What to Look for in an SEO Firm

If you use search engine marketing (SEM) as an online marketing strategy, what type of SEM do you use? My first ClickZ column outlined the major types of SEM, including search engine advertising and search engine optimization (SEO).

All too often, companies hire SEM firms that don’t specialize in SEO. Since search engine advertising become hot, ad agencies jumped on the bandwagon to offer it. Many new SEM firms also emerged, some with former search engine employees.

In reality, most firms that specialize in search engine advertising don’t specialize in SEO, and vice versa. Though some services require some of the same skills (such as keyword research), SEO and search engine advertising are completely different animals.

If you’re looking to outsource SEO services or hire an SEO firm, here are some characteristics to review before hiring.

Keyword Research and Copywriting

Both SEO and search advertising require keyword research and copywriting skills. Yet writing Web page content is quite different from writing ad copy.

With ad copy, writers deal with only a limited set of words, including:

  • Query words

  • Benefits
  • Unique selling propositions
  • Sense of urgency (e.g., limited offer)
  • Calls to action

With actual Web pages (including landing pages), writers must deal with titles, meta tags (or other SERP (define) copy), headings, a higher word count, site navigation schemes, calls to action (above and below the fold), and cross-linking. Though some of these features should be available on ad landing pages, many of these landing pages aren’t an integral part of a site’s information architecture.

Many copywriters come from a print, advertising, or journalism background. This group might not specialize in Web and search copywriting. Search copywriters know how to write with keyword phrases and incorporate these phrases into sales copy without diluting either brand or copy. Search-friendly copy has a certain level of redundancy that might not be acceptable in a print medium or for that English paper you wrote in college.

Web Design, Development, and Usability

Placing keyword-rich text on Web pages won’t increase search engine visibility unless crawler-based search engines can easily access that text. A site’s design, page layout, navigation scheme, and information architecture are just as important as search-friendly copy.

Top search engine positions are not the be-all, end-all of SEM. After users click from a SERP to your site, what do you want them to do? Do you want them to click the back button or complete your call to action? If visitors aren’t ready to take that action, do you provide other alternatives or an incentive to return to your site later? Conversion marketing is often overlooked in SEM.

Finding an SEO firm that specializes in search-friendly design is difficult. Not only must this firm’s staff have design skills, staff should have programming, development, marketing, Web analytics, and usability skills. Very few SEO firms have staff with technical and marketing skills.

Many firms that claim to specialize in search-friendly design consist of programmers having limited design and usability skills. I cringe every time I see a wrong color selection or removal of a clickable element because a programmer thinks it looks cool. Blue underlined text says, “Click me.” Remove the underline, and the text looks less clickable. Change the blue to another color, and the text looks even less clickable. From both a marketing and a usability standpoint, making a call to action less prominent is a huge design mistake.

Even if an SEO firm doesn’t have individual staffers with multiple talents, make sure it has staffers with these six skill sets: design, development, programming, search, Web analytics, and usability. Cross-training is essential so staffers understand each other’s jobs.

Link Development

Link development is often an ongoing process. For a new site, link development often begins with directory paid inclusion. Since it’s very difficult to modify a directory listing, a search-friendly copywriter should know how to research categories and write appropriate descriptions that will enhance a site’s overall search engine visibility and be an accurate directory description. Many Web content writers don’t understand directory submission. It’s a special skill.

Unfortunately, link development isn’t a skill PR firms currently provide. Link development requires search, publicity, and email skills. For example, an article opportunity might arise in an online publication. A qualified link development specialist knows how to:

  • E-mail a publication to pitch the article

  • Write the article so keywords naturally appear in the copy
  • Ensure the article links back to the Web site in a search-friendly way.


Sometimes, SEO is a simple process. Maybe the title tags need a little tweaking. Adding text links and a site map might solve the problem, or creating a URL structure the crawler-based search engines can follow. However, if you need to outsource or hire an SEO firm, make sure the firm has staff that specialize in search, copywriting, design, development, programming, marketing, and link development. It’s a tall order. But these skills are essential for building a user-friendly, search-friendly, and persuasive site that converts visitors into buyers.

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

Related reading