How to Pick an SEO Professional

Not all of us are prepared to do our own SEO. If we’re focused on building our site, we’re probably more passionate about our site’s topic (dog grooming, candy, toys, technology news and reviews, or what have you) than learning the SEO that will take it to the top of the SERPs. Fortunately, you can hire someone else to do it — but there are a lot of scam artists out there. This article explains what to look for when hiring an SEO.

Writing for SEO Chat has given me the opportunity to write on a variety of issues that I am pretty much just "subjective" about. Nobody likes to be wrong, but nobody can be right all the time (even Nostradamus saw only in part). As Soros stated in his theory of fallibility "everything I say may be wrong, act accordingly." That’s the best I can do by way of a disclaimer, now note that apart from the disclaimer at the end of the article, I pretty much write with as much conviction as I can muster, but here is a topic that even "angels would fear to thread;" fortunately, I am not renowned for my angelic qualities.

SEO is a pretty much open and shut case, it either it achieves set objectives or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t the optimization process has failed. If it works the optimization process has succeeded. The objectives may (and probably will) involve achieving certain ranking positions on a particular search engine in a stipulated time. That sounds easy enough, but we have to consider the environment in which SEO professionals work: the search engines.

Search Engines

Search currently is a billion dollar business. With over a billion searches done every day using the search engines, search engines take their SERPs pretty seriously. The only reason users come is get relevant results, and each of the major search engines want a bigger slice of the growing search market (more users). Sometimes Search Engine Optimization does not help the search engines achieve their goals. And it seems that with the Google Web spam team led by Matt Cutts, SEO could get penalized.

This being said, Google does not mind sites ranking high as long as they got to that position "organically." If the site tries to rank via some other means (such as use of doorway pages or link and content spamming) and is discovered, it is likely to be de-listed.

Another thing to remember is that search engines continually change their secret ranking algorithms, and this makes SEO an inexact science (like medicine) at best, and a farce at worst — you do a lot of good work, and you don’t see any changes. This is actually one of the best reasons why you should have an SEO professional working on your site.

There is no degree in Search Engine Optimization offered in colleges and universities, but there are accreditations from various organizations like SEMPO and Bruceclay. Search marketing has become a course in marketing schools world wide (from universities in the United States to universities in Spain). Search Engine Optimization requires a mix of skills that range from the hard (technical) to the soft (people skills and "spin" marketing).

This article is aimed at institutions who are looking to get professional SEO done on their site, and want to identify their needs and what to look for in an SEO "professional." It is also aimed at those who simply want to get their web sites optimized for the search engines. Before we go deeper into what kind of SEO professional you need, let’s look at whether you need an SEO professional at all.

DIY or Outsourcing

Depending on your needs, you could actually just draw up your objectives and learn how to do SEO yourself. Some knowledge of server technology is required, as well as web development skills. Everything else requires an ability to write some text and send persuasive emails.

But most importantly you must have time on your hands. To do organic SEO you need a lot of time – time to source/write and edit copy and time to trade links; time to totally redesign your site from scratch if you see it is not meeting your traffic needs. You do not need to work on your SEO full time, but you need a lot of time. Think of it as taking on a second job.

Automated DIY

A good way of doing your search engine optimization yourself is by using SEO software, one of the most common programs being seoelite. The software is pretty user friendly and costs less than $200. Apart from that it satisfies some of the conditions traditionally required of SEO professionals (especially that of ranking well on the SERPs for your key words). Type in SEO software and the web site for this software ranks number one.

DIY Not for Everybody

Note that this is only for small sites which can be comfortably run by a single individual, not for a mega site with thousands of pages. Your SEO is a full time job. DIY is good only if you have time. If you want to spend most of your time on whatever your core skill is, you may have to hire an SEO professional to handle your optimization. It is in this area that most individuals find out that picking an SEO professional is a lot like picking a financial consultant: if you pick an inept one, you lose money. We will look at how SEO professionals develop (from my perspective), some good ways to pick professionals and what to ask for when doing "due diligence." We’ll also look at one common myth about SEO professionals, and how they bill.

The first thing we find is that a lot of "professionals" won’t make our cut if these requirements are followed rigorously, and there are exceptions to every rule. To look at how SEO professionals become "professional," I would dare to say most of them start their careers as something else on the Internet. The major starting point is "webmaster" or "Internet marketer." A webmaster is a web developer who is involved in the day to day running, administration and marketing (note the M word) of a particular website. An Internet marketer is someone who wants to sell products online. Both by the nature of their fields seek to gain high search engine rankings, and then proceed to develop (or hire) a skill set which will get them these rankings.

SEO becomes more important if the webmaster runs an ecommerce site. Others may have entered the SEO field as business development managers who were told to get "traffic on the site" or "generate leads." And recently, young programmers who build web applications have also found their way into SEO. Note that there is hardly anyone who was an "SEO" from the get go (apart from full time Internet marketers). As a profession it is a service, and most of the professionals are called professionals not because they generate results but because a circle of "insiders" endorse them (more on this later).

SEO calls for team work; one man can do a lot, but only so much. Ideally SEO involves a copy writer and a developer working together (with a marketer/manager type person acting as an overseer) because they can get the job done faster than any single one of them. As with web development, everybody has specialties. This kind of service may turn out to be expensive for small web sites (since it’s mostly relatively large SEO companies that work like this). If you get just one person to do your SEO, I will be surprised if the person is working alone (especially if you have a very big site).

Considerations

Ideally your SEO professional should have a few top ranking sites under his or her belt, all ranking for varying difficulties of key words (ranking for "computer monitors" is different from ranking for "Black Samsung CRT Monitors"). They should also NOT use tactics that could get you banned (or should have the good sense not to be caught). Ideally you should get a referral from someone else you know.

Individual SEO professionals should have ranked well on the search engines (so ask for screen shots of previous rankings); s/he should also be reasonably articulate, with good writing skills. I see SEO from a copy writing perspective so good writing skills are a must. Now note that most (not all) SEO professionals and companies charge a fixed monthly fee with no guarantee of success. And if you give your money to the wrong person, you are most likely to lose all your money without getting any results. Forget about fancy degrees or qualifications; pick an individual or company with a proven track record, someone who can deliver on demand.

Consider legal issues in picking your SEO specialist. There are SEO professionals all over the world, but if you want your money back and the fellow stays in Bangladesh, you might have a spot of bother collecting. Again I cannot repeat this enough; for a single individual get referrals, you can ask the professional to supply them.

Or you can ask other professionals in the industry to refer you. A good place to find referrals for individual SEO specialists is the forum right here at SEO Chat. Just post at the SEO Professionals forum (read the guidelines if you are a newbie), ask for contact details in the messages sent to you, and also feel free to ask the moderators.

SEO professionals can be very picky (there is a lot of work). If it looks like your site is a "dog" so to speak, or that you will be difficult to work with, some will not work with you regardless of how much you are willing to pay.

There are various companies with various competitive advantages. Some guarantee results, some are pay per performance, others may take your money and take forever. You should be warned that a certain level of professionalism is expected of you if you are working with a big company, and there will be a great deal more paper work. Apart from that, some companies have a really bad reputation on the Internet (and in case you don’t know yet, in service industries reputation is everything) so if you want to pick an SEO company, come over and start a discussion on it at the forums.

In the past few months some SEO companies have had a microscope directed at them in the forums. Internet Advancement, etraffic jams and several others have had prospective clients start a discussion about them. Watch for current or past clients and what they have to say, and disregard hearsay as much as possible (even the forums are not infallible).

"You get what you pay for."              Unknown

Cost Considerations

Unless you want SEO from an unverified source or from a total novice in the profession, do not expect bargain prices. If you get cheap SEO, I think Christmas either came early or you are being taken for a ride. Now this is totally my opinion because maybe, just maybe, some professional is charging low to undercut his competition; it’s a classic disruptive technique. But it’s a pretty big market, so anyone who is any good gets a whole lot of work one way or the other.

The best thing is to get some sort of pay for performance model, so that you only pay when certain benchmarks are achieved. Most that would agree to these model are solo professionals or SEO companies that practice "disruptive" marketing models; they have an edge over their competition when it comes to marketing. I will be talking more about charges and marketing techniques in a follow up article talking about how to become an SEO professional.

Quick summary: ask for references, and if it’s a company, seek previous clients on forums and discussion boards. There is a discussion board under this article and a forum around here somewhere; just watch out for scammers and "shady" characters (you may have to use your judgment on that one, but the moderators will help) and you should be on a roll.

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