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How to pick the right search marketing vendor

Posted by Jason Keith  February 10, 2012 08:03 AM

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I had the privilege of speaking to a number of small businesses this week at a marketing event held in Lexington. In talking to them about what they were succeeding with, what they needed help with and what the environment was like for small businesses on the whole, a few things stood out. The first was that many are wondering how to use social media effectively, if at all; the second is that many are going back to traditional marketing methods like direct mail; the third was that while search marketing is still as important as ever, many are struggling with how to do it well. As a result, many have turned to outside vendors to do it for them. That can be both beneficial and risky at the same time.

Outside vendors dedicated to a businesses search efforts can take a lot of pressure off an owner. But if they go unchecked can also spend a lot of money that ultimately doesn't get much in the way of results. I had more than a few owners tell me that they had their credit cards charged for hundreds of dollars that they knew was going to search, but they weren't getting any tangible results. The problem is that while search isn't difficult to measure, it is work to stay on top of. If you're not able to do it on your own, you still need to stay on top of the agency that's handling it for you.

With that in mind, here are three things to keep in mind when researching, assessing and working with a vendor to help with your search results.

Go find referrals:

Certainly as a small business owner, referrals are key to success. When looking for a partner to work with, referrals can really pay off. It's likely that someone you know works with a vendor, or knows someone who does. Because you'll be giving a set budget per month to search, it's important that you fully vet the company you work with ahead of time. Hearing real experiences from another business will go a long way in picking the right one. Forget the marketing pitch, the ads or even the company's site. Get the real story directly from someone who has worked with the company under consideration.

Before you sign, know what you want:

Search marketing can be like a rabbit hole, the more you look into it, the more confusing it can be and the further you can tumble down the hole. It will help to do your own analysis of what makes sense for your business - what keywords you want to focus on, how much you want to dedicate to paid search vs. organic and what your specific goals are for the various campaigns. If it means sending potential customers to your site, then that's what should be measured. Ditto with something like sales - make the call to action clear and actionable. One business owner this week told me that he was paying for ads to get phone calls to his business, but his phone wasn't ringing. My next question was, "then why are you still paying for the service?" By having clear goals in mind before you even meet with a search specialist, the chances of success will increase dramatically.

Don't just set it and forget it:

With any agreement with a vendor, there will be a budget for key search terms that will ultimately rise and fall based on how competitive the marketplace is. But it's too easy to have one meeting, agree on the budget and then forget all about the actual results. What's important is to ensure that you're receiving regular updates, checking on the progress of your campaigns and making the appropriate changes when certain things aren't working. Vendors are there to help and provide service, for certain, but ultimately how successful the efforts are depend on you. Having a full understanding of what's being done, why and where your money is going will allow you to be successful. Remember, they work for you, not the other way around.

Have you used an outside vendor for search marketing? How active did you have to be to see success? Or did you find that doing your own search marketing was more effective?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Jason Keith has been working for and with small businesses in the New England area for more than 10 years, specifically small, micro businesses. Born and raised in Massachusetts and a former journalist, he provides a unique perspective on the issues facing small businesses locally and nationally.To reach him directly email

This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone.

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