If your business outsources its digital marketing campaigns, then you’re probably familiar with how hiring the best Search Engine Marketing (SEM) company is in itself an artform.
While some SEM companies may offer a slew of other services such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), web design, and even social media marketing, it is important to be mindful that SEM requires a very specialized skill set.
Many businesses who rely on third-party vendors to execute their internet marketing fail to understand what makes a good SEM company.
In fact, way back when I was a digital marketing consultant in an agency, I met many clients who don’t truly know the difference between SEM and SEO. To make matters worse, they didn’t know what they wanted to achieve.
So to help you out, I’ll be touching on:
- What an SEM Company Does
- What to do before looking for an SEM Company
- How to find the right one
- Briefing the SEM Company
- Evaluating their proposals and;
- Evaluating their performance
Knowing what an SEM company does
Just to clear the air, let me take you through the difference between SEM and SEO.
According to Search Engine Land, both SEO and SEM are different means of getting ranked on search engines such as Google to gain visibility. They are easily confused for the other, but the distinction is:
“SEO is earning traffic through unpaid or free listings [and] SEM is buying traffic through paid search listings.”
While oversimplified, the long story short is that SEM companies should consist of experts in pay per click (PPC) advertising using tools such as Google Ads (previously Google Adwords).
Although a digital marketing professional can master both functions, SEM is a completely different skill set from SEO. It is therefore important to hire an SEM Company that has a proven track record of successful online advertising campaigns.
Searching for prospective SEM Companies
Knowing where it all fits into your marketing strategy
Before you start your search for an SEM company, you’ll need to think about where SEM fits into your overall business and marketing strategy.
Because everyone is jumping on the SEM bandwagon, it’s getting more expensive to compete. You’ll first have to understand what you need and whether you need it to avoid making costly mistakes.
One way to find out whether SEM is even a viable option is through both keyword research and competitive analysis. You should conduct a preliminary research with tools such as SEMRush, SE Ranking and KeywordSpy.
If you’ve got a strong brand, you may choose to leverage on your high search volume brand keywords. While there has been a huge debate on whether or not you should bid for your own keywords, in my experience, brand keywords have resulted in a lower Cost Per Acquisition (CPA).
On the other hand, I’ve personally come across international brands who stipulate in their guidelines that they are not allowed to bid for their own brand keywords! This matter boils down to the management’s decisions on their SEM guidelines.
If you don’t have a strong brand, however, your objectives would be different from than better-known brands.
You should also research to see if your non-branded or competitor keywords have a substantial volume to be worth considering. A good gauge of what is defined as “substantial volume” varies from country to country and niche to niche.
For instance, because Singapore is a relatively small market, 30 searches per month per keyword to makes a worthy endeavor.
For your convenience, here’s an SEMRush bar for you to find out about your competitor or keyword research. You may even go straight to trying out their 7-day free trial for this stage of planning. Knock yourself out!
So before you start your search of an SEM Company, I’d suggest clearly knowing what the KPIs are.
How to find the right SEM Company
One would argue that to find the best SEM company would be to hit Google and type in “SEM companies in [location]” and see who comes up top.
However, it must be noted that:
- Being in the top positions for SEM ads may not be optimal for campaigns and
- They may or may not stay in that position perpetually
While you may look for SEM companies by searching for them on a search engine like Google, my suggestion is to do it the traditional way(s): either through word of mouth (referrals) or find out about who’s who on reliable industry news portals.
Marketing Interactive, for instance, reports tidbits on who hired whom.
What I’d suggest is to cast your net wide and keep your options open. Seek out both large and boutique SEM companies, because there are pros and cons of each.
If you’d like my personal recommendation for your specific industry, feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn, and I will help you if I can!
Briefing the SEM Company
If you tell a prospective SEM company about who you are, who your competitors are, and what you want to achieve, they are more likely to give you a proposal that’s on-point.
This includes conveying clearly your company’s background, target audience, challenges, objectives, timeline, and budget.
In addition, state clearly what your expectations are from the outset will prevent the grief of either party down the road.
While lead generation is an obvious motivation for most SMEs in Singapore, other SEM objectives include:
- Website traffic
- Website conversions
- Return visits to website
- Brand awareness
SEM companies who are spending the time to draft a proposal and give you their pitches would also appreciate if you could let them know how they are being assessed. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Asking the right questions
During the process before you employ your SEM company, be sure to read/ print out/ check off the list of 30 Shrewd Questions to Ask Before Hiring an SEM Agency.
In sum, you should ask the SEM company about the:
- Past clientele of the SEM company
- Personal portfolio of the dedicated account manager
- Campaign strategy & execution process
- What’s included in the management fees
Asking such questions can prevent you from being blindsided, especially when you’re about to engage an SEM company you haven’t worked with before.
Evaluating the SEM agency’s pitch/ proposal
When the SEM company is pitching to you, be sure to understand who they are. This encompasses their past clientele and which service offering makes the bulk of their business.
Their proposal to you should also clearly state what they intend to do to help you achieve results. They should’ve done research relevant to your industry and business.
They also should have presented to you some mock advertisements so that you can have an inkling as to how they write their copy. To add, a serious SEM company looking to win you over would go as far as to giving you a mock landing page (if the campaign in question has a budget that was big enough, of course).
Remember, SEM is not just about managing a Google Ads (Adwords) account. On-page optimisation is a vital part of the entire campaign.
The traffic coming from your SEM campaigns surely must go somewhere, right?
Avoid bringing ad traffic to your main website or to a generic webpage. An SEM company that knows their stuff would propose building dedicated landing pages that are specific to individual ads.
Keep in mind some best practices for landing pages, and see if the SEM agency in question is advocating them.
Evaluating the agency’s performance
If you’re starting on a campaign from scratch, and you do not have past data for the SEM company to work with, it would take some time for them to build your campaigns and optimise them to achieve the best results. So remember to be more lenient to your SEM company if that were the case.
Good SEM agencies work hard to improve your conversions, and they should initiate tests like new ad copies, removing poorly performing ads and improving the structure of your Google Ads account.
Most client-side marketers, myself included, are very focused on the bottom line.
At the end of the day, decision makers are mostly concerned about the Cost Per Acquisition (also known as Cost Per Lead).
But how can we tell if the CPA we have set as a KPI is truly the optimal number?
To shake things up a bit, you can assess your campaign’s performance with free tools like Adwords Performance Grader.
Doing so will tell you how you’re doing compared to your competitors. It can even help you and your SEM company achieve the best campaign results for your organisation.
SEM companies in Singapore are a dime in a dozen, so it’s important to discern which has the credentials and the right strategy for your campaign.
That said, a successful campaign involves the full cooperation of the clients too.
Even with the best practices in mind, there will still be obstacles along the way. Experienced digital marketers with tons of SEM experience still run campaigns that don’t do as well as expected.
Follow this guide on how to hire an SEM company and you’ll be a step closer to achieving your SEM goals.
Also published on Medium.