Asking (nicely) for SEO advice.
Prospective clients and colleagues request free SEO (define) consultations in different ways. Some people might ask you to take a quick peek at a robots.txt file to ensure the formatting is appropriate. Others might ask you to glance at a Web page and provide quick feedback. A yes/no question is great: does Google use the meta-tag keywords attribute to determine relevancy? (The answer's no.) Quick and easy.
I don't mind answering some SEO, Web design, or Web site usability questions every now and again, if I have the time. However, some people who ask for a free consultation are, in reality, taking advantage of your time and expertise.
Free Consultations Through RFPs
Unfortunately for many SEO firms, some companies, including big brands, put out information requests or RFPs (define) purely to get a free SEO consultation. They have no intention of hiring a new SEO firm. For example, a marketing director has been assigned the task of determining the best SEM (define) strategies to implement on the company Web site. Instead actually doing his job, this person sends an RFP to a large number of SEO firms and lets the SEO firms come up with strategies for him.
Sure, this hypothetical marketing director does some work. He had to get a list of reputable SEO firms to send the RFP to. He had to gather the information presented in each RFP and compile it to present to his boss. Nonetheless, whose time was wasted?
Some of my SEO colleagues are good about mailing each other when we can tell someone's scoping us out purely for a free consultation. Trust me, this situation is more common than you might imagine.
I never divulge an SEO plan until I'm able to fully analyze the Web site or the prototypes of a new site. In fact, I don't understand why SEO firms send boilerplate proposals with search strategies without first fully analyzing a site. I need to know the keyword phrases that work and the ones that are ineffective (if a site already utilizes search engine advertising). If the site isn't new, I need to see Web analytics data. If a company utilizes user-centered design (UCD), I'd like to know the usability testing results. Then I can provide a more accurate evaluation of a Web site or a prototype.
A Search Usability Analysis is one of my paid services. I don't give free consultations for that service, especially considering it must be tailored and there's a considerable amount of data to review before analysis begins. Cookie-cutter SEO plans are what people get when they request them in proposals. Believe me, not every Web site needs a blog and blog optimization.
Free Web Site Evaluations
Because my area of expertise is search-engine-friendly Web design, many people ask me for a quick evaluation of their sites, especially if they implemented something I recommend in one of my books or columns. If I have a couple of extra minutes, I don't mind doing it. I have this rule about doing one completely selfless act per month. Sometimes, a quick look-see is my selfless act. I've been known to make graphic-image navigation buttons for nonprofit sites on occasion.
The problem comes when people expect way too much. If any SEO professional takes the time to answer your e-mail query with an honest and forthright answer, bear in mind she's being generous with her time and expertise. If you have further questions (including needing clarification), you should pay for that person's time.
I understand people must ascertain an SEO professional's level of knowledge and expertise before they hire her. Nonetheless, many take it too far.
Recently, someone sent an e-mail telling me he'd implemented everything in my book and asked me to quickly glance at his new site. Since I was on my lunch break when the e-mail arrived, I took a look. I was horrified to see the entire site, text and all, was designed in graphic images only. Now, I've written many times about not creating graphics-only home pages (known as splash pages), and I've talked about them at Search Engine Strategies conferences for years. So I let this person know I thought his entire design was a mistake and why. His site clearly needed both CSS (define) formatted text and graphic images.
This person's response was so rude and unprofessional that I put his e-mail address in a spam filter. But his response inspired some guidelines for those requesting a free SEO consultation.
Guidelines for a Free SEO Consultation
The bottom line with free consultations, SEO or otherwise, is courtesy and honesty. Be courteous and honest about the questions you'd like answered. That courtesy will probably be returned.
Meet Shari at SES San Jose on August 20-23, in San Jose, California.
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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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