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Andrea Noleroth, Network Appliance's senior marketing manager, came to the conclusion last fall that search engine marketing could help the data storage provider's marketing efforts in a big way. "Based on what our market research showed us, search engine marketing would give us the lowest cost per lead and our lowest cost per impression," Noleroth said. "Plus, we did some competitive research and saw our key competitors weren't doing that much in the search market, so we could really gain additional advantage."

But while choosing to use search engine marketing may have been easy, choosing an SEM provider was not. In an effort to narrow down the hundreds of vendors, the company went to several search engine marketing conferences and did research on a popular search engine Web site,

Noleroth was looking for specific criteria. She needed a company that had b-to-b experience and looked at search engine marketing as something that could address each step of a prospect's sales cycle.

After a few weeks, she was able to create a short list of eight to 10 prospects. From there, she conducted one-on-one interviews with each SEM provider. In the end, the company hired San Diego, Calif.-based Silicon Space.

Network Appliance had a relatively uneventful search, but that isn't always the case. Finding the right search engine marketing provider can be a daunting prospect. Indeed, Noleroth was lucky she narrowed her pool to 10 because, according to Gord Hotchkiss, co-chairman of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization's (SEMPO) Research Committee, there are literally hundreds of SEM vendors in the marketplace. In addition, many interactive and advertising agencies are now offering search services, too.

Plus, Hotchkiss said, there's no real household name or preferred brand out there yet. The result can be seen in a November 2005 SEMPO research report, which found that more companies are taking search engine marketing in-house. In fact, 65% of respondents said they would be doing their own search engine marketing, up considerably from the 52% that said they would go it alone last year.

"Marketers look [at the list of vendors] and say, `I don't know any of these guys. It doesn't seem complicated. I'll try doing it internally,' " said Hotchkiss, who is also president-CEO of SEM provider Enquiro Inc. "They don't realize that there's more to search than meets the eye."

In some cases, the urge to take search in-house may stem from a lack of cash or available SEM companies. Many of the largest providers won't take on a b-to-b client with a small marketing budget. There's simply too much care and work involved, SEM vendors say, to justify a monthly fee below the $1,500 to $3,500 price range.

Also, some providers are just too busy to take on additional clients, said Dana Todd, co-founder, SiteLab International, an SEM vendor.

Spending for Profit

But going it alone isn't always the best option. There are major benefits to having an outside vendor handle your search efforts. For one thing, a search-specific vendor is going to have access to tools and research that the average marketer simply can't afford or implement on its own, said Fredrick Marckini, CEO and founder of SEM provider iProspect.

SEM marketers also have a major advantage when it comes to organic search. Because search engine algorithms change so frequently, it can be difficult to keep up. That's where SEM experts come in. Some SEM companies even get an early look at new search engine changes, said Melissa Burgess, director of business development with IMPAQT.

"The really good SEM providers are going to be involved in beta testing. If you're with one of those companies, you may get involved with a pilot program," she said.

And then there's the big picture vision that can come along with your SEM services, said Sapna Satagopan, a research associate with JupiterResearch.

"Beyond the [search campaign] management and services, we see an element of proactivity with the good firms out there-the ability to see beyond purely search engine marketing, to look at your program in a holistic way," Satagopan said.

The key, then, is finding a good SEM provider. You can go about doing so in a number of ways. If you're looking for a list of providers, you can find several online, including the SEMPO member list, SearchEngineWatch's and the SEO Consultants directory (see box on page 22 for more information). Another option is to check out who's on the speaking circuit at search industry conferences, such as Incisive Interactive Marketing's Search Engine Strategies events, which are held in various locations each year. There are also search engine consultants such as JupiterResearch and Terry Plank, the owner of Search Engine Marketing Consultation. "Someone like Terry Plank can help identify your needs and match them with a provider," Todd said.

Narrowing the list should be simple. For example, prospective SEM providers should be asking you as many-if not more-questions than you ask. "Get a sense of how interested the company is in your business model and objectives. Are they really trying to understand your business direction? They should be trying to find out what's unique about your company," Hotchkiss said.

Your questions for them should include a variety of topics. Vendors should be forthcoming about how they recruit and train their employees, what their salesperson-to-service provider ratio is (there should be as many or more service providers), and how willing they are to work closely with your marketing and IT staff.

References are also important, but don't just settle for current customers, Hotchkiss said. "It's just as important to talk to references that may have chosen to sever a relationship," he said. "What you want to do is find out the reason it didn't work out. A mismatch of expectations is OK because it shows that it was nothing that the SEM provider did."

Reading case studies is also important, as is being able to speak directly to the client manager you'll be working with, said Andrew Wetzler, president of SEM provider MoreVisibility. "You need to have a comfort level there before you sign a contract," he said.

Some SEM providers tout their inclusion on search engine ambassador and certified lists as proof that they are superior to other providers. And while such endorsements from the major search players may look a lot like marketing ploys, one analyst said they are something to take into consideration.

"Given that Google is the biggest game in town and there are only three major search players, I am not sure if [association] is a major plus. I rather think it is a necessity," said Safa Rashtchy, managing director and senior Internet analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co.

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