Who needs an SEO?

You have optimized your own website for the search engines for so long that frankly, you’re getting tired of it — and you’re still not getting the results you want. Is it time to call in a professional SEO? And if so, how do you know he or she will be worth your hard-earned money? Hugo Guzman answers your questions…and tells you which ones to ask.

“I’m tired of going it alone. How am I supposed to find a competent SEO firm that can help me achieve my goals without breaking my budget or banning my site?”

At one point or another, most webmasters have had this thought. It usually happens just after realizing that you’ve spent 6 months “optimizing” your site(s) for search engines and your ranking for your main keyword is holding steady at 12,347. For others, the breaking point comes when you hit that plateau with your “pot of gold” keyword. You rank well for dozens of tiny “niche” terms like Immokalee Native American leather sandals, but your ranking for your main target term, leather sandals, is simply not strong enough to drive any significant traffic.

There are a variety of good reasons for securing professional SEO consulting, but the trick is to know what you’re looking for and how to ask the right questions. I am going to break down a few simple questions that you should ask yourself, and some that you should ask your potential consultant. These key queries will help you make a smooth transition from “do it yourself” to “professional” SEO.

If your website is geared towards business or commerce you should consider professional SEO consulting. Studies have shown that the vast majority of users find websites by using the major search engines, and for the most part, “commerce” related search terms that generate significant traffic tend to be highly competitive in terms of SEO. If your company is considering building a new website or updating an existing one, then securing search engine optimization consulting should be one of the top priorities in mind.

Remember: if you spend a significant amount of money to develop the “look and feel” of your website but users can’t find you, then all of your “design & development” money has gone to waste.

Keep in mind that SEO can be geared for large competitive industries as well as small niche markets. Also, if your new website contains dynamic elements, such as a content management system (CMS), you will definitely want to consult with someone that has experience with integrating a CMS system into their overall SEO strategy. CMS systems are notoriously SEO unfriendly.

When will I see results?

You might see some tangible results within days, but typically it takes between three to twelve months to see a positive return on investment. Achieving a favorable ranking in the major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, and MSN) is a gradual process. You must consider two key factors when determining the timetable for achieving a favorable rank.  First, what keywords or key phrases will be targeted? Second, how competitive are those keywords and key phrases? These two questions are actually just components of the same question, who’s on top, and how much/ long will it take to surpass them?

Pay close attention to how your prospective SEO consultant answers this question. Make sure that your consultant (whether it be a firm or a freelancer) provides a detailed analysis of your competition for your target search terms which includes competitor’s backlink info and indexed pages info. This will be a key factor in determining if your SEO consultant is worth the investment. You may have to pay for this initial consultation ($250 to $500), but it is well worth it.

There’s only one right answer to this question. Legitimate firms target mainly Google and Yahoo, and they’re eagerly anticipating the release of MSN’s new search engine technology, due to be released by the end of this year. Some estimates have Yahoo! and Google accounting for over 90% of all Web searches.

If your prospective consultant guarantees you top rankings in JoeSchmoSearch.com and tries to tell you that this will drive solid traffic your way, do yourself a favor and don’t hire him.

Here is a list of important questions to ask and answers to look for:

How long will it take to optimize my site?

It typically takes between three to twelve months to rank in the top ten for a competitive search term. There are a lot of factors that must be taken into consideration such as the amount of existing optimization done to the site (if any) and the level of optimization for your top existing competitors for your target search term. (Are you going up against Amazon.com or are you going up against John Doe’s sporting goods store in Connecticut?)

What will you be doing to the site itself?

There are three distinct facets of search engine optimization.
Your SEO consultant should be concerned with all three. 
The first is on-page optimization. This covers HTML coding (metatags, headers, etc…), content optimization (including keywords in your written text), internal linking structure of your individual Web pages (creating a site map), and several other on-page factors.

The second is off-page optimization. This covers inbound link acquisition, the building and management of a substantial inbound link portfolio (the quantity, potency, and relevancy of your backlinks), and the utilization of proper anchor text for your inbound/outbound links. This is an ongoing process.

The third—and most overlooked—component is content production. In order to build a truly sound SEO foundation, a site must constantly be growing in terms of indexed pages of relevant content. The more individual Web pages filled with relevant content, the better a site will rank in the major search engines. There are various ways of creating substantial amounts of content. Two popular alternatives are article writing (via an article or content management system) or creating a discussion forum. If the prospective SEO consultant highlights the importance of content building, then chances are that you’ve found yourself a winner.

A word of warning: A large Fortune 500 company that I consult for has been approached recently by several large SEM (search engine marketing) companies that are mainly pitching pay-per-click, but are employing a shady marketing technique that implies that they have a “preferred” method of getting Web pages indexed in organic search. They claim that they have a specialized XML feed that somehow bypasses search engine robots, and will get you solid ranking in organic SERPs. Stay away from any of these fantasy trips. There is no secret magic formula for ranking well in SERPs.

This is a tough one. Remember that you get what you pay for. The more established SEO firms or freelance consultants will charge between $3,000 and $10,000 per month.  The newer or less established firms/consultants will charge as little $250 per month. Beware of anyone that offers you a one-time charge for permanent optimization. There is no such thing as a permanent SEO “fix” that will yield lasting results. Search Engine Optimization is an ongoing process. 

When I started out I would charge an initial consulting fee of $250, then roughly $250 to $500 a month for optimization.  As my portfolio has grown I have been able to increase my hourly rates. Now I charge a $500 initial consulting fee and no less than $1,500 per month with a 12 month guaranteed contract for ongoing optimization. This is a bargain when you consider that most medium to large corporations employ full time search engine optimization specialists at a cost of $30,000 to $100,000 annually. 

If you play your cards right, you may be able to find a legitimate and up and coming firm or freelancer that is eager to prove his/her worth and build his/her portfolio and will charge less than $500 per month. However, if you have the budget, find a more experienced and accomplished firm.  Even if you have to spend between $1,000 and $2,000 per month you’ll still be spending well below the industry average for a full time in-house SEO employee.

Should I ask for a guarantee?

While it is technically impossible for an SEO consultant to guarantee results, (unless he/she is a majority share holder for Google or Yahoo!) it is not unreasonable to ask for reference information from your prospective consultant.

Ask for some examples of work, and more importantly, ask for the contact info of one or more of their existing clients.  A vote of confidence from a satisfied customer is probably worth more than any empty “money back” guarantee. 

A parting thought: if you have been “going it alone” in terms of optimizing your site, you have a distinct advantage over the typical newcomer to SEO. You most likely know the basic do’s and don’ts of optimization. Use that knowledge to your advantage. A truly legitimate SEO consultant enjoys working with a knowledgeable client, as opposed to working with someone who is completely ignorant as to how a search engine works and has unrealistic goals as to how long it will take to obtain solid results.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Plug-in).

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