Finding “The One,” or How to Choose the Right SEM Agency

July 10, 2013
Questions and answers

Authors: Julia Kung, Team Director, Digital Marketing Programs & Surj Gish, Digital Marketing Program Director

At ROI DNA, we sometimes find ourselves in the situation of “rescuing” clients who are locked in an unhappy marriage with their Search Engine Marketing (SEM) agency. We hear variations on the same sad story: the client and the agency have great rapport, they get a lot of attention at the beginning … well maybe less now, but there was a lot of love at first, especially during the sales cycle. The results are lackluster, although beautifully reported, and the spark just isn’t there anymore. In addition, the client is trapped in this unhappy relationship because of the year-long contract they signed.

There are situations in which even the best SEM agency can’t turn things around right away, especially when there is a long history of low quality scores across the account. Should you find yourself in one of these precarious situations, don’t hesitate to act quickly. By six months in, it should be clear whether your agency is “the one.” Don’t hesitate to take advantage of your pre-nup and exercise your option to exit the contract when results just aren’t going to materialize, no matter how many long, heartfelt talks you’ve had.

When is your AdWords or Bing account in need of a new partner? Here are two obvious signs to look for within your account:

1) The majority of your keyword quality scores are under seven. If you do not have access to your AdWords account to see your quality scores, this is another warning sign – honesty is part of any good relationship!

2) If you have a digital product or service and your other paid marketing channels are more ROI efficient than SEM, chances are there are some issues within the account that a seasoned SEM manager can identify. Don’t be afraid to ask for an outside expert to review the account – think of this person like a marriage counselor. An outside perspective and fresh set of eyes can only help.

So how do you find “the one,” the SEM agency that is your company’s perfect match? Ask the following questions:

Does the agency fear non-committed relationships? How long are their contracts and what kind of outs are in the paperwork?
Agencies locking you into year-long contracts may start off strong and become complacent because they believe you can’t or won’t go anywhere.

Ask about communication and reports – we do need to talk, after all.
Frequent check-ins and pretty reports don’t necessarily mean that the SEM agency you choose will have great results, but it does mean that they are paying attention. Ask to see an example of a report, what the results of the report mean and what next steps might be when they see these sorts of results. Communication is key to any positive relationship!

Who are they, really? Find out who is actually doing the work.
During the sales cycle for most companies, you probably won’t meet the team that works on your account. However, it makes sense to ask about their background. Learn how much time they’ve been on the job and ask what other types of clients they work with. Certifications, while not the be-all, end-all, are helpful here. We’re talking about good certifications, by the way, like Google AdWords Certified – not certifiable.

Ask for quick, thoughtful audit insights.
Don’t expect too much on the first date. A full audit of your existing AdWords account is a lot of work, especially on bigger accounts with large spend or lots of products. However, your suitor should be more than willing to review your account with read only access and identify top issues and the proverbial low-hanging fruit. If your account is underperforming, the new suitor should have:

  • Thoughts on improved account structure.
  • Suggestions to increase relevancy between keywords, ad text, and landing pages to improve quality scores.
  • Ideas about budget allocation. If some of your campaigns are hitting budget but underperforming, day parting (ad scheduling) should probably be implemented to deliver during peak hours when your ads are most likely to convert.

However, beware of agencies who only have bad things to say about your current partner! Look for realistic thoughts on how they’ll fix things, not just criticism of what’s wrong. If they won’t share their ideas up front, keep looking. It’s all about honesty, right?

Ask about creative and development resources. Do they have lots of smart friends?
SEM results can be drastically improved via creative testing and landing page optimization whether there are landing page relevancy issues, user flow issues – or both. SEM firms that offer creative and development services, especially any that can be a part of your contract, may expedite your testing cycles and drive stronger results. If your SEM firm offers landing page and banner creation services, ask to see past projects and results – nothing is more telling than talking to previous partner.

At ROI DNA, our clients stay with us because we deliver great performance for them – not because of contractual lock-ins. Want to see if we’re the one for you?  Let’s talk.


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