How to Avoid Hiring a Bad SEM Vendor


The search engine marketing (SEM) space is hot and growing hotter every day. The massive migration of advertising budgets from traditional channels to online marketing has brought many new players, and hoards of salespeople too.

Buying SEM services can be tricky in the best of circumstances, given how new and complicated the industry is. To make matters worse, guarantees are prohibited (to various degrees) by Google, Facebook, and Twitter. So how does a small business owner know a good SEM proposal from a bad one?

1. Don’t Purchase on Price Alone

Picking the lowest bid for anything is only logical if the deliverables are exactly the same. In SEM, this is rarely the case.

A small business owner may be comparing a standalone SEO proposal with an integrated online presence pitch that includes SEO, PPC, social media, and local map optimization. Even among SEO proposals the targeted keyword space is monumental, as marketing costs vary widely based on levels of competition and potential economic value.

The purchaser needs to have at least some understanding of what they are getting. And unlike many other industries, buyers can’t rely on a money-back guarantee for protection.

2. Make Sure Deliverables are Clearly Articulated

The strong SEM proposal will clearly outline the deliverables and timeline. While this may sound simplistic, many proposals are vague about what work is actually done.

Furthermore, are the work activities appropriate for the small business? Many owners will say they don’t know and rely on their vendor to tell them. This can be dangerous.

Know what is being proposed and buy what the small business really needs. Don’t expect miracles.

3. Pick the Most Informative Proposal

A well-crafted proposal will not only be professional and aesthetically appealing, but will also be informative. Look for a firm that took the time to do some research on your domain name and company.

Don’t respond to emails sent to Dear Sir. A good proposal will articulate a bit about your business and the competitors you are up against. It should include key statistics about your domain, keywords, and social media. This level of research in a proposal is a good indication of the attention to detail that will come post-sales.

4. Select a Team That Manages Expectations Carefully

This is counter-intuitive and many small business owners fall prey to hype. But the strongest team is often the one working very hard to manage expectations down.

Years of business experience highlights that under-promising and over-delivering is usually the key to long-term success. Look for these solid, honest, and reliable teams, avoiding those selling magic SEM pixie dust.

Steer clear from firms making guarantees. Aside from violating Google’s directive on guarantees, these firms usually have fine print or don’t plan to be around long enough for you to enforce the terms.

5. Check References & History

Solid firms don’t have a hard time finding customers who say “they did what they said they were going to do.” And that’s really what a small business buyer should be looking for.

Particularly when shopping for discounted prices, be wary of exaggerated claims of success. Too good to be true usually is.

A small business owner needs a reliable, honest, long-term partner. Make sure the vendor has been in business for at least 3 years.

6. Be Prepared to Learn

Most small business budgets don’t afford the luxury of extensive consulting time. Also, consultant billing rates are usually much higher than marketing services labor.

To get the biggest bang for the buck, be prepared to learn about search engine marketing enough to manage the vendor well and funnel the full budget into the work. While a good vendor will help educate you, you don’t need to become an SEM expert – and really can’t as a part-time initiative. If you aren’t prepared to learn enough to speak the same language as your team, then perhaps you aren’t ready to purchase SEM services.


Search engine marketing is an evolving industry with few standards and confusing terminology. Small business owners often feel under-qualified to evaluate vendors. To make matters worse, Google, Facebook and Twitter all prohibit guarantees to varying degrees.

To avoid making a costly mistake when hiring an SEM vendor, small business needs to arm themselves with enough knowledge to be competent as a vendor manager, and then select the right proposal and a reliable team.

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