A Modest Proposal: Technology in Search

Over the years, I’ve answered a variety of search proposals. The questions always seem to cover similar topics: who are you, what makes you so good, etc.

My new favorite proposal section deals with technology. More and more, marketers are interested in all the details around the types of technologies your company uses. They seem more concerned about what technologies you employ than many other important factors.

In several instances, agencies have lost RFPs, despite having a solid strategy, because they lacked technology. Yes, I believe in technology, and, of course, there’s no way to manage every aspect of search without relying on some tools. However, while your agencies should employ technology, letting it rule your decision-making process has flaws.

What’s My Motivation?

So why has technology become such a motivating factor for clients? The technology conversation starts in one area that then has some downstream implications (my new favorite business expression).

The search world moves with such speed that it can be hard at times to keep up. Marketers ask about technology because, quite frankly, they don’t believe humans can keep up with the daily optimization of a campaign. They fear something will be missed because an agency can’t watch a campaign every minute.

Clients also focus on technology as a source of efficiency. If you aren’t automating certain activities, then you’re billing more hours and costing the client more money. This is a valid concern, but we must be clear on what tasks actually need automation.

Regarding keyword lists, some great tools can help with this task. Don’t fault your agency, however, if they want to take a more manual approach to create deeper segmentation while working with the reporting and market research teams. This will require more time spent on the campaign, but should yield a better outcome.

Additionally, technology helps marketers differentiate, or so they think. At times agencies sound alike.

For example, we all feel that certain practices, such as creating custom landing pages based on queries or minimizing duplicate content, are critical to search success. But how does a marketer (who typically isn’t a search expert) know that Agency A is better at it than Agency B?

Technology provides a Linus-like security blanket that helps them answer this question. It’s visual, and they can now see more behind the decisions being made than just the brain trust on the account.

Unfortunately, there’s really no way to determine how an agency will employ technology once the campaign begins. Are those pretty reports you see every month the result of that amazing technology that was demoed or a behind-the-scenes intern who spent hours pulling it together with Excel?

Technology vs. People — How Do You Decide?

Our industry sometimes fails to apply the “how would an everyday person like this?” mentality. This can have its repercussions.

Look at the travel industry. We now have technology-driven solutions at our fingertips that can group together flights, hotels, and car rentals.

But think about those times when the system told you that it made more sense to take a connecting flight through Philadelphia when there was a chance of a cloud in the sky. What about when that best hotel was only a short 10 miles down the scenic 405 Freeway? Wouldn’t you need to leave two hours early to make the meeting?

The technology works, but having someone you can call to help you through such hiccups is what makes a travel partner better. Most of the time you won’t need human interaction, but working with a company that employs smart people makes all the difference.

Technology can never fully replace smart, hardworking people. We just need to get better at sifting through candidates.

It will always be difficult to select a qualified agency based solely on their proposal. It isn’t uncommon to find a potential client partner looks great on paper, but doesn’t live up to the hype in person.

Instead of letting technology be the tiebreaker, try a couple of human influenced factors. Would you date them? At times, the relationship with your search agency can be more complex than your relationship with your significant other.

How did they present? Did they answer all the questions you asked, or provide fluff? Did they admit it when they didn’t know an answer?

Why not play a game of Business Buzzword Bingo? Pass out the cards before a presentation, and tell the agency that if more than half the people in the room get bingo you’re stopping the presentation.

Did you check their references? Ask for a reference from a client that fired them. Also, make sure the references are current and they aren’t citing work that was done a year ago. Let them also submit any reference that has worked with them in the past year.

We recently lost two of our best references because they switched jobs; why should we be penalized because our client moved on? Three to six months is a good statute of limitations on how long you can still use a reference.

Forget all the mumbo jumbo and data that’s been presented. What does your gut tell you? If you’re in a position to choose your search agency, you’ve done a few things right in your career. And I bet that some of those were based on gut decisions.

Be Cautious with Agencies

Several companies have created some pretty sweet, but proprietary, technologies. I’m a little leery of this, because agencies typically don’t develop technologies. It’s great if they created something based on a need that they had, but it’s not their core business, and will undoubtedly have some inherent flaws.

The best technology is developed and refined by technology companies that focus on meeting the needs of a broad array of customers, not just one agency’s customers. This accounts for scale, and allows them to take advantage of work they’ve done in other areas. They can create a more flexible solution because they understand the broader needs versus something that works well at my agency.

Several clients have been wowed by technology, but later dissatisfied with the service and strategy they received. Those are the ones who realized they should have paid more attention to the people presenting instead of the technology.

Looking outside of agencies for technologies means you aren’t locked into any agency long-term. Many relationships end well, with the client deciding to take search in-house. When this happens, the client either needs to switch technologies (huge barrier) or license that technology from their old partner. Licensing is tough, because now you can’t adapt it or scale it to your needs.

The best situations are the ones in which you find a top-notch company with a track record of success that mixes in their own offerings with third party technologies. Marketing should be the core focus of SEM, and clients, agencies, and tech developers should allocate their time to what they do best.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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