SEO Firms: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Making the decision to invest in your website by hiring an SEO firm can be tricky; and once you have decided on doing just that, how do you know how to decide among SEO companies? Do you choose a large firm with lots of different employees to contribute to your project? Or do you go with an individual SEO consultant without all of the overhead of the large company for a more personal, one on one experience? Are SEO consultants like lawyers: the more you pay per hour, the more they do for you? Or do you go for the cheapest package available to you?

Choosing an SEO firm is a very difficult experience for some, especially since there is absolutely no industry standard in what makes for a good cocktail of great SEO systems or techniques, nor are there any guarantees in this business, no matter what any of them might lead you to believe. With good reason, outsourcing SEO can be an emotional decision for a webmaster, especially if the site is one’s baby, so to speak, that has been hand-fed and raised from a small seed of an idea.  Relinquishing the “power” of success or failure to a stranger at a sometimes staggering cost can bring a myriad of feelings, some of which may include panic, optimism, fear, anxiety, or even relief.

There are many reasons someone would want to outsource to an SEO professional for help with their website. They may not have the type of knowledge, tools, or know where to even start. For most, simply the amount of time that SEO takes, including all the research and trend-watching, is something a website owner may not have. For whatever reason a website owner decides to hire an SEO firm to help their website reach top positions in the SERPs (search engine results pages), how does once know where to begin?

First and foremost, you’ll need to know ahead of time what your SEO needs are.  Ask for a site analysis so that you know just where your site strengths and weaknesses are. This way, you won’t feel like you don’t know where the SEO firm or consultant is headed with your project, and you’ll be better able to gauge what you need from a package, or whether you’ll need to heavily customize your SEO project. It isn’t necessary for you to understand all of the aspects of what goes into your SEO project, as long as you understand what the end results should be.

Be very wary of any company that offers you guarantees, especially guarantees that state they’ll get you into the top ten results or your money back, or a certain percentage of the keywords you choose will end up number one or two in Google. This is great if you have an unusual type of site, or niche content. But there is a good chance that if you’ve thought of it, someone else has too. There is nothing wrong with guarantees like this, however: “We guarantee a x percentage increase in traffic by x date.” That is a far more reasonable guarantee to offer. Unfortunately, that kind of specific guarantee usually can’t be offered until the SEO firm has a good handle on what your site is doing in the SERPs and where its flaws might be.

Find out what a firm’s code of ethics or standards are. Also find out what type of contract you’ll need to get started. If a company doesn’t offer a contract, then you need to get one of your own. It seems these days that contracts lately are only as good as the company behind them, but it does help to have a plan of action on paper to which you can legally hold the company. Make sure it covers any extra fees, what happens if you’re not satisfied with the work, what your responsibilities are as a client, and so on. There are a few SEO agreement templates on the Internet.

There are advantages and disadvantages between choosing a large firm or a small company or individual SEO consultant. There may be different priorities you have regarding your website, such as customer service, longevity of the company, experience, full range of services, price, and even ultimate results. Here I’ll outline some of the pros and cons of both, and depending upon your priorities, it may help you decide which type of service to choose. Keep in mind that these are generalities that I put together based upon the collective experience of clients, webmasters, and other SEOs. They certainly don’t take into account every type of SEO firm out there, and sometimes you get very lucky and find one that doesn’t fit the mold at all while still meeting every one of your needs.

There might be a few advantages to considering a large firm rather than going with a smaller company. For example, they will probably have a well-rounded group of people with different areas of expertise. Search engine optimization is not just about marketing, but it is also about search engine friendly design, page structure, coding and programming. If you go with a larger firm, the better your chances are of finding people who can help you in any area of SEO, no matter what your specific issues may be. They will employ not only marketers and optimization consultants, but programmers and website designers for consultation.

You might get lucky with a small SEO firm that is well rounded in this area, but it’s difficult to find an individual consultant that will have the technical experience you might need. In my case, not only do I have the marketing experience and education, but I do have a solid coding background, even though I am not a programmer; and many times I will have to get a programmer to help with the really hard stuff. But if you find an SEO consultant you like, it would be extremely helpful to you to find one with website design experience, at least. Many times, however, the SEO consultant may contract outside services for your programming needs, and that will be fine for you. All you need to do is ask them, and if you’re okay with your SEO contracting another service, then make sure you mention it.

Larger SEO firms tend to have set packages for SEO, and while usually reasonable in price, any customization of your SEO project may cost you much more than you intended. This is because custom work veers from what the SEO does day in and day out, and takes more of the SEOs’ time.  Smaller SEO firms, in general, have better customization options overall, since they tend to look at a client as an individual, not just an account. 

Don’t be put off, however, by companies that prefer to handle contacts via email or trouble tickets. This is a good practice for even a smaller firm, because it creates a written record of activity, and not just verbal communication. Let the company know exactly how you prefer your communication, and if phone consultations are extra, just keep in mind that it is far more time-consuming to maintain a telephone relationship with your consultant than it is for email. This is true of just about any company. Even companies like eBay don’t offer anything but online support or email. This will obviously be more of a concern with a larger firm than a small company or individual SEO.

Another disadvantage of a larger SEO firm will be their company expenses, which may ultimately affect your price. It costs a company more to maintain a large batch of employees, equipment, and of course the building costs will be higher. We refer to this in business as “overhead.” If a large SEO firm has a lower price, then this could mean they have to take on far more accounts than they should probably handle. This could adversely affect your customer service. We’ll look at price differences a little later in the article.

Many large SEO firms will have multiple contacts for your account, depending upon the type of question or need you have. So if you have a marketing or SERPs question, then you may get one person, but if you have a question regarding your site structure, you’ll get another person. If you have copywriting issues, you may even get a completely different individual entirely. Sometimes it’s just too hard for an SEO consultant with too many accounts to keep track of your needs, in which case your account may end up with several consultants, which makes it more frustrating for you.

You will also run into the risk of a conflict of interest in a particular field or industry regarding keywords. This is because of the sheer number of clients the large SEO firm maintains. The more clients they have, the more likely there is that someone on their staff is working for one of your competitors for the same keywords. A good SEO firm will let you know if you’ll be working with them against a competitor, and either they will decline your offer for service, or they may make you sign a waiver of liability, stating that you are aware that your competitor also contracted this firm. It may be in your best interest, however, to find another firm who doesn’t have a competitor for a client.

Small SEO firms or even individual consultants will be the choice for you if you are not happy with dealing with the disadvantages that larger firms create, like customer service. A smaller firm or individual will not have as many clients, and will be able to focus more upon your service, and probably will be far more available to you if you have questions or concerns. Further, if you go with a smaller company, there is a good chance you’ll have a single representative for your account, rather than many different contacts to deal with as you would with a larger company.

I saved the pricing aspect for last, not because it’s the least important (in fact it may be the most important factor for you), but because it’s not the easiest element to define. There is no set rate that is right or wrong for an SEO project. A few companies offer standard packages in tiers that are the same for every client that firm has, but even sol, every website is different, and every project has its own issues that may need to be dealt with. SEO companies or consultants can charge for a initial analysis or consultation, or it can be free. They may have a set price, or they may need to provide you with a custom quote. Prices for SEO have ranged from as little as $5.00 per hour, which you may see from countries outside of the United States and the United Kingdom, to as much as thousands of dollars for a project.

The latest report I’d seen on the Internet reported that on average, SEO companies employ nine people (that’s specialists and administrative people too), have 35 clients with an average value of $30,107 each, and $157,796 in annual revenue per employee (source: MarketingSherpa’s Buyers Guide to SEO Firms, third edition). Since only some of this made any sense to me, I looked up average SEO consultant salaries, which is technically a niche market, and there’s not really any averages out there floating around. Honestly, I could only come up with a broad price range: from about $30,000 to about $150,000, and on average, larger companies pay larger salaries. On that note, please don’t ask me what I make a year, because I probably won’t tell you. It could just be that I don’t really know!

SEOs can charge by the hour, per project, or on a monthly contract. It’s a good idea to know what kind of budget you can truly invest in your project. Keep in mind that the money you invest will be just that: an investment. And no investment is bulletproof. Sometimes skimping on the project just for price will actually cost you more than you can afford in the long run.

Ultimately, whether you choose a small or large SEO firm or company, know what you want ahead of time, and don’t be shy to lay it all out at the beginning what you need from your SEO consultant. Sometimes just talking to them will give you a feeling about how they will handle your SEO project. And no matter which you choose, natural search optimization takes time. There is no miracle formula that will speed your site to the top of the engines, no matter who you decide to hire, and you should run far away if someone tells you otherwise.  And that’s the ugly truth.

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