I often get questions about selecting search engine optimization (SEO) providers. Since I’m speaking on “Selecting an SEO Provider” next week at Search Engine Strategies 2001 in Dallas, I thought I’d cover this topic and invite readers to pose questions or comments for the panel.
There are many issues to consider — more than I can cover in this space: definition of services; pricing; vendor experience and proficiency; customer service; and contracts and reporting. MarketingSherpa’s “Buyers’ Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Firms” covers this in detail and reviews reputable SEO providers. ClickZ’s sister site Search Engine Watch also contains a lot of valuable information. Below are my own suggestions for gathering information on potential providers.
Definition of SEO Services
Business sites considering professional SEO, positioning, and manual submissions can choose from services in four categories: site analysis and optimization, manual submissions, offsite development, and monthly reporting.
1. Site Analysis and Optimization
- Category and keyword research. This requires development of strategic keyword phrases from client suggestions and further research and analysis. The number of terms is proportional to the campaign cost. Reevaluation of keyword phrases should be included.
- Home page optimization. This requires specific HTML optimization of your home page and subpages (title, meta-tags, alt tags, keyword usage) and general site suggestions (navigation, subpage guidelines, site map usage).
- Additional content suggestions. These ensure that your strategic keywords are reflected throughout well-written site content — including a review of content quality and placement — suggesting improvements.
- Directory compliance issues. Directories such as Yahoo, LookSmart, and Open Directory Project (ODP) have specific guidelines for good placement. Directory compliance issues ensure site compliance, suggesting necessary changes.
- Dynamic site suggestions. Many search engine spiders can’t crawl dynamic sites. This requires home-page optimization, site modifications (creating a few crawalable dynamic pages), additional content creation, and specific subpage submissions to certain directories.
- Frame site suggestions. Subpages within framed sites are sometimes incompatible with search engines. This may require site modifications to ensure subpage indexing and that subpage listings will call up your framed site correctly.
2. Manual Submissions
- Submission of home page and subpages to top engines and ODP. This requires working with ODP editors to acquire the best possible category listing, as ODP provides search results for Netscape, AOL, and many others. It includes submission and monitoring of your home page.
- Paid directory submissions. As a critical element of any SEO campaign, directory submissions require very special care once a year. These submissions necessitate decisions on which inclusion submissions are necessary for your positioning campaign.
- Yahoo Business Express. A Yahoo Business Directory listing is mandatory. It requires working with Yahoo editors to acquire your best possible category and submission in compliance with guidelines (keyword density and placement in the title, description, and URL).
LookSmart Express Submit. A LookSmart listing is important because of daily high-volume searches (60 million per day through 5 of the top 10 portals, 5 of the top 10 Internet service providers, and hundreds of media partner sites worldwide). It requires working with LookSmart editors to acquire your best category and precise submission.
3. Offsite Development
- Keyword optimized pages. High rankings can be obtained by delivering a specific Web page to a particular engine seeking that information. This service requires creating, submitting, monitoring, reporting, researching, and resubmitting each keyword-phrase-optimized page for each keyword phrase to each individual robot engine.
- Robust link popularity. Professional technicians can provide specific and relevant content links created from content-rich Web sites linking directly to your site. This service requires analyzing your site to determine and match your content with relevant content from cataloged content pages, online publications, and topic-focused articles.
4. Monthly Reporting
- Search-based position reports. This service requires reporting positions for each URL and keyword phrase once a month. You’ll see exactly where your home page, subpages, and optimized keyword pages are located. Reports list the page number and location (numbered 1 through 50) of each keyword phrase search.
- Log file analysis. This service requires evaluation of your server logs to identify your SEO results, which can then be used by your staff as relevant statistics.
All the above services can be considered when pricing an SEO campaign, but remember: One size does not fit all. Some industries require more SEO resources than others. Ask specific questions about pricing of the above services. You should get an itemized proposal specifying one-time versus monthly costs. Each recommended service should be clearly described in a technical support document explaining the need for every item in your campaign.
SEO and positioning require a long-term commitment and realistic understanding of the technical and human resources required. Technicians do not work for minimum wage, and SEO systems require significant investment and maintenance. Most campaigns average $12,000 to $60,000 a year, whether in-house or outsourced.
Core competency is important when selecting an SEO provider. Ask the following questions to determine the experience and proficiency of the vendors you are considering:
- How many years of SEO experience do you have?
- Do you provide other Internet marketing services, or do you specialize in SEO?
- What is your company’s proficiency in SEO? Do you specialize in specific industries?
- What is the cost breakdown for these services (setup/maintenance, paid inclusion, etc.)?
- Will the work you do impact my existing site?
- What clients have you served, and what results were achieved?
- Can we contact these clients?
- How long does it take to achieve results?
This is an important but often overlooked issue. You should be able to discuss your SEO plan directly with a qualified search engine technician or an account manager who understands every aspect of your campaign. You need to know what support services are provided and what will cost extra. Consider asking these questions:
- Will I have one-to-one, direct contact with an SEO account manager?
- What customer support services are provided?
- How do you provide support (phone/email), and is there a limit (time/number of emails)?
Contracts and Reporting
Find out what the minimum contract includes, the cost of consulting, whether any guarantees are offered, and the hosting of domains used. SEO results are not usually guaranteed because they change continuously. That’s why it’s important to find out if maintenance and reporting are provided. Ask the following questions:
- Do you require a minimum contract and if so, how much?
- Do you charge extra for consulting or reoptimization?
- What maintenance do you provide, and what is the monthly cost?
- What reports do you provide and how often?
Making the Right Decision
Gathering the information above and comparing vendors should help you make the right decision. So would attending Search Engine Strategies 2001 next week in Dallas, if you’re able. I hope to meet many of you there!