“Social media is vital say top SEO firms”. But the bosses aren’t very social…


One of the most frequent comments from search agency bosses in the recent NMA league table of the UK’s top search firms was the importance of social media to search.

The following is a representative quote: “the biggest growth opportunities are in increasing the effectiveness of search by integrating it with areas such as display and social media.”

So are the bosses of these search firms walking the walk, as well as talking the talk when it comes to social media?

On the whole, it would appear the answer is no.

To try and work out just how social the bosses of the UK’s top search firms are, I created a PeerIndex list of the MDs of the top 45 firms as per the NMA league table.

As the observant among you will notice, there aren’t 45 names in this list. This was because I wasn’t able to find a Twitter handle for all of them. This suggests they haven’t got one or they aren’t making it easy to find their Twitter profile (*).

As can be seen by the PeerIndex list, the bosses of the UK’s top search firms don’t appear to be that active in social media.

Of course, I’m fully aware of the argument that bosses shouldn’t be wasting their time Tweeting and Facebooking 24/7 – they have far more important things to do like running their businesses. However, given that the top search firms seem to have a consensus about the importance of social media to their clients, you might think that there might be more of an effort to “lead from the front”.

On another point, I will spare the blushes of the search agency MD who “protects” his Tweets.

As I said earlier, I don’t think anyone is disputing that search and social media need to work hand in hand. And from the PR perspective, if the PR sector wants to “own” social media, perhaps it could lend a hand in helping the bosses of search firms get more immersed in the environment. And perhaps creating powerful intergrated offerings that will deliver more effective, high value and more profitable services for clients?

Agree? Disagree? Have your say below.

(*) I’ll happily add in any search agency boss I’ve missed off if they want to supply their Twitter handle to me

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Winners and losers in NMA’s SEO/SEM agency league table 2011 + PR implications


Once again, it is time to look at NMA’s annual search agency league table to see what the data tells us about the state of search in the UK – as well as the implications for PR.

As ever, I’m very grateful to NMA for providing the baseline data to look at. As I’ve done in the previous four years, I thought I’d dig behind the figures to see if there are any significant trends to be discovered – and to compare the search sector with the PR sector.

The NMA league table ranks agencies based on gross profit rather than turnover (or top line fee revenue in the case of PR Week’s Top 150). I use the phrase “revenue” in this piece as a synonym for gross profit.

Some initial headline findings:

The number agency one agency again – for the third year running – is Bigmouthmedia.

They held on to their number one slot with a gross profit of £12.61m – a very modest rise of 0.42pc (in terms of PR sector comparisons, bear in mind that this is larger than most top 150 PR Week firms achieve in terms of top line fee income).  Revenue per head came in at just under £74K – a drop of 38pc from £120K last year.

The firm with the highest percentage growth was The Webmarketing Group who returned an astonishing 1600pc increase in gross profit over 2009 to £3.1m (I thought this might be a typo – it has happened before – but the figures seem to match with the previous table). Revenue per head was a more modest £54K.

Other high percentage rises were from iVantage (273pc, albeit from a low start point of £30K) and Smart Traffic (169pc – an increase of £2.2m on the previous year).

And who were the losers?

Surprisingly, the highest percentage fall came from Propellernet – a drop of 32pc. They were one of the top performers in 2009. Back then, they recorded a 64pc rise in revenue and a £113K revenue per earner ratio. Last year, they saw revenue fall by £748K to £1.5m and revenue per head fall to £58K. SiteVisibility also fell by 26pc year on year, coming in with a revenue per head figure of £46K.

The largest absolute fall came from Latitude, which saw gross profit tumble by 22pc (or £1.1m).

Of the 35 firms who were in last year’s table (ie where comparisons can be made), 25 of them saw increases in revenue. And ironically, as we’ve seen, some of the biggest fallers this time round were some of the biggest gainers in the previous year.

So what does all this tell us?

On the one hand, you could argue that the sector overall continues to exhibit decent growth. Average revenue per head in the NMA table in 2009 stood at £49.7K. This has risen to £52K in 2010. But this year’s results also show that creating consistent, sustained, multi-year growth is as difficult in SEO and SEM as it is in any other business sector. As we’ve seen, some of last year’s big gainers have seen falls this year. Conversely, some of last year’s fallers have seen revenues rebound this year.

In comparison to the PR sector, the difference in profit per head is beginning to look less marked. There are still a few SEO firms with stellar profit per employee figures – but the lesson from the previous year is to see how many of these agencies are able to sustain such eye popping revenue per head figures over time. Generally, the SEO sector appears to remain more profitable than PR – but not by the same margin of previous years.

Service-wise, the trend towards natural search vs paid search continues – although it should be noted that a number of firms with more PPC work than natural search seemed to exhibit a higher revenue per employee figure.

From a PR perspective, it is worth noting that a recurring comment from many SEO agency heads was the fact that social media was having an ever increasing impact on search (mobile was another common theme). Many SEO firms are already staffing up around social media related services (as well as continuing the trend of hiring their own PR  people)

If the PR sector believes it ought to “own social”, it can’t ignore the role it plays in relation to search. Savvy PR firms are going to cosy up with search agencies or start rapidly developing their own SEO and SEM capabilities. Those that don’t are in danger of being condemned to a race to the bottom of a commodity media relations market.

In summary, this is just a first pass look at the figures (any errors of analysis are all mine – so if you spot any, please point them out). I’ll pore over the data in more detail and report back in further findings. In the meantime, as ever, all comments and feedback welcome.

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