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How To Choose A Search Engine Optimization Company

Search Engine Optimization Philosophy

This is arguably the most critical factor when deciding which company to work with to improve your online business or brand identity. Employing a search engine marketing or placement company that only utilizes ethical search engine optimization techniques or “white hat” methods will ensure that you minimize the potential risk of being dropped, removed, penalized, deleted, or banished from the search engines. Nobody enjoys waking up glassy eyed to the unfortunate reality of being “Google sacked” for breaking or bending the search engines’ implicit rules or explicit terms of service.

Search Engine Optimization Methodology / Specific Expertise

Can your expert SEO Company only optimize static websites constructed in basic HTML? An upstanding SEO company will have experience working with websites in all the common programming languages and technologies, PHP, ASP, ASPX, HTML, Cold Fusion, Flash etc.

Does your SEO Company have experience optimizing both static and dynamic websites? Can your SEO Company optimize using various e-commerce packages and interfaces such as Monster Commerce, Yahoo Stores, OS Commerce, Storefront.net, Volusion?

Depth Of Optimization / Piecemeal Services

The most basic search engine optimization companies around don’t actually perform search engine optimization at all- they are merely submission services which either manually or automatically submit your site to various search engines or directories. Submission companies are typically very inexpensive since no actual coding, linking, or content development takes place on your actual website. Typical pricing runs around $19.95 to $399 per month for these submission type services.

A mid level optimization company gets their hands more firmly on the marketing handle by editing code, analyzing keywords, building links, and adjusting / writing fresh content for your site. They also may do a pinch of off-site optimization, such as press releases, article submissions, and blog writing. Typically, firms of this middle level range charge between $399 and $850 per month.

The highest level search engine placement firm performs the duties described for mid level optimization companies, but also is responsible for conversion tracking and analysis. The emphasis on off-site optimization is also much greater and time consuming. This means that high level optimization firms are essentially responsible for discovering what is working and what is not working throughout the entire customer experience – from initial search through conversion. More man hours per month also means a higher fee that search engine firms must charge to cover their costs. The usual pricing range for these firms’ are $850.00 all the way up to $10,000 per month, but on average, you’ll be looking at fees above the $1,000 a month range.

A piecemeal marketing company is one that treats various parts of an optimization campaign as separate entities. For example, an optimization company may charge distinct fees only for “linking” or “content construction.” This piecemeal approach can be detrimental. Successful optimization is the synergy of multiple efforts on multiple fronts, sometimes simultaneous, and sometimes in succession. Piecing together different aspects of an optimization campaign typically reaps poorer results than a comprehensive strategy.

System Of Evaluation / Reporting

The majority of search engine optimization companies cringe at the thought of empowering their clients to evaluate their work. An ethical search engine optimization company does the opposite. There are four tools we recommend using in tandem to evaluate a search engine optimization company’s work / performance.

1. Real Time Statistics / Conversion Analysis Software

Being able to see traffic gains and conversions in real time can be a useful window in evaluating how your SEO Firm is performing. Having the ability to see who is coming to your site, from what search engines they are coming from, and the exact keyword phrase used within the search query is an essential tool.

2. Positioning or Visibility Reports

Being emailed bi-weekly positioning reports on the specific keywords that you are interested in ranking highly for can be incredibly useful. A visibility percentage, which is the percentage of people that are finding you for keywords that are important for your business – on the Major Search Engines – Google, Yahoo, AOL, and MSN is also important. Make sure your firm doesn’t overdue the automated search engine queries however, the search engines may consider this spamming their databases.

3. Alexa Rating:

You can download the Alexa Toolbar right now from alexa.com. This gives you a solid summary of the general traffic trend over the last three months for your website when compared to other existing sites. If you have a brand new website, odds are you will not even have an alexa rating or visible data at all. The alexa rating also shows you, in general terms, how your website stacks up- traffic wise- in comparison to your competitors or industry affiliates. The lower your alexa rating the more traffic your site is generating when compared to other sites in the alexa universe. Please note, if your site has an alexa rating of “1” this doesn’t mean you are the most visited site on the internet- it most likely means you are operating a Yahoo Store- in such a case, it is identifying Yahoo’s overall traffic, and not your individual site. A general tool like this can give you a quick overall impression of traffic growth and trends. Be careful though, the numbers are generalities (similar to the television Nielsen Ratings) and not absolute figures.

4. Google PageRank

You can download the Google Toolbar right now by going to google.toolbar.com. Click on the options tab and check off the “display PageRank” measure. You will be able to see how Google is rating the importance of your site on a scale of 0-10. As an optimization company proceeds with your campaign you can check periodically to see how the number is increasing. The typical website might see a PageRank increase of one to two points over the course of an optimization campaign. Keep in mind that it is easier to increase your PageRank at the lower ends of the spectrum. As you approach higher PageRanks it becomes more difficult for your rating to balloon.

Due Diligence: Corporate Goals / Industry And Keyword Research

How does the SEO Company you are considering perform its up front legwork regarding your organization, industry and corporate goals? Do they ask questions about:

What your corporate goals (both short and long term) are, your industry, your competition. What keywords are currently working for you? What PPC (Pay Per Click) words are currently effective? What PPC engines (Adwords, Overture, MSN/Live) are currently effective? How your site is designed? Is your site dynamic or static?

What tools does your SEO Firm employ to perform its keyword research?

How about Wordtracker, WebCEO, or Keyword Elite? What about the basic Overture keyword suggestion tool or the generic Google keyword suggestion tool supplied by Adwords. Do they utilize a combination of the basic tools? What about proprietary keyword analysis methodology? Do they have dedicated tools that have been developed in-house, or by a third party?

Client to Account Manager Ratio

Not many SEO companies like to publicize their client to account manager ratio. This is the ratio representing the number of clients that each account manager handles at any given time. The lower the amount of clients each account manager assists, odds are the better the service and the higher the level of personal attention. We recommend that a search engine optimization account manager supports less than thirty clients at any given time.

Man-Hours Per Month

The number of man hours per month your SEO production department actually dedicates to your business is crucial. It is more than smart to ask for a monthly time allotment estimate before beginning an optimization campaign. What you expect to receive and what is actually delivered should be right in line.

Company Structure and Size

Does your SEO Company consist of a laptop computer with your account manager working out of his basement sitting beside a salivating golden retriever? Is your SEO company a bureaucratic nightmare that forces you to fill out trouble tickets when you need help on the spot?

Your ethical search engine optimization company should be somewhere within the sweet spot of not too small and not too large. You want individual attention, but you would also like to know there is more than one mind, calculating your next business moves.

Management

Does your ethical search engine optimization company have a solid management team? Do they have a management team at all? Are the firms you are considering privately held or publicly traded? Is the owner of the optimization company an absentee landlord or an active member of the SEO community? It is not out of the question to ask for the curriculum vitae or resume of the powers that be, in fact, it makes perfect sense if you are entrusting this company with not only your business but your livelihood. After all, SEO practitioners have no board certification that you can rely upon to check their track record.

Reputation / Importance

Has your SEO Company received multiple complaints via the Better Business Bureau? Check the better business bureau reports and see if there are unresolved complaints. From time to time clients may file complaints, but we believe it is the timely handling of these inquiries which are even more important when considering an optimization company to work with.

Past Results / Company SEO Rankings

Every SEO Company should have detailed reports regarding past client successes. The reports should include specifics as to optimization goals and timelines. Reporting on past clients should also focus within and between multiple industries. You should always be aware of a base point – where a particular client started out prior to the optimization company commencing an SEO campaign. Is the SEO firm itself performing poorly in the search engines? A low Google PageRank (below a 5) may be an indication your SEO firm hasn’t been around for as long as one might like.

References / Company Shelf Life

Every SEO company should have solid references across industries and fields in both business to consumer industries as well as business to business arenas. References should stem from not only the past six months, but should originate from years prior to your introduction with the company. If your SEO firm performs quality work, clients should be around for years to sing their praises.

Costs / Pricing Structure / Up front Fees

Costs should be consistent with the service that the company is offering- a la the “Consistent Value Proposition” taught at Yale School of Management. A $49.00 a month campaign run by a credit card company that does not specialize in search engine optimization might not be the optimal choice for an in depth or high level optimization campaign. An SEO company should also only offer costing after they have a clear understanding of your business, goals, and the work involved. Blanketed cost structures can lead to frustration, unrealized expectations, and ultimately failure. Also be concerned if your optimization firm demands a full six month payment up front in order to simply “get started.”

The ideal optimization company charges an up front fee and monthly recurring fee which is commensurate with the services that are actually being performed. A high quality optimization firm that works on your site utilizing 30-60 man-hours per month cannot possibly charge a $49.00 every thirty days to perform its services.

Redundancy

A nasty case of the bird flu hits your unsuspecting account manager right where it counts! Does your optimization company have the ability to smoothly transition the current state of your campaign to another qualified optimization expert? Every SEO company should have a system in place where knowledge about existing accounts can be easily disseminated from one individual to the next. If there does happen to be a catastrophe regarding your account manager, you should feel comfortable that your business continues to prosper regardless of the circumstances.

Quality Control

Every SEO company should have someone overseeing your account manager to ensure that every last “i” is dotted and every last “t” is crossed. Your account manager should be responsible for the success of your campaign, but an extra set of eyes can occasionally be needed to add one more factor weighing in on your side of success.

Promises / Results Timeline

We’ve heard SEO companies promise first page listings in Google for competitive phrases within 48-Hours. If your SEO sales representative is overzealous and unrealistic, it should be a sign that this is most likely a company to steer away from. Gaining search engine listings can be a hard fought, time intensive battle that comes from both diligent work and intelligent planning.

Production Staff Quality

Production staff should be divided between account managers and specialized production technicians. Account managers are the hub of an optimization campaign direction and implementation. Account managers should be able to perform all of the actual coding, linking, and content construction for each client. As an optimization campaign progresses and increases in complexity, they should be able to call upon their support staff or production department to complete specialized work orders for each client. The more specialized each member of the production department, the more efficient they will be at completing their work (thank Henry Ford for this).

Location / Proximity

When you call your account manager or SEO company do you listen to a curious two beeps before being connected to an individual working without air conditioning overseas? Not a good sign. It is imperative that you hire a search engine placement firm whose sales force works in tandem with its production department. There should be no disparity between what you were sold and what was actually delivered. The SEO guru working on your account should be able to understand your business, industry, and company goals quickly, without any overseas static jamming up communications.