How Not to Work With an SEO/SEM Firm

Recently, I informally surveyed SEO (define) and search engine marketing (SEM) firms about their most common client and prospect complaints. Today, I offer the results. To protect confidentiality, no one is named.

The statements below are the firms’ own attempts to deal with clients’ and prospects’ unrealistic expectations.

You’ll have to change your Web site. Accept this fact before contacting us.

“We have a difficult time talking to people who honestly believe we can wave a magic wand and miraculously make a Web site appear at the top of search results, even in this day and age,” said one SEO firm staffer. “In order for us to optimize a site, the site has to change: copywriting (and not just the meta-tag descriptions), information architecture, page layout, link development, you name it. The prospect’s site must change in order for the prospect’s site to receive increased ‘natural’ search engine traffic.”

Another SEM firm echoes this sentiment. “When we said that the text content on your pages will need to be changed, what we meant was: the. text. content. on. your. pages. will. need. to. be. changed.”

Search experts don’t make these statements to be rude or condescending. They simply want clients and prospects to have realistic expectations. Our time is just as valuable as yours.

Your site has no more right to high rankings than anyone else’s, regardless of your standing in the field or your brand’s renown.

I can’t count the number of times I really, really wanted to make this statement face to face. Search engine spiders don’t have emotions. They don’t ooh and aaah over your brand name, or your expertise in your field. Search engine spiders index text, follow links, and measure popularity (link development).

I once asked a prospect if he felt entitled to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angles Times every day — without the need to follow any publication guidelines. Unfortunately, he said, “Of course I do. Who wouldn’t?” I chose not to work with this person. If he had unrealistic expectations about appearing in major newspapers, he had unrealistic expectations about appearing in major search engines.

Tell your Web developer to get with the program or get lost.

I’ve received this comment from multiple SEM companies. Most Web developers don’t understand how to make a site search-engine friendly or how to make a site search friendly.

“Our staff took a usability class with a bunch of other Web developers and usability professionals,” said a search expert. “A usability professional from a major U.S. auto manufacturer was one of the attendees. He kept saying to me over and over again, ‘We have the best designers in the world working on our site.’ I finally spoke up and said that I didn’t care. If his design staff were so damn wonderful, then how come the site has problems with the Web search engines?”

“It doesn’t matter how many awards your Web design/development firm won, or how many big-brand clients they have,” the expert continued. “What matters is that their prospects can find their products on their site and take desired actions, not go ‘Ooh! Aaah! Look at the pretty Web site.'”

Kudos to the SEO staffer who had the courage to stand up to big-brand arrogance. “If you don’t create a search-engine friendly Web site, don’t expect the search engines to be friendly,” said another SEO firm.

Marketing staff: take and pass an HTML 101 class (no cheating).

“Look, I’m not expecting marketing folks to be able to code an entire Web site,” stated another SEO expert, “but I at least need them to understand the difference between a title tag and a meta tag. And why one is more important than the other, at least from a search perspective.”

This complaint came from multiple SEM firms. Seems marketing professionals expect search experts to wave that magic wand again. In the real world, we must modify HTML code and the content within HTML tags. All we ask is online marketing folk understand HTML well enough to have a common vocabulary with search experts.

IT staff: take and pass a marketing and usability class (no cheating).

Fair is fair. Many firms express equal frustration with IT staffers who don’t respect the marketing staff’s skills and expertise. Web developers often create information architectures and URL structures that make sense only to other Web developers, not to the target audience. That’s not search friendly at all.

Make peace with your IT department.

“Whether you like it or not, your IT department usually creates and maintains your Web site,” said one SEO staffer. “You can choose to have an antagonistic relationship with them, or you can choose to work together with a common goal.” Agreed. However, many IT staffers tend to be a bit threatened when an outsider comes in to criticize their work.

We just spent six months optimizing your site. It’s a little late to tell us you worked with three other SEO companies that specialize in cloaking, and that also mirror sites with identical content.

I could feel the frustration oozing from the email submissions. Clients and prospects, let SEM firms know about previous SEM firms you worked with. Tell them what did and didn’t work. Why pay for duplicate work?

SEM firms, if you haven’t already, rewrite this complaint and put it in your discovery questionnaire. Heck, put it in your contracts. Our firm has a rule: if a client or prospect has knowingly and deliberately spammed the search engines, it has 30 days to stop — or it’s no longer our client.

Thanks to the SEM firms that contributed complaints. On the surface, it may seem they’re blowing off steam. In reality, SEO/SEM firms genuinely want to help their clients’ sites achieve user and business goals. All we ask is for clients and prospects to share the same goals.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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