Top 5 tips on how to choose a SEM (PPC/SEO) agency

It’s been a while since the last time i blogged. A couple of things happened personally and i didn’t have much time to even think about Blogging.

Anyway, Liz mentioned once that it would be interesting to blog about “How to choose a Search Engine Marketing (SEM) agency” since it’s going to be quite controversial. People from different backgrounds will have different insights about this. So what i plan to write about is specific for Singapore, North and SouthEast Asia regions only because we are very different from US, UK, AU or other parts of the world.

There are many reasons why North and SouthEast Asia regions are such a unique place for Search Engine Marketing (SEM). For one, it’s because SEM has only been around the corner for the past 3-4 years. Big agencies only started focusing on this region for the past 12 to 18 months.
Hey, even Google only opened its office in Singapore in May 2007.

3 years ago, if you mentioned the word “Search Engine Marketing” or “Pay per Click (PPC) ” to marketing managers in Singapore, most of them would not have a clue what SEM or PPC was all about. However, nowadays i am pretty sure that almost all marketing managers in Singapore have been exposed or talked to by at least 2 to 3 different SEM agencies. Without a doubt, every agency will say that it’s the best in the market, how it can deliver the clients’ objectives.
This makes the agency selection process murky somehow.

Being inspired by some real life examples, i will present some rather unique angles that have not been covered by other blog posts some where else.

Below are the 5 tips on how to choose a SEM agency in random order:

  1. Staff turnover rate: It will be of paramount importance to understand the percentage of staff turnover rate of a particular SEM agency.
  2. Agency Willingness to educate the clients: This is a two way street
  3. Having expertise in both Pay Per Click (PPC) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  4. Industry Recognition
  5. Proficient in different Technologies

Staff Turnover Rate for SEM agency

This is an issue that many “so called” big international agencies, who just set up shops in Singapore, are facing. SEM is so new in the region that there are not many professional Search Engine Marketing Specialists out there in the market. There are, however, a lot of self proclaimed masters in SEM though.
Because of the lack of talented professionals, many agencies are forced to hire youngsters or people with little understandings about Online Marketing, let alone Search Engine Marketing.
Many of these people are smart, very smart, they may have knowledge of traditional marketing. They are being lured by all the big Brand names, the prospect of having a big brand on their CV and some big bucks.
However this is the worst thing that a client can hope for. Agencies need to spend time to train their people and then in the mean time the account management suffers.
Many of those executives work really hard, long hour even due to the amount of work required. However, due to lack of experience with SEM, the results are not always what they wanted.

Besides, there is another big issue with high staff turnover rate. If the handover from one account manager to the next is not done properly, the new account manager will most likely take sometime to understand how the dynamics of the relationship with a particular client is, how the campaign is being structured and executed etc…

I often come across clients who complain that during a short period of 6 months, the account is managed from 3 different people and they all have no ideas of what they are doing.

Anyone can talk big about this and that, about how they are the master of Online, SEM blah blah blah. However, at the end of the day, for any agencies, their staff is the core of the business. It all comes down to people, who are organized in a meaningful structure and deliver on the clients’ objectives. And you can’t have a good, solid structure if people come and go all the time.

Personally, i know of a handful of companies whose staff turnover rate is way through the roof. They have big brand names out there actually so it might not be a good idea to name any of them 🙂


This is vitally important but it’s a two way street. Agency must be willing to educate the clients, being as transparent as possible because that’s the only for the industry to grow.
We are moving past the stage where everyone is just talking about what an impression is or what a click is into conversion, onsite conversion rate, tracking etc…

Well, i have been attending many Search Engine Marketing (Pay Per Click or SEO) seminars over the past couple of years, some are online conferences but most of them are offline. In these seminars, everyone normally talks about how great online marketing is, how Search engine Marketing needs to have a mandatory budget throughout the year in the whole marketing budget.
However, the fact is SouthEast Asia region still suffers from a very low adoption rate. The budget for Search Engine Marketing is still so small and people think about SEM with the campaign based mentality, not as a yearly activity that must be done.
That is the reason why i mentioned above that while the willingness to educate clients, bringing in value added services are important, there is just so much that an agency can do.
The client themselves, need to proactively seek out better understanding about Online Marketing, Search Engine Marketing.

Expertise in both Pay Per Click and Search Engine Optimization

In this region, there are still people who use the term SEM to refer to Paid Search or Pay per Click only. So i feel strongly that we need to start with definition, concept first.

Search Engine Marketing “is a form of Internet marketing that seeks to promote websites by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs).” (according to Wiki)
SEM includes Pay per Click (or Paid Search), Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Paid Inclusion (for the sake of simplicity we don’t talk about Paid Inclusion for now)

By definition, any SEM strategy should include both PPC and SEO. So any SEM agencies have to be proficient in both. PPC and SEO is like a pair of chopstick. How can you just use one chopstick and not the whole pair??

Industry recognition

This is quite a tough criteria since in Advertising or Online, we have Best Creative agency, best interactive agency but we don’t have a lot of awards for best Search Engine Marketing agency or best SEM campaign.
It’s also because many clients, whose agencies have done a great job, don’t want to disclose to others their secrets so no case studies, no concrete hard numbers and hence no prizes 🙂

So if any companies who ever won anything for SEM, it’s worth considering. Alternatively, clients can attend a few industry seminars/forums to see which companies are presented and what other people talk about them.

Proficient in different technologies

When i use the word technology, i mean “Tracking technology” or “Bid management technology”.

PPC or SEO does not work without web analytics. It’s as simple as that. There is no use trying to optimize a campaign without post click data. It’s literally like closing your eyes and trying to drive from Jurong to Changi. (Singapore is small but imagine driving from Johor to KL, blind folded.
We are no longer at the stage where the primary concerns are just impressions or clicks but rather post click data (user engagement, conversions etc…)
Luckily, many big MNCs realize that and hence they have global deals with technology provider companies like Omniture, DoubleClick etc… to implement tracking for all the markets.
However, the sad fact is not many agencies (MNCs who have office in the region or local based agencies) are proficient in all of these different technologies. As a results, they just don’t use it or only use it to a very limited extend.
One can argue that because of the level of spend the client has, the agency can’t put in more efforts like sending people for training of different technologies, actively using these tools to optimize the campaign, the website etc…
Well i believe somewhere the balance needs to be achieved. On one side, clients can’t expect agencies to work effortlessly on water and sunshine. Yet, agencies need to be humble enough and provide the adequate level of services. It’s not easy though.

That should be all for now actually. It’s weekend here in Singapore and i am going to a friend place for a small party 🙂
Feel free to drop any comments that you like. I am sure many of you will have different ideas on how to choose a good SEM agency.


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