It still amazes me how few people really "get" SEO, or actually put serious funds into the development of a SEO program.
I guess that's good news for those of us who do this for a living: we have less competition. But it's one of my missions in life to help SEO get its rightful place in every company's marketing budgets. While I admit that's a bit overstated, I understand that anything I can do to expand the stature of SEO in the eyes of traditional marketers is good for the industry, and will ultimately be good for my company and my colleagues.
In SEMPO's 2007 State of the Market Survey, they reported that 10.5 percent of companies put money into SEO efforts, while 87.4 percent of spending went to paid search marketing.
Did you know several studies have shown that between 60 and 70 percent of all clicks that occur in the SERPs happen on the organic side? Knowing this, doesn't the percentage of spend on search marketing (as a "whole" -- organic and paid) seem a bit backward?
Intimidated by Search Engine Optimization
People and companies seem a bit intimidated by SEO, both because there are no guarantees and because a fair number of clueless companies claim to do SEO. The opportunities for throwing money into these efforts and seeing little or no return are great, for sure. It's hard to distinguish between a firm that really knows SEO and a firm that makes itself appear to be an expert in the space by regurgitating information from the trades.
For this reason, it's easier to justify buying ads on search, because at least you're only paying for the clicks that come to your Web site. People "get it" much more easily than the concept of "good SEO," or finding a firm or an individual who can help them realize the enormous potential of organic traffic.
There are no "certifications" for a quality SEO specialist/company, but SEMPO is trying to get something into place, with their Agency Certification Process. The thought here is good, but creating SEO standards is difficult. These courses are online (and, in fairness, so are the Google AdWords certification tests), so it's about the equivalent of an open-book test. Anyone who can pony up the dough can be "certified." Does that make you feel better, Mr./Mrs. Company Executive/Web site owner?
Vetting SEO Companies
The best way to find a SEO expert is to ask them to show you case studies of their work (see where the Web sites that they've worked on rank for keywords and look at the competitive nature of the keywords) and ask them what they did to affect these changes. If they only "added some text to this page" or other awfully simplistic things, you might want to put on your tinfoil hat and dig deeper. They should be talking about title tags, content use, link acquisition strategies, and technical hurdles they overcame.
When in doubt, hire a well-known consultant (even if you can't afford them for the long term, they'll be happy to help you find a good provider) to help you through the challenge of finding someone worth your time and money. To find one of these consultants, look for those who write in industry trade publications or speak at Search Engine Strategies, Search Marketing Expo, or other industry conferences. If they have a history of writing and/or speaking, chances are that their peers have given them a certain type of "accreditation," in that they haven't been thrown to the curb.
SEO Doesn't Mean Free Traffic
If you have people in-house handling SEO, you're still paying for their time, their insurance, their paid vacation, etc. And, if you're really trying to do SEO "right," you'll most likely need more than one person and a budget for directory listings.
Many times, people/companies are more than willing to pay $1 per click for paid search traffic, but then are skeptical at paying a fee for generating organic search traffic.
Again, organic search results get many more clicks than the paid search results. And, due to the nature of SEO, you're not limited to a certain "budget," per se, because your presence is 24/7/365, assuming you stay actively engaged in the process. Your organic listings won't go away due to reaching your daily budget.
How to Measure SEO
Finally, SEO should be measured similarly to paid search marketing. If you know what an effective CPC is, then you know what you could, effectively, "pay-per-click" for organic search.
This is about setting expectations. If you're paying a firm $5,000 per month for SEO and you know that you can "make money" on a $5 average CPC, then you know you must obtain at least 1,000 good clicks for your SEO efforts to be effective.
Keep in mind that this isn't a "hard rule," as with PPC you have the opportunity to write compelling ad creative and drive people to a specific landing page for a keyword, and that landing page might be built specifically to drive a "call to action" (lead form completion, etc.). With SEO, you'll need to make sure that your Web site -- as a whole -- is built to drive conversions, or this math doesn't compute.
Don't measure SEO by the ranking report alone. Ranking reports aren't as accurate as they once were, with rankings changing constantly and varied by data center. Look at your analytics to see how much organic search traffic is coming to your Web site and then determine if the money that you put into SEO is well spent.