Like Bon Jovi’s song, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” some search engine optimization companies give that profession a bad reputation. Practical eCommerce recently fielded a question from a reader wondering why his site was being penalized for work his SEO company had done on his behalf. It doesn’t seem fair, he complained. He’s right, it doesn’t seem fair when you’ve trusted a company to improve your site’s organic search performance and instead the company makes it worse. Shouldn’t the SEO company be punished instead of the hapless site owner? It just doesn’t work that way, whether it seems fair or not.
Anyone can call himself or herself an SEO professional, just like anyone can call himself or herself a web designer, a landscaper, a chef or any number of other professions. Skill and knowledge levels vary greatly in any industry, as does the professionals’ interest in providing a fair service for a fair price.
Is the company ethical, does it strive to provide the best service possible for every client, or is it just out to make a quick buck? For ecommerce merchants looking to retain an SEO professional, here’s how to tell the difference.
Demonstrated Results for Real Clients
The best way to tell an accomplished SEO from some guy in his mom’s basement is to ask for real examples of SEO success with real clients. No true professional is going to reveal his client’s private data; that would be a breach of confidence and likely a violation of a nondisclosure agreement. But there are ways of communicating success without divulging specific traffic or financial information. This could include the following accomplishments.
- “Created a program to increase backlinks to a critical page by 300 percent in one week’s time, resulting in a 20 percent increase in organic search traffic over one month.”
- “Increased organic search visits to the client’s most profitable category page by 53 percent over six months.”
- “Improved organic search conversion rate on product pages from 2.3 percent to 4.5 percent.”
Conversely, some examples might sound impressive but could be low-quality tactics in disguise. Here are potential samples.
- “Built 500 links to the client’s site.”
- “Increased top 3 rankings by 400 percent.”
- “Optimized meta keywords across the entire site.”
The difference between these two sets of examples is that the first set demonstrates measurable impact to the client’s bottom line. SEO professionals, after all, are supposed to sell product, not feel happy about hours spent on the project.
The second set of examples, by contrast, speaks to numbers but not numbers that matter. The agency built 500 links? But from where and to where? Are we talking comment spam and SEO directories? Were the links from relevant sites that have any link popularity to pass on to the sites they link to? And that’s just the first example. Ask the agency to tie their actions back to traffic, orders and revenue increases. If it can’t or won’t for even a single client, I’d be reluctant to hire them.
Search marketing is a relatively small and well-networked industry. Ask around to see if your peers who know SEO have heard of the agency you’re considering, or the person who will be working on your account. Search on Google for the agency and your primary contact there. Ask questions on your social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. Chances are someone will have heard something about the agency in question, or can perhaps point you to someone who has.
Another telltale sign of positive standing in the industry is whether anyone from the company has been published in an industry publication online or in print. If the agency has its own company blog, that’s a good sign as well, but it doesn’t count as being published in an industry publication. Read the recent blog posts. Are they well written, understandable, consistent with what you know to be industry standards? If you can’t locate articles or blog posts from the personnel at the agency, ask which publications or other sources they read to stay current on SEO industry trends — and then check those publications out. If they don’t reference, at the very least, Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, or Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, then it’s possible they’re not as familiar with current SEO standards and the state of the industry as they claim.
Many think that because organic search is “free” traffic that SEO shouldn’t cost much. But like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Seasoned SEO professionals command larger salaries. In order to pay those salaries, agencies need to charge higher rates. Lower agency rates mean that the staff is most likely inexperienced and more likely to recommend or perform tactics that are questionable or outdated. This isn’t 100 percent true; I was mortified to discover that a new client had paid its last SEO consultant $10,000 for a two-page Word document of rough recommendations. And I have heard of clients that were lucky enough to discover a great SEO professional who was just starting, and who charged very little comparatively. However, by and large, price, experience and quality of recommendations go hand in hand.
When discussing pricing, request a sample or description of the deliverables that you’ll be paying for. Does the firm plan to merely offer suggestions by phone or to deliver, say, an 80-page PowerPoint audit containing data, analysis, recommendations and priorities? Will the firm present it in person, over the phone, or just by email? Is it a one-time project or an ongoing relationship to work with you through the inevitable challenges that come up during implementation? Be sure to get this information in writing.
Manage Your SEO Agency
After you choose an agency, no matter how comfortable you feel with them, you must manage their actions. After all, your site’s organic search performance and sales are on the line. Make sure you follow the agency’s recommendations and ask its staff to explain until you’re sure you understand not just what is proposed but why. If the SEO agency will be acting on your company’s behalf — reaching out to bloggers, building links, creating or optimizing content — check its plans before it gets started and check its work afterwards. It’s not that you don’t trust the agency. It’s that the stakes are too high to let go of the reins.
Watch your organic search traffic and revenue trends in your web analytics tools for signs that the SEO program is having a positive or negative effect. Talk about the data with your agency and ask questions about what it means and what actions need to be taken based on the data.
In the end, hiring an agency and managing its performance is very subjective, despite the presence of objective data and SEO best practices. Listen to your instincts, and if that fails consult with Google Webmaster Central forums or friends who know more about SEO than you do and ask their advice about the tactics your agency is recommending or the answers it gives to your questions. It’s better to nip a bad agency decision in the bud quickly than to ride it out and see if it improves. By that time, the damage could be done and you’ll be left holding the bill and the broom to clean it up.