The buy vs. build argument for SEM, part II

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A few weeks back, I tackled the buy vs. build argumentáfor search, with emphasis on the fact that building is not impossible. Sure, it's not for everyone, but I felt strongly that the myths surrounding in-house search needed to be dispelled. And while I thought that I had equally acknowledged the value that search engine marketing agenciesáadd, I quickly found myself being chased with pitchforks and scythes. Consider this mirror article a peace offering.

There most certainly exists a population that harbors negative SEM agency feelings. Maybe they were burned early in the game or have been stricken with fear by horror stories from others. For these people, I'd like to dispel the following misconceptions:

  1. All SEMs are snake oil salesmen. The gross majority of SEMs I know employ people who are passionate about the medium and its potential to deliver results for their clients. For these businesses to be sustainable, positive case studies are a requirement.
  2. SEMs are cost prohibitive. Dollar for dollar, search is usually the most efficient medium. Period. The pressure to push PPC (pay per click) management fees or an SEO (search engine optimization) contract down only pushes down the number of people the firm can profitably put on the business.
  3. SEMs only provide value within the first month and then put the client on autopilot. It is every SEM employee's dream to pull out the big guns on search. Consider, for a second, the growing number of SEMs that have orchestrated professional client summits to stimulate thinking around the medium.
  4. Agency technology is a commodity. The short answer is, yes. However, a commodity that is in place and built with clients in mind, means one less vendor decision you have to deal with.

Since the decision to buy or build is one part financial analysis and one part cultural evaluation, the previously stated build questions turn into buy questions as follows:

  1. Culturally, does the firm value its partners?
  2. Is the organization staffed appropriately to manage a search agency?
  3. If yes to both of the above, what is the financial and temporal investment that management is willing to commit?

Assuming that the firm values strategic insight, has a management level staff member to direct the effort and an approved search budget, it's time to start evaluating the landscape. Marketers frequently ask me which SEM is "the best." My answer is the same every time: It depends on your needs.

I admire a large set of SEMs, each for different reasons, and not every SEM is a good match for every marketer. Some are better at scale, others are better at service, and some are really pushing the envelope of defining how search plays out in the greater landscape. To narrow the set down requires affirmation of the marketer's budget, vertical needs, discipline needs and cultural requirements. From here, an RFP (request for proposal) is crafted, proposals are delivered and the final three usually go to present, and it is out of my hands.

Now, can't we all just get along?

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