48 Practical Questions to Qualify Prospective Search Marketing Vendors

Don’t Get Bamboozled! We’ve all heard anecdotes regarding the unfortunate results of under-qualified or downright deceptive SEM vendors. Common disasters include set-it-and-forget-it 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’s 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. Here is a one page questionnaire for initial screenings:

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 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 rep?
3. What is your agency’s revenue 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/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 are used?
5. How does your agency measure organic conversion and ROI?
6. What methods are 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 channels are you currently active in for clients? (StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook, etc…)
2. Give examples of how 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 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 will your staff speak at this year?
4. What trade publications, online or paper, do you write for and on what topics?
5. Please submit 3 links to articles you or your employees have written.
6. What forums is your agency "known" in? (SEW, Sphinn, Cre8asite, etc.)
7. Links to your profile pages please
8. Traditional affiliations (BBB, Chambers of Commerce, etc…)
9. 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 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 application and may be a little out of your personal expertise, one tactic I suggest is to 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, an expense you’ll find well worth it. Even if you’re not totally familiar with the rationale behind the above questions, the SEM firm you’re querying will respect the thumbnail-depth of your evaluation process.

Also, you might eliminate questions that don’t apply to your company’s specific marketing application or outside of your comfort zone. Any agency that’s worth its salt will welcome the opportunity to participate in a focused vetting process.

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