At the end of last month, Google rolled out a new page offering advice to those seeking a search engine optimization firm. Since being unveiled, there's been both support and criticism of the tips and recommendations that Google has posted in various SEO forums.
From my perspective, most of what Google has posted is sensible advice and positive for the SEO community as a whole, especially compared to what was said by Google previously about SEOs, within its help area:
"Be very careful about allowing an individual consultant or company to 'optimize' your web site. Chances are they will engage in some of our 'Don'ts' and end up hurting your site."
A brief and fairly negative statement, to say the least. The impression one comes away with is that most SEOs are likely to cause you problems, so you're better off avoiding them. Compare that to what Google's now saying:
"Many SEOs provide useful services for website owners, from writing copy to giving advice on site architecture and helping to find relevant directories to which a site can be submitted. However, there are a few unethical SEOs who have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to unfairly manipulate search engine results."
So, congratulations, SEOs! Google, in my opinion, is legitimizing the majority of you and certainly the industry.
For its part, Google actually denies that there has been any significant change in its view toward SEOs. The company notes -- accurately, I would add -- that it has worked with the SEO community for some time, speaking at conferences, posting information within its own web site and via public forums. If the tone on its help pages now seems more positive toward SEOs, Google says it is just now wording things better.
"Maybe we are expressing it more clearly. Certainly there's always room for a consultant that gives you good advice," said Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google who deals with webmaster issues. "The intent is not to be negative or positive [about SEOs” but provide more information."
Whatever the reason behind the change, I think it clearly gives the general public a more positive impression about SEOs from Google. However, Google says the main intent behind the page is educational. Google wants the public to understand how to choose an SEO wisely, so they are not likely to encounter problems getting listed with Google or other search engines.
"The overall goal is to give people the tools so that they can assess a decision about search engine optimization," said Cutts.
Let's take a closer look at some of those tips.
Be wary of SEO firms that send you email out of the blue.
Fair enough advice. Anyone who cold-calls you for anything probably should be viewed with some degree of suspicion. It doesn't mean they'll ultimately be bad, but because you didn't ask for solicitation, you might want to be more wary.
No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google. Beware
of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, or that
claim a 'special relationship' with Google
Hard to find fault here, with one key exception. You can get a top ranking within Google's advertising areas, and there are indeed companies that arguably have "special relationships" with Google on the advertising side. If you are a consumer seeking an SEO, if the SEO makes clear they have an advertising relationship, then you shouldn't be worried about that.
Be careful if a company is secretive or won't
clearly explain what they intend to do
Again, fair advice. Others may disagree, but I think it's easy enough for an SEO to explain what work they plan to undertake and especially without having to employ confusing jargon.
You should never have to link to an SEO. Avoid SEOs that talk
about the power of "free-for-all" links, link popularity schemes,
or submitting your site to thousands of search engines
Good advice with one key exception. Many good SEOs are going to help you build links, these days. It's an important factor in promoting a web site, and it has been an important technique even before Google and other search engines began leveraging links to improve relevance. You shouldn't fear an SEO that's going to help you build links in an appropriate manner.
Some SEOs may try to sell you the ability
to type keywords directly into the browser address bar
This tip really stood out in my mind, because there are definitely people out there selling namespace services via dubious practices. However, these pitches have nothing to do with Google. Instead, they involve Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
So why's Google calling this out? The company says it's just trying to educate people generally about SEO-related issues, regardless of whether they are Google-specific.
"It goes back to Google just trying to do the right thing, the same way we did with the pop-up page," Cutts said, referring to an educational page the company posted earlier this year on pop-up ads.
To learn more about problems with namespace pitches, see my recent article, RealNames Clones Causing Confusion. I also expect to revisit the issue in the near future, because I continue to get emails from people confused by misleading pitches. If anything, it would be nice to see Microsoft itself, rather than Google, make a loud, public statement on the issue.
Nice advice, but then Google doesn't offer any real help on how to do this. That's OK, I'll fill in some blanks.
Finding Search Engine Optimization Professionals is a fairly recent SearchDay article that talks about three SEO directories. Both SeoPros.org and the SEO Consultants Directory are directories that screen who is allowed in, while SEMList.com allows anyone to list themselves and information about their companies.
MarketingSherpa.com publishes a Buyers' Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms. My last review was of the first edition, but I've skimmed the second edition and still think it is well worth the money for anyone thinking about hiring an SEO firm. Along with reviews, the guide offers a lot of helpful advice.
For Search Engine Watch members, I keep a list of articles from Search Engine Watch and other sources stretching back through 1999 that cover issues with hiring SEO firms, such as Guaranteed Search Engine Placement is a Shell Game from Traffick.com and coverage of a panel on the topic last year at Search Engine Strategies (FYI, the topic is addressed again at our upcoming Dallas conference in the Doing It In House session). For an SEO perspective about dealing with clients, also see the Search Engine Marketing Shop Talk Forum article that ran in SearchDay recently.
Be sure to understand where the money goes
This tip is further expanded to explain how some SEO companies try to convince those who know little about search engines that they have some type of magical powers, by manipulating paid listings. For example, they might make you "number 1" on Yahoo via a paid listing in Overture, then leverage that to try and make you think they can do the same thing with editorial results. It's good advice to understand what you are paying for, how long you'll be paying and where the money will get you listed.
Talk to many SEOs, and ask other SEOs if they
would recommend the firm you're considering
I found this section rather confusing. Why ask other SEO firms about whether they'd recommend their competitors? Ask the SEO company's customers! Talk to real, life clients of the SEOs you are considering.
You should ask how long a company has been in
business and how many full time staffers it employs
How long a company has been in business is good, but number of staffers isn't necessarily relevant. You could find a small firm of only one or two people that is great. They may not have more people because they don't want to grow beyond that.
On the forums, I saw several posts questioning the wisdom of this tip, as well. For its part, Google explains that it didn't mean to suggest that companies with big full-time staffs are better than others. Instead, Google says it is really suggesting that consumers learn more details about the company, period.
"We are not making this general statement that the number of people matters," Cutts said. "This is more an example of doing your homework."
Hopefully, Google will look again at the wording. A simple change to something like, "You should ask how long a company has been in business, who is employed there, how did those employees gain their experience?," might get across Google's point that you should learn more about a company before engaging them without the focus seeming to be on number of employees.
Ask your SEO firm if it reports every spam abuse that it finds
to Google using our spam complaint form. Ethical SEO firms
report deceptive sites that violate Google's spam guidelines
Sorry, I completely disagree, and I'm far from alone, judging from forum posts and other comments I've read. You can indeed be an ethical SEO without also playing the role of Google's volunteer spam police.
In fact, there are plenty of "ethical" SEO firms that feel that reporting spam actually can be an unethical practice. These firms feel like they should focus on doing positive work -- promoting their clients, rather than getting involved in negative work of expending time reporting spam.
Certainly a good SEO might report some egregious spam, if they come across it. Certainly it can be helpful to Google for them to do it. However, it's not something I would agree is a requirement. As for Google's view:
"This is something where we are trying to give more information. Certainly some people might look too closely at this or worry too much. I do think if you see a mugging, most people would agree the thing is to help that person out and call 911," said Cutts. "We certainly appreciate it if people report."
Make sure you're protected legally. For your own safety, you
should insist on a full and unconditional money-back guarantee.
I agree with the main tone of this section, that you should have it clearly spelled out what you are paying for and what happens if you don't get what you want. However, there are good SEOs who may not offer you a full and unconditional money-back guarantee.
For example, a common situation is that an SEO develops recommendations, only to find a client fails to implement those correctly or at all. The SEO has done their job and deserves to be paid for it. However, a good SEO will also present their client with a clear-cut contract or agreement that spells everything out. Not happy with that agreement? Then don't sign.
Walk away if the SEO...has had domains removed
from Google's index or is not itself listed in Google
There are some problems with this. First of all, you'll have to depend on the company honestly telling you that this has happened to them. Or, maybe your own independent investigations will somehow discover this fact. Google certainly won't tell you, as the SEO guidelines page points out: "Google does not comment on specific companies."
That's OK, you might think. If the company isn't listed in Google, then indirectly I know that Google doesn't like them. Sure, unless the company was dropped for some completely innocent reason, which even Google will tell you happens to web sites on occasion. It's a rare likelihood, but a possible one.
How about Google just publishing a blacklist of companies to avoid? That would certainly be easier for consumers, but primarily for legal issues in my opinion, this is something Google -- and other search engines -- continue to shy away from. And if you are an SEO who got accidentally dropped?
"In that case, the SEO would normally have a very good answer to that, such as my ISP was down, or I was there for the past six months, and Im sure I'll make it back in," Cutts said.
Controversial new document by Google
WebmasterWorld.com, Nov. 27, 2002
Lots of discussion of the guidelines here.
Interesting new SEO guidelines from Google
SearchEngineForums.com, Nov. 27, 2002
Reaction to the guidelines. I like the posts pointing out SEOs who advertise on Google through AdWords, pitching services and promises that Google itself says to be wary of in its guidelines.
Google SEO Guidelines and Webmaster Guidelines!
ihelpyou Forums, Nov. 27, 2002
More reaction to the guidelines.
Ten Commandments of SEO According to Google &
Google's "SEO" Information - More Of the Usual Boo-Boo
Fantomaster.com, Dec. 2, 2002
Google's guidelines warn against SEOs using "shadow domains," a trademark of Fantomaster -- and Fantomaster definitely has some criticisms of the new guidelines. The same page also has a humorous 10 Commandments of SEO as drawn up by Google.
Google gives SEO guidelines
Search Engine Optimization Support Forums, Nov. 28, 2002
Another point-by-point examination of Google's new SEO guidelines.
Spotting a Phony SEO Company
SearchEngineGuide.com, Nov. 18, 2002
Author Andrew Gerhart is from an SEO company, but that doesn't mean the sensible advice he offers isn't useful in helping to determine if a firm you're considering is worth using.
Search Engine Recommendations
Search Engine Optimization Support Forums, Dec. 5, 2002
You've got to laugh at this one, a satirical look on what consumers should look for in a search engine.