In the announcement today, Microsoft said they’ve reached an agreement with The Search Agency to add search engine marketing services to their Office Live Small Business offerings. Microsoft explains their logic:
“As more and more small businesses get online, marketing their Web sites is crucial to business success,” said Baris Cetinok, director of project management and marketing for Office Live Small Business at Microsoft Corp. “Our goal is to make search engine marketing and optimization accessible to the small-business owner who recognizes their importance but may not be sure where to start.”
Under this agreement, The Search Agency will help small businesses design their keyword campaigns and educate them about “the essentials of search engine marketing.”
While I like that Microsoft really is doing quite a bit for small businesses, I have to admit that I see a very obvious conflict of interest brewing here. I would assume that the agreement you sign when engaging their services includes a clause explicitly stating that despite their status with Microsoft, they guarantee neither rankings nor actual traffic.
However, this isn’t the first relationship Microsoft Office Live Small Business has with a search engine marketing company. In the press release, they mention that:
for customers who prefer to outsource search engine marketing, Office Live Small Business has an existing relationship with Website Pros Inc., a full-service Web development firm. The Search Agency is aimed at Office Live Small Business customers who need help getting started with Web marketing through education and select services.
I assume that The Search Agency will be teaching exclusively search-engine approved/white hat techniques.
Keeping the operations of a loosely affiliated SEM firm separate from the dealings of their search engine probably won’t be as hard as avoiding the appearance of evil. If the aQuantive (and Google/DoubleClick) acquisition raised eyebrows, what should this announcement do?
Then again, in a company as large and diverse as Microsoft, it’s hard not to create these kinds of problems for yourself.