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What To Look For In An SEO
It's been about two years now that I have wanted to write this article. Why haven't I until now? Conflict of interest. Until recently I'd have been motivated by that necessary evil … getting business. Each time I started writing this article I subconsciously asked myself, "How can I spin this towards Beanstalk?" You can't really begrudge me this. Such is the "curse" of living in a capitalist society. Recently however we have put a hold on taking in new SEO clients. The result: consistent questions regarding who people should choose and what they should look for. And so to kill two birds with one stone, I write this now. The first bird killed is my frustration at not being able to properly write a useful article on what to look for in an SEO without bias. The second bird killed is my wasted time outlining over-and-over what people should seek out. Now I can simply point them to this article.
You've read this far so you're obviously interested in finding out what you should look for in an SEO and what you might want to avoid. So let's get right to it shall we?
Can They Rank Their Own Site?
The first thing you should look for when hiring an SEO is whether or not they can rank their own website. This may seem obvious enough but I can't count the number of times I have heard from people attracted to Beanstalk's guarantee because they wasted both time and money on an SEO firm that couldn't (or didn't) get the job done. Too often when I take a look at the SEO's website and research their targeted phrases (usually pretty obvious when you look at the title and heading tags) I find that they don't even rank for their own phrases.
This is clearly a big strike three (in this case I wouldn't even give the SEO firm a strike one or two). The only exception to this rule is if they are running a new company or website and have a proven track record from the past which can be used as their reference. In this case any consideration would require research into the individual, company, and circumstances. A good example would be Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim. Prior to starting Marketing Pilgrim he had been involved with two other SEO firms. When MarketingPilgrim.com started it didn't rank well. He was still a great SEO consultant with a solid track record of success.
What Do They Promise?
If you have a new site or a site in a high competition area and you are told that the company can get you great rankings on Google in 60 days they're either just telling you what they think will make you sign on the dotted line or they have no idea what they're doing. In either event you're in for disappointment.
An honest and straight-forward SEO will give you realistic expectations which will generally span over many months and sometimes over years depending on the scope and competition levels involved. If you have a new site competing for moderately competitive phrases, any claims from a company that they will have you ranking on Google in anything less than 5 or 6 months (and even this may be optimistic) are likely untrue.
What Do They Include?
Asking your prospective SEO company what they'll be including with their services is a perfectly fair question. You don't need a full breakdown of each and every specific (nor are you likely paying your SEO for this) however understanding what areas of the site will be changed, how the link building will be undertaken and the over-riding philosophy or approach your prospective SEO company will be taking are good questions to have answered.
If something doesn't seem right in what you're being told, ask in one of the many great SEO forums (see below).
How Are They Backing Their Services?
In one way or another, any good SEO company will be able to back up what they're offering. When we first started Beanstalk we decided that we were going to do this with a guarantee. Not all companies go this route and there are many excellent SEO's and firms that provide great services without a guarantee but all such companies will be able to back their work.
To be clear, I know of many good SEO firms that don't offer guarantees and I also know some that do offer guarantees but don't do a very good job. My purpose here however is not to point fingers but rather to point out what you should look for and how to be able to tell the good from the bad. If the company offers a guarantee, what is it? I've seen a few "we guarantee you'll be satisfied" statements out there with no qualification as to what "satisfied" means and what will happen if you're not. If the person or company doesn't have a guarantee then what do they have under their belt in the way of reputation? If a company isn't putting their money where their mouth is they should have a very good reputation if they want your consideration. Are they well published or active in the SEO forums? Are they active in the SEO community in a public fashion such as speaking roles or SEO community memberships? If they are then they have a reputation to protect and they will be backing every contract with their reputation. This won't help you recover the money you've spent if you don't get the results you're looking for but what it will do is insure that you're hiring an SEO who is motivated towards your success.
What Are Some Major Warning Signs That You're On The Wrong Track?
This term "warning signs" might be better put "red flags" as the tactics noted here are ones that should send you immediately looking for a new SEO. Prepare to say, "Thank you but no." if you hear any of the following among their list of recommendations (and note: there are more than those listed – but these are some of the more common that I've seen and heard lately):
- Say goodbye if you hear an SEO recommend that you build multiple website either as a linking tool by linking them together, or because it's easier to optimize a different site for a different engine. Unless you have two-or-more incompatible topics (a work site and a personal blog for example) you have no need for more than one site. And as a link building tactic it hasn't worked in a good number of years.
- If your SEO is using any kind of tool to automatically generate content of any kind it's time to shake hands and be done.
- If your SEO is not doing link building of some type and yet is telling you they can get you rankings for anything but the lowest competition phrases you might not need to run but you definitely need them to justify what they're saying. If you have a 6 year old site with a lot of good links already but there are some onsite issues that keep it from ranking then they may be telling the truth. If you have a new site and/or low link counts then they are not.
- It seems obvious but I have to mention it anyways, if they're recommending the use of any black-hat tactics then you're in trouble. I can't possibly list off everything that fits this category but a quick read of Google's webmaster guidelines should help. If you read these guidelines and some of the tactics seems amiss, questioning your SEO is completely justified. You can find some great examples and information on black hat SEO on the Wikipedia site at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-hat_SEO.
- Advertises that they will "Submit your website to 18 billion search engines for just $x" or mention top rankings on engines you have barely heard of is a clear issue. There are a lot of search engine out there and in fact, there are a lot of pretty unique engines with some great offerings however when it comes down to brass tacks – there are four engines that matter when it comes to traffic (at least from a universally-applicable standpoint). If an SEO is promising you great rankings on an engine like Dogpile with their whopping 0.5% of the search engine market share you may want to ask what they can do about the 91.8% of the search engine market share that's controlled by the top 4 search engines (47.9% Google, 28.1% Yahoo!, 10.6% Microsoft and 5.2% Ask).
I've tried to Coles-notes above some of the main issues that I see and hear complaints about and/or get questions on regularly. Of course there are many more. The best advice I can give is don't rush into a decision when you're choosing your SEO firm. Listen to what they're saying, ask questions and if you don't know what questions to ask take a few hours to find out on one of the many great SEO forums out there. As I don't want to leave anyone out by listing off some of the ones I visit (and I couldn't possibly include them all) I'll just recommend to search for "seo forum" and "seo blog" and visit some of the sites and ask what you should be asking. A company called Medium Blue, who's owner I had the pleasure of chatting with on Webmaster Radio a couple weeks prior to this article's publication, wrote a 3-part series of questions to ask your potential SEO firm. You can find the first part here (and find the others from there).
And one final note, it isn't always about the fees they charge. We've had a number of clients come back to us after first opting to sign with a cheaper SEO firm. In the end it cost them the lower fees and lost sales due to not ranking sooner. This is not to say that the most expensive firm will necessarily do the best job – just that you need to be aware that sometimes things can be "too good to be true". An SEO firm charging $500 will almost always be putting in different efforts than one charging $5,000. Find out what the differences are and do what's right for your business. And if you're really in doubt and don't know what to do, contact us. Even when we're not taking on clients I try to answer questions about choosing an SEO firm though it might take a couple days. Please specify in the title, "Need help choosing an SEO firm".
And good luck with your online promotions.
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