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Search Engine Marketing - hiring SEOP's  or doing it yourself

In a previous article regarding search engine marketing (optimization & submission), I've outlined a series of proven, ethical techniques and strategies that can help you gain better rankings and increase traffic to your web site.

If you're too busy to do your own optimization and manage PPC campaigns, there are many companies who specialize in these tasks.

In this article, we'll take a look at some points to consider before hiring an SEOP (Search Engine Optimization Professional) or SEM (Search Engine Marketing) company, and a few tips for getting started in do-it-yourself optimization.

SEOP and SEM - is there a difference?

Briefly, an SEOP focuses on optimizing your web site to attract the attention of search engine spiders and improving your rankings. Their specialty area are "organic" search engine listings - i.e. free. An SEM company also markets a web site via search engines, but usually through purchasing paid listings. The terms are somewhat interchangeable and many companies cover both areas, hence SEM being the more popular term these days.

Need to learn about  search engine ranking and optimization strategies or want to monitor the SEO health of your web sites (and those of your competitors)? One of the most comprehensive set of online search engine optimization tools around -  SEOMOZ.

Good and bad SEO firms

A good SEO firm can achieve great things for your site, a bad one may cause you to be banned from some engines through spamming or other unethical "quick fix" strategies. Sometime this banning can be forever, so it's very important that you engage the optimization services of a reputable firm.

Some *unethical* optimization strategies include:

  • Hidden text or hidden links.

  • Cloaking

  • Creation of pages pages with irrelevant words.

  • Creating multiple pages, domains and sub domains with identical content.

  • Doorway pages specifically designed for search engines i.e. the user never sees them.

  • Spamming of guestbooks and blogs to artificially inflate link popularity 

While these techniques are easily detected by search engines, it's surprising how many people still attempt to use them.

If you have ever been banned for intentional or unintentional spamming of a search engine, you'll understand just how hard it is to crawl back to the top. 

Being banned or penalized from a search engine happens to most webmasters at some stage of their career. If it's a mistake on the search engine's part, it will *usually* be rectified. An intentional ban is a completely different story. I've known webmasters that have had to redesign their entire site, change their domain name and hosting service and then have to climb up the rankings from scratch - not a pleasant thought at all... A ban issued by the powers that be at the Googleplex have ended a number of online businesses who have been caught for spamming. It's just not worth the risk.

The Search Engine Optimization Professional

The title of SEOP is now being brandished by many individuals and optimization firms, all competing for your attention and dollars. Competition is great, but it can also encourage wild claims and other sharp marketing strategies in order to capture your business.

One of the most risky purchase decisions is to hire the first SEOP who guarantees you a top 10 search engine ranking.  Believe it or not, getting a top 10 ranking is pretty easy.  Securing a top 10 ranking that will actually bring you viable quantities of targeted traffic is quite another. Confused? Here's an example:

Optimizing a flombles web site

Let's say you sell Flombles in a competitive market. Your competitors are dominating the search engine rankings, so you engage the services of an SEOP who guarantees you a number 1 search engine ranking related to your products in the organic listings. As mentioned, organic listings are the free entries, as opposed to PPC listings which are paid.

The SEOP optimizes your site and lo and behold, the next month you are ranking in position number 1 for the term "fuzzy flombles". You sit back and wait for the sales to come in - and there are none.  The reason for this is that fuzzy flombles are a dud product, nobody wants them, so nobody searches for them. Your competitors have optimized their pages for frizzy flombles, which are a best seller..

Another example would be a number 1 ranking on the search term "buy frizzy flombles now". Frizzy flombles may be a best seller, but that term happens to be one that nobody actually uses as a search query; people use "buy frizzy flombles".

Before hiring a Search Engine Optimization Professional, make sure that you make them aware of your market and previous marketing attempts.  Don't expect them to be an expert on your product range, there's just too many products and services out there.  

A good SEOP will ask a lot of questions before you sign the dotted line, so they'll know the terms they should be focusing on and the marketing challenge that awaits them.  So if someone guarantees you a top 10 ranking, be very wary - what kind of top 10 ranking? It's the quality that counts. Ask questions, get references...

Also be wary of SEOP's that offer to submit your site to 128,564 search engines and directories - many of these directories will be garbage directories and FFA type sites, and that's not a good thing at all. If an SEOP offers to do this as part of their services, it's a good indicator from the outset to look elsewhere. Good SEOP's wouldn't waste their time on this sort of coverage.

Another point that SEOP's are well aware of is that when it comes to search engines such as Google, nothing is guaranteed - that's what makes Google such a great search engine.  Google constantly refine their ranking algorithm, otherwise the only sites to rank at the top will be the ones that can afford the services of an optimization professional. The changing algorithm, while frustrating at times, does provide a more level playing field.

Need to learn about  search engine ranking and optimization strategies or want to monitor the SEO health of your web sites (and those of your competitors)? One of the most comprehensive set of online search engine optimization tools around -  SEOMOZ.

The "secret squirrel" approach

Something I've said countless times over the years: SEO is *not* rocket science; it's just time consuming. 

If a company you are considering hiring mentions "secret techniques" they'll use, bear in mind that in the world of "white hat" SEO, that is, optimization techniques not frowned upon by search engines, there are *no* secrets. Any company that wants to keep their strategy secretive should be avoided as it's likely they are either just boasting to try and hook you or worse still, will use optimization techniques that may backfire in the long run.

Hiring SEMs - other issues for consideration

As mentioned earlier, a Search Engine Marketing firm tends to focus on paid listings; especially PPC (pay per click) listings. PPC can bring great rewards, but it can also be a huge hole into which you pour your money - with no results. In order for an SEM company to be of benefit; they *must* have a very good understanding of your target market. 

For example; it's well known that people who use certain keywords are more likely to purchase. Using a very basic example, I would rather spend 50c per click on the term "buy frizzy flombles" than 5c per click on "flombles" as the first example is very targeted and the person searching has expressed a desire to purchase - they are pre-groomed for the sale.

A good Search Engine Marketing company won't just focus on the search term, but also on the landing page on your site that the click will take people to.

Don't bow to pressure

Another thing to watch out for - pushy companies. *Never* feel pressured into signing anything; and if the company uses scare tactics or tries to lock you into a contract for a full year from the outset - run a million miles. 3 months should be more than enough for you to gain some indication if the expense is worthwhile.

I remember having a run-in with one company when organizing services for hundreds of potential clients. They got a little too pushy and also tried to "educate" me regarding SEM and SEO, even though I had told them that I was well aware of the various aspects of the industry. Well, I educated them instead - they lost the opportunity. My biggest disappointment was that this was a well known company and it was plain to see that dollar signs were motivating such pushy behavior; very little in our communications related to the benefit to clients. You'll run into shady characters in this industry everywhere, regardless of how well known a brand name they have.

Ask about competitor clients

This is a dilemma I've struck a few times during my consulting days.

Company A come to me asking me to optimize their site for dozens of terms and I take them on as a client.

Company B contacts me shortly afterwards, they are in the same field as Company A and want to rank highly on the same terms.

I guess you can understand what sorts of problems this can cause. Personally, I wouldn't take on a client that was a direct competitor with an existing client and this issue is one you should certainly ask about before signing on the dotted line.

Where do you find ethical SEOP's and SEM's?

As with any other profession, a respected trade directory is a good place to start. A well established service worth mentioning is SEMPO. SEMPO is a professional association working to increase awareness and promote the value of search engine marketing on a global scale.

Just because a company is listed at SEMPO, it doesn't mean you have 100% protection from crooked operators as they aren't a policing organization.

SEMPO also have a great facility where you can submit your requirements and SEO/SEM companies will then contact you.

Another free service worth considering is SEM Vendor, which is run by Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim. SEM Vendor is a free service that connects companies seeking search marketing vendors with professionals that provide search engine optimization and pay-per-click management. Like SEMPO's RFP feature, you can enter your details and have a request for quotes sent to a variety of search engine marketing companies who will follow up with you.

Do it yourself web site optimization

If you decide to take the "do-it-yourself"  approach to search engine marketing and optimization instead, congratulations! You're about to immerse yourself into the wonderful world of lurking in SEO forums, examining server logs until your eyes bleed, keyword density number crunching, conflicting advice and many sleepless nights - and they are just the good points!  

Seriously though, while optimization can be very time consuming in the beginning, there is no sweeter experience than doing your own optimization work and seeing yourself at number 1 on a popular term. Also, performing your own optimization reduces your dependence on others and ongoing costs in relation to this aspect of your online business. If your site has been live for quite some time, but your site still isn't showing up in Google, try my article on why some sites aren't listed on search engines which may give you some pointers as to where the problem lies.

Generally speaking, be very wary of the information you research on optimization and search engine marketing; much of it is outdated, some of it is incorrect and other sources are just plain misleading.  The rule of thumb is if the strategy you are reading about is the latest bleeding edge search engine optimization technology - leave it alone until it is well and truly tried and tested -  by others :0). In Taming the Beast.net's SEO section, I make every attempt to keep our information on this subject up to date, but it's always a good idea to compare notes with other search engine resources. 

The most important thing to keep in mind when preparing your web site s that content, quality content, is king. The written word, relevant and logical, is the ultimate search engine marketing weapon. Develop good content, implement it well, others will link to it and the search engines will come knocking at your door. 

Good optimization books

The reams of information available via the Internet on the subject of search engine marketing can make an already complex subject even more confusing. Trying to assemble an optimization strategy from bits and pieces of advice is very challenging. I have often been asked by clients and students about books available on this subject, but good resources have been rather scarce.

Recently I came across an ebook, actually an entire training program, on the subject of do-it-yourself optimization and search engine marketing that greatly impressed me by its common-sense, holistic approach and easy to understand content. SEOBOOK was developed to offer the latest SEO tips and techniques to novice to intermediate level search engine marketers and is constantly being updated with fresh information.

Good luck with your optimization strategy!

Further related learning resources:

Search engine optimization tools, tutorials and resources section

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast.net
http://www.tamingthebeast.net
Tutorials, web content, tools and tutorials.
Web Marketing, eCommerce & Development solutions. 
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