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Matt Alland and Boris Mordkovich of SEMCompare

Internet marketing experts often advise companies to open up their marketing to embrace ratings and reviews, but the search marketing industry has been in an uproar the past few weeks when SEMCompare set out to review search consulting companies themselves. Some accused search agencies of not being able to take their own medicine, while others pronounced SEMCompare fatally flawed because it is susceptible to being gamed in a highly competitive industry. I decided to interview two leaders of SEMCompare to see what they had to say.


Matt Alland, Director of Business Development, and Boris Mordkovich, Director of Operations, responded to my questions by e-mail. The picture that emerges is of a nascent operation that is still finding its way. To their credit, they seem to be paying attention to the critics and trying to make changes to improve the service—time will tell if they can improve it enough to win the critics over. Let’s hear what Matt and Boris have to say.
Me: How do you describe SEMCompare and what is its relationship is to Search Marketing Standard magazine?
SEMC: SEMCompare is a new platform for people to share their past or current experiences with various search engine marketing agencies. It gives people the ability to post reviews of the firms they’ve worked with or read reviews posted by other clients. We strive to become a research destination for anybody considering hiring an SEM agency, whether they already have somebody in mind that they want to research further or they are looking for a few potential companies to consider.
In terms of its relationship to Search Marketing Standard, SEMCompare is a fully separate entity. While it was created by some of the same people, its run with its own staff as an independent company.
Me: How did you get the idea for SEMCompare? How is it different from the Marketing Sherpa report that tracks search marketing firms?
SEMC: We actually got the idea from our own visitors. We were constantly approached by people asking us if we knew anything about this or that SEM firm or if we could recommend somebody to them. Ironically, many other people also approached us and shared the experiences they’ve had with various search marketing firms—good and bad.
It was difficult to be on the sidelines and see that there was quite a bit of information out there, but people had no way to share and communicate it to each other.
All of this seeded the idea for what eventually became SEMCompare—a platform for people to share their experiences about various search marketing agencies.
The concept of the site is quite different from the Marketing Sherpa report or other ranking sites out there. The problem that we saw with the existing ranking systems is that it was never quite clear what those rankings were based on. In most cases, they hire somebody that never actually worked with any of these companies to rate them. It’s understandable that the criteria will always be somewhat subjective, but even then—it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of a company while being on the outside.
We felt that only the actual clients of SEM firms had the insight and knowledge on the performance of a particular firm, so we wanted to design our platform on that. At SEMCompare, we do not praise or criticize any companies—rather we provide a forum for people to evaluate companies themselves.
Me: How many firms do you have ratings for so far?
SEMC: At this point, we have approximately 175+ firms in our database and the number is increasing. One interesting observation is that there were a lot of smaller—boutique or local—SEM firms that were reviewed that many people never even heard of. So, hopefully, this will help some of those smaller, but quality firms to get the visibility and exposure they deserve.
Me: Given how competitive the search marketing business is, do you have any safeguards in place to prevent ethically-challenged SEOs from boosting their own ratings or slamming the competition?
SEMC: Absolutely—that’s one of those things that keeps us up at night. But it is something that we take very seriously and tried to address on many levels.
Just to give you a few examples:

  • In order to submit a review, you need to use and verify a corporate-based email address. In other words, we do not accept any reviews from @gmail, @hotmail and such. This feature is useful because it prevents SEM agencies from submitting reviews for themselves (on behalf of their clients) because they would not be able to verify the submission. It also makes it more difficult for somebody to post a negative review for somebody else.
  • We require a company name and a website URL for every review that’s posted. The company name (along with the full name of the reviewer) is posted right next to the review itself. You mentioned a concern about SEO companies slamming their competitors. By displaying the company name of each reviewer, each SEM company can see whether the reviews have come from their own clients and if not, they can dispute it.
  • We have developed and put in place a fraud-checking system that prevents people from submitting multiple reviews. If an agency or somebody attempts to submit multiple reviews for themselves or their competitors, all of them will be caught and will not be posted.
  • All of the reviews are manually approved by our staff. If anything suspicious is submitted, it will be investigated further before going live.

We realize that our system is not perfect, but it was important to start somewhere and work your way from there. So, over time, through feedback of our users and the industry, we’ll continuously improve it.
Me: You’ve come under some criticism from the blogosphere. How do you respond to what people are saying?
SEMC: The response from the industry has actually been very helpful. Based on the feedback, we discovered and implemented a few things that the community felt would be necessary for this site to succeed, such as removing the anonymity of the posters, creating an ability for SEM firms to respond to reviews (still in the works), and so on.
Additionally, based on the discussions, we decided that it would be best to collect more information from the reviewers in order to provide the context and background for the reviews.
For example, we plan on collecting additional information, such as the length of the contract, industry of the reviewer and so on. Somebody working with an SEO company for 2 months can have a very different experience than somebody working with them for 2 years and we want the reviews to reflect that.
Me: What is the business model for SEMCompare?
SEMC: Our business model is powered by a separate side service on the site called VendorMatch. This service connects businesses looking to hire an SEM firm with the agencies that are right for them by allowing people to submit requests for proposals. We generate revenue through the partners that participate in this program.
We wanted to come up with the best business model that would not affect the quality and credibility of the reviews and we felt that this makes the most sense. It’s important to note that VendorMatch is run separately from the reviews section and any vendors participating in the program do not get any special treatment when it comes down to the reviews.
Me: How does it work?
SEMC: We have a lot of visitors coming to the site that haven’t yet selected any SEM firms, so we wanted to make their research process faster. Through the “Match Me” section, they have an option to get matched up with up to 5 companies simultaneously.
They fill out a detailed questionnaire outlining their specific project needs and, based on that, our system matches them with up to 5 firms that best fit their needs. Those firms review the request, put together a proposal and contact the user.
Me: Do you have any plans for adding information about a company’s certifications or other factual data?
SEMC: Yes. We’re always looking for new ways to make the site more useful to our users. As the site grows and expands, we would like to add more ways to give consumers insights into the thousands of providers out there.
While the site has started with the premise of just being a review platform, we would like to take a broader approach and make it even more useful for people to compare and evaluate companies. We plan on adding more information about the firms, such as the number of their employees, location, certifications, interviews with the top executives, and so on.
Me: Why should people looking for a search marketing consultant use SEMCompare?
SEMC: For those people that have already decided on potential SEM firms that they are considering, they should use SEMCompare as a research tool to learn what the past and current clients have said about those particular firms. It shouldn’t necessarily be their sole determining factor, but it can definitely play an important role—especially if there is a trend among multiple reviews for that specific company.
On the other hand, people that want to hire an SEM agency, but don’t have any specific ones in mind, can use our VendorMatch service to get matched up with multiple firms at once. It makes the process easier, faster and can actually save them money.
At the end of the day, we want to help visitors get background information, learn more about the companies and make a better, more educated decision.
Me: What do you see as your biggest challenge?
SEMC: One of the main challenges right now is to get more reviews into the database. So far, the response has been quite encouraging, but there is still a way to go.
The usefulness and reliability of the site increased when the companies listed have multiple reviews written about them. After all, with multiple reviews, you can discover certain trends in the performance of a particular firm and make a more educated decision.
Me: What are your plans for the future?
Well, it would be nice to buy out Google one day.
But more realistically, our goal is to make SEMCompare the go-to source for search marketing firm research. We think that there is a place for a review site in this industry and that it can deliver a lot of value to the consumers. So over time, we’ll work to become that type of a destination.
Me: Thanks, Matt and Boris for taking the time to explain your story to my readers.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.
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