In four and a half years since Sarah Shaoul started a website for BlackWagon, her children's boutique in Portland, Oregon's trendy Mississippi Avenue neighborhood, she's worked with four search-engine optimization consultants. Believe her when she says a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist that's a good fit for a small business is hard to find.

The first SEO expert Shaoul used was her business partner at the time and didn't know as much as he claimed. The second SEO consultant did some great work but never really grasped her store's high-end business concept, and after he raised his rates she couldn't afford him any more anyway. Then there was the guy who stopped returning phone calls -- he checked in eventually to say he'd changed his business' direction and no longer did SEO work.

Shaoul is happy with her current SEO advisor, but only because they spent considerable time up front hammering out exactly what the specialist was going to do. Says Shaoul: 'Every time we hire someone we gain a little more insight.'

According to Internet marketing experts, Shaoul's experience is par for the course for small businesses looking to hire outside SEO help to promote an online store or just improve their standing in Google searches.

In many cases, small businesses don't know where to look for SEO specialists, or once they find candidates, don't ask the right questions to separate the good from the bad. 'A lot of people approach it like it's magic,' says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, an SEO industry news website. 'But really it's like finding a dentist or plumber. You're hiring another service professional, someone to do a very specific job.'

Where to find SEO candidates

Small businesses like Shaoul's are barraged by cold calls or e-mails from consultants promising to improve their rankings in organic or paid searches. '99.9 percent of the time you should ignore them,' Sullivan says. 'Those kinds of pitches tend to be from low-cost, low-quality people.' Good people are too busy working they don't need to make cold calls, he says. Instead:

  • Ask business acquaintances who they use, or get referrals from your professional network on LinkedIn, Sullivan says.
  • If they recommend someone who's too busy or pricey, ask that person to recommend someone. 'They may know someone who's starting to build a client base' who'd be willing to work for less, he says.
  • Look up SEO consultants through a local or national SEO trade group, such as theSearch Engine Marketing Professional Organization. The national group has a searchable database of members on its Website that can be used to find SEO contractors by their specialty.

Once you've identified prospective candidates, check out testimonials or case studies on their website. If there aren't any or if they're very old, stay away, says Kent Lewis, president at Anvil Media, a Portland, Ore. interactive marketing agency. Ask for three references, then ask for three more to get an even broader perspective, Lewis says.

Proposals and fees

When you find someone who clicks, work up a proposal. SEO and search engine marketing specialists offer a broad range of services, everything from performing website assessments to optimizing sites for keyword searches to undertaking an extensive paid search campaign. It also helps to have a budget in mind going into negotiations, Sullivan says. Being as specific as possible about both will help an advisor come up with a game plan, he says.

While overall SEO fees depend on the kind of work that's done, fee structures can be all over the map. SEO professionals may charge by the website page, hour or project, or ask for a set monthly retainer to cover a pre-determined amount of work. Some even take a small percentage of whatever revenues are generated from their work, according to Lewis, the Anvil Media executive.

Other advice from the pros:

  • Beware of guarantees -- Anyone who guarantees your website's position in paid or unpaid search engine keyword rankings. If they make guarantees, they may be using 'black hat' methods to bend or break generally accepted SEO practices to get those results, methods businesses should steer clear of, Lewis says. Guarantees 'are smoke and mirrors and most of the time if they don't make it they won't make good on their promise,' he says.
  • Use a local -- Hiring a hometown SEO specialist could be helpful if it makes you comfortable, but it's not necessary, according to SEO experts. Regardless of where they're located, it's smart to check with the Better Business Bureau in the consultant's home town to see if they've received any complaints.
  • Find someone who understands your business -- Share what you've accomplished so they're not suggesting things you've already done, says BlackWagon's Shaoul, who learned those lessons the hard way. Have your company's Webmaster or Website developer sit in on meetings with the SEO consultant to translate jargon, Shaoul says, 'so you can focus on what you do well.'