Last month, I went over questions that you should ask your potential search engine optimization company regarding its tactics. That set of questions is critical, as before moving forward with any of the myriad of search engine optimization companies out there, you should always determine whether or not they will put your site at risk of penalization in the major search engines (leaving your website worse off than when your campaign started).
However, many people researching search engine optimization companies are unaware that potential penalization is even an issue – they are primarily interested in the results that the search engine optimization company can achieve. This installment of the three-part series will focus on questions to determine the competence of any search engine optimization company that you are considering. To find out whether any particular company is worthy of your trust in terms of results, consider asking the following:
“Do you require that I make changes to my website content?”
Any search engine optimization companies that answer “no” to this question are either using shady tactics or are only scratching the surface of true search engine optimization. Certainly, there are some elements that can be changed on a website that are largely transparent to the user, including title tags, meta tags, and alt tags. While making changes to these elements can create a boost in rankings, it will not give you the search engine dominance over your competitors that you desire. Remember, search engines are interested in matching content (what appears on your web pages) with search queries (the phrases that people are typing into search engines).
The problem with a search engine optimization company only manipulating the largely unseen elements is that search engines recognize that these elements are determined by the owner of the website and may not actually reflect the real content that appears on the pages. In order to perform well across the most popular engines, you must make certain that your search engine optimization company accurately addresses popular search queries within your pages. And this almost always requires changes to your content.
“Will you be adding additional pages to my website?”
If a search engine optimization company answers “no” to this question but answers “yes” to the question above, it likely means that it will be employing what I call the “shoehorn” approach to optimization. This means that the firm will try to shoehorn keyphrases into existing pages on your website, rather than expanding your website to include new content.
The trouble with this approach is that your existing pages are unlikely to directly address the search query. When search engine optimization companies shoehorn in keyphrases, they may achieve high rankings for you, but you probably won’t have many long-term visitors. For example, assume that your company makes widgets and you have an “about us” page on your site that gives a brief history of your company, as well as contact information and driving directions. If your search engine optimization company optimizes this page for “custom widget pricing,” and you subsequently achieve high rankings for the phrase, it does not necessarily mean that you will see much benefit. One can deduce from the query that people are looking for actual pricing information, not information on where your company is located or when it was founded. Another web page that directly addresses their search query is just a click of the back button away.
Adding new, informational pages to your website is a standard approach for the inclusion of quality search engine optimization phrases. Think of it this way – your search engine optimization company should not be thinking, “Where can we shoehorn this phrase in?” Search engine optimization companies should instead always be thinking, “How can we best address this query with a new page?” The difference in results can be dramatic.
“What will you be doing besides working on my site directly?”
If a prospective search engine optimization company tells you that it will only be making changes to your site itself, this means that it will not be spending any time working on your site’s link popularity. Link popularity plays a tremendous role in determining rankings in every major search engine. Simply put, sites that have a good number of quality and relevant incoming links are held in a higher regard than sites that do not. This is because a link from another site is considered a “vote” for your site – but all votes are not equal.
Quality search engine optimization companies will spend a great deal of time looking for industry-specific directories and portals where a link to your site can be added. They will also review all of your existing incoming links and make certain that the website owner has configured them in such a way as to give your site the highest chance for high search engine rankings.
“Will you be adding additional pages and targeting additional keyphrases over time?”
This is a very important question. Even search engine optimization companies that have a reputation for providing quality initial results can fall short on this, but it is one of the most important aspects involved in improving your optimization results over time.
When your campaign is kicked off, your search engine optimization company will target an initial list of phrases. Although good search engine optimization companies will rely on readily available software to determine which phrases are being searched on most often, and common sense to determine which of those phrases will bring buyers and not “tire-kickers,” it is in all honesty an educated guess.
Forward-looking search engine optimization companies treat the initial keyphrases as the “testing” phase of the campaign. They track these individual phrases and find which ones are working (bringing in the people that actually buy something or take the point of action on your site that leads to a sale). Armed with this knowledge, such search engine optimization companies will regularly expand your campaign to include phrases similar to the ones that are working the best. Without such expansions based on real data, you are merely relying on the best educated guesses from the initial campaign, and not the hard data that comes from true metrics as the campaign progresses.
“Can you give me references and case studies?”
This one seems obvious, but there are search engine optimization companies out there who claim that their clients all wish to remain anonymous, so that it is impossible to provide any specifics. This is usually a smokescreen designed to defer proof of concept. Certainly, there are businesses that hire a search engine optimization company that wish to keep it a secret, but these are generally in the minority. Forward-thinking companies generally enjoy showing off their success stories, so you should insist on seeing some real (not anonymous) case studies and talking with some references.
When dealing with references, find out how long they have been working with the search engine optimization company. If all references are less than a year old, it may mean that the company has been unable to demonstrate value over the long term, which is certainly something to consider. After all, long-term value is what you should be trying to achieve from a search engine optimization company, and search engine optimization is not a one-time endeavor.
Armed with these questions, you should be able to determine whether a certain search engine optimization company is worthy of both your time and your marketing money, or whether you instead will wind up with empty pockets and a useless site. Remember, high rankings don’t always mean good leads, and great keyphrases are not helpful unless they are used properly on your site.
In the third and final part of this series, I will discuss the assurances that search engine optimization companies offer – or fail to offer – from guarantees to exclusivity agreements.
Scott Buresh is the CEO of Medium Blue, a search engine optimization company. Scott has contributed content to many publications including Building Your Business with Google For Dummies (Wiley, 2004), MarketingProfs, ZDNet, WebProNews, Lockergnome, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, ISEDB.com, and Search Engine Guide. Medium Blue, which was recently named the number one search engine optimization company in the world by PromotionWorld, serves local and national clients, including Boston Scientific, Cirronet, and DS Waters. Visit MediumBlue.com to request a custom SEO guarantee based on your goals and your data.
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