Do you suffer from the "online billboard in the basement" syndrome? You know - the gorgeous website you spent good money for but that nobody can find online? You know you need a search engine marketing (SEM) / search engine optimization (SEO) firm to help you promote your website in the search engines. So how do you evaluate these firms? What criteria are really important?. This article will help you wade through the briar patch. Here are eight questions you can ask before you commit to a particular company:
1. How are you staying current with trends and new changes?
Ask them which industry conferences they have been to or are going to this year. The important ones are SES (Search Engine Strategies), SMX (Search Marketing Expo) and WebmasterWorld (aka PubCon). If they aren't going to at least one, they probably aren't staying current.
Also which online newsletters do they subscribe to? Which blogs do they read? SearchDay, SearchEngineNews, SearchEngineLand, Sphinn and SEOmoz are all important.
2. How well do you rank for your most important and relevant search terms?
Ask them how well their company ranks in Google for the most important search terms in their market. And then check Google yourself. If they can't rank on the first page on Google for at least a couple important terms then look out! For example, I concentrate on the Seattle market. Relationship-building in the flesh is key to lasting success. And the more I can educate clients and get them involved, the more successful they become. So here are some important and relevant terms in the search engine marketing/search engine optimization space:
Seattle search engine marketing
Seattle search engine optimization
Seattle search engine ranking
Seattle search engine placement
Seattle Internet marketing
Seattle pay per click
3. How well do your clients rank for their important search terms?
Ask them which clients they have achieved high rankings for and for which keyword phrases. Discount responses that involve company names or names of people (unless they are big brands) as nobody searches for these - except maybe the CEO. Also ask them for any client success stories they can share. Beware if they are vague and cannot give specific examples.
4. How well can you rank your clients on Google?
Google, Yahoo and MSN drive about 97% of all natural "organic" search engine traffic. Google accounts for 71% of all search traffic. Yahoo is a distant second at 18% and MSN a distant third at 8%. Nobody else matters. That is why it is critical that you focus your search engine optimization and marketing efforts on Google first. Google is also the hardest engine to rank well for.
Some SEO companies try to get high rankings in all three engines simultaneously. However, this can result in a lesser ranking on Google. So do the math, you want as high a ranking as possible on Google, often even if it is at the expense of Yahoo and MSN. This is particularly true if you are selling business products and services due to the demographics of Google.
5. What is the primary way you market your company and services?
Any search engine marketing firm worth their salt has more than enough business and is filtering out client requests to work on the best ones. Beware of the cold-caller offering their services and promising you "1st-page rankings on Google for any keyword, in 30 days, guaranteed!" Or we will "submit your site to 18,000 search engines". Yeah right. Only three engines matter and those three will all find you by way of a link on another site that points to your site. That is the way it works.
6. Do you offer any guarantees?
Nobody can ethically promise you a certain ranking, for a certain keyword, by a certain date. It is simply impossible. It's like your financial advisor promising the stocks in your portfolio will be at a certain value, by a certain date - NOT! There are simply too many variables outside one's control - search engine updates, algorithm changes, new sites, competitors hiring SEO firms, etc.
7. What services do you provide?
Many SEO companies provide SEO services, link-building services, social media marketing, online press releases, keyword analysis, competitive analysis and pay-per-click setup/management. You really should be using all of these. Beware the firm that does not disclose exactly how they will help you market and rank your site online.
8. How will you measure performance and success?
Good ranking in the search engines is only part of the picture. Yes, it will increase traffic to your website. So will link-building and social media marketing - with the added benefit that these activities will probably help boost your ranking as well.
They should also help you put into place a decent visitor traffic/analytics program (like Google Analytics) if you don't already have one. The beauty of the Web is that everything is trackable and monitorable - which keyword, ads, pages ultimately drove your visitor to contact you and how much did it cost you? Where are your visitors coming from and which pages are they viewing? Reading through your analytics data is like sifting through a gold mine. Lots of valuable data can be gleaned.
Yes, high rankings and increasing levels of traffic to your site are important. But that is only half the battle. A good SEO/SEM firm will also talk about conversion and ROI (return on investment). Once a visitor gets to your site, will they want to stay? Is your site professional-looking, have compelling headlines, fresh interesting content, easy to navigate, easy to contact you and have a call to action? In other words, does your site have what it takes for them to stay long enough to fill out that form, email you or call you? This is a more complex area but a good SEO/SEM firm should be sitting down and talking about this with you.