I'm always amazed which SEO (define)/SEM (define) firms win contests or receive the highest ratings. I often get clients from these so-called best SEO firms, and I'm appalled at their best practice methodologies. Doorway pages, hidden links, cloaking...you name it, and I've probably seen it.
I ask clients and prospects why they selected a particular SEO/SEM firm and why they didn't question some of the methodologies. Many people are genuinely ignorant of SEO best practices. Some know of best practices but fell for a salesperson's or account rep's explanation. And many people blindly believe awards, ratings, and memberships as proof the SEO firm follow best practices -- the inspiration for this week's column.
Misleading Contest Criteria
Because I've received awards and high ratings myself, I decided to go over the criteria for receiving a top rating. All the evaluations had positioning and competitiveness of an individual keyword or keyword phrase in common.
On the surface, this seems to be fair criteria for ranking a best SEO firm. But the two criteria are deceiving. What makes an SEO professional outstanding isn't an ability to achieve high search engine positions. The goal is to accommodate a wide variety of search behaviors on a Web site and deliver ROI (define).
Positioning and keyword competitiveness is often a smoke screen to the big picture.
Here's an example. Around 2003, a client wanted his site to rank well for some rather odd keyword phrases, at least from my perspective. Keyword research for these terms showed few people searched for their desired keyword phrases on the major commercial search engines. But that didn't deter my client. He knew his target audience used specific terminology to describe a product or service, and this was the terminology he wanted to use on his Web site.
OK, I thought. He talks to people in his target audience all the time. He listened carefully to what they had to say about his competitors. He read many specification documents. He wasn't making keyword assumptions.
I created the Web site with an information architecture and corresponding interface that directly reflected his desired terminology. Title tags, headings, and information scents used this terminology. Heck, even the print brochures used these odd keyword phrases.
Four years later, my client's site still ranks for odd keyword phrases. In an SEO contest or other evaluation, I might receive lower ratings because the keyword phrase isn't as competitive as the word "sex." Do you think my client cares? He received a $100 million-plus government contract because he had the forethought to use his target audience's terminology. He hired a Web developer who incorporated that terminology into the Web site's information architecture and interface. And he received multiple multimillion-dollar orders before and after he was awarded this major contract.
Why should I receive a lower rating than an SEO firm that ranks sites for adult-related keywords because my keyword phrases are less competitive? Beginner or black-hat SEO professionals could have attained some search engine visibility for these niche keyword phrases, but I doubt they would have been able to get long-term results and the conversions.
Therein lies one of the problems with these contests: the focus is more on short-term rankings than conversions.
Tricks of the Trade
SEO evaluators are also easily fooled. Just because a URL has a number-one position in Google doesn't mean it deserves to be there. That position might be due to search engine spam. The position might not have anything to do with what SEO professionals implemented. I know of SEO firms that hire people to vote for their own company.
Another part of the problem is the label "search engine marketing." Search engine marketing encompasses a wide variety of skills, including SEO, search engine advertising, link development, and keyword research. People assume search-advertising staffs have the skills to optimize a Web site. Though some search engine advertising and SEO skills overlap, they're different animals.
For example, both SEO and search advertising should generally be implemented for long-term, effective search engine visibility. However, my client chose to completely eliminate all search-advertising expenses because the site's organic search engine visibility and qualified traffic has steadily increased since 2002. The advertising expenses amounted to almost $50,000 per month.
Even if I don't calculate the income generated from the site's search engine visibility and corresponding conversion rates, the company doesn't spend approximately $6 million per year on search engine advertising. Should I receive a lower evaluation score because the site doesn't have a number-one position for "viagra"? Do you think my client cares?
As for the evaluation criteria for best SEO firm, I'm not convinced people are presented with the big picture.
I don't believe I'm the best SEO professional in the world, as there are many highly qualified people working in SEO. Many truly gifted SEO professionals don't get the recognition they deserve, and many SEO firms receive undeserved kudos. Even if I tried asking, "If you were to hire an SEO firm to work on your own site, who would you hire?" black hats would give each other high evaluations. That doesn't mean they're the best SEO professionals, either.
A page can have a number-one position and not convert. Another page can have a number-20 position and convert like mad. The goal of SEO isn't to rank. As long as SEO professionals, PR firms, and the media perpetuate these adolescent contests, the general public will continue to value positioning over quality content.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
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