"We need to get an SEO effort underway immediately. How much does it cost?"
Congratulations, you've just set yourself up for a bad experience!
As much as the SEM industry is responsible for creating some bad experiences (such as clueless people calling themselves "SEOs"), the prospect that sets the table with this "urgent" SEO inquiry is an active participant in developing of a poorly devised SEO strategy.
To enjoy the fruits that SEO can provide, you need to be well organized and develop a plan. Develop a successful SEO effort the same way you would develop any other successful initiative. Know what you're doing, where you want to go, what it will take to get there, how much it will cost, and the expected ROI.
To help you to better organize this process, here are some questions you should ask yourself and your SEO provider (in-house or outsourced) so that you can set the table for success.
What Are You Doing?
Goal creation: If you're hiring a SEO firm to "get higher rankings," this is a bit myopic. "Higher rankings" is pretty general. What really matters is the organic search traffic increase you realize from the efforts and how this traffic develops into leads and sales.
Know SEO: If you're hiring a SEO (in-house or outsourced), don't go blindly into this. You need to be educated about proper SEO so you can manage it. For small business owners who are short on time and looking to commit to SEO, it's a coin flip if you outsource this as to whether you'll find a provider that will really deliver. It pains me to say that about the SEM industry, but it's a fact. You're much more likely to see results if you're well educated on the subject and are able to stay engaged in this project and ask the difficult questions.
Where Do You Want to Go?
If you know you want to get search engine traffic from a given set of keywords, then get a realistic view of what it will take to rank (and get traffic from) those keywords. A keyword list with the five most popular keywords could be shortsighted. While ranking for that "one special keyword" could really move the needle, you should diversify and "spread the risk" among several keywords.
Remember: SEOs don't completely control the search results. You should find those key vertical areas of your business and make sure that you have plenty of content to support the search engines believing that you're an "authority" within your given subject matter.
What Will It Take to Get There?
This is where the "urgent" request for proposal is most problematic.
If your SEO provider doesn't take the time to digest what you're trying to achieve and ask the hard questions to determine if you're ready for the commitment necessary to achieve the results, then any amount of money that you have paid (the initial "setup fee" or if you've hired someone full-time) may be wasted.
Listen closely: SEO is not "black magic." Search engines want to rank quality Web sites (sites with great content that other Web sites link to because of the great content). Now, it could be that you already have a Web site that people love and link to. Perhaps you only need to make some technical changes to the Web site (SEO friendly design, URL rewriting, content additions, title tags, whatever).
But, what if you determine that your IT department is unwilling to make the necessary changes? You must have the commitment from everyone who might be involved with the Web site to ensure that nothing will inhibit your ability to properly optimize the Web site.
What if the main keywords that you have determined are important to the success of the effort happen to be ultra-competitive? What if you learn that other Web sites ranking for these keywords have at least 10,000 pages of content indexed in the search engines and you have 500? Are you ready to hire a copywriter (or a team of copywriters) or develop a forum/blog or "something" to help you catch up with the competition?
How Much Will It Cost? Expected ROI?
Hopefully, by now, you believe that real SEO isn't black magic. And the folks that are good at this are a rare breed, and coincidentally, cost money.
This, again, illustrates the need to not "knee jerk" into a decision to get into SEO. You'll need to -- as best you can -- determine a plan for ROI, just as you would for your paid search campaigns, e-mail marketing, or any marketing that you might undertake.
If you're like our example above, and your SEO provider says "yes, we're going to need 5,000 pages of original/quality content," are you ready to spend the money to get someone engaged? Assuming that the strategy is sound, what is the cost and what is the expected rate of return?
Good content could run you around $40 per page. Yeah, do the math: $200,000. Crazy, huh?
Perhaps that's unrealistic. How, then, will you create content? User-generated content? Forums have done great things for Web site rankings. So, how much to hire a moderator (or two, or whatever)?
Ask the hard questions. Don't jump into SEO without preparing yourself. I've written about this before, but please take advantage of my SEO RFP template. You're free to use this, and edit the document however you like. It will help you determine if you're really ready to consider SEO.
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