Objectives. There are different branches of search engine marketing – SEO, PPC, social media, content marketing/blogging, link building, and more. Not all agencies have specialists in each category and you want to find an agency that specializes and understands what you hope to do and can even offer additional services down the road should your internet marketing needs increase.
Who’s Doing the Work? If an agency divides the work between client-facing sales teams and internal operations teams, you might never communicate with the actual person building and optimizing your account. It is very important that you are able to get firsthand information on your account performance directly from the person optimizing it. It ensures that your goals are in line with the campaign objectives and keeps communication channels open. Also, you can hear about the impressive combined number of years of experience in search engine marketing on a team, but if the person working on your account has only worked with one or two campaigns in the past, you won’t be reaping the benefits from all that experience. You might want to inquire about whether your account manager individually certified in any of the industry qualification programs. Examples would be Google AdWords Advanced, Display, or Analytics, BingAds certification, Yahoo Ambassador (which has been discontinued), or Bruce Clay’s SEO toolset certification. These aren’t requirements, but they do demonstrate a certain baseline of competency.
Transparency. If you asked to see a keyword list, would they provide one? How open with you are they about strategy? Do they make recommendations that go beyond the basic requirements? Do they take your requests under advisement? What kind of SEO techniques are they using? You need to have a certain understanding of strategies they are undertaking – particularly in SEO – to ensure that they are only using white-hat, legal, above reproach techniques. If they seem like they’re hiding things, they probably are.
Automation. Depending on the size of your account, automation may be overkill and expensive (and in fact, detrimental in some cases). If you are a huge global brand with the potential for hundreds of thousands of keywords, you should look for an agency that has automated tools in order to effectively manage an account of that size. While I am typically against automated tools in small and medium sized accounts, there are times when automation can be effective. However, reliance on tools and automation in place of reasoning and informed analysis is a sign you’re paying too much for too little service.
Reporting. Reports are very important. But more important than stylish graphs, customized logos, or unique metrics measured, is having someone willing and able to go through the report with you and explain the metrics, what they mean, and how to improve on those metrics. A bare-bones Google Analytics dashboard with an informed, trained account manager can tell you more about your site than an entire suite of Omniture tools with a clueless account manager. Disclaimer – that is not commentary on Analytics or Omniture – I have worked heavily with both and they are both fantastic, so I am not picking on one or the other. The point is that the reports have to mean something and you need to make sure your account manager can accurately field any questions you come across in the reporting.
Optimization. Is it a set it and forget it type of agency? Do you want an account manager that is spending time daily, weekly, or monthly on your campaigns? Ask what their optimization process looks like and how much time they spend on each of their accounts once the account is built.
Fees. There are a number of different way to approach the billing process for search engine marketing services, whether it is with a setup fee and an hourly rate, a set management fee, on a cost per conversion or action basis, or as a percentage of sales for e-commerce. If you aren’t happy with the billing structure, try negotiating. The agency might be willing to work with you or work on a compromise based on your needs.
The key is just to talk to prospective agencies and see if they “get you.” You want to feel like you’re working with the agency, trusting them to use their skills and expertise to craft effective search engine marketing campaigns, but also that they are collaborating with your company, understanding the hows and whys, the competitive advantages, of your business.