Online Exclusive: Shopping for a Search Firm? Think Big

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The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, the industry's major trade group, has 275 members. The major industry trade show, SES New York, featured 70 exhibitors this year. At the time of this writing, Google offers 54,900 results for the exact phrase "search marketing firm;" Yahoo has 61,000 results for that phrase; and MSN Search gets you 10,753 results. Which means that if you're trying to find the best search management for your business, you'll have to wade through a lot of firms.

Our suggestion? Start your research with the best of breed and work your way down.

Shopping for value. Why should you start your research with the best? It's an issue of figuring out value.

The more familiar you get with the industry standard-bearers, the better you'll understand what your should expectations should be. Dial-up, for instance, looks great until you compare it with wi-fi; several cars look like they've got great miles per gallon until you match them up against hybrids. If you know what the best of breed has to offer, you'll know whether a product or service is really as outstanding as it claims to be.

And the same holds true with search firms. By starting your research looking at the top firms, you'll know -- from very early on -- what you can get from the industry as a whole. And if you know what the industry as a whole offers you, you'll be able to assess how good any one firm in the industry actually is.

And if you're interested in finding the best value and not just the best price, then having that assessment capability is absolutely critical.

Where to find them. Look at the industry organizations, read through the industry magazines and talk to your fellow-visitors on the trade-show floors and you'll get a pretty good sense of who the top players in the space are known to be. And while reputations aren't always accurate, it's hard to get a great reputation without being able to back it up at all. So for preliminary research, at the very least, the most reputable firms make for very good starting points.

To help your research along, here are -- in no particular order -- six key points to investigate:

· Who has the best technology?

· Who's been around the longest?

· Who's got the known industry thought leaders?

· Who has the most customizable approach?

· Who has the best customer service?

· Who's the most expensive? (Of course, the most expensive doesn't have to be the best, but seeing what all that money buys you will help you think through what a good value is.)

Once you've talked with the top-tier, that should give you a good frame of reference for speaking to everyone else, understanding what it is you're paying for when you finally pick a vendor and assessing the service you're getting as the relationship you have with that vendor unfolds.

But don't limit yourself to just looking at the top-tier. For one thing, you might not be able to afford a top firm, and it's a waste to only research the things you can't buy. But even if you can afford the best, seeing the entire industry spectrum -- top, bottom and middle -- will give you the fullest picture of the industry overall. Which comes back to being able to assess value as best as you can.

So again, our advice is this: Find the handful of top firms. Research those top firms very well. Then, look around at everyone else, from the second-tier to the second-rate, and you'll be in the best position to figure out who the best match is for you.

Happy shopping.


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