I try to help educate people on what SEO (define) is and how to take the initial steps to begin a successful program.
One basic rule in life: it's difficult to buy things you don't understand. SEO can be difficult to understand, especially for marketing folks who'd rather put the search budget into SEM (define) PPC (define) campaigns (easy to understand, easy to buy).
I try to "dumb down" SEO in my column so we can create some evangelists out there. We need to make SEO an important part of all marketing budgets.
Last week, I shared an example of the search phrase "credit cards" only turning up company Web sites that don't include any of the large brands you and I'd think of for "credit cards." Either these large firms haven't invested money on SEO (or implemented suggested SEO fixes), or they hired the wrong guys for the job.
Let's discuss the basic stuff everyone should be asking during the RFP (request for proposal) stage. Here's a free SEO RFP template. You'll also need to know the limitations that may exist in your own company (i.e. access to site for on-page SEO) to properly optimize for organic search.
Start From Within
The first thing to consider: will you have cooperation from your internal teams to make things happen?
If you're a large company, make sure your IT team (assuming you don't allow access to outsiders) is willing and able to make any technical changes your SEO firm may request.
There's nothing more frustrating to a SEO than to put perfectly solid recommendations on the table, and then have them sit on the backburner for weeks, only to learn much later the IT team is unwilling to make the change.
Successful SEO programs require "buy in" from all levels. I try to get as high a level of contact I can possibly get, and make that person the champion of the cause. When this works, that person makes sure IT, public relations, copywriters, designers -- "anyone" involved in the Web site -- cooperate with my firm to make the Web site perform to its potential. When this happens, it's a beautiful thing.
The result? Great organic search traffic growth.
Here's when SEO doesn't work: your contact's a marketing director who's told to "get into this SEO thing."
Face it, you're doomed.
When a marketing director quickly hires a firm (understanding nothing about the potential road blocks that may exist, nor the work that it takes to "fix" the Web site code) he or she expects immediate results. Many times, a marketing director has no clear idea of what "results" means. Solid recommendations may be floating around in the marketing director's inbox, but if these "to-do" items don't get assigned or implemented, "results" just won't happen.
Certainly, there are off-the-page factors that SEO company can -- and should -- provide. Get approval to clean up the Web site's code, linking structure, and content to realize the full benefits of SEO.
Finding a SEO Firm
Once you've figured out that the company's brass (executives), the IT team, and anyone else that could be a problem are all on your side (that is the "SEO side"), what's the next step?
Well, you could try hiring someone. Trust me, it's difficult to find good SEOs out there. The best bet is often to outsource this work to a firm with a proven track record of results. Outsourcing costs can be cheaper than having an employee (or two, or 10) on staff. An SEO firm will have people of varied skills and knowledge to work on your project.
You can find quality SEO firms by attending conferences (like Search Engine Strategies in New York City in March), reading trade Web sites such as Search Engine Watch, reading industry blogs, or by finding the firms responsible for other Web sites with high rankings and hire 'em. Chances are you'll want to get several quotes from several different firms.
Prices vary wildly in this industry. Several firms will quote you a price before you've even talked about the scope of work. That doesn't make a lot of sense, does it? Be careful not to gravitate to the "cheapest quote." Many times, that cheap quote comes with a steeper price.
So, where do you start?
Define the Scope of Work
Let's assume you already have a live Web site and you want to engage a firm to help to optimize what's already on the Web.
What are your main keywords? That's one of the most important questions to ask yourself. The more competitive a keyword, the more work it is to make your SEO efforts a success.
I've written in previous columns that this is where you need to be "real." Don't try to rank for "travel" if you're a travel agency doing business only in Dallas for cruises. If that's the case, a better choice of keywords may be something like "Dallas Cruise Travel Agency."
If you have a history of paid search campaigns, this is keyword research gold. Find those keywords that you know get a lot of impressions/clicks/conversions.
What internal resources will you be able to put into this project? If you have dedicated copywriters, bloggers, social media folks, IT/development staff and others willing to jump all over this project, that helps keep your costs down. Otherwise, your SEO firm will need to provide these resources. Additional resources = additional $$$.
I wish you all the best in your hunt!