diamonds-2Securing SEO, PPC, social media and analytics advice can be risky, like buying diamonds from a jeweler you don’t know. The premise of the purchase is sometimes a customer’s (enthusiastic) lack of understanding of criteria by which to judge the actual value of products offered, a dynamic dangerous for both parties.

I personally gravitate towards buying bling from a trusted friend who’s family has owned a classic jewelry store for 3 generations. My personal friendship with the proprietor helps me feel safe about purchases. Most SEM shoppers don’t have the same luxury.

When buying diamonds or procuring search marketing help, it’s best to have a trusted adviser in the industry to guide your decision making. (No my jewelry store pal did not put me up to this post, nor will he even have reputation monitoring sufficient to catch this “mention.” *sigh*

Who is Good, Who is Best, Who’s Right For Me?
An industry luminary confided in me that, in his opinion, there are a but a hundred boutique search marketing shops savvy enough to give world-class advice on par with large production line SEM agencies.

Whilst huge Internet marketing agencies are a great fit in their standardized approach for some clients, others need personalized thinking, out-of-the-box tactics, business plan input and the Zen of true industry thought-leaders.

sem-thought-leaderAuthority Trade Publications
So how do you navigate the SEM vendor world and figure out what the heck to do? One tried and true method is to discern who the thought leaders are, writing about provocative issues-of-the-day for authority trade publications and speaking at conferences. Follow their work and get to know their immediate communities.

First stops are SearchEngineLand, SearchEngine Strategies, SEOmoz, SEORoundTable, OnelineMarketing Blog, and Sphinn. Noted SEO artist “StuntDubl” once told me that any SEM “worth their salt” is known at least in passing to these communities.

Ask other SEMs…we know who’s who. For some real excitement climb on into the SEM blogger-Twitter crowd mayhem. Twitter is SO RAD for friending SEMs!

The above mentioned thought-leader communities encompass some of the finest vendors (and in-house) marketing pros in the world. Follow the blog rolls and banter of community members on these sites and you’ll know who the thought leaders are. The quest inevitably leads to SMX, SES, PubCon, PPC Summit, SEMpdx, SearchMarketingNow, WebMasterRadio, SmallBusinessUnleashed, Cre8asiteForums, and SEMPO.

General Search Marketing Counsel
You don’t have to pick your main & forever search marketing firm all at once. One idea is to find a search-focused advertising agency you think you’d most like to work with and retain them as “General Search Marketing Counsel” for help in planning and procuring the right vendor team.

The General counsel role can lead to a larger scope of engagement. This gives both agency and client time to acclimate, truly assess needs and go about efficient execution of newly defined projects after an thoughtful organizational process.

Given escalating demand and the pesky presence of spamming SEO snake oil salesmen, qualifying a reputable vendor outside the mainstream global factory-agency approach can be a daunting task.

Who is Good? Who is the Best? Who’s Right For Me? The irony is that in these days of hyper-specialization, there are very few “full service” SEM vendors so many mid-sized agencies have partner vendors of different stripes. There is a Tao to crafting strategic SEM partnerships so look for an agency with lots of cool friends 🙂 .

There are going to be more and more advertising agencies entering the SEM space over the next few years. Some of them will be terrific, some dumb and a whole bunch in-between. Vetting SEM vendors will become an art in itself and consultants will crop up to meet the need. There will be a new role for some grownups to play as “General Search Counsel,” tour guides to the shell shocked Web1.0 world.

Buying SEM help is like buying a car without being a technical mechanic. If you don’t have a friend in the business it can work out great or turn out to be a real mess. Consider procuring help from an industry insider to help organize your Internet marketing efforts, even if it’s only a few hours a month. They’ll charge a lot per hour and it will be worth it.

  • Doug Heil

    Oh really now? So you think that SEO bloggers with SEO blog rolls is how to find good SEO’s/SEM’s? So you really believe that however kisses who’s ass the best is going to be a good referral? LOL

    So you actually truly believe that only the best SEO’s hang out at those places and also speak, and do the SEMPO thang?

    You have just gotta be pulling my chain. LOL

    I know for a fact that the very best SEO’s in our industry are one’s that I do not even know their names, and neither do you. That’s a fact. Giving this type of advice is extremely dangerous to whoever may be reading and looking for help.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Doug: Thank you for your comment and we thank you for your perspective. We’re pleased to meet you and welcome the difference in opinion.

    Yes Doug, I’m sure there are many terrific SEOs we’ve all “never heard of.” It’s just hard to follow and/or hire thought-leaders we’ve never heard of. Since SEM is about PR and marketing, looking to SEMs who know how to effectively promote themselves is a good place to start. Umm, it’s not ass-kissing, any more than you getting your clients relevant links is ass-kissing.

    As for your statement, “I know for a fact that the very best SEO’s in our industry are one’s that I do not even know their names, and neither do you.” Ummm, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of at least some of the very best. 🙂

    Regardless, perhaps you might consider avoiding such sweeping generalizations when being critical of content which you perceive to be overly-generalized.

    For our readers who don’t know Doug’s work, he operates the SEO Best Practices Search Engine Forums from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Stop by and check it out.

  • Doug Heil

    Marty; I know I’m not the most diplomatic in the world. 🙂 I can simply say that I’ve reviewed “many” sites over the years from people who hang out at the places you mentioned. I can tell you that just because they hang out there does not equate to being good at what they offer. I just dislike generalized statements of any kind.

    I also should point out to you that I have reviewed and linked to quite a few SEO’s on a page on my site who I feel are the very good at what they do. It’s interesting to note that most of them have never been to a conference or spoke, and don’t hang out at those places you mention either. Heck, more than half of the sites I linked to don’t like me at all, but that didn’t stop me from linking to them and telling others I do recommend them. I’m just kind of sick of our industry making it seem like the only people in it are people who hang at this place or that. A very small minority of our industry fits into that category, and a much greater majority do NOT promote themselves at all, nor do they participate in blogs or conferences or at places mentioned.

  • Kim Krause Berg (cre8pc)

    Doug is correct in that there are many hundreds of skilled SEO/M’s working quietly and with integrity for themselves or their companies. It’s hard to find them and it’s the lucky company or person who has hired them.

    However, the title of this post, and I assumed theme, is “industry thought leaders”. This, to me, looks at the topic a little differently. Leaders are those who are actively out there supporting their industries. I do it. Doug does it. We’ve been doing it for a very long time. It could be said we’re damned good at what we do as well. But, do people want to hire us because we work hard or have a name (brand) or because we are “thought leaders”?

    I think places like forums, which some say are dying out, remain a top spot for finding potential employees and talented companies. You can learn a lot from people who aren’t afraid to help others and you can get a sense of who is offering correct advice or not, who writes clearly, who has a good attitude, etc.

    I think where forums are weak is when it comes to recommending good people, networking, and promoting talent. I know we try at Cre8asiteforums but forums are spam magnets. We spend so much time filtering out the fake, liars, ripoffs, scum and absolute unskilled. I sometimes wonder if the true talent and skilled ones don’t join forums because they simply don’t want to be associated with beginners.

    Which if so, counts them out as future leaders.

    Thank you for an interesting post Marty!

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Kim Krause Berg (cre8pc): Thanks for lending the insight.

    You asked whether some get hired because “name (brand) or because they are “thought leaders” That’s an appropriate comment. The rubber meets the road by the work that we do, not the label. There are in fact thought-leaders who don’t practice as much as write and organize ideas for readers. That’s a valuable resource as well.

  • MiriamEllis

    Marty –
    I really enjoyed this article, and thought the most relevant line in it was:

    Who’s Right For Me?

    We’ve been discussing something along these lines at Cre8asite.

    The scenario I’m imagining is a business owner having a pick of 10 great SEOs/Marketers. Every one of them is good and talented.

    But, imagine that only one of them also happens to be a devoted wildlife enthusiast and the business revolves around getting donations to protect sea otters in Monterey Bay.

    Connecting that business up with that SEO is going to be a match made in heaven.

    Perhaps, in this age of specialization, businesses may begin hiring SEMs on the merits of their personal passions rather than a simpler metric of skills.

    Very enjoyable article!

  • Don

    Hi Marty,

    You make some excellent points, but it seems like we should distinguish the thought leaders from the industry evangelists. You don’t have to be a thought-leader to be able to speak well and get people engaged in following what you’re doing like the evangelists do. However, the ones who know how to be engaging have a better chance of having their ideas heard and/or listened to, even if those ideas aren’t on the cutting or bleeding edge. In my humble opinion, the evangelists who speak publicly may be less likely to take the risks of being a true thought-leader who dream up new ideas to test, as even the best are going to make mistakes occasionally which could dampen their reputation as being a leader.

    Separately, I like your idea of having a trusted “general counsel” that you can use to measure quality of potential vendors and other people’s skill sets. Interesting concept! Thanks for the good read.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @MiriamEllis: Much like the way so many other businesses work, there are reasons to work with a smaller “boutique” agency and giganto-shop alike. Thank you for lending your insight.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Don: I like the distinction between being an evangelist and being a thought leader. Then you get guys like Chris Sherman, Rand Fishkin and Danny Sullivan who are both.

    It’s an awesome time to be an SEM isn’t it! Thank you for stopping by.

  • Jagdeep Singh Pannu

    Hi Marty,

    Thanks for putting up this interesting article. When I saw the heading it sent my mind racing and I must say that all in all, if seen with an open mind, your post makes pretty good sense. But one objection in my opinion would be that serious “in-house” SEM consultants hardly have the time or the inclination to interact in SEM specific social media because we have tons and tons of in-house industry related work. But I do agree that thought leaders or evangelists, somewhere at some point in time, probably do/did interact in SEM specific social media, which enhances/enhanced their visibility.

    For example, Mr X used to interact in SEM forums and sites while working on previous assignments in a company delivering SEM services because his presence there was required as part of his responsibilities to make his firm visible. Not any more as an in-house SEM because his social media interaction is largely in e-learning circles and he hardly gets the time (no matter how much he may want) to interact in SEM circles. To quote Miriam above, “Perhaps, in this age of specialization, businesses may begin hiring SEMs on the merits of their personal passions rather than a simpler metric of skills.” May I add adaptability also Miriam?