Virtually Perfect: How To Structure a Virtual SEM Business for Success

[Editor’s Note: While many of the resources here are specific to the search
engine world, this article also contains quite a bit of excellent advice for
anyone running a virtual business, in any industry.

—Shel Horowitz, Editor, Down to Business]

The business of search marketing continues to expand—offering what seems
like endless opportunities for SEM professionals to grow their business.
But the idea of growth often conjures up images of working in a traditional
office setting, which for many of us has little to no appeal.

Fortunately, technology enables many in our industry to operate virtually —
conducting regular business from their living room or on the road. There’s
no need to trade off this work-style to capitalize on the market opportunity
and take your business to the next level.
You simply need to lay the foundation for virtual success.

People Make the Difference

Let’s face it: Even in the age of technology, people are a critical part of
business success. And when you are operating virtually, it’s even more
important to find the right team. You need to consider a number of issues
surrounding the set-up of your workforce. For

1. Recruiting the Right Talent

Where do you find people? Not just bodies, but talent that fits the bill?
One of the greatest untapped resources: stay-at-home parents!
We hire moms and dads that have solid experience as account managers in ad
agencies or PR firms—they’re sharp marketers and already know how to
handle clients. A virtual agency offers many lifestyle benefits that appeal
to people who have left the corporate or agency rat race. You get the
benefit of their experience and talent without having to pay full-time
salaries and benefits.

2. Identifying Roles

What roles do you really need to fill? I’ve found that hiring specialists
with assigned responsibilities works the best in a virtual setting. It
leaves less room for interpretation differences and maximizes productivity.
At Prominent Placement, we have trained account managers (for SEO and PPC),
linking specialists, reporting specialists, freelance copywriters, a
bookkeeper, and a technical advisor. We outsource other roles, such as
research, because it’s more cost-effective.

3. Working with Clients

You have three options here. You can:

1) always be the front person (which often defeats the purpose of having
others on your team); or

2) be a control freak and insist on reviewing every last email (which
ultimately creates a bottleneck in the process); or

3) train qualified account managers to work directly with the clients.
Some of you are probably getting hives right now thinking about the
delegation. Trust me, the only way you can get to the bigger-picture
aspects of your business is to spread the wealth. You have to train and
then trust!

4. Jumpstarting the Learning Process

We all know how quickly this industry is evolving. It’s critical to get
your workforce up to speed and in the habit of staying “ahead of the curve.”
There are comprehensive online courses through companies such as iMedia
Learning and Search Engine College, books (two of my
favorites: Planet Ocean’s online book “The Unfair Advantage Book to Winning
the Search Engine Wars” and Shari Thurow’s book “Search Engine Visibility”, and of course, the
ever invaluable on-the-job training.

5. Getting the Info Out of Your Head

It’s incredible just how much data we store in our heads—especially if
you have been operating as a sole practitioner! If there is a single, most
important step to take, it’s getting this data out of your head and onto
paper. Document everything that you do. (Yes, it’s time-consuming, but
worth it in the long run!) Then organize the information into a Process
Manual for your workforce. This will make your training almost seamless!
And ensure that “your way” of doing business is replicated.


Be sure to leverage technology to its full potential. With all of the
options in the market today, you can easily and cost-effectively create a
traditional business front for customers.

1. Email – Be sure that you set up company email addresses for all of the
individuals who will have customer interactions. Always present a unified
front to the client.

2. Phone – There are a number of options on the phone front. You can have
an answering service, a main local phone number with extensions that are
forwarded to each person’s home phone, or Voice over IP. If you prefer,
your workers can simply give out their individual phone numbers. In this
case, you may want to give them tips for ensuring a
business front is always presented. There are also great
conference-calling services such as

3. Data – Most of us are accustomed to emailing documents back and forth.
When you add people to your workforce, it is critical that you consider a
different method for storing and sharing data so everyone can access what
they need 24-7. For example, a Virtual Private Network will allow staff at
other locations to access your files directly. Or, if you don’t want to be
responsible for ensuring that your network is always available, secure,
backed up, and so forth, use an outsourced extranet instead. We’ve had
great results with MarketingCentral
it’s easy to use and affordable.

With any company, a business plan is a necessity. You need to know where
you are taking your business—the path, the timeline, the milestones, etc.
If you haven’t yet done this, talk to the Small Business Development Center The organization offers tremendous insight and
direction for creating your path—at no cost to you! Remember: If you
don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Stacy Williams is Managing Partner of Prominent Placement, a full
service search marketing firm. In business since early 2001, Prominent
Placement ( provides search engine
optimization, pay-per-click campaigns,
optimized press releases, link-building, and search engine reputation
management services to a wide range of clients.