There are many factors to consider when selecting a search engine optimization company. Unfortunately, many businesses that haven't previously used search engine optimization to promote themselves are unsure how to evaluate potential vendors, and many are intimidated by the entire concept.
Here's some advice for the selection process.
Topic 1: Approach
There are many different approaches and levels of service available to anyone looking for a search engine optimization company.
Some techniques, such as “cloaking” or “doorway pages” can put your site at risk of penalization, although they may give you short-term gains. For some, the risks of penalization associated with such techniques may be acceptable, but most prefer to play by the rules. Also be certain that your vendor doesn't work with your competition.
Here are three important questions to ask your potential search engine optimization company:
1. Do you create pages, optimized for my key phrases, which aren't built in to the navigation of my site?
If the answer is yes, you are probably dealing with a search engine optimization company that creates “doorway” or “bridge” pages (although most companies will call them by different names). Such pages may even reside on a different server and funnel traffic to your site. This technique violates the terms of service of most major engines.
2. Does your technique involve showing a different page to the search engine than to my visitors?
If the answer is yes, than you are probably dealing with a search engine optimization company that uses “cloaking.” This is when the website server makes a note of the unique address assigned to each visitor, and when it notices that a visitor is a search engine, it feeds it specialized content designed to rank highly for certain keyphrases. Many engines specifically warn against this technique in their terms of service. Google is particularly harsh on sites that use cloaking, and is known to remove them entirely (when they find them).
3. Do you guarantee that you won't work with my competitors while you are working with me?
The optimization techniques used for your site could probably be used to help your competitors. Naturally, you don't want your search engine optimization company taking the lessons learned from your site and applying them to a competing site (diluting the effectiveness of your campaign). Some unscrupulous firms will go so far as to use the positions they achieved for your site to sell your competitors on the need for search engine optimization.
Topic 2: Results
Almost every search engine optimization company has a “brag book” of positions that they have achieved. However, looks can be deceiving. When evaluating the past results of a search engine optimization company, there are really five important components to consider.
- Which engines? Make certain that the positions the search engine optimization company has achieved are for the most popular search engines, not smaller engines for which they may have a knack. For a current list of the most popular search engines, visit the Nielsen Netratings page at Search Engine Watch.
- Which keyphrases? Wordtracker is a valuable tool (free for limited use) in determining if the positions your potential search engine optimization company proudly displays actually have any real value, since it shows the popularity of individual search phrases based upon actual search activity on popular engines. When Wordtracker displays a very low number (or zero) for a particular term, it is most likely not very competitive (or beneficial), and high positions are probably nothing to brag about. In other words, if the search engine company you are considering is boasting of the high positions it achieved for the term “dog silverware” and Wordtracker tells you (not surprisingly) that nobody searches for that term, know that you shouldn't be impressed.
- What about an entire site? While it's easy to focus on one particularly impressive position on one popular engine, it's more important to focus on a broad range of positions achieved for one site. It's entirely possible for a site to have one great ranking and be sorely lacking in positions for all other keyphrases.
Ask your potential search engine optimization company to show you a report for an individual client that demonstrates good positions on many popular engines for many popular keyphrases. An effective search engine optimization campaign will achieve maximum exposure across a broad range of keyphrases and engines, not one notable position on one engine.
- How have results stood up over time? When you find a search engine optimization company that can provide you with the data mentioned in the previous component, ask to see a report showing how those positions have held up over time (ideally for six months or more). Since search engine marketing is an ongoing process, you want to be certain your vendor is capable of maintaining a high level of exposure for your company.
- Did they really do it? The most obvious of the five components is to confirm that your potential search engine optimization company is really responsible for the positions they are claiming. It is not unheard of for unethical companies to take credit for the work of others in order to increase their chances of landing a sale. In some cases, vendor claims are easy to confirm (such as when a client site includes the vendor's name or logo).
If you can't confirm that a particular search engine optimization company is truly responsible for the positions by looking at the site, don't be afraid to pick up the phone to do so.
Topic 3: Ongoing Support and Reporting
As previously mentioned, search engine optimization is an ongoing process, rather than a one time “quick fix.” If you intend to use your search engine optimization company to help you improve and maintain your positions, you should ask to see a sample monthly report. As the quality of reporting can vary from firm to firm, consider the following three items in your evaluation:
- Engines Reports should always be based on the most popular engines, not the engines that the search engine optimization company has had success with. Be sure that the sample report includes only popular engines based upon current figures (once again, visit Search Engine Watch for a current list).
- Overviews. Your reports shouldn't be solely comprised of raw data that details individual positions (although this should be included). It is impossible to tell how your site is performing on search engines over time by looking at a slew of individual positions on individual engines and comparing them to the previous month. The sample report should provide easy-to-understand overviews of ranking performance, such as an ongoing chart that covers a long period of time and shows trend data such as “top 40 positions by month” or “top three page appearances by month.”
- Recommendations. You don't want to pay a search engine optimization company merely to report on positions—you want to be sure that they are looking over your ranking performance on a monthly basis and are actively making the recommendations necessary to maintain and improve your positions. Be sure that the sample report contains monthly observations and recommendations specific to the site. Otherwise, you may be paying somebody to simply compile reports, not to promote the ongoing success of the campaign.
Topic 4: Cost
Obviously, this is a large consideration for most companies, but focusing too much on cost and not enough on results can hinder your chances for success. Some things to remember:
- Search Engine Optimization is NOT a commodity product. Unlike selecting a gas or electric company (where the quality of the product is largely the same regardless of vendor), your choice of search engine optimization vendors will have a dramatic effect on the overall results. If price is your largest consideration and you are unable to find a vendor within your price range with whom you are confident, it may be advisable to wait until you can afford one that meets your criteria.
- Prices are all over the board. As with most businesses, the vendors with the best reputations and the proven track records command the highest fees. However, it is possible to find a competent, lower-priced search engine optimization company without a proven track record that will do an excellent job (every optimization firm has to start somewhere). Just be aware that there may be risks associated with unproven vendors, and be sure that you are comfortable taking them.
Topic 5: References
If a search engine optimization company you are considering is unable to provide you with references, you may want to look elsewhere. In almost every business, excellent references are a necessity when considering expenditures over a certain dollar figure.
Why should choosing a search engine optimization company be any different? Some optimization firms may cite “confidentiality” reasons, but search engine optimization is no longer considered the black art that it once was. Every legitimate firm should have at least two clients (past or present) that you can call upon. Here are some important questions to ask when you do:
- Did you enjoy working with them? This doesn't bear much explanation, but you should find out how available the vendor was for questions, whether they met their deadlines, and how the company would classify the overall experience.
- How reasonable were their requests? Some companies will ask you to make changes that seriously compromise the visitor experience on your site. It is important to find a search engine optimization company that can find a balance between the needs of search engines and site visitors, not a company that goes for high positions at any cost.
- What overall effect has it had on your business? This is the most important question, and the most important overall factor to consider when selecting a search engine optimization company. While high search engine positions and more site traffic are an admirable goal, the true value of search engine optimization is found in positive effects on customer acquisition costs and bottom line revenues.
Search engine optimization can drive numerous targeted prospects directly to your website, typically at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing. However, as with most things, your results will only be as good as the people you work with.
By taking the time to carefully evaluate search engine optimization vendors before signing a check, you will take much of the guesswork and uncertainty out of the process—and greatly increase your long-term chances for success.