If you were tasked with finding a high-quality search engine optimization (SEO) partner, either consultant, agency, contractor, or some mix thereof, where would you start? Finding SEO services that 1) don't suck, and 2) don't put your job (because of a poor decision) or your site (because of risky tactics) in jeopardy isn't a trivial exercise.
Beyond these essentials, what about retaining SEO services that are truly a cut above the norm, that are performed by a savvy and high-quality partner that is someone you can trust?
It must be stated that SEO is riddled with fakers, low-quality service providers, and outright scammers. As an open industry (on the open Web, no less) SEO is literally part of the Wild West. There are no sanctioning bodies, no third-party entities that can truly vet all SEO services. Because anyone can sell SEO without a license (or sadly, without any knowledge), the industry is rife with, frankly, crap.
Coupled with this reality is the fact that SEO is a combination of art and science. This lends its practitioners to a sort of hard-to-define artful and intuitive understanding of search engines, combined with the hard data of metrics and analytics, log file parsers, and semantic markup.
SEO is based on data, on delving through technical issues and problem solving. But its greatest opportunities come from combining the analytical side with an artful understanding of users and search engines, and using experienced hunches to gain a competitive edge.
SEO is in High Demand
High-quality SEO is in high demand indeed. There's a lot of money at stake, too. Traffic and ranking improvements can mean millions of dollars for a company's bottom-line revenues.
This has created a market with service providers who are adept at selling SEO services, but less skilled at carrying them out. Sadly, many SEO services do little to move a company's bottom line.
How to Find a Quality SEO Partner?
But it's not as bad as it may seem. There are some bright spots out there. Here's how to find a quality SEO partner:
- Define what you need. In everything, there are specialists and particular talents, and SEO is really no different. If your site is a publisher needing traffic increases for CPMs, you'll have much different requirements than an e-commerce site looking for product-level conversions. Are you looking for link building emphasis, technical expertise, a strategic partner for growth in SEO? Defining what it is your site(s) need is the first step toward finding a quality SEO partner.
- Ask around. Chances are someone you know already has an opinion or two about a SEO consultant or agency. Ask them. Use your social connections on LinkedIn and elsewhere (such as Twitter) to leverage your trusted network, too. Some of the best leads will be word-of-mouth referrals from people you trust.
- Read trade pubs. Sites such as this one, ClickZ, Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, SEOBook, and others are a great place to get familiar with the faces and personalities of SEO. By reading industry sites you'll get to know what each of the contributors are like, what their particular style and strengths are, and what their personality is like. It's important when choosing a SEO partner that you not only look at particular competencies and experiences, but also what the personality fit is with your own company. Remember, you're looking for a partner, and it helps to be someone you'll enjoy working with.
- Attend conferences. Conferences such as SES are probably the single best way to vet potential SEO partners. There are many advantages to being in person with these people, and it will give you the greatest ability to really "get" the particular skills and areas of focus a SEO can provide. It doesn't hurt that there are often many networking opportunities with ample alcoholic beverages, which always help to loosen lips and ease inhibitions; a great time to ask some pointed (and friendly) questions.
- Dip a toe in the water. Don't be afraid to ask for a test or pilot, a three- to four-month trial, or specific SEO project. This gives you time to see what level of SEO the partner can bring to the table, and frees you up from committing to anything long term while you're still unsure.
What Warning Signs Should You Look For?
Now that you know how to go about looking for SEO services, here are a few things you should beware of -- things that should throw up red flags.
- Watch out for SEOs that can't answer questions confidently. No one knows everything. In SEO, you can't expect someone to answer every question you pose with a perfect answer, but you can expect them to answer honestly and confidently. You're really just looking for confidence, generally: how competent and composed is the SEO you're dealing with? Do they know how to answer questions logically and reasonably, or do they get flustered and defensive by pointed questions?
- Beware of odd pricing packages (agencies that optimize "by the page"). The days of optimizing 10, 20, or 100 URLs and calling that "SEO" are over. SEO isn't about a page or two, it's about a strategic approach that leverages a site's unique offerings, whatever they are. You can't do that by picking out a selection of pages and calling that "good." Companies that price by the page are using a short-sighted approach that more than likely doesn't have your best interests in line with their own.
- Beware of packages, period. SEO is organic. Selling SEO by the package is just plain wrong, too. Why? Because SEO cannot be packaged. It is by nature an organic discipline that requires innovation, creativity, analysis and the willingness to try "out of the box" things. "SEO Package #1, 2, and 3" will stifle your SEO opportunity by limiting the universe of potential work that might need to happen to a set list of pre-defined criteria that a SEO company has placed within scope. This can impose restrictions on your SEO campaign, which you absolutely don't want.
- Beware of SEOs using techniques that put you at risk. This includes buying links, cloaking with an intent to deceive users and/or search engines, stealing content, etc. Find out and be assured that the partner you choose doesn't mess around with any tricks that could harm your company.
- Beware of restrictive contracts. Watch out for contracts that require a 90-day out, or that lock you into long-term commitments. No SEO contract should ask for more than a 60-day out, and a 30-day out is probably all that's required.
Strategic, quality SEO is something nearly every site must be aware of (even Google needs SEO). But it's not easy to find. Best of luck in your search!
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!