I’ll get my clichés, redundant fact-stating and standard SEO discussion comments out of the way before we start properly. It’s a minefield out there. There are loads of snake oil salesmen. You’ve been burnt before. There’s no regulation in the SEO industry. SEO is easy – anyone can do it. SEO services are a rip off. But SEO ABC doesn’t rank for keyword XYZ. You want a SEO with industry experience. You want a SEO that has web development experience. You want a SEO with marketing experience. You want a SEO with social media experience. You want a specialist link builder. You want guaranteed results. Oh yeh, and you don’t want to pay too much…
…frankly Mr Hypothetical Client, you’re hard work – indeed, it’s a wonder any SEO is willing to take you on!
It’s not your fault really. We SEOs regularly shoot ourselves in the foot (usually while aiming at our competitor’s feet with one eye closed). I mean, you go to pretty much any SEO agency or freelancer website or blog and you won’t have to look far to find some crass, snide dig at other SEOs in a vain attempt to position whatever variation on the same strategy works and what doesn’t.
Case and point – any mention of “white hat” and “black hat”, anywhere in your website copy (golden oldie here, but check it out – SEO agency copywriting sins). Seriously, are there any clients out there that a) know the difference or b) actually care? Most SEOs don’t! In fact, in many ways any mention of headwear of any fashion tends to be a sign of SEO immaturity – essentially a vague attempt by one camp or another to justify a particular set of SEO techniques (which really boil down to figuring out your own risk v reward v resources ratio and absolutely nothing to do with “ethics” whatsoever). I still see SEO agencies putting up job adverts for “white hat” SEOs…I mean, seriously…
So, what are we dealing with here?
Well, on the client side there could be a huge range of issues;
- Paid too much for SEO previously so unwilling to pay as much again.
- Disenchanted with the potential of SEO.
- Perhaps knows a little about SEO. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!
- Maybe has limited resources.
- Potentially has unrealistic needs and wants.
- May have an over-reliance on SEO.
- Could just be they want SEO but don’t really need it or know why they want it.
On the flip side, the SEO industry gives birth to such a variety of bastard children that there should be a Jerry Springer special at some point so we can figure who’s to blame for this mess. It’s Google. Google’s to blame. So our SEO options can tick one or more of these boxes;
- Web designer that learned a little bit about SEO and decided to start offering SEO services because that’s what everyone wants.
- Up and coming SEO – spent a few years as an account manager and decided to take a swing at technical SEO.
- Web design agency that offers SEO – either take a swing at it themselves or outsource.
- A proper SEO agency – usually relying on a few individuals to do their tech SEO stuff.
- Full service marketing agencies – again may do their SEO stuff in house or outsource.
- Newbies that have optimised a few small websites and think that’s all there is to SEO.
- Limited service “SEOs” – just keyword research + meta tags, or just link building.
- Freelancer that’s been about for a while – probably charges a fair bit (probably too much).
- SEO superstars – pro bloggers, speakers, etc. Charge a premium.
Basically, a bunch of different people doing essentially the same thing. That is, the same thing for YOUR website – not for ANY website. I should explain…
Websites. Are. Unique. Duh!
I know people like to think there’s a solid underlying strategy to the SEO process. In some ways there is. In other, more real ways, there isn’t. Well, not in the way you’re thinking about anyway.
The SEO process, when reduced to the bare minimum, is simple. Content and links basically. Easy stuff and every SEO knows at least this much (you hope…), but each individual SEO will have their own opinion on how to balance these two elements and this leads conflict and inevitable confusion.
For example, one SEO may be a fan of the content approach where you introduce some killer content to your website, which will result in loads of natural inbound links and therefore rankings aplenty. Good times! However, his link obsessed counterpart might not like this approach. There’s a degree of lack of control in using the content strategy, so a more solid link building campaign can be a better to get results in many cases.
So which do you hire? Well in most cases going for a SEO that can do all of that stuff would be best – generally the folks who stick to a specific set of techniques may be a little naive when it comes to other areas of SEO (they stick with what they know works), although that’s probably an unfair generalisation – I’m not suggesting SEOs are one trick ponies, as most are fairly versatile.
You do need to pick someone who is an appropriate fit for your business though. That SEO superstar may cost more than he or she is worth for your small business website. Also, you may want to consider what areas of SEO you want to address. If you want a content strategy, then why not hire a professional writer instead of SEO? If you want links then why not hire a PR or marketing person? Define your needs and try to match up those needs with potential deliverables.
How do I make that decision?
It isn’t easy, but there are a bunch of simple questions you can ask yourself to help you work out your options.
How big is my website?
- Less than a hundred pages – you don’t need to be paying loads for SEO work. Someone with similar small site experience will be fine. At this level, even a superficial knowledge of SEO and websites can get you by.
- Mid-sized – less than 50k pages – you should be looking at a SEO with a good few years experience with optimising CMSs. There’s lots more to SEO at this level and it becomes less of a worry that your SEO is wrong about something and more of a worry about what they just don’t know.
- Large – 50k+ pages – find a pro – someone who has worked with big sites before. It’s a whole new ballgame at that level and quite a lot of SEO providers out there can’t handle a job of that size.
How much do I have to spend each year?
- A little – money is tight. Then think newbie freelancers or small agencies. Good value for money – when you get into the realms of big brand stuff, providers start charging a premium. May have to shop around to get a decent provider though.
- Loads – we’re huge! Then bigger agency, reputable individual or hire someone full time. Generally you get what you pay for. For an individual that’s a reflection of experience – for agencies it may be inflated prices because of their brand.
What other stuff do I need?
There are arguments for and against going with full serviced agencies over specialist agencies. My personal preference is the former rather than the latter – there’s no element of SEO that can’t be done well by a full serviced agency. Granted there may be more SEO types in a specialist agency, but in my experience there are fewer than you might think. Just because an agency boasts 200 employees, doesn’t mean they’re all SEOs. Chances are they’re mostly sales / accountant management / pretend “vertical specialists” / etc.
If you get any chat about specialist agencies being more experienced than full service agencies, take it with a pinch of salt. There are some excellent specialist SEO agencies out there (Distilled, Hobo Web, etc) and a few up and coming agencies that are equally good. However there are loads that just don’t have half a clue between them…so don’t be caught in the hard sell.
When will I see results?
Don’t be a d**k. Did you not read my “Websites. Are. Unique. Duh!” section? You can believe whatever plucked-out-of-thin-air timescales you’re told, or accept the fact that no one really knows. Stuff we do know;
- Can take from around 1 minute to 1 month for search engines reindex your website (so at least that long if you’re making changes to the site).
- Factoring in links can take longer – search engines need same amount of time to index other sites and calculate changes (mostly done on the fly these days).
- Can take anywhere from days to weeks for you to receive your SEO work (via report or physical changes implemented).
- If your website is underperforming, then some good SEO work should result in better rankings quite quickly. If you are performing well in a competitive market and want to improve further, then progress can be slower.
How much does SEO cost?
More than nothing and less than the profit businesses generally get from SEO work. And no, price isn’t a reflection of quality.
What deliverables do I need?
Most SEOs should be able to offer your some kind of ranking reports and an idea of what links they’ve managed to get for you. Some agencies will bump up the costs of reporting to account for some fancy bespoke reporting system they’ve knocked together. Realistically though, how interested are you? Is there anyone in your organisation that is going to do anything with the information other than look at the ranking figures and make sure they’re going in the right direction? Plenty of cheap rank checkers you can buy to do that. No need to be oversold on reporting you don’t need.
How competitive is my market?
Most people have an idea how competitive their own market is online. If in doubt, search for main keyword and see how many competing sites there are. Less than 8 million results is reasonably uncompetitive, although it depends on the market as some are more SEO heavy than others. Expect to pay more and need a more experienced SEO the more competitive your market is.
The basic rule of thumb here is to try your best at quantifying your needs so you don’t end up paying for too much or too little. As I said earlier, you don’t need to go with the big agency if you only have a small website and similarly, you shouldn’t trust your million page website with that newbie just because he’s cheap.
I can trust my SEO, right?
NO! There’s a good chance he may steal your children! But even if he doesn’t do that (hardly ever happens these days – there’s no money in it…), you need to manage your SEO like any other service provider. Sure, they’re the experts (or should be), but it’s still your business and you have the final word on what happens to your website. As I said before, ethics doesn’t come into play in SEO, but quality does and you need to be the one that defines that standard.
For example, there are many different ways of optimising Page title tags. Some SEOs will prefer a “Keyword, Keyword, Keyword” approach – others a “Welcome to my Keyword Business” approach. Which do you prefer? In many cases your Page title is the first piece of text people read when finding your site online (it’s the link text used in search results).
Similarly, would you be happy if your copy was re-written by your SEO to something that didn’t read quite as well, but had keywords in it? I’m not saying you can’t have the best of both worlds – just that some SEO providers may not be able to provide the eloquent optimised copy that you need.
I’ve seen all manner of rubbish done to client websites in the name of SEO – providers adding loads of embedded links to their own (questionable) websites or loading up client websites with affiliate links. These guys are at the bottom of the barrel – most SEOs are pretty honest and should provide you with some kind of log of changes to your site.
You can’t beat personal recommendations from similar businesses. If your mate’s brother optimised his small business website with success, then chances are he’ll be good for you too. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be a good choice for your sister’s ecommerce website.
Scott – Follow me on Twitter
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