Choosing a Search Engine Optimization Firm

Marketing Sherpa has released the 4th edition of its Buyer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms, a comprehensive look at the players in the industry.

The guide was developed for individuals and organizations who hire SEO firms. Originally published in 2001 and covering just 24 firms, the current guide has expanded to include profiles of 127 search engine optimization firms. All of these firms focus on organic search optimization; Marketing Sherpa has also published a guide to search marketing firms doing PPC work which I’ll review soon.

The guide also offers an excellent overview of the process of selecting a search engine optimization firm. Starting with an overview of the basics of SEO that can help you understand the lingo of the industry, the guide then covers the various tactics used by SEO firms to influence rankings.

For the most part, these are basic blocking-and-tackling tactics, not the cutting edge or black hat tactics used by many SEO firms. Nonetheless, the guide does offer enough information to help you steer clear of firms that self-admittedly say they use aggressive or questionable approaches to SEO.

Another useful section covers cost. Pricing for SEO has settled down in recent years, clustering around a range of prices based on the type of work performed and the reputation of the firm offering services.

The guide was prepared by journalists, rather than industry insiders, so it’s quite readable. However, unlike previous versions of the guide that ranked SEO firms (a controversial approach that provoked a lawsuit against Marketing Sherpa, later withdrawn), there is no “quality” ranking for each firm.

Instead, SEO firms had to meet just a few basic hurdles to be included in the report, including being nominated by a client or themselves and passing a few guidelines established by Marketing Sherpa. To meet these guidelines, a company must:


    • Have paying clients since March 2004 or earlier


    • Be an search optimization specialist, not a PPC only firm


    • Have one in-house staffer who focuses at least 75% on SEO services and has been a professional since 2002 or earlier


    • Derive a significant portion of revenue from SEO services


    • Make $75,000 or more from SEO work


    • Be based in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia or New Zealand


While these hurdles were not too great, Marketing Sherpa followed up with each company by telephone and email, and required SEO firms to complete a detailed questionnaire. Any firm who did not reveal information was excluded, with the exception of a few publicly traded companies that were “cut a break” to avoid compliance and disclosure issues.

To be fair, the guide encourages readers to be skeptical when it comes to the self-submitted information from SEO firms. I recognized many of the firms in the guide and know that they do quality work. However, there are still some charlatans out there and it’s always crucial to be very careful when it comes to evaluating SEO firms.

Getting Listed in the Guide

If you’re a search engine optimization firm that isn’t listed in this year’s guide, you can nominate yourself for possible inclusion in next year’s guide. Simply visit the form at and fill out all of the required fields.

You’ll be asked for company name, address and contact information, and must answer the qualification questions noted above. This year, the minimum revenue figures have been increased to $100,000 from $75,000, but the other qualifications remain the same.

When you submit the form, you’ll be added to an alert list, and will be notified when Marketing Sherpa begins work on next year’s edition.

Other Search Marketing Directories

There are several other places you should be listed to gain more exposure for your search engine optimization firm. You may want to consider joining a search marketing association, such as SEMPO, the Search Marketing Association of North America, Search Marketing Association of the UK or the Search Marketing Association EU Trade Association. For more information on these groups and links to articles about them, see SMA-NA Forming – Now A Direct Challenge To SEMPO?

SEO Pros

One of the first directories of SEO professionals was launched by long-time search engine marketer Terry “Webmaster T” Van Horne. The directory was an outgrowth of an effort to organize search engine marketing professionals and to promote “best practices” that search engine marketers should follow.

The reviewed directory currently consists of more than 177 Search Engine Marketing and Optimization consultants and companies in 21 countries.

In addition to the directory, there’s lots of useful information about search engine optimization, including a “complaints registry” of information about alleged search engine spammers. Browse the directory by country, or use advanced search to search by postal code, province/state, city and country.

SEO Consultants Directory

The SEO Consultants Directory contains information about 146 search marketing firms. The companies and/or consultants have been reviewed by a peer review network and editorial staff as to their overall search engine optimization practices and search engine marketing strategies.

The directory is searchable by state, country, language, address criteria, company name or keywords. There’s also useful information about search engine marketing, organized in sections for both consumers and consultants.


SEMList, maintained by Jupitermedia (publisher of SearchDay) is open to all firms offering SEM services. The site makes no attempt to test the quality of any firm’s services, but does confirm that each listing has accurate contact information. The intent is to offer the list as a directory of search engine firms.

The Marketing Sherpa’s Buyer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms is a useful, but by no means comprehensive overview of the search engine optimization industry. It’s a worthwhile read for both clients looking to engage the services of a SEO or find a new SEO. It’s also something practitioners of SEO will want to take a look at, to get a better sense of your competition and the types of services, pricing structures and other business practices they’re using.

Marketing Sherpa’s Buyer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms – $199

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the New SEO Firm and SEM Agency Buyer’s Guide discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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