Questions You Should Ask Your Search Agency

By Margaret Fortner, Senior Digital Specialist

If your search agency's solution to everything is “just add in more keywords,” then they don’t know how to optimize.

In today's post, we'll explore several questions to ask your search agency (and yourself!) during the vetting process and throughout the relationship.

(Be sure to check out our previous posts in this series, Questions You Should Be Asking Your Email Marketing Agency and Questions You Should Ask Your Facebook Marketing Agency.)

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How does the agency’s strategy align with our company goals?

Your agency should be digging into what your business objectives are and asking questions to get at those goals. For example, if you need Google to be the channel for driving purely new customer acquisition, aka, first time purchasers, then the agency's questions should align with that objective. Follow up questions might also include: 

What channel tactics with Google are most effective for driving those people? How would you structure your account around acquisition versus retention? What are the three tools that are most effective, and what are the three coolest tools you’re most excited about? 

Overall, you want to test how well your agency knows the platform and your goals, but also how much they’re testing, pushing the envelope and thinking ahead.

What is the agency’s spend structure?

If your agency operates on one hundred percent media spend, then they’re going to push different things. Whereas if your agency works on a month to month retainer, their tendencies will be different. 

For example, an agency working fully on percent of media spend may focus more on upper-funnel, head and broad terms, optimizing mainly by adjusting CPCs rather than seeking additional efficiencies through account structure, creative alignment, etc. 

On the other hand, retainer agencies (being judged solely against performance to increase spend) will focus on more long-tail and exact match terms to seek the lowest hanging fruit and beyond from an efficiency perspective.

Where do you see most incremental opportunities?

Even if your campaigns are already going well, there will always be opportunities to improve. You might think about the following scenario: 

If our brand increased our budget 30% tomorrow, what would your agency do with it? 

Don’t be afraid to hold your agency’s feet to the fire with such a scenario. And be sure to vet their answer and see if it’s on base with the historical knowledge of your brand. The goal is to figure out if what they’re doing is the right thing.

What is actually providing incremental gains versus what is happening from a revenue number?

The revenue, conversions, ROAS, or CPA numbers inside the platform don’t always tell the whole story. If your agency is driving what looks like significant revenue, but upon a deeper drill-down, you discover that 90% of search revenue is coming from brand search, this is significantly less incremental than revenue/customer acquisitions driven from non-brand search. 

Customers picked up in brand search are at least aware of your brand, and there’s a good chance, especially if you’re running marketing efforts across other channels, that you’ve already paid elsewhere to acquire them. Non-brand acquisitions, on the other hand, are customers that are at least less aware of your brand and are potential competitor customers that you’ve managed to acquire yourself.

If your agency is presenting you a single set of search performance numbers or a “blended” dataset when you’re running both brand and non-brand search, you’re not getting the full picture. 

Beware! Badvertising agencies can make a search account look strong and profitable when brand search is blended into the picture.

What outside audiences are you utilizing to inform or assist your campaigns?

There’s a plethora of data available nowadays via remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA), Google Analytics integration, and more to assist the modern Google Ads advertiser. 

There’s raising bids against non-converting site visitors with a higher likelihood to convert than your pure prospecting audiences. There’s targeting similar audiences of your highest-value purchasers to cautiously test into new pockets of keywords. 

Point being, advertisers are empowered beyond the simple keyword. A good search agency, at the very least, should be leveraging observation bids up against core site audiences. If they’re not and are struggling to find optimization solutions beyond “raise the bids,” you’re not leveraging the full power of the Google Ads platform.

What’s your point of view on account management platforms?

Any agency worth its digital salt will have an opinion on when such platforms are appropriate, and when they’re not. And because these platforms will cost extra, it’s imperative to know how useful they will be. 

Account management platforms can be a way to leverage additional business data, efficiently implement third-party tracking at large scale, or to expand your advertising efforts more effectively into incremental platforms such as Bing and Yahoo Gemini (yes, there are use cases!).

Is the person I’m meeting going to be the person working on account?

It’s possible that a previous agency sold you one team, but gave you service by another. There’s the pitch team and then the actual team. But you have a chance early on in the agency relationship to figure out how to get transparency about the staffing of your account. 

We believe that for a modern marketing agency to be transparent and successful, they need the right combination of senior leadership and account management. The former focuses client satisfaction, long term strategy and overall client business objectives, which might include the president and founder of the agency or head of operations. 

The latter focuses on daily optimization, calls, communication, testing and channel expertise. This would include a dedicated account management team with a senior specialist for day to day execution, short & mid-term strategy, and to be the main point of contact.

What’s your copywriting process?

If you want to be a little subtler with the topic of account management, this question will give you greater insight into the agency’s approach. Copy can be pretty nuanced. Keywords are easy to figure out, but copy requires a lot of constant testing. 

Do whatever you can to find out who’s writing the copy, how they’re testing and iterating off of it, and how they’re getting data against it to see what works or not.

How are you demonstrating traditional expertise on the platform?

Agencies represent a significant marketing expense, and if they’re not plugged into the direction digital trends are going, that’s a red flag. You don’t want your marketing service provider to be using the same techniques they learned five years ago and haven’t changed and evolved. 

Dig deeper with your agency. Find out about their approach to bidding strategies, whether they prefer manual or automated, and when. Then dig deeper and see if they have use cases for each of those. This can get highly granular but it’s worth taking the time to explore. See if they can figure out how to back into potential available spend and conversions from search impression share, or project spend off a new pocket of keywords that you haven’t previously tested. 

If you’d like to see several examples of using bid strategy to drive conversion for ecommerce brands, here’s one of our recent use cases.

Is this something you ask your agency to do, or something you can do yourself?

There are many questions you should ask your search agency. But don’t forget, there are also questions you shouldn’t ask, because you should dive into your accounts and look for the answers yourself. 

For instance, you can ask an agency how frequently your agency is adjusting bids, but they could technically say anything. They could say that they have bidding algorithms in place which do all the work and you don’t have to change anything. 

But you can also jump into the account and see how frequently the account is being touched by utilizing the change history. Look at the search query report. Be proactive to make sure they’re not just blowing smoke and saying what they can to get you off their case. 

Remember, there’s a difference between performance being good and struggling to break through to the next level, versus performance being bad with the agency telling you something other than what’s actually happening. You need to verify.

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When it comes to optimizing your search channel, it’s your job to think about what information bumps up against what you know about your brand that the agency isn’t thinking of. 

Keep asking if they have thought of this, tested that, etc. And pay close attention to their responses to see what that says about their character and expertise. 

Remember, if an agency’s solution to everything is “just add in more keywords,” then they don’t know how to optimize.


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Margaret Fortner Senior Digital Specialist The Metric Digital Blog A Blog on All Things Digital Marketing