Once upon a time, in the early days of Internet, before sites like AltaVista and Dogpile gave way to the almighty Google, getting a top page rank on a search engine was as easy as repeating a keyword over and over again on a webpage.
Well, the Internet's search engines are a whole lot smarter now. So are their scammers. Google's PageRank system is their way of determining which websites are the most applicable and useful for every search term. An SEO specialist's task is to make a page as applicable and useful as possible, thereby improving its rank. As service providers, many SEO firms will offer you the stars and the moon when it comes to SEO, but few will be able to deliver the sustainable change they promise. So when you're choosing an SEO firm, you'll have to weed through a lot of empty promises to find a trustworthy specialist.
Noah Lehmann-Haupt, president and founder of the New York-based Gotham Dream Cars, is a self-taught search engine optimization expert. It's not that he had a tremendous amount of interest in SEO, he just never felt he could trust anyone else with his website.
"Being an SEO firm is kind of like being a graphic designer. It doesn't take much to call yourself a graphic designer; anyone buys a copy of Photoshop and suddenly they're a graphic designer," he says. "It's hard to separate who is really an SEO firm and who's going to be a black hat spammer."
We've mapped out what you should and shouldn't look for in an SEO firm to help you get the biggest return on investment from your improved Google rank.
Choosing an SEO Firm: Starting Your Search
Wouldn't it be great if you could just Google "SEO firm" and choose one of the first ten firms that comes up? They practice what they preach, so they must be good right? Yes, good and pricey. "Some of the largest SEO firms have $50,000 a month minimums," says Elisabeth Osmeloski, the Salt Lake City-based managing editor of Search Engine Land. The fact is, your small business probably doesn't need the mighty force of a top SEO firm. You just need the firm that will work the hardest for you at a reasonable price.
There are a few places you can start for recommendations. Ask other business owners you trust and work with. Ask vendors you discovered through a Google search – after all, you found them, didn't you? Check SEO groups and online forums like Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, High Rankings and Search Engine Guide.
'They'll recommend the freelance people who have smaller minimums,' Osmeloski says.
Steer clear of any SEO firms that bombard you with phone calls and emails or who promise you a No. 1 Google ranking. These people are likely just offering you a paid spot in a Google ad, which is not the same as a top ranking in an organic search engine.
Lehmann-Haupt also warns against firms that claim to have 'proprietary methods' of optimization. 'That probably means they have unscrupulous methods,' he says. "There is no special sauce, and there's no secret method.'
It's important to protect yourself against people who might just be spammers because, Lehmann-Haupt says, "Google is run by a bunch of extremely smart guys, who spend their entire lives being smarter and more adept at defeating cheaters." The last thing you want is to get kicked off of Google's index.
Another substantial consideration is whether or not you'd like your firm to be local so you can have face-to-face conversations and meetings. Lehmann-Haupt says, "I would start the search by Googling 'New York SEO firms' and looking for online reviews."
While you don't have to limit yourself to SEO firms in your area, it's almost a necessity to find an SEO firm that is comfortable working with small to medium businesses and has experience working in your niche.
"I only work in the travel industry when I consult companies, because I have a fair amount of travel background and understand the business problems facing their marketing," Osmeloski says. "There are a lot of SEO firms who have a history with different verticals, whether it's retail or local plumbers."
To find out about their past experiences, of course, you'll have to explore their references and reviews, which we'll explain below.
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Choosing an SEO Firm: Budget and Fees
The first thing you need to take into consideration before you even look at fees is how much you can actually afford to pay. Fees will vary across the board, so it's important for you to have a figure in mind and find a reliable SEO firm or consultant who can work on your budget.
"There are some SEO consultants who are just starting out, who might only charge $50 to $100 an hour or charge a flat rate per month," Osmeloski says, adding that opting for a freelance SEO specialist is often the more "cost-effective" route than signing with an agency.
The firms may ask you to pay by the webpage, by the hour, by the project, or ask for a pre-determined amount of money to cover the cost of their work for the month.
Some may even charge a percentage of the revenue you earn as a result of their work. Osmeloski says this is one of the most reliable means of payment. If the firm has a stake in your success, she says, "you can have some confidence that the SEO firm is going to work as hard as they can for you, versus collecting a flat fee every month and not necessarily putting their most creative foot forward."
Remember, SEO is an ongoing process, so ask the firm or consultant how much it will cost to maintain the site once the major changes have been made.
Dig Deeper: Do we Need to Hire an SEO firm?
Choosing an SEO Firm: Reports and Communication
Once you've determined how much you can reasonably expect to pay, you need to ask the firm how much you can expect to get paid. What will the return on investment be and how does the company plan to track it?
'They should give you updates and reports, because if they're not, they may be doing stuff that Google doesn't approve of that may have a short-term gain, but a long-term loss,' Lehmann-Haupt says.
Discuss the techniques the firm plans on implementing. Some basic steps they should be taking to optimize your search ranking include, keyword optimization, headline and link evaluation and link-building from other sites.
'You have to dive into what their techniques are,' Lehmann-Haupt says, 'and if they're not going to tell you what their techniques are, you have to assume the worst.'
Ask them how often you'll receive progress reports and what tracking processes they'll have in place to prove your ROI. Osmeloski says some of those tracking techniques may include monitoring the number of e-mail requests, newsletter sign-ups and phone calls you receive.
Make sure these measurements are clearly spelled out from the beginning and you have a communication plan in place before moving forward and asking for references.
Dig Deeper: How to Hire an SEO Consultant
Choosing an SEO Firm: Performing a Background Check
Most SEO firms will have testimonials on their website, but they're not the referrals you're interested in, since they're likely the company's biggest success stories. You want to hear from run-of-the-mill customers to see how the SEO firm performs across the board. Ask for the names and numbers of at least three companies for an honest opinion.
Ask their clients how long it was before they saw an increase in search engine-related business. Find out if they were satisfied with the level of communication the company gave them. Did they follow through on all the promises they made from the start?
If the client you're speaking with has been particularly successful, ask them how much they paid to achieve that success and how much it has cost them to maintain it.
Also check out the Better Business Bureau and Ripoff Report to make sure the firm you're considering has a clean reputation. It might also be worth checking the firm's own page ranking to see how well it handles its own SEO. While this could be something you want to take into consideration, you don't put too much weight on the results.
'A lot of SEO agencies are so busy, they don't have time to work on their own site,' Osmeloski says. 'It's the old adage about the shoemaker's children.
Lehmann-Haupt agrees: 'Only ten companies can be in the top ten results, so that's not necessarily a fair judgment… If I ran an SEO firm, I probably wouldn't even try to have my own firm in the top ten, because the cost and effort ratio isn't worth it sometimes.'
Googling the firm's name should give you a good number of reviews that will, at the very least, alert you as to whether or not the company uses any underhanded methods.
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Choosing an SEO Firm: Master DIY SEO
If you go through the vetting process and find that you're either unable to afford an SEO firm or think you could do it yourself, why not give it a try?
Lehmann-Haupt learned the skills he needed to be successful by researching SEO techniques using sites like SEO Chat and Digital Point forums.
"Read up on it," he suggests. "There is a very large community of people who do this on the Internet, and there''s a lot of information out there.'
Osmeloski says, depending on how small your business is, and how regionally specific it is, you may not even need to worry about your keywords and links. Sometimes updating your directory listings can bring in that search-related business. And the basics are easy to do yourself.
"Make sure your listings are in Google Places. Bing offers a similar service," she says. "Make sure they have your local phone number, and put it on Yellow Pages as well. That maybe takes a couple hours worth of work, and for a mom and pop shop, that would solve a large number of issues."
Whatever path you choose, make sure you're reevaluating your search strategies every six-to-12 months. Search engines will continue to morph, shift, and become more sophisticated. If you want to be successful for the long haul, you'll need to change, too.
Dig Deeper: How to Learn Search Engine Optimization