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Newspapers increasingly see an opportunity to sell SEO/SEM solutions to local advertisers. Such efforts probably began in earnest last year with members of the Yahoo! consortium using Yahoo!’s platforms. Others have been working with WebVisible and other resellers on a custom basis. But things seem to have been heating up, prior to the NAA Marketing conference in Orlando at the end of the month.

Some high-profile (and well-respected) industry execs have recently left their posts and are apparently consulting to the newspaper industry on local solutions. Scripps Interactive VP Bob Benz and former Belo Interactive President Wes Jackson have teamed up with former WebVisible employees Chris Tippie and Charity Huff to sell solutions via a recently formed company named Maroon Ventures. Tippie, 36, left WebVisible one-and-a-half years ago to move to Crested Butte, Colorado, a resort town that is now headquarters for the company.

Maroon already claims to provide “daily operational oversight” of the far-flung Yahoo! consortium to 21 of its members, including Hearst, E.W. Scripps, Philadelphia News Holdings, Media General, Lee Enterprises, MediaNews Group, Cox Newspapers, New York Times Regional Group, Belo, McClatchy and Morris Communications. It also claims a relationship with Metrix4Media, a little-known search firm in which Hearst has a financial stake.

In a press release, Maroon is described as “a professional services firm that connects emerging business opportunities with media companies to help them execute in local markets. Its members draw on extensive operational and strategic experience to drive innovation throughout the business lifecycle.”

Looking at the big picture, we’re pondering Yahoo!’s role in newspaper SEO/SEM. If the deal with Microsoft is consummated, is the consortium solid enough to convey? After all, it was mostly founded to partner with HotJobs, which accounts for the bulk of the deal’s revenue. But banner advertising, behavioral targeting and SEO/SEM are also being added on a tiered basis with some of the consortium members.

Basically, the Yahoo! consortium is entirely a pick-and-choose affair. And sometimes it won’t even end up with Yahoo!. Last year, for instance, in real estate, it chose to work with Zillow.

Theoretically, a combination between Yahoo! and Microsoft and its aQuantive properties would aid the display piece, which is highly coveted by newspapers — especially in building creative capabilities. But that will probably be treated separately from the search equation, where newspapers might want a more independent role.

WebVisible head Kirsten Mangers won’t comment on the development of Maroon Ventures. But she tells us her company has had some success with newspapers in selling SEO/SEM solutions, especially for new advertisers that haven’t previously worked with newspapers. WebVisible has ongoing relations with companies such as MediaNews Group, McClatchy and New York Times and some Gannett-owned properties.

Mangers says the company does best when substantial sales and marketing resources are provided to the partnership. Strong results are being recorded in markets such as Minneapolis, where a dedicated salesperson has been allocated to The Star Tribune. Traditional newspaper sales reps tend to have a hard time focusing on the new SEO/SEM opportunities, due to the fact they carry so many products in their bag, she notes.

Mangers adds that newspapers may be working with several different vendors … even at the same company. Freedom Interactive President Michael Mathieu notes that The Orange County Register, for instance, works with both RHDinteractive’s LocalLaunch and WebVisible. “There is no ‘approved’ vendor” for the industry or for the consortium, she says.

Ultimately, Mangers expresses confidence that her 64-person company has the software, know-how and commitment to be a strong contender in the space. Several newspapers and Yellow Pages companies have gone with other solutions only to come back to WebVisible, she notes.

Other newspaper execs have left their companies also to provide consulting, although they have not specified that they’ll zero in on SEO/SEM solutions. These include MediaNews Group VP Teresa Lawler and Maine Today President Joe Michaud. Similarly, longtime Tribune Interactive head Tim Landon has left Tribune — but that probably has more to do with the change in Tribune’s ownership.

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