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The Real Impostors

Posted July 17th, 2010 by Andrew Goodman

There was a bit of an unanticipated dustup in response to Mona Elesseily’s perfectly sensible column about “fake” PPC experts over at Search Engine Land last week. (George Michie also nicely pointed out some useful advice he’s really written lately.) Surprising that it was so controversial. We may come back to that issue, but it also reminded me of the larger issue of vendor selection that keeps coming up again and again in our industry, so I thought I’d offer my spin on it.

A serious marketing professional in the audience of a session at SES Toronto stood up in Q&A and asked the very sensible question of how you go about sorting out who is a legit search marketing vendor (in Canada, but it could apply anywhere). It’s not nearly as easy as it might sound. In reality there are only a handful of top firms, and you should be able to spot them. But because of the noise level, it’s very possible for those on the client side to waste a lot of time tripping over many unqualified wannabes before they finally figure out how to take shortcuts to creating a proper short list.

I was reminded of the problem again when I took a call from a marketing manager from a software firm that sells to government. They needed an overhaul of their SEO efforts because the previous vendor had created a brand-jeopardizing boondoggle. The marketing pro — just hired on the case — could see that, but his bosses couldn’t. They swore up and down that the previous firm was one of the top ones in the business. Why dismantle their yeoman efforts based on the say-so of some rival claims by some other, maybe not as ingenious, marketing professional? Finally, we tracked down who the “top” vendor was. Unknown, but sporting overblown claims right and left. A scattershot of tactics at your disposal. The owner’s photo was an out-of-focus shot of him leaning on his Ferrari (rented, probably) by the highway. Lovely.

And again today when I saw an ad for a company that had a very similar name to my company. A website full of claims. And no doubt a slick sales pitch when they get you on the phone. (Also on the website: not a single mention of a single employee’s name, founder bio, press mentions, or client names. Nothin’.) You don’t have to infringe trademark to prey on consumer confusion. Preying on consumer confusion, unfortunately, is what many SEM firms do. That’s because at first glance, many SEM firms look alike, or can be made to look alike.

But you know what? Not really.

For those seeking a vendor, you really don’t need to be all that rigorous to rule out impostors and to begin moving towards a serious big-league short list. Just ask the following questions that relate to basic issues of transparency and reputation. If they aren’t on the website, then get on a call with someone at the company, and ask. (In return, it helps if you’re a real client. Good vendors don’t like tricks and games.)

  • What are the founders’ names? What can you find out about them and their track record?
  • What are some employees’ names? Just one or two? How long have they worked there?
  • Would it kill these folks to have at least one or two team members with extensive bios on LinkedIn?
  • What are some past clients? Current clients?
  • Can you get references? How about a long list?
  • Any external evidence of this firm’s reputation? Use your research skills, not canned lists or surveys.
  • Does the firm or founders blog, speak, write books, or otherwise have a following? What can you learn from them? Does their real world presence, connections, audience, etc. “check out”? Much with the social world – “social proof” means someone has friends. That helps if you’re looking to gauge someone’s friend potential. Social proof in business means “has friends, intersected with group interests in substantial issues”.
  • Does the firm *actually do* the type of work you’re looking for? How can we find some basic evidence of this fact?
  • Beyond that, is there some evidence that they’re in some way passionate about it? Highly specialized and current? Not out of date? Willing to be a trusted adviser to your firm, to take ownership of change and turbulence to keep you out of trouble, rather than exposing you to obsolescence?
  • Maybe they don’t have unique or patented technology. But should they be able to speak about the merits of things like automation, technology, and processes? Of course. Can you find evidence that they’ve engaged with that side of the business, either by developing products, advising on them, writing about it, or *something*? That would be a bonus. There don’t even have to be right or wrong answers.
  • Does some genuinely authoritative person in this or a related industry know them? Willing to recommend or comment on them? Doesn’t have to be Danny Sullivan, Bryan Eisenberg, or Seth Godin, but that would help. Such people don’t put their reputations on the line for chumps.

By contrast, one-dimensional methods of vetting vendors should be avoided. If it’s too easy to fake for the benefit of lazy researchers, someone is going to fake it. The following are insufficient:

  • Awards that might depend on who you know, easily gamed voting systems, or logrolling
  • Ratings systems and rankings from companies that create rankings for a living. Research reports that may leave out companies who don’t pay, or who disagree with their bias or reliance on self-reported information.
  • Memberships in trade associations. These are a good start, but don’t end there. Quite simply, you can buy your way in, and from there easily get yourself elected treasurer or Sargeant-at-Arms if you want.
  • Logos you can easily slap on a website. Google is moving to a new, more rigorous certification, but as of now there are tens of thousands of folks & firms with Google and Yahoo search marketing certifications. It’s a good idea to have these business relationships and to write the (relatively easy) tests, but they are so easy to get, they’re virtually meaningless in distinguishing one firm from another. The total levels of paid search spend under management required as a minimum qualification are so low that they do not speak to any kind of track record, either.

Most of the best referrals in business happen word of mouth. That’s definitely part of the equation. You can kickstart that by simply asking probing questions about “who the heck are these guys, and do they actually do this stuff well”?

I’m just going to pick one example out of a hat: Chris Winfield at 10e20. (His company has expanded further and is now called Blueglass, BTW.) At some point a few years ago it came to my attention that Chris and his firm had been getting national level media attention for years, dating back to 1999. It led me to do more research about his firm. Even in his quotable quotes, I could see that Chris was a consistent, thoughtful spokesperson for the industry. No, that alone didn’t sway me, but it’s a far cry from being a company run by Anonymous Coward. From that day forward, I had a real solid feeling about Chris and his colleagues. And sure enough, they’re still in business, still attracting good clients and employees, still welcome at events, and still making noise. That’s what I’m talking about!

All of the above doesn’t guarantee a perfect fit, but interestingly, it keeps hundreds of good quality vendors in the mix. What it does is rule out bogus claims, easily faked awards and ratings, and most of all, those cookie-cutter companies with websites that don’t respect you enough to say if anyone real actually works there.

At SES Toronto, I called out one of those fake “vendor ratings” sites. I stated point blank it’s pay-for-play. Because that service was paying for a booth at the show, a lot of people were afraid to say anything, and assumed I’d get my head bitten off. Fortunately, I didn’t.

Respected vendors don’t need to take this lying down. Everyone needs to grow a pair and denounce such shenanigans, any chance they get. That doesn’t mean holding us all up to impossible standards. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a private, quiet, one-person shop who can do great project work (nothing stops the good ones from making plenty of noise about their track records). ┬áBut we do need to rule out the impostors and the third-rate outfits that lurk in the shadows and imitate real firms. The only way we do that is to keep speaking up, and reminding prospective clients that thorough due diligence will save them a lot of wasted time and money.

5 Responses to “The Real Impostors”

  1. rishil says:

    Hear hear.

    I have walked into jobs at Big Brands and found that their current search providers were doing nothing but just sending hefty bills, proving their worth based on just brand traffic. Some of these situations horrify me – good name agencies who just relax because there isnt someone at the rudder that understands search. Example –

  2. john andrews says:

    Great comments. However, just as you highlighted how it is not always easy to tell who is legit, but also not that hard, you said the following:

    “Does some genuinely authoritative person in this or a related industry know them….Danny Sullivan, Bryan Eisenberg, or Seth Godin?”

    That’s the slipperly slope that led to our current situation. All three of those people are authors.. speakers… figureheads… more than they are practitioners (today). They are very high profile, but far more professional at maintaining a high profile (and promotion, or running conferences or writing books or keynoting) than staying current in operational details of SEO/SEM.

    I have respect for them for their achievements, and some for their demonstrated SEM skills, but not because of their “authority” since authority is granted by people. And people, referring to those comprising the market audience, are impressed with marketing and recommendations, not performance. Take a look at the affiliate marketing industry for a glimpse of what happens when cross-promotion is packaged for sale (e.g. “joint ventures”).

    SEM service providing is tough and marketing it can be expensive. One could argue that some of the high profile people are in the profile business precisely because they found they could do better than when they were at the top of their SEM games. Eisenberg for example was way ahead of his time, and seemed to have to create a branch of SEM in order to sell his services (what we now call conversion optimization). I don’t think Seth Godin knew much of SEO at all until after the SEO community was buying alot of his books. We all know that “having written the book” can boost one’s client profile from local SMB to Fortune 500 very effectively.

    Slippery slope… someone who goes high profile due to relationships and perhaps excellent communicaton skills, could become the arbiter of what you refer to as validity. That’s not much better than what we have now. There’s so much more pollution effecting the environment.

    Love your involvement in the industry btw… I’d love to see a method to “denounce such shenanigans, any chance they get” that would actually work.

  3. While I would hardly describe Eisenberg, Godin, or Sullivan as “figureheads,” (*all* are actively involved in building businesses right now for their own lot as well as consulting to others… we forget that Seth recently built Squidoo), I do see your point that this might be the least reliable of the vetting methods I mentioned, if taken on its own. But note — I’m not even talking about the (all-important) level of performance at this point… my post relates just to the basic prerequisite of transparency and being “real” enough that someone, anyone, will talk about you.

  4. Andrew, any due diligence for professional services always involves two phases – rejecting advisors, and then picking one from who is left.

    Most of your decision criterion are best used for rejecting – and it is fine to reject qualified advisers as opposed to being mistaken about them.

    Further, without a professional trade association it is hard to evaluate the credentials of people claiming to offer services. A professional trade association doesn’t solve all problems, but it certainly helps identify riff raff who cannot even be bothered to associate with other professionals.

  5. Andrew G says:


    I agree that trade associations are an important piece of the puzzle. I haven’t been throwing a ton of support behind search-specific groups like SEMPO because they are so new and until recently we’ve been at a stage of debating what the “profession” is. But larger more established trade associations at least keep aspects of professionalism and conduct on the agenda. It may seem stuffy, but I keep our Canadian Marketing Association plaque on the wall just around the corner from the Google – Cooler Thinking beer fridge.

    It’s also important to note that Google can and does play a strong role here. Some of their reseller processes (for GWO and GA authorized consultants) are rigorous and include some of the trappings of conventional business solidity, case studies, and so on. This is a positive direction. It’s just unfortunate that the “easier to achieve” Google and Yahoo certifications became so prevalent.


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