How to Pick an SEO Firm

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If you're looking for an SEO firm, we recommend that you weigh 10 factors that can save you trouble down the road.

1. Check out their experience.

You shouldn't have to try hard to find samples of their clients or their SEO performance on individual websites. How competitive are their search terms that are ranking well on Google? Are the search terms that are ranking well difficult terms to position--one, two and three word phrases, or are they easy terms to position because no one else is using them at all--six, seven and eight word terms?

2. Ask for testimonial letters.

Insist on letterheads from the clients that feature real names, not Fred from Cleveland or J.T. from New York. Call these references and ask them questions about the SEO performance of the company you are considering.

3. Ask them to document their process.

What policies and procedures do they follow? Are they consistent? Do they stay away from unethical procedures that could put your site in jeopardy with the search engines?

4. Get staff credentials.

Find out who is doing the work. You really need a team of people - no one person can be proficient in every area of server administration, programming, marketing, writing, link building and more. Get to know the team a bit.

5. Be suspicious of money back guarantees.

Unless it's super-clear, you have to wonder about the details of the guarantee. If a firm offers one, including Top 10 placement, ask them to elaborate. Which key words are included? Just one Top 10? Do they plan to achieve Top 10 rankings among natural results or pay-per-click? Are the Top 10 listings associated with your web site or a supplemental web site the SEO firm controls?

6. Get pricing information.

Is the SEO contract for hourly, monthly or annual services? Get prices from a few other firms as well, but be aware that the scope of services may vary greatly from firm to firm. Insist that the firm you're interested in explain why it charges more for services, if that's the case.

7. Ask about reporting. How many keywords will the firm handle? How many pages?

Find out whether you'll be able to access the latest data about your project. How often is it provided? What's included? Some firms just send a ranking report. What other details can you expect in terms of the overall strategy, next steps, web site traffic and conversions?

8. Determine the firm's ethical standards.

What are the firm's practices when it comes to ethical standards and practices? How far will they go? How do they view doorway pages, cloaking and keyword stuffing?

9. Know your objectives.

You need to have some idea of what you want to accomplish when selecting an SEO firm. Do you simply want to promote your brand? Do you want to increase visitors and push traffic to retailers? Do you want to improve online sales? Which categories of products will matter the most in your campaign?

10. Come up with a budget.

You can submit your web site pages (not optimized) for free or through services that cost well below $100. Optimizing is another matter--It's going to cost money. Have some flexibility--the level of service and the firm's expertise will determine whether you pay hundreds of dollars or well over a $1,000 a month.

Michael Murray is vice president of Fathom SEO, a Cleveland, Ohio-based search engine marketing (SEM) firm. A member of Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), he also authored the white paper, "Search Engine Marketing: Get in the Game."

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