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How to Hire an SEO Service

SEO usually refers to search engine optimization, but it also refers to a search engine optimizer. A search engine optimizer is someone who specializes in optimizes websites so they rank well in the search engines.

Those new to the search engine game often confuse SEO with SEM, which is search engine marketing. The two fields can overlap, but they are vastly different. You need to know which you're looking for before you can hire the appropriate service.

Search engine optimization is about creating a search engine friendly site so it ranks well in organic search results. Search engine marketing is about effectively advertising on search engine results pages (serps).

Some companies will offer both services, but unless they have a large staff of specialists they are likely much better at one than the other because they are very different disciplines. This article describes what to look for when hiring a SEO service.

Many SEO firms provide helpful, legitimate services for website owners including writing copy, code optimization, developing search engine friendly architecture and navigation, managing link strategies and relationships, and so forth. The biggest drawback is that hiring it out is very expensive.

The other big drawback is that some SEO firms have damaged the industry's reputation through unethical tactics, promising more than they can deliver, not disclosing hidden fees up front, and the outright scamming of clients.

Following the tips below won't guarantee you'll hire a reputable SEO company that will meet your satisfaction, but it should greatly tilt the odds in your favor.

What to Watch For When Hiring an SEO Company

Unsolicited Email
Be wary of any SEO firms, consultants, or agencies that send you email out of the blue trying to sell you SEO services. If they are so good at search engine optimizaion, why do they have to resort to spam to get clients? Consider their solicitation as a huge red flag. (Example: At the time of this writing this website is #1 for "safe seo" at Google. I teach do it yourself White Hat SEO, they should be able to compete with little ol' me, so if they have to spam, it's a bad sign.)
Guaranteed Ranking
Many times the "guaranteed" rankings are for such obscure keywords that there is no competition because no one searches for them. It's pretty hard to guarantee rankings because the search engines control the serps (search engine results pages), and the criteria that determine site rankings are closely guarded secrets.
Priority Submissions
Some offer 'priority' submissions at Google, the most important search engine, and they may guarantee instant or near instant inclusion. There is no such thing as priority submissions at Google, and Google spells that out clearly on their site. The only way to get instant inclusion is to buy advertising. See the next entry for more on that. If you know where to post a link, Google picks it up in a hurry anyway. Submitting a site directly is not the fastest way to get indexed.
Paid Inclusion
Companies that guarantee top rankings or instant inclusion can only achieve that through paid inclusion, in other words, buying ad spots. Buying ad position is not search engine optimization. That is search engine marketing, which is very different from SEO. Often the monthly maintenance fees they charge pay for continued advertising. You can buy advertising on your own without paying extra for someone to manage it for you.
Black Hat Techniques
Be wary if a company won't clearly explain what they will do to optimize your site. Ask for explanations if they are evasive. Say 'thanks, but no thanks' if they propose black hat techniques like doorway pages, scraper sites, hidden text or hidden links, keyword stuffing, throwaway domains, link farms, IP redirection, content duplication, mirror sites, and other deceptive practices.
Purchasing Live or Expired Domains
Companies that suggest buying active domains or expired domains for sole purpose of search engine ranking (old domains are easier to rank than new domains) are either deceiving your or ignorant to the fact that many, if not most, search engines 'reset' the domain age if ownership changed hands.
Thousands of Search Engines
Companies that promise submission to thousands of search engines are blowing smoke in your face. There are only a handful of important general purpose search engines. These few will deliver 95+ percent of your search engine traffic.

There are many other search engines, but the 'thousands' figure is arrived at by including FFA (free for all) link pages. FFA pages will do nothing positive for you, unless you like spam. Additionally, you should never have to link your site to the SEO site, which some push at you.

Address Bar Searching
Some SEO firms will try to sell you on 'address bar' searching. In other words, you can have your site turn up in search results for people that type keywords directly into their address bar. What they may not tell you is this requires the searcher to have special software installed.

Relatively few people have or want the special software. If they do reveal special software is required, they'll also cite how many users have downloaded the software. That doesn't mean that's how many people use it, it just means they downloaded it. Many of those who download it won't install it (don't you have software you've downloaded but never installed? I do.). Many who do install it end up uninstalling it or rarely, if ever, use it. A positive return on this investment is unlikely.

Quality Keywords
If they promise to get your site ranked for X number of keywords, find out what those keywords and keyword phrases are. Many who guarantee placement for a specific number of keywords do so because they know they can find a few highly obscure keywords or keyword phrases that you'd have gotten a top listing for anyway. Ensure the keywords they guarantee are quality keywords that a decent number of searchers actually use. It does no good to rank #1 for search terms that are not used.
Check Their Rankings
If a SEO company is good at their craft, one can reasonably expect to find their own web site listed on the first page or two of search results for at least one keyword phrase like search engine optimization, SEO services or another similar phrase. If their site is nowhere to be seen, maybe they don't know as much as they'd like you to believe.

Note: If their web site has another focus in addition to search engine optimization it would be hard for them to rank on the first page or two. To rank highly for extremely competitive search terms usually requires a site to be dedicated to one purpose, so you may want to take that into consideration.

Seek Legal Protection
Be sure you have a contract in writing that includes the full pricing breakdown of all services to be performed. The contract should require them to stay within the each search engine's guidelines. Get any promises in writing, and don't be afraid to ask for a refund if they don't live up to them. The courts have slapped some SEO firms pretty hard in recent years, but you'll need a contract if you have to take them to court.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. If they dance around your questions or use complex terms and theories you don't understand, ask them to explain themselves in laymans terms.

If they cite trade secrets tell them you won't hire them without knowing what you're be paying for. They should be able to explain their overriding philosophies and practices without divulging any secrets. If they can't explain it to you, look elsewhere.

Questions to Ask

It's your site, you are ultimately responsible for anything they do on your behalf. Their 'trade secrets' may be nothing more than tactics the search engines disapprove of, but they know better than to reveal the use of black hat techniques that may provide short term results that end in long-term problems. Here are some questions you'd be wise to ask:
  1. What methods do you use to acheive rankings? Here is a partial list the answers you should receive:

    Site Analysis, Server Setup, Directory Tuning, Page Tuning, File Name Tuning, Keyword Research, Content Optimization, Site Structure and Navigation Optimization, CSS Optimization, Site Map Creation, Internal and External Link Management, Testing, Minimizing Detractive Content, Dynamic URL Conversion, Manual Site Submission, Competition Analysis

  2. Are there any risks with search engine inclusion or ranking penalization that may result from the methods you use?
  3. Have you ever had any sites banned from search engines?
  4. Do you differentiate between organic rankings and paid listings?
  5. Can I update my own web site or do I have to run updates through you?
  6. Can you give me at least 5 references and show examples of web sites you've worked on?
  7. What are your top three achievements in search engine optimization?
  8. What is your client's average return on their investment?
  9. What are the upfront fees and ongoing fees? Are there any hidden fees? What do the monthly maintenance fees go for?
  10. How much of an increase in traffic can I expect in 3 months ...6 months ...and 1 year out?
  11. What do I have to provide for you to do your work most effectively?
  12. What happens if I end our working relationship?

Warning Signs

Call them warning signs or red flags, if the company you're thinking of hiring is doing or suggesting any of the following, you may want to think twice.
  • They use shadow domains, mirror sites, scraper sites, throw away domains, IP redirects, cloaking, private blog networks, or other 'black hat' techniques.
  • They require links to their other clients sites or their own site from yours. If they require it from you, they are probably requiring it from other clients. Duplicating link pages across multiple domains is a type of link farm, and these are highly penalized by the search engines.
  • They recommend building multiple web sites as a linking tool. This old tactic hasn't been effective for years. It's OK to link your sites together, of course, but as a strategy to build PageRank it's mostly a non-factor.
  • They recommend building multiple web sites because it's easier to optimize different sites for different search engines. Building multiple sites for different topics is one thing, building multiple sites for different search engines is a stratetgy to run up your expenses. This ranks ranks very well on lots of search engines for lots of keywords.
  • If they consider paid listings part of search engine optimization they are not well-versed in the search engine industry lingo. If they are not well-versed in the lingo, there's a good chance they are not well schooled in site optimization.
  • If they've ever had domains removed from search engines, use aliases, or use falsified or hidden WHOIS information, there is probably a good reason they are hiding their true identity—but it won't be good for you.
  • If they promise a high number of links to your site in a very short time, chances are they're using link farms, scumware, spyware, or FFA pages. Run far and run fast. Your reputation will be ruined before you've had a chance to build it.
  • If you are in a highly competitive field and the SEO company claims they can get you great rankings in 60 days or less, they're either saying what they think will win your business or they don't know what they're talking about. Either way ends in disappointment for you.

    An honest and knowledgeable SEO company will give you realistic expectations. Good results usually take many months, and depending on the level of competition involved, it could take a few years. Search engine optimization is not instant gratification. If you have a new site this is even more true.

About the Money

You need to understand exactly where your money goes. Having your site placed in advertised results is not the same as ranking well for organic (natural) results. If that's what an SEO firm is proposing, look for an SEM firm if that's what you want, because paid placement is not search engine optimization. If it's optimization you want, don't entrust that to someone who doesn't know the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing.

And speaking of the money, the costs are prohibitive for most small businesses. It can take over well over $1,000 to get started and hundreds per month to keep it going—and I've seen prices more than 10 times that! That makes my White Hat SEO do-it-yourself course a great bargain. You CAN do it yourself, or have an employee or family member do it, you just need to know what to do. White Hat SEO explains it in great detail.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, it takes time to build a good reputation and good ranking. That's why it's so important to get started now, it's not going to get any easier.

If you hire search engine optimization, do your homework. As the number of SEO companies and consultants have increased, so have the negative experiences, and the lawsuits over the bad experiences and lack of results.

SEO Tip In the US, the Federal Trade Commission handles complaints about deceptive business practices. To file a complaint online about an SEO service or any other deceptive business practice, visit the FTC web site and click the File a Complaint Online link.

To file a complaint by phone call 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also write to them at:

Federal Trade Commission
Washington, D.C. 20580

If your complaint is against a company outside of the United States, file a complaint at:

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