How to Hire a Good SEO Expert - Part 2

Friday Dec 30th 2005 by James Maguire
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A group of SEO experts talks about the cost of hiring search engine optimization help, and what exactly an SEO firm will do for a business.

As noted last week in Part One, when an online merchant sets out to hire an SEO expert, questions abound. Since the search optimization industry is so new, it's hard for consumers to know what to expect.

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of hiring an SEO firm is cost. How much should a merchant expect to pay? It's a topic about which top SEO experts agree: the costs can vary wildly.

"I don't really have a range of what it would be — it's all over the place," notes Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch, arguably the industry's most well respected expert.

"You've got some firms that are charging thousands and thousands of dollars, who are working with really large companies that are going to expect lots of reports, lots of client management, and those costs are built into that," he says. "Whereas if you're working with an individual person, their costs are much lower."

Whatever the cost, Sullivan cautions online merchants against hiring firms that offer to "keep you resubmitted [to the search engines] and it'll only cost you $25 per month. That sounds better than someone who's charging you $50 — except that you didn't need to spend the $25 or the $50 in the first place."

In reality, "The cost is free — go submit it yourself. It will take you all of five minutes." (You can find out how to do that here).

The difference between these quickie services and a real SEO firm is that a true expert will look at your pages and make recommendations, Sullivan notes. In this case, "Some people will charge by the page — some people charge $100 per page. Somebody else might charge you $200 a page. The person charging $200 might not be twice as good, it just might be that they've got twice as much demand, so they can command a higher rate."

Another variable effecting price is how much of the work merchants are willing to do themselves. "Are you asking for a service to actually make the changes, or do you just want them to come and look through your site and suggest things overall and you do it?" Sullivan says. A merchant who's willing to learn some basics and do some of the work can save considerable money.

In fact, notes Jamie Low of SearchEngineMarketing, to control costs "a small company will have to learn how to do a good chunk of it on their own. They'll have to hire a Webmaster with enough of both right brain and left brain ability to make sure that the content is well optimized."

To find reputable experts, Sullivan recommends that merchants buy a copy of MarketingSherpa's guide to SEO experts. The publication lists about 125 SEO firms. "They haven't spammed to get in there, they've emerged over time because the publication has become aware of them, or people have suggested them."

Best SEO Deals
The most expensive SEO jobs — costing up to $10,000 to $20,000 a month - are when a firm has a huge number of product pages they want to improve the search engine ranking for. "If they have thousands and thousands of products, and they want to get them all optimized, that's going to cost (them)," says Jill Whalen of High Rankings.

Yet, even for a more modest job, prices can vary substantially, she notes. It's impossible to offer a price range, "Because companies charge such different amounts depending on who they are, their reputation and where they're located, and if they're new or not," Whalen notes. "That's why it's all over the board."

The best deal for a merchant, she says, is to find highly qualified SEO guides who work solo. "There's some really good people out there who work at home and know what they're doing, but don't have to charge a lot because they have low overhead. When I was first doing this, I was charging a couple hundred bucks a page — but doing just as well as big companies, or better."

The problem, of course, is "finding those [home-based] people," she says. Easier said than done. Many small-time experts don't have the marketing budget of larger SEO firms, so locating them is a real chore.

What Exactly Does an SEO Expert Do?
A merchant seeking to hire an SEO firm needs to be aware that improving a business's search engine visibility is about far more than sprinkling attractive keywords in the right pages. At it's best, an SEO campaign takes into account an e-tailer's overall business and marketing strategy.

The best way to start such a campaign "is to not even look at the Web site, but to first sit down with the client and talk about their business objectives," Low says. "And figure out: what is it that they need to do to grow and survive?"

A holistic approach that enlists the full company in the SEO process is needed, he says.

"You're typically going to have an IT person, a Web marketing person, a copywriter, and a business owner. If you don't sit those people down together in a conference call or the same room, and have them hash out a solution together, then it's a bad way to do project management," Low says.

The process of working with an SEO firm might be short or long term, notes Jill Whalen. "There doesn't necessarily need to be a certain time on the contract. If you're doing SEO the right way, where you're actually fixing a site and making it better, changes basically will stick, and it's not like you have to go around tweaking things when the search engines change."

Although Google and Yahoo often change their algorithms, "It's really only to combat the people out there trying to trick them, so if you're not trying to do any tricks, it usually doesn't usually effect your site, for the most part."

"I've worked on plenty of sites where we do the work and then we're pretty much done. The businesses know enough to keep things up themselves, and I'm happy with that — a lot of [SEO] companies don't like to tell that to people."

On the other hand, "Sometimes you want a long term contract. If you're a working with a company that's always adding new products or content, then you want to make sure you're always optimizing for the new stuff."

Keyword Research and Page Optimization
One of the most important services an SEO firm offers is expert keyword research.

A good SEO firm "won't just come in and say 'Tell me what words you want to be found for' and walk with it," Sullivan says. "They're going to come back to you and say 'These are the words you may want to be considering.' A good SEO expert will understand shopper behavior and the intricacies of keyword searches enough to recommend truly choice keywords for merchant to build into their site's pages."

Beyond keyword research, "They will then look to see if there are any spidering problems with the site, to make sure the search engines can get into it," Sullivan says. As Fallon notes, "Sometimes sites use shopping cart systems that are dynamic and have session ID's and variables that make it difficult for the search engines spiders to crawl the whole site."

After keyword research and making sure the site is fully crawlable, "Then they will probably review what sort of basic, fundamental changes can be made," Sullivan says.

"Typically those are: do you have good descriptive page titles on all your pages, that are unique — with each page having its own unique title that describes what the page is about? Does the page content sort of 'sing out?' Is it relevant for the terms you would like that page to be found for? If not, the SEO firm might go the further step of rewriting the pages."

An ineffective SEO firm might urge a site owner to repeat certain terms again and again in the page's text. Like "The Acme Widget company sells top widgets, the best widgets made anywhere in the widget industry." While this might lure a search engine spider into indexing the site for the term "widget," it will drive away real human beings when they visit the site.

A good SEO expert will build keywords into the site "In a way that makes perfect sense for a human being to read," Sullivan says.

Furthermore, "You may decide to add a whole new section to the Web site that provides content that you hadn't considered before," Low says.

Whalen cautions that incorporating the right keywords can accomplish only so much. "Really, if you just have a site selling the same thing that 100,000 other sites are selling, and you don't have anything unique about it, these days you're not going to get found in the engines just because you put the right words on the page — it's just gotten so much more sophisticated."

"Years ago we could make any site rank highly. We can't do that anymore — it's too crowded."

The Really Important Part: Link Building
Experts point out that optimizing a site's pages is only part of the job. Since Google and Yahoo rank a site largely based on its incoming links, link building is the biggest booster of search engine visibility.

"Link building is very, very important," says Sullivan. Notes Fallon: link building "is 80 or 90 percent of the game."

It's not just the quantity of links to a merchant's site, but the quality. An incoming link from a major industry hub counts far more than one from an obscure personal page. A top-ranked site will have thousands or tens of thousands of links to it, from a broad mix of leading sites and less-trafficked sites.

When a merchant gets link building help from an SEO expert, it typically takes two forms: the cheap way, or the more expensive way.

On the economy plan, the SEO expert tells the merchant the best practices for link building, and gives advice about what hubs to approach. There isn't too much value in this, Fallon says. "You can learn very quickly, online, for very low cost, everything about link building, and go out and do all the work yourself."

The more expensive option is to have the SEO firm actually do the link building work. This constant soliciting of links is time consuming and tedious work, and can be expensive — but invaluable in terms of increasing ranking.

If the SEO firm does the link building work, Fallon says, "Then it becomes a cost-benefit analysis to say, 'I'm going to pay you this much money, and how many links are you going to give me? What about quality of links? What exactly am I going to get for my money in terms of link building?'"

The Dark Side of Link Building
Because link building is the key to high ranking, many businesses have sprung up to help sites quickly create links — and not all of these businesses are wearing white hats.

Some unscrupulous SEO firms use "link farms" to artificially create hundreds or thousands of links to a merchant overnight. A link farm is a site (or series of sites) that exists solely to link to other sites, sometimes with machine-generated content to make them appear real. Some merchants spend large amounts to be linked to from link farms, but the benefit is negligible, experts say.

Link farms can be expensive, Low notes. An unscrupulous company will provide a mass of links, "and it starts working for you, and you say 'I'm not sure I want to keep paying this money,' so then they sell those links to somebody else."

In some cases, merchants have reported horror stories of disappearing from the search engines once the search engines realized that their ranking came chiefly from a link farm.

But these stories are, for the most part, overblown. "It's more the case that, you got involved with a link farm, you got a benefit from it, they [the engines] discovered the benefit, and the benefit went away," Sullivan notes. "They didn't drop you — you're at a point where you would have been without the link farm." (Of course if a site has few links besides their link farm links, they may virtually disappear.)

"A good company will not be getting you involved with link farms," Sullivan says. "They'll be building you links, and they'll be doing it in a way that you won't have anything to be fearful of."

Old Fashioned PR
A big part of a quality link building campaign — whether done by an SEO firm or the merchant themselves — is good old-fashioned marketing: press releases (optimized with the best keywords), phone calls, e-mail campaigns, and the like.

"When you get the word out there, you're going to get links to your site naturally," Whalen says. "But you do have to do some work to making sure people know your site exists."

A quality SEO campaign is time consuming and can be costly. However, "A lot of people have realized that those search listings are absolutely imperative to the success of their business," Low notes. "Everyone has to make a decision on their own: what is it worth to them?"

James Maguire is a contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com. This article originally appeared on ECommerce-Guide.com.

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