SEM, short for search engine marketing has come a long way since it was first heard of in the mid nineties. When I first entered this arena of Internet marketing in 1997, there was very little competition among firms offering these services and the marketing process itself was quite simple. Modify a few title tags, add some meta description and keyword tags and then make sure the targeted key phrases are incorporated in the body copy of a web site and it typically enjoyed success.

While these are still essentials of SEM, marketing one’s site via the search engines is a much more involved process these days. With the increase in web pages and documents in the search indices as well as the number of webmasters marketing for top positions, SEM is much more competitive, no matter what industry you are in.

Intelligent keyword research has become crucial to the success of a campaign. Site usability is more important than ever because site owners want to see conversions from their efforts. Good link building techniques can make or break a search engine marketing effort. Add to this mix PPC (pay per click) and it is easy to see that marketing via the search engines has evolved into a much more sophisticated animal than it was in 1997.

Search Engine Marketing Has Gained The World’s Attention

With the phenomenal success of Google, the industry of search has made a lot of noise and has successfully gained the attention of marketers worldwide.

A recent study released by Forrester Research indicates that almost half of marketers plan to decrease spending in traditional advertising channels like magazines, direct mail, and newspapers to fund an increase in online ad spending in 2005. The report states, “Total US online advertising and marketing spending will reach $14.7 billion in 2005, a 23 percent increase over 2004. According to a new five-year forecast from Forrester Research, Inc. (Nasdaq: FORR), online marketing and advertising will represent 8 percent of total advertising spending in 2010 — rivaling ad spending on cable/satellite TV and radio.”

This is not surprising news to those of us that have been involved in this industry since its inception. We have seen considerable growth with more attention being paid to search engine marketing each and every year.

This has lead to a virtual “gold rush” with companies setting up shop to try to claim their stake of the SEM gold. Some companies are established web design or advertising firms that have added SEM divisions. Others are brand new to marketing period. Where there was at one time only a handful of SEMs, now there are literally thousands.

An Industry Trying To Define Itself

The tremendous growth in search has led to an increasing problem in the SEM industry. With the lack of standards or a governing agency, it is currently very easy for a firm to over promise and yet under deliver. I am seeing more and more SEM firms promise the world to those wishing to market via the search engines but falling short on what they actually deliver. This could be a result of either going after unrealistic goals or simply inexperience in search engine marketing itself.

This has lead to SEM firms forming associations such as SEMPO, SEO Pros, SEM-UK, SEM-NA and the like. It has also resulted in firms labeling themselves as white hats or black hats, meaning that white hats avoid techniques that would be considered spam while black hats take more risk. It has also led to firms specializing whether they do SEO (search engine optimization) only, PPC (pay per click) management, link building, press release optimization, SEO copywriting or all of the above. With the lack of any real standards, any one of these services could be all over the board in regards to pricing, techniques, strategy, etc.

Therefore it is becoming more important for companies that wish to market their sites via the search engines to do their homework before they begin a campaign or hire a company to do it for them.

Due Diligence, A Must

First of all, one must educate themselves on the various elements that currently exist in the overall spectrum of search engine marketing. SEM has become a multi-faceted strategy – it is not just submitting to search engines anymore.

There is Search Engine Optimization or SEO which consists of optimizing a web site to position well in the organic search results for targeted key phrases. Attached to SEO is SEO copywriting which consists of writing great content for both your users and search engines.

There is Link Popularity Building which consists of increasing and improving the amount of external links pointing to one’s web site. Link building can have various elements to it such as directory submissions, reciprocal linking, online press releases, text link ads and graphical ads.

There is Paid Search Management such as paid inclusion and pay per click programs which would include Google AdWords and Overture Premium Listings.

Once a marketer understands the different elements of SEM, they need to decide what they specifically want to do. Do they want to target the 80% of searchers who click on organic listings? Do they want to target the other 20% who click on sponsored listings? Do they want to use the contextual advertising that some PPC programs offer to gain visibility on numerous industry related web sites? Is there industry highly competitive to where SEO alone will not serve their needs but a combination of SEO and link building? What are their goals? Who is there target audience? How about geographical area?

SEM is not simple anymore. In cannot be packaged into a “one size fits all” program. It requires a unique well planned strategy for each site. It requires those seeking to market their sites to have a basic understanding of their goals and if hiring a professional SEM firm, selecting one that can deliver.

Five Things To Look For In a Search Engine Marketing Firm

I want to quickly address the issue of hiring a professional SEM company to handle your marketing efforts. With so many companies to choose from these days, I want to highlight some qualities to look for. While there are many great companies out there, unfortunately there are also many wolves amongst the sheep.

1.) Longevity – How long has the firm been in business? If they have been around since at least 1997, know that they are one of the pioneers in the industry. You can also be pretty assured that they are successful because 8 years or more is a long time in the Internet industry. Companies do not stay in business that long unless they are doing something right. While longevity isn’t everything, it is certainly a good quality because with longevity comes experience.

2.) Services – What SEM services do they offer? Do they only do SEO? Do they offer PPC management as well? What about Link Building? Do they design/develop sites, having a understanding of the inner workings of html? Believe it or not, there are firms out there that do not know the first thing about html, web design, etc. and they are modifying people’s sites. That is a scary thought indeed!

3.) Work Order – What is the firm you are hiring specifically going to do for you? Are they going to optimize your site? Which pages? What elements of those pages are they optimizing? When will it be completed? Are they setting up and/or managing PPC for you? What is entailed in this? How about link building? Which sites will they acquire links from and how much will it cost?

These are just some of the questions you should ask. Remember you are trusting a company to develop a strategy that is hopefully going to increase your search engine visibility. Therefore it is of vital importance to discover exactly what they are going to do for you and hold them accountable to complete each task.

4.) Flexibility – Your company is different from others. Your marketing project may also have unique challenges. Make sure you are not being forced into a cookie cutter package. Communicate your goals as well as any obstacles you foresee. If the firm you wish to hire does not want to listen to your specific needs and custom tailor a marketing strategy around them, my only advice is to walk. A search engine marketing firm should be concerned about seeing your business grow as a result of their efforts. It is not just rankings that they should be concerned with but over effectiveness of the campaign. This includes a good ROI (return on investment) for the money the web site owner is willing to spend.

5.) Clients/Success Stories – Who are the firm’s clients? Are they no-name companies you have never heard of or are they reputable companies? Does the firm have any success stories or testimonials? These things can tell you a lot about a search engine marketing firm. Reputable companies do not just hire anybody to do their marketing and success stories can often solidify a decision to hire that company to take on your marketing efforts.

SEM – A Continuous Evolution

SEM has evolved many times since the birth of search engines and will continue to do so. If you are doing your own search engine marketing, it is important that you are able to evolve with the constant changes that occur almost daily in this industry. If hiring a company to do this for you, make sure they can adapt to change not only in the industry but regarding your own goals.

Search engines will continue to evolve and improve. People will continue to change as well. The ability to flow with this will help ensure your success in online marketing.

David Wallace

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses.

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