May 2, 2008, 12:00 AM

A Perfect Match

Web merchants must ask a great many questions when shopping for a search marketing firm that best fits their needs.

A few years ago, online retailer Toolup.com found itself between a rock and a hard place in efforts to power up its search marketing efforts; specifically, in its quest to find a search marketing services vendor. For starters, Toolup.com, with sales of $18.1 million in 2007, found in talks with prospective vendors that some wanted multiple thousands of dollars upfront.

“At the end of the day, I have to go to the CEO and the board of directors and say we engaged this partner for X thousands of dollars and this is the amount of revenue we generated by spending that money,” says Kevin Hill, director of I.T.

Hill had questions about exactly how that would play out. Reputable search firms don’t provide guarantees of positioning on natural search-one important element of search-so how was Toolup to gauge a successful engagement? Would it have to stand in line behind larger clients in efforts to get the search company’s attention day to day? Would the actions of a firm out to get Toolup’s listings as high in search results as quickly as possible with whatever methods that might entail square with Toolup’s desire to stay within search engine best practices? And just how much could any outside entity be expected to know about the tool business, anyway?

Search marketing in all its iterations-paid search, natural search and various pay per click programs-represents opportunity for e-retailers to grow sales and traffic. But Toolup’s experience shows it’s a path on which retailers embark with some anxiety.

On one side, a successful search program can be the engine that drives online sales, but it means trusting the retailer’s business reputation with search engines, and in many cases, a considerable investment in a process that remains, to many retailers, a mystery. Maximizing the return on search spending requires specialized expertise outside the core competencies of most retail operations. But some retailers see finding the right search marketing partner and hammering out a relationship as almost as challenging, with choices so numerous that they can overwhelm and create decision gridlock.

Search marketing companies have their own challenges with building such relationships with clients. It can be an educational curve to scale clients’ expectations to the reality of the process, for example, or to the fact that optimization requires a longer time to produce results than paid search, or to a realistic assessment of what new online opportunities such as blogs may or may not do for a client’s rankings in search results.

“Retailers should understand that their preconceived notions about search might not be accurate,” says Shari Thurow, founder and search optimization director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a consultancy that Toolup.com eventually chose for help with its search marketing program. “A No. 1 position on Google does not guarantee that a site will generate thousands or millions of dollars in sales, or guarantee a long-term positive brand perception.”

Looking inward

Before an online retailer seeks to initiate a relationship with a search marketing services vendor, or swap out an existing relationship for a new one, the first set of questions it needs to ask should not be directed to any prospective vendor, but should be directed internally, say search marketing experts.

“It’s important for potential clients to have an understanding of what they hope to gain from employing search,” says Dan Gbur, vice president of sales at Impaqt, a search engine marketing and optimization company. Marketers generally establish specific program objectives during the research phase of a search marketing engagement. “There are no cookie cutter objectives that every retailer should have in place,” he adds.

Thurow suggests that before reaching out to prospective search marketing vendors, retailers prepare by identifying their site’s business goals, and determining whether they are short-term or long-term, what steps would be required to accomplish each of those goals, and how much control the retailer wants over how its site’s listings will display in search engines. “If a retailer has answers to these questions, it will make a search engine marketing professional’s job easier to put together a detailed proposal,” she says.

The next step for a retailer in finding a search marketing firm is due diligence on prospective companies. Retailers should know basic information about a search engine marketing firm before even inviting it in for a meeting, says Robert Murray, president of search marketing firm iProspect Inc. This includes data such as number of years it has been in business, number of staff dedicated to serving clients, number of clients and size of clients.

The first meeting

Other information useful for a retailer to have at that point includes percentage of clients who have been with the company two, three or more years, and the company’s reputation in the marketplace. This information can be obtained directly from vendors, by talking to industry professionals and attending industry conferences and shows, and by following industry research.

With due diligence done and an internal direction established, it’s time for the retailer to meet with vendor prospects. While retailers are well advised to carry a basic set of objectives into any meetings with a prospective search marketing vendor, they can miss out if they don’t also tap the accumulated knowledge of vendors in establishing goals for the proposal, Murray says. Over experience with many clients that have different business models and different objectives, vendors have learned which techniques work most effectively under each combination of client’s circumstances, and can explain why a particular course of action makes the most sense for a given retailer’s situation, Murray says.

Taking that advice involves a level of trust on the retailer’s part-a balance between wanting to capitalize on the potential of untried tactics or those with less predictable outcomes on one hand and the desire not to waste money or spend on what doesn’t produce a return on the other. Experts say the best search marketing firms will not approach a retailer’s search marketing needs with a standard proposal that contains elements a particular retailer may not need, such as a blog, for instance. In fact, they say, the cookie cutter proposal is one red flag that should make a retailer reconsider that vendor’s sales pitch carefully.

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