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Bad SEM Agencies: Theft, Incompetence, Sloth, Ignorance, Shallowness, and Greed

Most retailers are happy when their competitors stink: the more bad experiences the competition provides, the better business will be for the competent retailers in the space. But for service providers, when some of the big players in your space are incompetent and/or unethical, it makes all of us look bad and damages the industry as a whole. This is not a shameless sales pitch. There are a number of other paid search management agencies out there that do the job well and that we respect. I’m just frustrated that at this stage of the industry’s development, more consistent expectations of service levels, results, and pricing haven’t taken root. What we’ve seen in the data and heard from our clients:
  1. Theft. Strong word, but accurate I think. Major SEM rolled all kinds of non-PPC related sales into the PPC ROI calculations to encourage more spending and get a bigger pay check. They did this by setting up bogus “SEO” pages with our clients name all over them, generating a bunch of faux-traffic on brand searches.
  2. Incompetence. Many SEMs still aren’t using the actual cost, click, impression data from the engines, but are instead using estimates and sampling.
  3. Sloth. We’ve seen everything from thin, neglected, slapped together, machine generated keyword lists, and horrible generic ad copy, and have listened to unbelievable stories from big spending clients who couldn’t get emails and phone calls returned, much less ad hoc analyses done.
  4. Ignorance. In the data, the tell-tale signs of SEMs who don’t know how search economics works as evidenced by keyword level data. We see many terms hemorrhaging money, while other star performers are left languishing at the bottom of the page.
  5. Shallowness. We still hear some of the big players in the space invoking “the conversion funnel” to justify overspending on general terms that don’t perform well, and grossly overstating the impact of non-brand PPC ads on “brand” sales. The truth might be different for online marketers driving traffic to retail store networks, but considering just tracked online sales, the clickstream data are clear: ads which look like they stink often indeed really do stink. SEMs too often ignore or don't understand how to analyze click streams, versus just single clicks.
  6. Greed. It would be one thing if the SEMs we’re talking about were the low cost providers in the space, and the service could be excused as “you get what you pay for”, but some of folks we’re talking about are among the most expensive in the space, sometimes many times more expensive.
As a former retailer, the above litany makes me want to scream. When I read discussion forums from retailers who say “Don’t outsource: SEMs provide horrible results and service and charge an arm and a leg for it,” I know exactly where they’re coming from, and I wish I could say the magic words to convince them that there are good SEMs out there who do the job very well for reasonable fees without it sounding like just another sales pitch. There are good paid search management agencies out there charging fair fees and doing solid work. It is just frustrating that some bad apples spoil the barrel for all. -- George PS Please pardon the rant. On the advice of council I’ve decided not to name names, though I pointed out to her that: “It’s not libel if it’s TRUE.”
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