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Business owners I meet daily seem to have no idea about what SEO really is. To most it’s a buzz word they latch onto that describes something they don’t really understand. Something search enginey. A dark art, that will make their website spring up to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs)…

If you can identify with anything I’ve just said please read the rest of this article and hopefully I will be able to give you some quick insights into what SEO actually is nowadays, who you should hire, who you definitely should not hire and why SEO in 2013 is a completely different animal to SEO in 2010.

Caution: Hiring a Search Engine Optimiser who doesn’t know what he is doing can have a seriously detrimental effect to your company’s performance online, not to mention cost you money. In some cases it’s possible that executed incorrectly an SEO “professional” could get your website de-listed from Google’s index (sandboxed), which would mean that even people searching for your brand name, wouldn’t be able to find you on Google. For all intents and purposes were this to happen your website would largely be un-findable!

Good, Cheap & Quick!

I was contacted through LinkedIn by one of my connections and asked if I could recommend a good, trustworthy and affordable SEO consultant. The person asking was looking for a name, but I couldn’t answer it with just a name because what he was asking for doesn’t exist in my view.

“SEO” is not a magic wand. For the sake of brevity let’s call a spade a spade. When this contact of mine said “Good & Trustworthy” what he really meant was Effective. When he said affordable, what he really meant was “Cheap”.

Effective & cheap do not co-exist when it comes to SEO nowadays and its for a simple reason: effective SEO in 2013 will require a lot of work, taking lots of hours by somebody who has spent a lot of time studying and improving their craft. Good search engine optimisers are people who need to read a lot every day to keep up to date with what is happening technically with the search engines, particularly the big G.

Good SEO consultants sell their time (which is limited) for a price and good SEO consultants are a relatively rare breed.  It’s simple supply & demand: there is a limited supply because of how long it takes to do jobs and how specialised the talent is, and there is a big demand to be on the first page of Google’s SERPs.

What is SEO?

The first thing you need to understand is what SEO actually is, because it seems that almost no business owners I meet actually understand what SEO is today. SEO is not about building massive volumes of links back to your website with any automation tool you can get your hands on.

Effective SEO that will result in sustainable growth for your website is about creating lots of great content – some of it on your own blog and other content elsewhere on the web. SEO is also about tweaking your website based on analytical data to return greater bottom line results. This can be in the form of highly optimised landing pages, product pages and even blog posts. SEO is not a quick fix solution, it will take time and effort. Some of this effort is potentially possible by your own team in house. Other parts of the job would be best completed by a professional.

How is that different from 2 years ago?

It’s useful to understand how things used to work so that there is context that helps understand how SEO now works.  This section might help you weed out the SEO’s who will be bad for your business were you to hire them.

  • Back-links used to be the Holy Grail of SEO – the largest single ranking factor that an SEO consultant could use to influence a websites search placement. Any link was a good link but some links carried more “link juice” (ranking power) than others.This is still somewhat true today however now due to the penguin and panda updates from Google, a lot of tactics SEO companies used to use to get links are no longer effective.  Automated tools that created massive numbers of links on free directories and article sites can potentially harm your website’s placement nowadays.
  • A widely used link building tactic called Link Wheel no longer works as Google can likely spot patterns of links now.
  • Link farms and a lot of the blog networks have become ineffective.
  • Google have introduced quality controls for content, particularly in the area of duplicate content.
  • Google have introduced (and will continue to strengthen) social ranking factors. Social media matters more than ever and I believe this will increase even more over time.
  • Google are continually improving on ranking factors such as geographical targeting (this will be even more important as mobile device Internet use overtakes desktop internet use).
  • The line that divided Black Hat SEO from White Hat SEO has moved dramatically. Things that used to be considered White Hat, Google have now decided are Black Hat. They’ve signalled this in a number of ways with Penguin and Panda.

How to choose an SEO company

For me SEO companies fall broadly into two categories: those who provide Inbound Marketing services and those who provide Link Building services. The latter are still broadly doing the same things, and are focused on creating a large volume of links. This has become a lot more difficult for these companies since Penguin

This may still be effective today if you hire one of the best companies in this niche. However it’s my belief that over the next year or so link building as a standalone activity will become obsolete.

Inbound Marketing takes a broader view of digital marketing & SEO, where link building is only one part of the overall mix. Social Media, Blogging, Email Marketing are all equally important parts of the overall marketing strategy.

One element you should not initially use to determine who to choose is price. I appreciate every business has a budget they need to adhere to but using price as your primary decision making criteria would be a mistake.

I’d advise starting out by taking a look at a potential agency/contractors authority on the subject. If they have a blog, read some of their posts to determine if they seem competent. How active are they in the SEO/digital community? Check to see if they have any case studies in their portfolio section. Research your prospective provider to see if you feel they are up to the job.

Check their local places listing on Google+ for testimonials and reviews. Speak to the provider about coming up with a solution that enhances what you already do in house, as opposed to just trying to fit you as the customer into one of their service “packages”.

When you have a short list of a few agencies, that you feel are up to the task, then look for pricing but bear in mind that when you are buying someone’s time, you get what you pay for.

Are you currently using SEO services? Are you happy with the results?