A Buyer’s Guide to Paid Search Advertising Agencies

Who are the key players in the paid search arena? A companion to the Buyer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms, reviewed last week, has the inside scoop.

Paid search marketing has exploded in the past three years, since Yahoo’s acquisition of Overture and Google’s introduction of AdWords. Despite the relative youth of the industry, developing a successful paid search campaigns requires extensive industry knowledge and experience.

Firms specializing in paid search campaigns generally come from three backgrounds, according to The Buyer’s Guide to Paid Search Advertising (PPC) Agencies from Marketing Sherpa. There are traditional search optimization firms who’ve acquired paid search experience so they can service all of their clients’ search marketing needs. Traditional ad agencies have also piled into the game, so they can service all of their clients’ online advertising needs. And because the field is so lucrative, individuals wanting to start their own business have also piled into the space.

Each type of firm is likely to take a different approach, and deliver very different outcomes, to a paid search marketing campaign. That poses a challenge for companies wanting to engage the services of a PPC professional to develop and manage a search advertising campaign.

The Buyer’s Guide is designed to help companies make this selection. The first part of the guide covers the basics of paid search campaigns and how they are typically priced. It also offers general advice on selecting a paid search agency.

Much of this information takes the form of answering common questions: Why not let your regular ad agency handle your paid search? Should you hire an agency or do your own paid search campaign in-house? How do you determine a baseline search advertising budget?

If you’re not familiar with how paid search agencies work, the answers to these questions can save you a lot of time and trouble. The sample contract and negotiation tips and also be helpful when you’re getting down to brass tacks with an agency.

The bulk of the guide, just like the companion Buyer’s Guide to SEO reviewed last week, is a directory of 61 paid search agencies, detailing the services they offer. The guidelines for inclusion in the directory were similar to those for SEO firms:

To meet these guidelines, a company must:

    • Have paying clients since March 2004 or earlier


    • Have one in-house staffer who focuses at least 75% on paid search services and has been a professional since 2002 or earlier


    • Derive a significant portion of revenue from paid search advertising services (not including ad buying fees paid to engines themselves)


    • Make $75,000 or more fees from clients who engage the firm specifically for paid search advertising


    • Be based in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia or New Zealand


Firms could either be self-nominated or nominated by a client. Marketing Sherpa distributed a 172 point questionnaire to nominated firms, and followed up with email and telephone interviews to compile profiles. Companies not disclosing information were not included in the guide.

Firms are not rated for quality, but each lists two clients that can be used for references and study of how the firm is managing a campaign.

Competitive Intelligence for Search Marketers

Both the Guide to Search Engine Optimization and the Guide to Paid Search Advertising Agencies are treasure troves of information about the search marketing industry. While it’s interesting to see data on our peers that we often banter with in forums or share a beer with at Search Engine Strategies, the information in the Guides is a potent source of competitive intelligence for anyone working in the industry.

In addition to revealing methods and practices, each firm lists at least two clients. In some cases, companies list numerous clients—bragging rights, to be sure, but also a road map for studying the tactics that the firm is employing for clients, and an opportunity to gauge first-hand whether these tactics are effective.

In short, by studying the SEO and search ad campaigns for the companies listed as clients in these reports, you can give yourself a thorough education in both basic practices and discover some of the proprietary techniques being used by cutting-edge firms. You won’t, in most cases, find companies using these methods describing them publicly—they give the firm an edge over competitors, after all.

But in most cases unique or unconventional tactics will reveal themselves to a patient observer. Take the time to study your competitors and see what they’re up to.

The Guides also publish complete lists of all of the clients listed. What better source of qualified leads for your own services? In some cases, client firms will be quite satisfied with their current search marketing firm. In others, they might be actively looking for a new provider.

And since most search marketing firms are still comparatively small compared to traditional advertising agencies or public relations firms, some companies may be perfectly happy with their search marketing firm but need to hire additional firms, either to handle additional campaigns or to diversify, reducing their reliance on a single firm.

Other details in profiles can help you spot gaps in what’s currently offered industry-wide, and tailor your own services to fill unmet needs of potential clients. For example, many of the firms in the Guide to PPC advertising claim that they work only for top-end clients with the ability to spend thousands per month on campaigns. Others require minimum time-frames for campaigns. By poring through details such as these, you’ll be able to come up with new ideas for working with clients that may be a huge success.

Like the Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms, the Guide to Paid Search Advertising Agencies is a PDF book (226 pages) that sells for $199, but you can buy both for $249. Both guides are well worth the investment if you’re thinking of hiring a search marketing or search advertising firm.

Marketing Sherpa’s Buyer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms – $199

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