Practical Ecommerce

Ecommerce Know-How: Selecting a Search Engine Optimizer

A steady flow of organic search engine traffic can be the difference between a successful ecommerce business and a failed one, so choosing a professional to help you optimize your online store may be one of the most important business decisions you will make.

But how will you decide which SEO professional to hire for an in-house position or which SEO firm to hire as a consultant? Well, you might consider my three principles for selecting a good SEO optimizer. These principles provide a starting place for your decision-making process. With them, you will better understand what questions to ask SEO professionals and how to look for more information about what SEO professionals do or how search engines index, analyze, and rank URLs.

Video: Three Principles for Selecting a Good Search Engine Optimizer

Principle No. 1: Be Sure the Cobbler Has Shoes

Not too long ago, I was working as the marketing communications manager for a multi-billion dollar semiconductor company. We had a great new website, a few rich Internet applications to spice things up, and good web copy. But we wanted to do more, so we began interview SEO experts. One call still stands out in my memory. The conversation went something like this:

SEO Expert: “…so as you can see from what I am telling you, my firm is one of the smartest SEO consultancies on the planet. Why we even invented sliced bread…”

Armando: “So while you were talking, I was searching for terms like “search engine optimization,” “SEO consultancy,” and “search engine ranking professional” and your firm does not show up on the first 25 results pages.”

SEO Expert: “Well you know what they say about the cobbler’s shoes.”

Armando: “No, actually, I don’t know what they say about the cobbler’s shoes.”

SEO Expert: “Well, the cobbler’s shoes are never as nice as the shoes he makes for others.”

Armando: “Really, well can you provide a list of the shoes you’ve made for others?”

SEO Expert: “I’m sorry, we keep client information in strict confidence.”

Armando: “Goodbye.” (A click is heard.)

Before you hire any SEO professional or cobbler, you need to see some shoes. Have the SEO candidate provide a list of at least ten comparable websites he has optimized and the associated queries those ten websites were optimized for. Then visit the top five search engines—Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Ask, and AOL Search—looking at each search term to see how well your SEO pro makes shoes, so to speak.

If the SEO firm or professional you’re interviewing cannot provide this list, move on to a professional who can.

Principle No. 2: Avoid “Guaranteed” SERP Results

If the SEO professional you are interviewing tells you that she can guarantee a top result on Google, Yahoo!, or Bing search engine results pages, he or she is lying.

There is no way to guarantee a top position in any good search engine. Google, Yahoo!, Bing and the like do not have “special relationships” with any SEO professionals.

Furthermore, sometimes there is just too much competition. Yes, like it or not, there are some keyword phrases that your site will never dominate or even rank well for in organic results. Sorry, not every page is worthy of a No. 1 ranking.

Principle No. 3: Analyze SEO Tactics

Ask the SEO professional you are considering about the particular optimization tactics he will use to improve your URL’s performance. Take note of these tactics, and do a bit of research. Avoid so-called SEO professionals that use tactics that are not effective or black-hat/gray-hat techniques, which could get your site penalized.

As a specific example of a time-wasting tactic, watch out for SEO professionals that tout keyword density or localized keyword density. Certainly, keyword phrases are important, since we search for keywords. But the idea that keyword density (which is often calculated by dividing the number of times a term i appears in a given document j by the total number of terms in that given document l) measures anything is nonsense. Keyword density, at best, measures an effect not a cause, and an SEO professional that imagines this technique will work is akin to an alchemist.

Some of the black-hat/gray-hat tactics to avoid like the plague include:

  • Cloaking – Showing one kind of content to human visitors and different content to search bots.
  • Comment spamming – Leaving comments on blogs or other websites that are designed just to link back to a target URL.
  • Link farming – Developing pages just so those pages can link back to a target URL.
  • Link buying – Purchasing links in body copy of sites in order to generate links to a target URL.
  • Spamglish – Creating nonsensical, keyword dense pages to “trick” search engines.
  • Shadow domains – Sites that funnel visitors to a target URL by deceptive redirects or similar means.

Conversely, look for SEO professionals that use tactics that seek to make the user experience better, to organize a site according to World Wide Web Consortium recommendations (i.e., proper use of an <h1> tag not using tables for layout), or to use siloing or PageRank sculpting to focus PageRank.

Summing Up

SEO is an important part of ecommerce marketing. If your business has grown to the point that you need help making good SEO choices, you should consider either hiring a professional to work for you directly or retaining a firm to act as an advisor.

A good SEO professional will always focus on user experience, since that is what search engines focus on. You can expect services like content review; site structure review; web content suggestions, including advice on redirects or error pages, title tags, header tags, and URL rewriting; and keyword research.

Finally, be sure to check out Greg Laptevsky’s “8 Tips for Choosing an SEO Professional” and Stephan Spencer’s “SEO: Choosing a Vendor” which provide a background for my three principles for selecting a good search engine optimizer.

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Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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Comments ( 8 )

  1. aroundtheweb1980 August 3, 2009 Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with principles 2 and 3 but as someone who is routinely asked to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements with clients, I think its a bit excessive to discount those potential companies who cant provide 10 references.

    Many companies, quite rightly I feel, don’t want to disclose that they have engaged a professional SEO to work on their site. This is especially true for larger, established companies and sites operating in competitive markets.

    Should those people, who provide a valuable service simply be discounted because they are adhering to contractual obligations?

  2. cs_cart August 3, 2009 Reply

    Armando, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking material, and links you provide are also very useful. However, speaking of a user experience as a key component, it’s worth noting that search robots are not equipped with a human-like intelligence, and they use some metrics (be it complex ones). In this case, maybe not keyword density, but keyword placement inside the text is still important – otherwise, how could search engines analyze the content?

  3. Tag44 August 5, 2009 Reply

    Nice post, really good information on E-commerce and Search Engine Optimization.

  4. Armando Roggio August 5, 2009 Reply

    @cs_cart, Thanks for your comment. I encourage you to think about what a keyword is.

    A keyword, which can be a single word or phrase, is part of what is being communicated not disembodied from what is being communicated. Keywords help both a human reader and a search engine bot understand a page’s meaning. So when you write, "keyword placement _inside the text_ is still important" I am forced to ask, how would you write meaningful text without including keywords—those words that convey meaning. Your question tells me that you are not thinking about keywords properly.

    For example, you might believe that you should include "keywords" in your page title and H1 tags because search engines add weight to terms in these positions. But why do search engines weight terms in titles and headers more heavily? Because humans do. We perceive titles and headers as summaries of the content that follows, therefore, terms in those summaries and the most meaningful.

    Bottom line, use concise, communicative language that humans understand, and the search engine bots will generally understand it too.

    Now, please don’t hear what I am not saying. SEO is important and valid. There are lots of things that SEO professionals do to help search engines understand what is being communicated. Many of these techniques are effective. But specifically addressing keyword content, you want to focus on good communication first, and not concern yourself with stuffing keywords anywhere.

  5. Steve Strickland August 6, 2009 Reply

    I think you did a much better than typical job on the article.

    The biggest, highest value item you didn’t cover is keyword research. Any fool can get #1 ranking with a garbage word. But what about money words, the ones we’re targeting with ecommerce? How does the SEO firm know what to target?

    We’ve found that keyword research has a profound impact on every single client of ours who has included it in their SEO package. I’m stating that clients will alter their product lines and sometimes rename their domains after seeing the research results.

    We gave a live sales pitch to a prospect in Nevada who had arranged to have a competitor there at the same time. The competitor guarantees #1 SERP and demonstrates this with an example. I then demonstrate that the search term the competitor used was utterly useless and had never generated a sale for anyone.

    Ecommerce customers may not be equipped to evaluate SEO firms. It is extremely cheap and simple to get #1 SERP for keywords that have no value and use these to deceive prospective SEO buyers.

    Without the research part you cannot evaluate the value of a search term. Without the research part you don’t even know what you should be SEOing!

  6. Business Girl August 11, 2009 Reply

    This information was so helpful as I am working on optimizing my site.
    Thanks,
    Businessgirl

  7. jarmush February 10, 2011 Reply

    Thank you for an article. It’s realy exiting and interesting. It’s worth to saying that our company bought a Store Manager for X-Cart shopping cart. It’s made by MagneticOne company. It’s very powerful and convinient tool. You can do all management on your computer. It helps to automated routine tasks and save much time. Also we bought a SEO module for optimizing webstores. And it’s realy good. Thanks :)

  8. wuhou February 2, 2012 Reply

    good advice on SEO professionals