Amazing SEM secrets finally revealed

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Paid Search is complicated and confusing. It's not that its principles are so difficult to master, but the mechanisms themselves have a lot of moving parts and the terminology is often opaque, and so it's therefore difficult to explain to the uninitiated how things work.

Unfortunately, whenever you have a complicated and confusing marketing discipline, you're naturally going to have a fair share of snake oil salesmen proffering solutions. Back in the bad old dotcom days, such salesmen promoted "Enterprise Improvement Solutions" or "New Horizons in E-commerce." These slogans looked great on PowerPoint pitches to venture capitalists and clients, but they vastly oversimplified what was actually needed to bring about such promises, and the result was failure for themselves and their clients.

Today, it's much the same situation, except that now we have "Wall Street analytics" and "total holistic search solutions." While these marketing pitches have been upgraded to Web 2.0 standards, it's the same old tired scam: Take a complicated, confusing and difficult problem and sell it as something that's easily accomplished by the so-called solutions provider using his special patented secret sauce.

Distinguishing top search engine marketing performers is a very tough job. You'll never be able to pin a good salesperson down, because he/she is a trained shark that won't give up until getting your "yes." You can study all the spec sheets and requests for proposals you want, or spend your whole life at search engine strategies trying to get an audience with Danny Sullivan, but you'll never get down to the real truth - the real secret of SEM.


Want to know what the big secret is? Well, the big secret is (drum roll, please) that there aren't any secrets. Not one. Sorry to disappoint you, but all SEM agencies share a fairly standard set of tools, a common set of challenges (there are only a finite number of online business models) and a common set of tactics, which have all been well-documented here and elsewhere. The thing that actually differentiates them is how well these resources are marshaled. And, the only way of determining this is to examine how well they've done in the past with clients who've tried them out.

The next time you get a call from an SEM agency salesperson, save yourself some time by cutting through his canned sales pitch and getting to the heart of the matter. Which clients is he most proud of having? Are they a bunch of no-names or brands you recognize? Are they willing to testify on the SEM agency's behalf? How fast is the SEM agency growing? What percentage of this growth is due not to acquisitions (it's easy to show growth if you're simply buying other businesses) but from the SEM agency's client growth? What kind of external recognition has the SEM agency received from organizations that actually benchmark SEM agencies? What kind of publications do its executives contribute to? The answers to all of these questions can give you a much better hint of the SEM agency's fitness to win your business than all the flashy PowerPoint presentations or elegantly filled-out RFPs in the world.

If you can manage to cut through the slick slogans, the incomprehensible buzzwords and the shark like salespeople, you'll have a much better chance of making the right decision. But doing this means boring beneath the surface of the standard SEM agency pitch and digging into their own business realities.

After all, if your SEM agency isn't strongly advancing its own position, how can it be expected to advance yours?

David Pasternack is president of Didit, a New York-based search marketing firm. Reach him at


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