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Use Care When Choosing an SEO Agency

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The increasing awareness about what SEO is and what it can do is a good thing. However, it's important to beware of "instant experts" who know a few things about what's going on, but don't get the whole picture. This ranges from major SEO firms dispensing bad, and even very risky advice, to smaller firms that are overtly ripping people off.

A large Fortune 500 client that had just fired its SEO firm recently brought us in. The firm was part of a much larger agency, and the project related to moving the client's Web site from an existing domain to a new one. While the existing domain was a respected Web site, with high PageRank, this was part of a re-branding move by the company.

The prior SEO firm had correctly recommended that they implement redirects from the old domain to the new one. But, they had explicitly suggested 302 redirects. It really, really hurt to see that. Any SEO with a basic amount of experience knows that the 302 is a message to the search engines to not transfer the link equity (link juice, PageRank, whatever) from the old location to the new one, and that the redirect of choice is a 301.

In addition, this SEO firm allowed the client to pick a Content Management System with basic architectural problems that made it hostile toward search engines.

So when you're picking an SEO firm, make sure you pick one that can demonstrate its competency through reputation, references, or both. In addition, make sure they explain all their recommendations in detail to you, and make sure that they make sense. You can even use an external expert to poke holes in it. Challenging recommendations is never a bad thing to do.

Bad Advice From Articles, Too

You can also see not-so-good, or even bad advice presented in articles written online (but surely not this one!). One blog recently caught my eye on Microsoft's Office site, "Optimize Your Web Site For Better Ranking In Search Engine Results." There's some good information and advice in here, but there's misinformation as well.

One of the more interesting tidbits was the statement they make about putting text on your Web pages: "So do write text -- at least 200 words per page." This is excellent advice, but all the more interesting because of its specificity. While the post is from the Microsoft Office team, I wonder if there is something of a clue into Live Search here about how much content it would like to see on important pages.

The thing that was scary to me, though, was the way the article started:

Keywords, meta tags, search phrases: learn the lingo. Meta tags are one or more significant words we call "keywords" that are separated by commas into phrases and placed in your Web site code. Search engines use meta tags to index sites so that people can find what they are looking for.

The entire first section was about keyword meta tags. We still get calls from people who think that tweaking your keyword meta tags is all that's required for SEO. It hurts to see that being treated as the primary recommendation on a site that should be authoritative.

Ultimately, there's some possibility that keyword meta tags influence the rankings in Yahoo and Live Search, but the degree of influence they have is very, very, very, very small (I'd insert more "verys" but my editors won't let me). And in Google, it isn't a factor at all.

The article continues with some good advice on titles, headings, and content. I was recovering a bit at this point, when I got to the section called "Get Linked Up." The advice is 100 percent centered on doing reciprocal linking. Ouch!

Not too long ago, I used to receive a dozen requests a day for reciprocal links. Every Webmaster who knew anything about SEO was out there trying to swap links.

Yes, reciprocal links with relevant Web sites can help your rankings. But if this is all you do with your link building campaigns, you won't get anywhere. Link swaps could be considered barter, which makes them a compensated link. Search engines may count these for less than a one-way link.

If a large percentage of your links are reciprocal in nature, then you could be headed for real trouble. This was the subject of the BigDaddy update by Google back in early 2006. In this update Google did many things, but one of them was to discount the value of reciprocal links for sites that had too many of them.

Summary

Just because someone calls themselves an SEO, or even if they're writing publicly about it, doesn't make them an expert. Put your mental filters on what you hear and what you see. Here are some quick things you can do to protect yourself:

  • If you outsource your SEO, have someone in-house who has a basic level of competence.
  • If you hire a full time SEO, you should still have someone else who has a basic level of competence.
  • Ask questions. Make sure you understand the logic of what your SEO is recommending. If your SEO won't answer the questions, or can't do so clearly, it's time to get a new SEO.
  • Validate advice. Do recognized experts provide contradictory advice?
  • Get references when you sign up an SEO firm, or hire an SEO to work for you.
  • Similarly, don't read one article, and act on it, without validating that advice as suggested above.

This may add some extra time and effort to your SEO efforts, but it's your site, and it's well worth it.


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