SEM Account Audits: Rules Of The Road

I was recently introduced to a high-spending SEM team via the company’s CEO. The conversation with the SEM team didn’t go so well, at least from my perspective. The head of the team started the conversation by stating that they a) weren’t looking for any outside help and b) felt that everything was going really well, so there was no need to even have this conversation. As I don’t like twisting peoples’ arms, I exchanged some small talk for five or 10 minutes and then ended the call.

From the agency side, this was a frustrating experience. Basically, the SEM manager had no interest in even finding out if we could improve her performance. I had just wanted to ask point-blank, Don’t you want to know if you could be driving better results? Are you afraid to know or just extremely arrogant?”

Imagine going to medical school and having someone walk into your office who tells you upfront, “I just want you to know that I am not going to allow you to examine me or give me any health advice!” That’s how it feels when an SEM manager rejects an agency out-of-hand.



But after calming down a bit, I tried to look at this conversation from the SEM manager’s perspective. It’s possible, even probable, that she gets hounded by a new agency every week. And every agency no doubt promises amazing results. She may have even given a few agencies access to her AdWords account to perform a free audit.  Perhaps after a few inane audits, she’s now convinced that talking to agencies is a colossal distraction. So while I felt that she was acting totally irrational by not giving me the time of day, if she had in fact been burned by other agencies, her behavior makes a lot more sense.

It struck me that SEM managers need to find a happy medium here. On the one hand, outright refusing to talk to any agencies can lead to myopic mediocrity: because you have no benchmark against which to compare your internal performance, you may be doing a terrible job at SEM and have no way of knowing. On the other hand, talking to every agency that knocks on your door would be a massive distraction. And giving too many agencies access to your SEM accounts can cause confidentiality problems.

So I tried to put on both my agency and my client hat and come up with some guidelines to make the agency-potential-client dance as graceful as possible. Here are my rules of the road for agency SEM audits:


Not all agencies are created equal! Just because you’ve done an audit with one agency and had a bad experience doesn’t mean that the next agency that approaches you will be equally disappointing. Understand the differences between agencies (types of clients, size, years of experience, focus, location) before dismissing an audit offer out-of-hand.

Solicit audits, rather than waiting for them to come your way. Identify the agencies that are likely the best fit for your company and proactively discuss audits with them.

Set an annual audit minimum and maximum. Commit to accepting at least a couple of audits per year, but set a cap on the number you are willing to review. This will help you control the amount of time you have to put in to the process.

Ask an agency to send you a sample audit. You can then evaluate whether their findings might be relevant to your business.

Be open-minded! If an agency blows you away with their recommendations, consider hiring them in some capacity!


Don’t use fear to convince advertisers to accept your audit. I absolutely despiseagencies that send blanket emails to advertisers with vague claims like “I can tell that your current agency is making some big mistakes” or “your account is clearly under-optimized.” Win on your strengths, not on blindly attacking others.

Be honest with your assessment. The goal of an audit is not to win the client at all costs; the goal is to determine whether there are opportunities in the account, and then – and only then – try to win the business. Agencies that go into audits with the sole objective of finding something wrong in an account to sign a deal do a disservice to the client, themselves, and other agencies!

Sign an NDA and stick to it.
Keep client confidentiality. That means only sharing audit findings with others in your agency when absolutely necessary. Have a mutual non-disclosure agreement (NDA) ready for both you and the potential client to sign.

Understand that audits are part of the cost of doing business. Audits take a lot of time, and time is money. Clients have no obligation to work with you upon completion of an audit, so don’t feel jilted if business doesn’t come your way.

Account audits can be a win-win for clients and agencies. Set the right expectations from the start, and everyone will benefit.

3 comments about "SEM Account Audits: Rules Of The Road".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Ryan Burt from Lars Marketing, LLC, August 5, 2014 at 3:43 p.m.

    Good article. Curious if you charge for your audits? I run a small consultancy and I have typically charged for audits, unless the account spend and campaigns are relatively small.

  2. Suzy Sandberg from, August 6, 2014 at 9:37 a.m.

    Great summary of the audit landscape! I, too, have been involved in many new business pitches for SEM accounts which include conducting audits. One reason the SEM manager may have been reluctant to have the account audited is that she may be fearful that any issues that are called out in the audit would be directly or indirectly attributable to her management and/or oversight of the campaign. My experience is that this in addition to loyalty and satisfaction to the current agency are the two main reasons companies decline SEM audits. A third is that due to loyalty/satisfaction with the current agency, the company doesn't want to waste the agency's time if they have no intention of moving.

  3. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, August 7, 2014 at 2:51 p.m.

    Ryan, we don't charge for audits. though to be clear, the audits we provide are "mini-audits" which usually take 1-2 hours to compile, rather than full audits that take days. Also, we qualify clients in advance (to make sure they could actually afford us if the audit went well) prior to committing to the audit.

    Suzy, great points. Loyalty is a good trait, but loyalty to an agency that is doing a bad job means that the SEM manager is not doing his/her job. Similarly, an SEM manager who is defensive and afraid about finding things to improve is either a) in a toxic company where there is a lot of finger-pointing, which would suggest that she should leave, or b) isn't cut out for SEM. SEM is about constant learning and testing - if you are afraid to learn something new, you are in the wrong business!

Next story loading loading..