and absolute when ROI tracking is directly applied. Yet the industry is still in infant stages when it comes to measuring the branding effectiveness of contextual and keyword advertising.
With anywhere from 5 to 12 opportunities to be seen on a search results page, marketers have several avenues to control messaging and create "Surround Sound Impact" by implementing both CPC and organic SEO techniques. Recent studies are beginning to produce a body of evidence, with "lift & recall" data indicating that users have a higher message recall than brand recall. View-Thru studies imply that that 90% of conversions happen after a searcher is exposed and returns to the site within 30 days, demonstrating the lasting effects of contextual messaging.