How to choose an SEO provider that delivers results

Written by: Drew Lyon   Austin, Texas

Posted on: November 8, 2010

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With everyone claiming to be an ‘SEO provider’, how can you decide who to trust with your valuable marketing dollar? Setting expectations is the first step in choosing the right SEO company…


SETTING EXPECTATIONS

As the demand for search marketing expands, opportunistic entrepreneurs and established companies looking for an additional source of revenue will find ways to capitalize. Although competition is often a good thing for consumers, many customers may be disappointed with the level of service provided by a company offering SEO as a financial afterthought. Promises of 1st place rankings and guarantees of huge increases in traffic are all tell-tale signs of gimmick services. Additionally, the level of service offered by ‘bargain’ SEO providers varies dramatically from one to the next. With gimmick services, you can expect anything from low-value directory submissions to no actual SEO work being completed. If your marketing goal is long-term business growth through sustainable rankings and traffic increases, you should choose an established Search Marketing company.


NARROWING THE LIST



Not surprisingly, Google is a great place to start your search. Try both local and national search terms related to ‘SEO’ and start putting together a shortlist of potential companies. But how do you evaluate the search results? Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the first result is the probably best company–they must be the most optimized, right? This is not always the case. Their domain may be older, or they were just lucky enough to claim a URL containing the specific term you are searching for. Try several keyword variations and monitor what sites consistently show up. Click through results on the first couple of pages and evaluate these sites for credibility. Do they look reputable? Look for legitimate customer testimonials (video testimonials are more difficult to fabricate than short text blurbs) and case studies. Ask yourself, “Are they promising unrealistic results?” Like, ‘1st place Google rankings immediately!’ or ‘Super low prices!’. Full search engine optimization takes time and man hours. Campaigns usually require at least 6 months to accurately gauge success. Once you have chosen a manageable sample–about three to five companies–you can begin researching each of one in depth.


FULL SEO vs PARTIAL SEO



One of the first questions to ask is whether the SEO company provides full or partial SEO services. Many companies only provide partial SEO–although they will rarely refer to it as such. Partial SEO may only include optimizing the homepage, or in some cases, not providing ANY on-site optimization with only off-site link submissions. Submitting to low-value directories is something an individual could do on their own. Carefully cultivating and building a network of high-quality keyword-tagged backlinks is something only a full-service SEO company provides. To fully reap the benefits of SEO, on-page optimization should be applied to EVERY page and high-value backlinks should be built across a diverse network of popular websites. If a company is offering their service at a very low rate, it is safe to assume they are only performing partial SEO.


SOCIAL MEDIA INCLUSION



Google and other search engines are starting to recognize the immense popularity and potential value in social media content. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all among the most visited websites on the Internet. To stay relevant, search engines are incorporating real time ‘social’ information directly into search results. And although some social media services may be included in a full-service SEO campaign, social media optimization is often an entirely separate service. Ask potential SEO providers how they address social media and what their recommendation would be for your industry.

SEO TASKS TO ASK ABOUT



The list of services companies claim to include with SEO goes on and on. Here are a few of the most important optimization tasks that should be completed during any full-service SEO campaign:
  1. On-page optimization: EVERY page should be optimized with SEO-friendly URLs, title tags and meta data.
  2. Creation of sitmap.xml and robots.txt file
  3. Analytics installation: The only way to monitor and track the effectiveness of an Internet marketing campaign
  4. Regular reporting: Since everything is being tracked, find out what kind of progress reporting you will receive. How often?
  5. Content optimization: Regularly updated and keyword-rich content is critical to the success of any SEO campaign. Does the SEO company author original page content? Rewrite content? Generate SEO articles for submission? Press releases?
  6. Link-building: The backbone of search engine optimization. Search engines use backlinks (inbound links to your website from other sites) as one of the primary factors for determining value and rankings of a website. However, backlinks are more than just a number. A full service SEO company will dedicate a large portion of campaign hours to building high-quality backlinks with keyword anchor-tags. Any legitimate SEO company should be prepared to demonstrate their ability to provide calculated link-development.
  7. Local optimization: Search engines are continuing to make updates that promote local business visibility. Gone are the days of looking up ‘plumbers’ in the phone book. Now people just ‘Google it’. Ask your potential SEO providers how they will optimize your website for local search, including Google Maps and Google Places listings.


TESTIMONIALS & REFERENCES



Any company providing a quality service to a large customer base, should have plenty of success stories to share. If testimonials and case studies are not easily accessible on their website, make sure to ask for them. Many companies may not disclose specific traffic and analytics data because of privacy concerns. However, any reputable SEO firm should be able to provide detailed anonymous case studies demonstrating the success of their campaigns. At the moment, the number of reviews available on third-party rating sites is limited for the search marketing industry. However, as the industry continues to expand, user generated review and recommendation services may be a useful resource for comparing SEO companies.


CUSTOMER SERVICE & SUPPORT



Another major determinant in choosing the right SEO company is the level and immediacy of customer service you expect. Having a dedicated campaign manager available for telephone support is a feature typically associated to premium SEO campaigns. More cost-effective services may include email-only support or several day response times for all customer service inquiries. The level of support you desire may largely determine what SEO company you choose.

PAYMENT & PRICING


As stated before, most SEO engagements last for a minimum of six months. Assuming that the company you choose is reputable, agreeing to a six-month commitment is a way for both parties to ensure that they experience prolonged campaign success. Due to a long list of optimization tasks at the onset of any SEO campaign and the delayed nature of search indexing, even the highest level of SEO will take two or three months to return significant results. Most companies will accept payments in monthly installments.


CONCLUSION

Even with high competition and increased awareness, the amount of full-service SEO providers is still limited. Choosing an SEO firm that will meet expectations and deliver on their claims will give you a considerable advantage over less SEO-savvy business owners. Use the criteria detailed above to make sure you choose the provider that will allow you to experience the most growth through online search.

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