The Power of Virtual Search Engine Marketing

Outsourcing has hit virtually every industry, and now it has become a vital strategy for search engine marketing firms that not long ago insisted on attending to every detail. Here’s how the trend is playing out.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.

There is a wonderful folk tale about a wise man who observed a wood cutter spending lengthy hours chopping down trees. The wise man said “Why don’t you sharpen your axe? The wood cutter replied, “How can I when I am so busy?” Told by Netramind’s Ani Kortikar, the story sounds a lot like working in SEM these days. Demand for services is up and growing; hours in the day are not.

How do you expand to meet demand for your search marketing services without increasing payroll and overhead? Break tasks into vital components and outsource the ones you don’t want to do to other specialists, according to panelists discussing “Virtual SEM” at December’s Search Engine Strategies in Chicago.

Providing insights from their own experience were longtime SEM consultants Scottie Claiborne, Jill Whalen and Stacy Williams, joined by Kortikar, whose company provides contracted SEO services by teams in California and India.

“It’s a problem when you feel like you want to clone yourself,” observed veteran SEM Jill Whalen. “When you are too busy, you never get the chance to become a full expert. You miss nuances and end up with poor client relations.” Jill’s solution: know who you need to hire. Her company, the widely known, is all virtual; she has no employees, most of her clients are not local, and many she has never met face to face. “We do most things by email,” she said.

“Be a specialist,” advised Scottie Claiborne. “Soar with your strengths.” She founded Right Click Web Consulting, which she recently merged into the Karcher Group. “Some part of SEM intrigues you, but more than likely not all of it,” she said. There is a huge demand for specialists right now. Be one and increase your satisfaction with your career.

The specialists Stacy Williams seeks for her firm, Prominent Placement, need two skills: search engine marketing and an ability to handle account management. “It’s easier to find seasoned account managers and teach them search engine marketing,” said Williams. Her secret? “SAHMs,” she announced. “Stay at home moms are better educated and more experienced than many job seekers, and are glad to have challenging work to do part time from home. Stay at home moms make grateful, loyal workers you never have to worry about.”

Weighing the pros and cons of outsourcing overseas? “Build a complete team, rather than one-off project teams,” counsels Kortikar. He stressed the importance of setting the right objectives in an outsourcing relationship. “Focus on core competencies and use outsourcing to explore new profitable customer segments,” he said, rather than assuming sending work overseas will immediately reduce costs and provide 24/7 operations.

The panel agreed that as a life choice, working at home worked well. Further, said Claiborne, using specialists is a great way to get work done and do the things you enjoy. “This is just part of my life,” observed Whalen.

Still, all agreed quality control was essential. Choose workers carefully and check everything for new clients, the panel advised, as you always have to take responsibility for mistakes. How to screen potential sub contractors? “Give them sample exercises, such as selecting a Yahoo category.”

Also crucial: Seamless internal communications. Williams relies on email, web conferencing, voicemail and uses for project management.

Virtual SEM tips from those who are doing it well

Document your process, says Williams. “Besides ensuring consistent standards of service, documenting every step of your process becomes an asset of your company, something tangible that contributes to its value.”

“Play fair,” said Claiborne. “Establish wholesale pricing, but don’t use it to undercut your partners.”

Post in forums to build credibility, said Claiborne and Whalen. “But you can’t just promote yourself, added Claiborne. “You have to offer legitimately useful responses.” Write helpful, smart quotes, added Whalen.

Be the big fish in a small pond, that big important client to your contractors, said Williams. “And do not underestimate your old network, ” she added, saying many of the subcontractors she works with were people she knew already from nine years in advertising. She located likely candidates by distributing job description by email and inviting receivers to send it on to others in their networks.

Recruit in local Parent-Teacher associations, suggested Kortikar. “PTA leaders need quite a bit of management skills. Claiborne recommended recruiting high school and college students, who are often willing to work for experience, and little money.

Find talented specialists for parts of your clients’ work. “Outsourcing keyword research to SEO Research Labs at $80 per site was a no-brainer, and they deliver more information that we could generate for that price,” said Williams.

“Match skill levels for a good fit to get the great deals,” said Claiborne. “And it’s critical to let your subcontractors know what you are communicating to the clients you share.”

Standardize quality processes and be patient in building your outsourcing relationship. “You need a two-to-three month commitment,” says Kortikar.

If you feel your work is taking over your life, Williams recommends Michael Gerber’s The eMyth Revisited. “It could have been written about me!” She recommended taking advantage of no-cost business counseling provided by the Government via the Small Business Development Centers nationwide. “Because of the planning help I received. I now know what products I will be launching in 2005 and in which quarter, as well as how many people I will need when,” said Williams.

Anne Kennedy is Founder and Managing partner of search engine marketing firm Beyond Ink.

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