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SEM agency vs. in-house team: let’s get the facts straight, folks

DM News contributing editor Sara Holoubek wrote an article last week titled “The Buy vs. Build Argument in SEM,” which laid out the parameters of an issue that is at the heart of much storm and stress in the SEM industry today. In my view, many points in this article are worth debating, and I will use this opportunity to provide my own perspective on this issue.

1. Just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should

Ms. Holoubek writes that “the truth is that with the proper investment, just about any competency can be built in-house.” Her claim is certainly true; e.g. if the management of Didit decided that we were paying too much to buy trade show booths, we could hire engineers and carpenters to build them. If we decided that we were paying too much for the coffee that is consumed by our staff, we could buy a coffee plantation in South America. Just because “any competency can be built in-house” doesn’t mean that this is a good idea, unless, of course, building an in-house team that can execute complex search campaigns is a trivial matter. If you think it is, all I can say is, good luck. You’re going to need it.

2. Training programs, conferences and blogs do not provide the equivalent of real-world experience

Ms. Holoubek seeks to debunk the claim that “there is no way a marketer can stay on top of all the changes to the search landscape” by citing SEM training programs, “search-related conferences and hundreds of search blogs” as valuable educational resources. Unfortunately, the information such resources provide is often highly questionable. Training programs may provide a good introductory framework to SEM, but rarely delve deeply into the advanced techniques and methodologies used by first-rate agencies.

The information gleaned from search-related conferences varies widely in quality and is often provided by vendors whose interests are self-serving. Frankly, the whole SEM conference/trade show business is premised on the completely false idea that SEM is so trivial an endeavor that it can be taught in a couple of hours, perhaps by soaking up the golden thoughts of Danny Sullivan, Greg Boser, or some other self-styled “SEM rock star.” If people knew the truth about how hard it is to execute successful paid search campaigns, they’d stop paying thousands of dollars to support this industry, because more often than not it leads them in precisely the wrong direction.

But the worst thing about the SEM conference/trade show business is that most marketers, after trying and failing to put the “lessons” they’ve learned into practice on an in-house basis, don’t blame the information providers, but themselves, and the only antidote they can conceive is to attend more search conferences to “get it right!” The result is that this incredibly profitable, illusion-manufacturing machine is provided with enough fresh meat to keep it moving perpetually. If the SEM conference/trade show business were really working, attendance should be falling off (because marketers are successfully implementing its collective wisdom). Instead, attendance continues to rise as the same hapless people return again and again to learn about more bogus “search secrets.” Some might call this a form of education; I call it a crock.

As far as search blogs are concerned, there are a handful of good ones and many terrible ones. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be the person at a Fortune 500 company who bets his company’s future on what some guy in his underwear is writing on a search blog, even if he ranks No. 1 for the keyword “SEM Visionary.”

3. Campaign management software is just a tool (and a tool used poorly can cause big trouble)

Ms. Holoubek correctly notes that the campaign management software used by many SEM agencies often isn’t much better than that available to in-house teams via enterprise level applications. As far as I’m concerned, this statement says more about the woeful state of SEM agency technological development than it does about the fitness of these tools for corporate use.

As anybody who’s worked for any length of time in this business knows, there’s nothing magic about any of this technology: it’s what you do with it that separates the winners from the losers. An M16 assault rifle in the hands of a green recruit is more dangerous to the shooter than it is to the target, but the same rifle in the hands of a trained sniper is a devastating weapon. Off-the-shelf tools are easier to learn because what they do is so limited; it takes many months for a newbie to learn how to operate a sophisticated campaign management platform. Putting an in-house team using an off-the-shelf tool against a specialized agency with a sophisticated, customizable tool will never be a fair fight.

4. The hybrid model is not a panacea

Finally, Ms. Holoubek cites the “hybrid model” (wherein a company hires a few search managers while partnering with an external agency) as one that companies might want to emulate. While the hybrid model might work in theory, in practice it comes with its own set of serious hazards. For example, if you hire an in-house search manager, can you really expect that he or she will fairly evaluate SEM agencies, especially those that perform well enough to put them out of a job? In-house search Managers are the last people I’d expect to make a good call on an agency partnership, because of this inherent conflict of interest. So hybrid models, instead of ensuring best practices, ensure that mediocrity will be institutionalized both within and without the organization when it comes to Search.

People think this is a good thing? It boggles the mind.

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