It's been a busy few weeks for reports about search engine marketing issues, with three different publications having been released recently. They cover the issues of selecting a search engine marketing firm, which search engine marketing strategies seem to work and a review of how the web sites of Fortune 100 companies rate in terms of search engine friendliness.
The first, "Buyers' Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Firms," is an outstanding resource that fills a long-needed gap. There has simply never been this type of comprehensive guide to firms that conduct search engine marketing, and the report is a real must buy for anyone considering outsourcing their search engine marketing efforts.
Published by MarketingSherpa, the 100 page report covers 24 search engine marketing firms, with at least another 31 to be added over the coming months. Along with profiles of the firms, it also has an outstanding introduction to the many different ways that search engine optimization firms approach the task of building traffic. The report costs $119, when downloaded in PDF format, or $129 for a print version.
The report came out of an article that ran on MarketingSherpa back in February that suggested some SEO firms might be overcharging. I remember the article well, because I thought there was no way to prove such a claim. That's because there is no "standard" pricing for SEO services, just as there is no standard pricing to conduct an advertising or PR campaign. Rather, pricing can revolve around what someone is willing to pay and the how much a firm's reputation can command.
My supposition is exactly what the MarketinSherpa's follow-on report found. Pricing is all over the board, with bids of $400 and $5,000 for the same job. The report expects that pricing will settle down over the next year. I doubt that will ever be the case, any more than it is true with "real world" marketing services.
In any case, the report's advice not to let price be your primary factor is exactly right. A high price doesn't necessarily mean you'll get better work nor that you are getting ripped off.
Instead, price has to be taken in consideration with factors such as experience, reputation, the company's core competency (are they a design firm that also dabbles with SEO on the side, for example? If so, that could be bad.), the company's communication skills, proclivity to use spam tactics and use of optimization tools . The report also provides some pretty good general guidelines for evaluating these factors.
The report includes a 14-point questionnaire that you can put to any SEO firm to evaluate them. This was the same questionnaire put to the firms reviewed in the report. It covers items such as set-up and maintenance fees, and what these include in terms of specific work; whether work is done to your site or hosted on theirs; reporting options; which search engines are targeted and a detailed examination of their optimization approach. Again, the report provides ample and sensible advice in understanding the responses you will get.
Probably the only real controversial part, for some, will be the advice to be "wary" of firms that use cloaking. The jury is far from decided on this issue. Inktomi and AltaVista both allow cloaking, while Google does not. So, a firm that uses cloaking for the first two search engines might be perfectly legitimate. Having said this, I'd agree that when cloaking is involved, you'll need to be much more careful about exactly how it is used.
I disagree with the report's suggestion that a firm you are considering should be able to show you a good ranking they've achieved for a client. This is wrong on multiple fronts. First, firms should be very protective of their clients. Those that show you a range of high rankings for different clients may be drawing unwanted attention to those clients, either from search engines or the client's competitors. Even if the SEO work was perfectly "clean," from a search engine spamming point of view, advertising high rankings is something I think is best avoided.
It's also important to note that a good ranking means little unless you understand the competition revolving around the term. For instance, let's say I told you I had a number one ranking for "tacoma washington cheap dry cleaners." A long term like that might not face much "competition" in terms of other relevant web pages. Given this, my top ranking may have less to do with fantastic search engine optimization skills and more to do with the low competition against me.
Finally, top rankings don't reflect the fact that a good SEO campaign might produce lots of traffic for highly targeted individual words.
Instead, I think you should ask for references. You want to talk to some clients of the firm and ask them how their experiences have been with the company. Did their traffic go up from search engines? How did they know this? Did their conversions improve? And if a firm does give out rankings, great! But, be sure to ask if they had their client's permission to do so. After all, you want to know if they're going to do the same for you.
As for the firm profiles, you'll be shown a pricing range, summary of the type of work performed and other answers to the questionnaire mentioned above. Unfortunately, the report doesn't have an at-a-glance guide to all the firms, so that you can easily compare them. This is coming in the near future, however.
Who made the cut to be reviewed? A post for recommended search engine marketing firms was sent to several mailing lists frequented by web marketers. Over 100 responses came back, and a list of the initial 24 firms was compiled, when duplicates and subcontractors were removed. The concept was to use this type of survey to find what are the leading firms, at least in terms of reputation.
It was a good approach, especially in that since the SEO industry lacks any type of trade group to determine who is biggest. Nor does biggest necessarily mean the best. After all, independent consultants might perform outstanding work as well as firms with many employees. At least this report provides a first benchmark to "who's who" in the industry.
The research was conducted by Anthony Muller, who also runs one of the firms reviewed. That produces a potential conflict, but there's no hint of Muller trying to position his firm over others.
Want to have your firm included? You need to have one full time employee who's been involved with SEO for at least three years, and your company's revenues must be mainly derived from SEO services. Message firstname.lastname@example.org, if you'd like to be included.
One part of the MarketingSherpa report calls search engines "the ultimate, cost-effective online guerrilla marketing tactic" and adds that "if search engines are not driving a solid percentage of your traffic, then you have not optimized properly." But what's a solid percentage? The report notes this could vary between 5 to 100 percent, depending on your overall marketing mix.
Isn't there a better figure that can be found? That's one of the questions several questions that "Search Engine Optimization Strategies: A Marketer's Perspective" aimed to answer.
I know this new 46-page report well, because I cowrote it with Search Engine Watch associate editor Chris Sherman for CyberAtlas. Whereas the MarketingSherpa report is a first in surveying SEO firms, the CyberAtlas report is a first in surveying so many web site owners about a wide-range of tactics they follow to achieve success with search engines. The report is $195, when downloaded in PDF format, using the special URL below.
The focus wasn't about specific search engine optimization techniques, such as how many search terms can go into a meta keywords tag. Instead, it was an overview of the collective search engine marketing experiences of over 400 web site owners and marketers.
For instance, we found that there was no conclusive answer to the "how much traffic should you get from search engines" question. Nearly as many respondents (24 percent) said they received more than 75 percent of their web traffic from search engines as those who indicated they got less than 25 percent. In fact, answers for the entire range of traffic volumes were nearly evenly matched in responses. Truly, how much traffic others get is no great measure of how well or poorly you are doing.
The report examined the take-up of paid participation programs. Paid submission to Yahoo and LookSmart and paid listings with GoTo were by far the most popular programs, each used by over 30 percent of those survey (you could select as many programs as you used). Paid inclusion from Inktomi and Google's paid placement programs also had some significant usage, around the 20 percent mark.
Of all of the paid participation programs listed, paid placement was seen as the most successful in channeling visitors to a web site, selected by 37 percent of respondents. Other programs such as paid inclusion and paid submission, as well as free search engine optimization techniques, where selected by under 15 percent of those surveyed as a top choice.
When asked what type of new paid participation program they wanted from search engines, the top choice was ranking or clickthrough reports that show how people found their web sites. Nearly two-thirds said they'd pay for this type of information.
Another finding was that about half (46 percent) of those responding said they spent less than 0.5 percent of their annual marketing budgets on search engine optimization, which was pretty shocking, given that search engine listings are becoming widely recognized as one of the most targeted and cost-effective types of advertising available. FYI, a budget spend of 2 to 9 percent was found to produce the best satisfaction with search engine traffic.
The report measured a variety of other things, such as the fact that nearly half (47 percent) said they check their listings monthly. The percentages dropped off significantly, as frequency checking increased. Similarly, monthly optimization of content was done by nearly half (again, 47 percent), with a scant 4 percent deciding that daily optimization was necessary. However, those that audit their listings on a daily or weekly basis (and, presumably make needed corrections) were found to be more satisfied with their search engine traffic than those who do so less frequently.
We also found that the vast majority (81 percent) of respondents did SEO work in-house, though it could be because so many respondents were from small and medium sizes businesses. Of those that outsourced, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) turned to firms that specialized in search engine optimization, rather than ad agencies or conventional marketing firms. About half also reported flat fee monthly pricing to be the most popular payment option.
The third search engine-related report released recently comes from search engine positioning firm iProspect. The company surveyed the web sites of the Fortune 100 companies and found that 97 percent of them had some type of site architecture problem that might give them problems being found by search engines.
One fact from the report's press release is that the study found that half the companies reviewed had meta keyword tags. However, it determined that the tags didn't make use of key products or services offered by those companies. If they had, it might have increased the chances of the companies getting some valuable traffic from search engines.
The press release overstates the problem, however, suggesting that the lack of accurate meta data means that pages about products and services from these companies "will in all likelihood not appear in the query results." The web's major human powered search engines, such as Yahoo, make no use of meta data to compile their listings. In addition, Google -- one of the web's most popular crawler-based search engines -- also doesn't use the meta keywords tag. In these instances, accurate or inaccurate meta data would have no bearing on rankings.
The summary report has some good statistics pointing out how many companies still incorrectly use the same meta keyword and description tags from page to page. Ideally, each page should have its own unique tags that reflect the content of that page. This isn't a guarantee for top rankings, but it can help.
The report is available in two forms. A $195 summary version provides an overview of findings, with some interesting comparisons to how things have changed since 1998 (better, but there's plenty of room for improvement), along with an industry-by-industry breakdown. The $2,000 full copy presumably provides a close up look at each company's web sites, providing details on problems that were found.
Buyers' Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Firms
MarketingSherpa, Sept. 2001
Learn more about the report here or purchase it for immediate download. There's a money-back guarantee, and the report comes with a special web site where updates will be posted. You can also download the first 12 pages of the book for free, which contain introduction to the world of search engine optimization firms.
Search Engine Optimization Strategies: A Marketer's Perspective
CyberAtlas, August 2001
Using the URL above, you can download the CyberAtlas report at a discounted rate.
How visible is the Fortune 100 to Web Searchers?
The iProspect report can be ordered here.
Fortune 100 Companies Damage Their Ability To Be Found Online By Prospective Customers
iProspect, Sept. 10, 2001
Release about the iProspect report.
Five Myths That Stop Companies From Hiring Search Engine Optimization Experts They Desperately Need
B2BMarketingBiz.com, Sept. 25, 2001
Reasons why you might consider outsourcing your SEO efforts.
Selecting a Search Engine Optimization Provider
SearchDay, Sept. 20, 2001
Choosing an SEO provider to make your site more easily found in search engines requires more than just hiring a cocky keyword-slinger or meta tag hacker--the best SEOs are masters of multiple skills.
More Search Engine Optimization
This page for Search Engine Watch members has a list of articles about selecting SEO firms, as well as other resources relating to search engine optimization.
Avoiding The Search Gap
The Search Engine Report, May 2, 2001
Other surveys have found search engines generate 6 to 7 percent of a site's traffic. Learn why this number may seem so low in comparison to the percentage of people who use search engines -- and why it means you need to make a good impression. Search Engine Watch members -- use the link at the top of the article to reach the members-only version of the article.