As a small business owner with a Website, you know that one of the most important things you can do is get your Website ranked high on the search engine results page (SERP).
The value of optimizing your Website (known as search engine optimization or SEO) to please the search engines -- most often Google, but also MSN, Yahoo, and Ask -- is evident. Their web crawlers are going to make their way through your site and then decide how high up on their SERPs to list you.
Who Do You Call?
How to achieve that high ranking? You've learned all about keywords, link building, and unique page titles. You know what it is you need to do. The question is how do you do it? Or more specifically, do you go it alone or call in the hired guns?
"The right answer is somewhere in between," said Gord Hotchkiss, CEO and president of Enquiro, a search marketing agency, and the chairperson of SEMPO, a non-profit organization serving the search engine marketing industry. "[It depends] on what you have the resources to handle internally and what you have to outsource. It's about getting knowledge and insights."
According to Hotchkiss, outsourcing every aspect of search engine optimization would mean, because of the all-inclusive nature involved in optimizing a Website for search engine rankings, giving up complete control of your Website, something most small business owners would, and should, be unwilling to do. "It needs to be a partnership," he said. "You don't want to lose control."
But Hotchkiss believes that within that partnership, SEO consultants can bring some good value to the small business owner. "Any consultant will have a good understanding of search engines and algorithms," he said. "There is a learning curve that is fairly steep."
SEO Requires Time
Indeed Google's continuous changes in its algorithms keep small business owners like Matt Mavir, managing director of the Website, Last Night of Freedom, a 10-employee company that puts together bachelor party weekends, busy with search engine optimization for nearly a third of his working hours. Mavir has kept his SEO work in-house since he founded the business eight years ago -- search engine results account for nearly 90 percent of his business -- but he said that businesses in very competitive fields should take on SEO consultants "because it can really take some doing."
"It's a constant battleground," he added. "I constantly have to be on top of this."
Time, Expertise, and Perspective
Aaron Rubin, who founded and runs S&A Industries, a 23-employee company with six Websites, also does all his SEO work in-house. He said he spends about 20 percent of his work time on SEO and that search engine rankings is a very important part of his business. "It's how we generate sales."
He doesn't see a benefit to hiring an SEO consultant. "There are some good firms out there," he said. "Most are not going to make a significant difference to your business. "They will change tags, change filters and factors, like page titles and keywords, on the page, and it will help to a small degree."
Danny Sullivan,editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, and a Web consultant, agrees that small business owners don't need to hire an SEO consultant, but only if they are willing to do it on their own. "Many people can and do learn the basics of SEO and do well with just that," he said. "But many people find it easier to find outside help, just as they might want outside help to write press releases or do other types of marketing. And combos work, too."
It's up to you to figure out how much time and money you want, or need, to invest in pleasing the search engines. According to Rebecca Lieb, editor in chief of the Click Z Network, which covers the Internet marketing industry and runs Search Engine Watch, hiring an SEO consultant depends on how much business is coming from your Website now and how much is potentially coming. "Look at the ROI," she said. "Getting the site designed for business is ongoing, search engines change their algorithms constantly. You need to continually keep an eye on it. [An SEO consultant] can pay for itself or you can be self educated. The question is do you want to? And do you have the time for it?"
Meg Geddes is president of Michigan Integrated Solutions, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Web design and hosting company. She said that for her clients, the main benefits of her service are the "knowledge differential" and their lack of time.
"Most of them don't have time to update or provide fresh content for their own Websites, let alone keep up with the vagaries of Google, Yahoo, and MSN search algorithms and results," she added. "In my case, I try to get very close to the business and understand how it works, so that I can be sure to suggest the most relevant search phrases -- I've had to clean up after several SEO companies who didn't really understand the businesses they were working for, and were optimizing for irrelevant or non-key search phrases."
Hotchkiss also believes that a consultant brings the benefit of a third-party perspective, especially to the small business owner who can have a hard time viewing their businesses dispassionately.
"Consultancies have a good understanding of how people use search," said Hotchkiss. "Small business owners sometimes have a hard time stepping back and understanding how people do that. They can get caught up in wording etc., but a third party is not too internally focused and myopic."
A Relationship That Really Matters
One home-based small business owner based in the Northeast said that he used the advice of an SEO consultant. "He did give me great advice which I followed, and it was a success," he said. "Too often people get advice and then don't act on it."
A relationship with an SEO consultant can be tricky, especially for the small business owner who is so intimately involved in every aspect of their business, but the nature of the liaison is key to the effectiveness of the SEO. First and foremost, according to Hotchkiss, the small business owner needs to be convinced that [SEO] matters.
"You need input to do SEO," he said. "It involves content, how the site is built out, every aspect of your business has to be considered," he added. "It's a more in-depth partnership, but it's easier for the small business owner to establish that partnership if the owner is convinced that this is worth it, that [the SEO consultant] can make it happen."
Finding that SEO consultant that can in fact make "it" happen is more complicated than the numerous pop-up ads and cold calls you are probably getting would have you believe. In fact, according to nearly every SEO expert, if an SEO makes you any guarantees -- and there are many, many companies out there that will -- you should run quickly in the other direction.
How to Find Your SEO Mate
"If it sounds too good to be true, it is," said Hotchkiss. "We would all love to have guarantees but no one has that influence over what Google shows as number one. If you are looking for an ironclad guarantee, you will be working with someone you don't want to be dealing with. A guarantee is a red flag."
Lieb agrees. "Look out for ridiculous promises," she said. "A good optimizer won't promise anything because nobody can do that," she added.
Also, promises can lead to "black-hat practices" like keyword stuffing and link farming which can get a site banned from search engines. Once that happens, it's very hard to get back in.
"There are a lot of crooked SEO consultants and a lot of popular scams," said Elizabeth Osmeloski, current editor of Search Engine Watch. Search engines, she noted, are swarming with ads for SEO deals to get you quickly listed in search engines. "They will be unworthy," said Osmeloski. "There are no fast solutions. "
One scam that usually accompanies the promises is buying pay per click ads to position your company in the number one spot on a search engine results page. Any small business owner can do that on their own, not to mention the costs involved in buying that spot.
Osmeloski also warns against using any consultant who wants to sell you a service that requires you to download a toolbar. These companies are often getting you a top spot but your exposure is only limited to Web users with that toolbar.
"Anyone who cold calls you, you should be wary of," said Osmeloski. "Most legitimate [SEO consultants] are busy."
Because of the ongoing "wild west" aspect of SEO, Osmeloski stresses the need for referrals when choosing a consultant. She recommends SEOConsultants as a starting point but also recommends that the small business owner get educated about SEO, enough to enable them to "learn which pieces they can manage and which to outsource."
Another way to detect a rotten egg? "If you are talking to a vendor and if you are spending more time listening than talking, that's a red flag," said Hotchkiss. "If it feels like you are being sold too hard, red flag."
Hotchkiss said that a potential consultant should be asking a lot of questions about your business.
Finding an SEO consultant that has worked in your business' specialty before is also important. And at the very least, it would behoove the small business owner with a Webmaster to ensure that he or she is well-versed in SEO practices.
Lastly, is some good, old fashioned, pre-search engine advice. "You need to get a sense if this is a company you can work with long-term," said Hotchkiss. "This is truly a partnership so the fit has to be comfortable."
- Naomi Grossman, Assistant Editor, Small Biz Resource. You can write to her here.
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