Wherefore Art Thou SEO?

It can happen to anyone. With so many so-called search professionals on the market today, it's easy to pick an inept -- or even unscrupulous -- one by mistake.

So where are all the honest SEOs (define)?

Let's talk about what to look for in an effective and ethical SEO. While there are plenty of articles on choosing the right SEO partner, there's definitely room for one more, especially after sifting through the feedback from my last column.

Don't worry. This won't be an infomercial for my firm's services. Think of this as a PSA for those in need of SEO assistance.

Do Your Homework

You wouldn't hire the first ad agency that shows up at your door, so don't hire the first SEO you see either. This seems simple enough, but some people still decide on SEO services rather hastily.

If you're looking for an SEO vendor, do a little homework. Find out which companies offer effective, white hat services, and figure out who best fits your market and budget. You can do this by reading analyst reports, visiting forums on SEO, asking advice from someone at a respected SEO information outlet (such as Search Engine Watch), or speaking with colleagues.

There is no single solution for all businesses, so plan on holding interviews with a few shops or putting out an RFP for services. You may find that some of the best in the business are not a good fit simply based on size and expense. A smaller shop may work best for your business given the scope of what you may need done.

At any rate, cover your bases. Speak with a few different service providers before making a decision.

Check References

Once you've narrowed your list of prospective companies, ask to see some of their prior client work. Better yet, ask to speak to some of their clients. Client references are invaluable for an SEO company and speak volumes of the firm's credibility.

This may be the best way to cut through an SEO's hype. As in any service industry, an SEO is only as good as its clients' experience, and checking references can help you sift through the inevitable pomp and self-inflation.

Don't buy lines about "guaranteed number one rankings" or other agency snake oil. The best endorsement is a history of credible client success. Talk to clients of prospective firms and learn what agencies are really about.

Pay for Performance?

So you've picked an SEO firm. Now let's talk billing.

From a business standpoint, pay for performance may sound like the easy answer. You scale payment to the success of the campaign, providing specific SERP (define) benchmarks for larger payments. While pay for performance seems fair on the face of things, a business must remember its own role in implementing an SEO campaign.

Unlike a paid search program, a client can't set loose their SEO vendor to "do SEO" for them. Pay for performance is only worth considering if you're willing to commit to making the recommended SEO changes and do so in a timely manner.

In such a case, there should be agreed upon and measurable metrics in place, which means having your analytics platform configured correctly before starting a pay for performance engagement. You will also need to set realistic time parameters for the engagement, as it can sometimes take two to three months to see results.

I recommend a hybrid approach for SEO billing in which the vendor is compensated for their initial work and incentivized based on the performance of the overall program. This works best when there is a commerce aspect to the Web site and sales/revenue can be tracked back to organic search.

It's a Marathon, not a Sprint

Choosing your SEO wisely is a great first step in optimizing your site. The next step, unfortunately, is patience.

It can be disheartening to put up a large budget for SEO and not see an immediate return. While clients hate hearing it, it takes time for changes to be indexed, and it may take even more time to see increased conversions after that.

SEO is, after all, a long-term investment in your business. If you're looking for an immediate return, consider mixing paid and organic search strategies; this way you'll be covered in both the short and long-term.

Unlike paid search, where results vanish as soon as you stop paying, the investment you make in SEO can continue long after the initial engagement is over. While you must remain vigilant in monitoring organic efforts in the long run, SEO practices can add value for the full life of your Web site.

That's why picking the right SEO is so important. A solid agency will sow the seeds of continued organic growth through efficient, credible tactics.

Having patience in the SEO process, from agency selection to search indexing, will ultimately lead to a stronger site -- one that both drives traffic and stands the test of time. So isn't it worth it to be picky?

About the author

William Flaiz is vice president of search engine optimization (SEO) and web analytics at Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish). In this role, he oversees the firm's global SEO and web analytics practice that services clients across the US, Europe, and Asia.

William manages a staff of more than 30 account services partners, analysts, and strategists, in defining the needs and providing solutions that help clients to measure and optimize their web site investments.

William joined the Philadelphia office of Avenue A | Razorfish in 2002 to establish the web development practice there and, within six months, he led the development of an award-winning healthcare portal for eMedicine. During this time, he managed the creative, user experience, and customer insights groups, growing the revenue and staff dedicated to web development projects, which accounts for approximately 1/3 of the office's revenues today. More recently, William served as vice president of operations for the Philadelphia office, overseeing all agency planning and financials.

William taught classes on web development and the Internet at various universities in Philadelphia, and has served as a judge for the eHealthcare Leadership Awards for the past three years. He has spoken at industry conferences and authored articles for industry publications, including MD Net Guide, the Center for Business Intelligence pharmaceutical series, and the Nashville Advertising Federation.

William earned a B.S. in accounting and finance and MS in information systems from Drexel University.