As an owner of a full service SEM (Search Engine Marketing) firm, there are two things I love – word of mouth referrals and partnerships with traditional agencies. How can one not love these two means of acquiring new business?

Word of mouth referrals is as old as the dinosaurs. As a consumer, you buy a product or receive a service that you are just absolutely thrilled with and you tell everyone you know.

Not quite as old is the process of SEM companies who partner with agencies, whether those agencies specialize in PR, web development, traditional media (print, radio and video), etc. Very similar to word of mouth advertising, partnerships allow you to tap into an existing customer base who has already put their trust in the agency you are partnering with.

In this post I want to look at the latter of these – SEM/Agency partnerships. I will highlight some of the benefits for both the agency and the SEM firm as well as provide some practical advice on how two entitles can work together for the mutual benefited of all parties involved.

Why Would an Agency Want To Partner With an SEM?

If an agency’s clients are not already involved in search engine marketing to some degree, they are most likely exploring the idea. Who better to ask than the very company that is already handling other aspects of their advertising budget? Therefore the agency is left with three choices – develop an in-house staff so they can offer their clients search marketing services, seek a reputable SEM firm to partner with or just turn clients away leaving them to look elsewhere.

Turning them away is not a good option. Not only will you lose out on that portion of your client’s business, there is the possibility that another vendor will replace the services you are already providing. That leaves the choice of developing an in-house search marketing team or partnering with an SEM firm.

Developing an in-house team is easier said than done. First you have to somewhat educate yourself with the industry so you know what services to offer as well as what to look for in staffing requirements. Then there is the process of actually acquiring experienced individuals who will sell and perform the services.

Factor into this salaries which typically start at $40,000 annually for entry level positions and can far exceed the $100,000 for more experienced people. That is not to mention benefits, office space and equipment, ongoing training, etc, etc., etc.

Because there is a lot involved in setting up an in-house SEM staff, it may be more beneficial to outsource to an established SEM firm. The agency can continue to focus on what they have always done best while having complete confidence that their client’s search marketing needs are being met at the same time.

Even if you do plan on eventually bringing everything in house, partnering with an SEM firm initially will enable you the time to not only learn the search marketing industry, but allow you to build up a staff that will do the work.

Why Would SEMs Want To Partner with Agencies?

The largest benefit of an SEM partnering with an agency goes back to word of mouth marketing. There is very little if any selling. The business is already closed. All there is to do is to define the budget and develop the strategy. The agency has already established trust with the client so they automatically trust you.

Another benefit is that many traditional agencies that have been around for some time have some of the larger and more recognized companies as clients. This can add value to the SEM’s portfolio unless the SEM is working behind the scenes. Even behind the scenes, SEMs can gain access to large companies that they quite possibly could not have secured on their own.

Years ago, we developed and maintained an SEO campaign for BellSouth through an agency relationship. This was when I was running the company as a one man operation out of a bedroom closet. Do you think BellSouth for a minute would have given me the business had I pitched it on my own? Not likely, but they did through an established relationship with their agency.

There is also the possibility that the agency may acquire your company down the road. We were almost acquired back in our early days. The deal fell through however when it was discovered that the agency we were working with wanted to offer me a position rather than an equity stake in their company. That didn’t kill the SEM/agency relationship however as we continued to work together many years after that.

A final benefit to consider is that the agency may be able to offer your clients services that you do not offer yourself. For example, one of our partners is a large international web developer. We do not keep a web development team on staff. We did in the past but because we now focus 95% of our energies on SEM, it just doesn’t make sense to keep a web development team on staff.

When we do land some business that involves some kind of web development, we hand it right over to our partner. It is a win-win situation as they allow us to extend our offering of services without having to tool ourselves as a web development firm and they can offer SEM services to their clients without having to actually have an SEM division.

Defining the Relationship

Once the SEM and agency decide to work together, they must define the terms. Will the agency’s clients know their search marketing campaigns are being handled by a partner or is the SEM to be completely behind the scenes? Will non-disclosure and/or non-compete contracts be needed? What is the pricing structure? Will the SEM offer discount pricing or does the agency need to build in their own profit margin? Who will implement actual strategy whether that be modifying a web site or managing a PPC console?

These and other terms should be worked out beforehand so that the relationship runs smoothly. An SEM firm will fare well in attracting partners if they are flexible in how they interact with the agency. Most agencies like discounted pricing as well as the option of being able to offer their own branded service, meaning that the SEM stays behind the scenes. If the SEM firm does not have direct access to the client web sites, they should be able to provide concise and documented strategy that agency finds easy to implement.

Of course you can always change things as you move along but I have found that when you define these and other terms beforehand, both parties will experience a much smoother relationship.

Equipping The Agency

Because the agency does not specialize in search marketing, the SEM will have to somehow equip them so that they can actually communicate with their clients. This is not so important when the SEM is not working in a behind the scenes relationship. When that situation does exist, the SEM should be able to train the agency to not only sell the services but communicate effectively regarding ongoing campaign issues. It is also crucial that the SEM be available to field questions and concerns that the agency’s client may have but that they cannot deal with themselves.

In our relationships we have done a few things to equip agencies to offer search marketing services.

1. We provide an extranet in which agencies can gain access to sales verbiage they can use on their own sites as well as contact us directly as opposed to using public contact format.

2. We provide extensive phone consultation, educating the agency on how to sell SEM services and maintain client communications for existing campaigns.

3. In quoting new projects, we provide RFPs that the agency can then customize with their own branding, pricing etc.

4. We make sure we are readily available to answer questions that the agency’s client’s might have.

5. Finally we provide email communication to our partners informing them of price changes, additional service offerings, changes in the industry, etc.

Things to Watch Out For

In a relationship such as this, trust is crucial. Sometimes that trust is violated so there are things both SEM and agency can do to protect themselves.


It is best to select an SEM that does not offer services that may compete directly with yours. If they do then you may want to have them sign a non-compete agreement so that they will at least not compete against for the same clients. You might also want them to sign a non-disclosure agreement so that they do not disclose any of the details you provide them regarding your client’s projects.


While it is crucial that you provide some level of training so that your agency partners can effectively deal with their client’s campaigns, make sure you are not creating a direct competitor. That happened to us. We had a partner who gave us one campaign to work while they gradually began to provide the same services to additional clients. We were essentially training them for free so they could turn around and offer search marketing services themselves, cutting us out of the loop in the process. We ended that relationship promptly after making this discovery.

Furthermore don’t assume because you communicate well with the agency that they are doing the same with the client. A good indication as to whether the agency is communicating with the client is if strategy you suggest actually gets implemented. If it is ignored, it may be that the agency is doing a poor job communicating with the client, if they are communicating at all. If you end up losing the campaign, you may try contacting the client directly. However be sensitive to any non-compete agreements you may have signed and/or harming the relationship you have in place with the agency.

How To Seek Partnerships

Finally a bit of advice on how to actually build partnerships with agencies. First and foremost, make sure you have a section within your site that offers information on your willingness to partner with agencies as well as a way for them to contact you. You can also send out letters to agencies in your local area offering partnership opportunities. This is how we secured our first partner relationship. Finally, network. Join local networking organizations or participate in forums. By networking and getting your name out there, you will increase the possibilities of creating new partnerships.

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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