This is the first of a two-part article to help those looking to buy SEO and other search marketing services.
Unlike traditional media buying, where placement is guaranteed, SEO can appear to be hit and miss.
This is because SEO is a strategic process, whereby the SEO will align your site with the often cryptic requirements of the search engines, with the intent of gaining higher visibility for your site in search listings.
The SEO doesn't purchase placement, rather, s/he will try to earn you that placement. The closer your site is aligned with the search engines unwritten criteria, usually the more successful the SEO campaign will be.
All search marketing services should increase the level of exposure you receive on search engines. The trick lies in measuring the level of that exposure, and measuring the value it provides.
What exactly are people buying when they buy an SEO service? Why are SEO offerings so different? What is the difference between a service that costs a few hundred and a service costing tens of thousands?
Before you consider buying SEO services, step back and assess your goals for your site.
What problem are you trying to solve? Do you want to drive traffic from search engines? Do you want to reduce your PPC spend? Do you want to increase conversion rates? Depending on how you answer such questions, the level of SEO service you require will vary considerably.
Search marketing is most effective when it increases the level of visitor traffic to your site, that visitor traffic arrives at an acceptable cost, and the visitor traffic engages in desired action. If you keep these metrics in mind, you'll should avoid falling victim to some of the scams prevalent in the darker corners of the industry.
Done well, however, SEO is a very powerful, cost effective channel. A steady flow of new visitors will arrive for years after your initial investment is made.
You Get What you Pay For
Some SEO services deliver a greater level of exposure in the search listings. Other services take a more holistic, marketing-driven approach, which can include conversion metrics and visitor behavior evaluation. Most services lie somewhere in between.
Your selection of vendor will depend very much on your requirements and budget. SEO vendors who include conversion metrics tend to be more expensive, as this type of service requires diverse skill sets, and is more time intensive.
One Time Fee
Generally speaking, the more competitive your keyword area, the more work involved.
One good way to measure how competitive your keyword area is, is to look at the PPC bid prices. PPC bid prices can range from a few cents per click, to hundreds of dollars. The higher the figure, the more competitive the keyword area. The exception is if you have an established, reputable brand. Established sites can often dominate competitive areas with little additional work.
If you're operating in a area that isn't competitive, a one off SEO service might be all you need.
The SEO should ensure your site is able to be crawled and indexed by the search engines, contains appropriate content that aligns with keyword terms, and should build a few links pointing to your site from outside sources. If an SEO does their job correctly, you should see an uptick of visitor traffic from the search engines in your log files. If you are happy with this level of traffic, that is where the service ends.
If you operate in a competitive space, the SEO will need to spend a lot of time building - and in some cases buying - links. If you're measuring visitor behavior, and adjusting the site in response, the SEO will need to make regular changes.
Such services are typically ongoing, whereby the SEO charges a monthly fee. The monthly fee also covers reporting and evaluation, with the aim of maintaining your position, or increasing your reach.
Whether you choose a one -off service or ongoing very much depends on your goals.
Metrics Not Aligned With Business Goals
One common metric used in search marketing is ranking. The problem with this metric is that ranking for keyword x may not result in any increase in visitor traffic, because few people search for keyword term x.
If you examine your current log files, you might find you already rank for some keyword terms. So long as the search engine has indexed your site, you'll invariably rank for obscure terms by virtue of having words on your pages.
Less-reputable SEO firms will include obscure terms on your pages, show you a subsequent ranking for these terms, and thus justify their fee. Unfortunately, this is the offline equivalent of putting billboard in the middle of a desert, miles from the road. Few people will ever see it.
Instead, look for an up-tick in search visitor numbers. You may want to go one step further, and measure what those visitors do once they arrive at your site. Do they buy? Do they fill out your inquiry form?
Some firms offer guaranteed placement, but the reality is that no one, outside the search engine, controls their results. The SEO will attempt to meet pre-agreed performance criteria, and if they do, then the contract is fulfilled.
Sounds low risk?
Guarantees are only worth the backing they receive. Will the firm still be around in a few months? Will they honor your request? Are they located in a legal jurisdiction where you can chase them? Will the cost of doing so exceed the return?
If buying into such a guarantee, be wary of letting the SEO firm establish the metric of achievement. Instead, define the metric yourself, in line with your business goals. The less reputable operators will likely shy away from such an arrangement. They rely on setting easily achievable ranking goals, which, like the billboard in the middle of a desert, seldom offers any real benefit.
The relationship between SEOs and the search engines is gray. There are a number of techniques the search engines frown upon, which may result in your site being penalized, or delisted.
If you are risk adverse, ask the SEO company if they work within the search engines guidelines. You can find the Google's guidelines here.
A more aggressive approach, especially in highly competitive keyword areas, might be required, however a good SEO firm should be upfront about the level of risk their techniques involved. Having said that, the risks of getting banned, even with techniques outside the guidelines are relatively low.
The Magic Wand
Another risk might be your own preconceptions.
One of the expectations clients often have is that the SEO will be able to wave a wand and work miracles. Keep in mind that SEO generally requires changes to your site, which might be significant. Designers, developers and copywriters often need to buy into the process. SEO results can also take time to show, as search engines don't reflect changes over-night.
Ask the SEO company to provide time frames, and outline the specific work that will be involved.