When those on one side of an issue are much passionate about their position than the people on the other side, it can challenging to communicate effectively. I believe this is very much the case with this issue of taking Search Engine Marketing in-house. Unlike Agency advocates, I have no particular stake in the issue – which doesn’t mean I’m any more likely to be right. It just means I’m a lot less passionate about it and I sometimes feel like the "other side" just isn’t hearing what I’m saying. Indeed, I’m not even always sure why the "other side" feels like I’m an opponent.
I raise this issue after reading Aaron Goldman’s article in Search Insider – written largely in response to my article on taking Search In-house (http://www.technewsworld.com/story/lzMlUAy54ICcp6/Bringing-Search-Engine-Marketing-In-House.xhtml).
Aaron starts with this really confusing point:
"Gary Angel of SEMphonic takes a stab at this in his recent byline in E-Commerce Times. Below are three questions he advises marketers to ask themselves --along with my comments.
1. How important is the Internet acquisition channel to your business?
I dismiss this question as "not applicable." As I've pointed out in previous columns, search is more than just a direct response vehicle capturing "low-anging fruit" at the bottom of the sales funnel. Search is a platform by which new media delivery and consumption habits are being formed. As such, search has the ability to engage consumers across the entire purchase funnel, from awareness to interest to desire to action.
2. Is search marketing a core function to your business?
Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. For some companies (e.g. CPG, OEM) search is viewed as a marketing channel…"
What makes this passage so confusing is that it isn’t what I said at all. Here’s my actual quote:
"Most outsourcing decisions -- regardless of whether it's payroll or PPC -- share a common set of decision factors.
How core is the function in question to your business? You need to be good at your core -- the things that will really differentiate you from your competitors. For most organizations, completing payroll isn't core. It's necessary but it's not a differentiator.
Is SEM a core function in your business? The more important the Internet is to acquisition, the more likely the answer is yes. "
As far as I can tell (and I’m pretty sure I’m right) – I’m claiming that "coreness" is a key attribute of interest in the out-sourcing decision and Aaron apparently agrees. And I further say that one of the factors determining if Search is core is the extent of your online acquisition. So I never had #1 has a separate factor – just another part of "coreness" – where, I think, it clearly belongs. Does Aaron really believe that your extent of online acquisition has nothing to do with how "core" search is?
Apparently, for while I have a hard time making head or tail of the rest of Aaron’s quote "...search is more than just a direct response vehicle capturing "low-hanging fruit" at the bottom of the sales funnel. Search is a platform by which new media delivery and consumption habits are being formed. As such, search has the ability to engage consumers across the entire purchase funnel, from awareness to interest to desire to action." that seems to be the general thrust.
I just don’t accept that. The degree to which you are in the online channel just does have a profound impact on how important Search is to you. And Search IS just another marketing tool. Like TV, Radio, Print, Billboards, eMail, Banner Advertising, etc., etc., etc. It is completely appropriate, even essential to some businesses. It is irrelevant to others. For some companies it works like a charm. For others it doesn’t fit or is of only minor importance. No one marketing vehicle is appropriate for every company and every situation – and Search is no exception. There may be companies where Search just is a direct-response vehicle for capturing low-hanging fruit. There may be companies where it isn’t even that. And there may be companies where it is much more. If this is controversial, it’s news to me.
In fact, I think passionate advocates of Search are betraying their own interests here. The more Search is viewed as vital to any and every company, the more companies it’s going to be "core" for and the less often out-sourcing is going to be attractive. Frankly, I think Search isn’t core for most businesses – and that ought to be good news for Agencies not bad news.
I have less issue with most of the rest of Aaron’s article. He adds four considerations to my list of reasons why you might not want to bring Search in-house.
His are Experience (the fact that Agencies see all kinds of Search campaigns and can presumably apply that expertise to yours), Technology (he actually doesn’t advance any reasons here in response to my claim that there isn’t any), Scale (this is where the technology argument ends up – claiming that Agencies get discounts on the technology you might purchase) and Flight Risk (the likelihood of your employee’s leaving while an Agency can plug another body into a hole).
I think there is something to the Experience argument. But it’s hardly compelling. Yes, practitioners at an Agency will see lots of different programs and have some experience with things like content, shopping feeds and local search that might be hard for a company to obtain inexpensively. On the other hand, most of these things might not be very relevant to you. And you might be better off with an employee concentrating on learning and testing the things that are relevant to your business all the time. I think there’s a real argument here and to me it’s the most likely of Aaron’s added list to prove important. In web analytics, I think our multi-company view does give us a real advantage vis-à-vis in-house staffers – alas, it’s hardly a decisive advantage and certainly not a compelling reason to out-source your web analytics to us.
Since there really are no arguments under Technology I’ll go directly to Scale. Aaron argues that "Agencies are able to secure discounted pricing based on sheer volume aggregated across clients. Additionally, this volume affords agencies dedicated resources assigned to their accounts for troubleshooting, training, etc." I just don’t buy this argument at all. First, many Agencies simply mark-up whatever discount they get – and sometimes the client ends up paying even more than if they’d negotiated the deal themselves. An exactly analogous situation exists in my industry, where Web Analytics Software companies resell their products through Agencies and Consultancies. And I can assure you that if you are sizeable company, you will almost always be able to negotiate a better deal going directly to the software company than through one of these resellers. Again, I have a hard time seeing how this argument is more than a minor and likely insignificant consideration in the overall question.
Which brings us to Flight Risk, Aaron’s last addition to my list. He writes, "Any marketer building an in-house search team runs the risk of having all the knowledge walk out the door with one or two key individuals if they leave the company. We all know how strong the demand is right now for folks with search experience. And, while agencies are certainly not immune to employee flight risk, the risk is mitigated by the relative ease with which team members can be reassigned and ramped up quickly and efficiently."
To me, this just rolls up into the staffing issue I already discussed and consider to be the most serious barrier to bringing Search in-house. I will say that the underlying assumption here is prevalent in Agencies – namely, that to be a good Search Marketer they don’t have to understand your business. That’s why they can just roll another body into whatever chair was vacated. I disagree with that. And I think it helps explain why many companies feel like their service goes from good to awful when a particular person at an Agency walks out the door.
I can’t help but have the feeling that this back and forth largely misses the real, underlying point. In the real world, a company looking to bring Search in-house is probably very dissatisfied with their Agency. Often, they are very dissatisfied with their second or third Agency. Satisfaction with an Agency rarely engenders this discussion!
So most commonly, a company is looking around saying something like the following: "Our current Agency doesn’t seem to be on top our campaign, they don’t seem to get our business, they never come to us with new ideas like Local Search – we have to demand it – they charge us an arm and a leg, they treat our information like it’s their property and they act like Search is some mystical temple we can’t understand. Maybe we should bring it in-house." In such a situation (and particularly where a company has tried several Agencies) which of the points Aaron brings up is going to be compelling? Experience? Discounts on Technology? Flight Risk? Don’t think so.
To me, it just comes down to few pretty basic and common-sense ideas. In any out-source decision like this there are bound to be a host of arguments on each side. Some important, some minor. What I set out to do was ask if there were "compelling" reasons why a company shouldn’t consider bringing search in-house. Reasons comparable to those surrounding, for example, producing TV commercials. I grant that there are a host of reasons why bringing Search in-house might not be the best decision for any given company (and why it might). I even suspect it might not be the best decision for most companies. But I just can’t find – and I certainly haven’t heard – any reason to believe that most companies should simply assume bringing Search in-house is wrong for them.