When small businesses begin to recognize the incredible value of web marketing, the next major challenge is to find and agency to actually do the work. And it is a challenge. Several hundred web searches are performed every day for “ethical SEO.” My guess would be that most of these are by people who have used or heard about others using “unethical SEO’s.” Since it is an unregulated industry, many companies dabble in search optimization without recognizing its depth and complexity. It becomes an ethical issue when poorly executed SEO starts negatively affecting clients. Here are some ways that can happen:
So, let’s say that you decide to hire Acme SEO agency because they promise quick results. They work on the site and deliver! You watch your web site climb higher and higher in the rankings for the keyword. Suddenly, one day your site drops to the second search results page or disappears entirely from the search engine results pages. Your online sales plummet. What happened?
There are two kinds of SEO: “white hat SEO” and “black hat SEO.” White hat or “ethical” SEO seeks to make a website better by making it easier for both users and search engines to understand. Search engines appropriately give superior rankings to clear, authoritative websites. Black hat SEO seeks to take a site and make it rank by using shady, though not (usually) illegal means to deceive the search engines and impact their ranking calculations. The search engines have become quite adept at identifying black hat techniques and labelling it as spam. As a penalty, the site will drop in ranking or be completely removed from the index.
You decide to hire Acme SEO agency because they guarantee a #1 ranking. They work on the site and deliver! If someone types the exact name of your business into the search engine, you are #1. Of course, your web site doesn’t do nearly as well for your most important keywords and you were probably #1 for your name already anyway. Your online sales never increase. What’s wrong?
Think about this for a minute. An SEO does not have access to the two main factors that control your ranking: the search engine and your competitors. Google does not sell search rankings to the highest bidder. No SEO can call up the search engine and make some kind of deal to get your bakery ranked number one for “chocolate cake.” An SEO guarantee is just a dubious marketing gimmick aimed at driving sales and not a sign of expertise.
I Do That Too!
You have just hired Acme Web Design to code your website. As an afterthought, you ask about SEO. They insist that they’ve got it covered. Not much happens after that. The site goes up. It looks nice. Someone occasionally mentions seeing you on the web. One day you check Google for yourself and find your competitors filling all the top spots. Your site looks great, but ranks #27. What’s going on?
SEO is not something that can be tacked on to a website at the end the design process. Things that can be done afterwards, like filling in meta tags and submitting the site to search engines, are fine and good, but far from adequate. SEO is so fundamental to web design that the ideal site is coded around a structure determined by SEO principles.
How to Choose
Here are a few points to consider when evaluating an SEO that should help you find the one that will lead your business to prominence on the web.
- Spend an hour reading about SEO for yourself.
- Ask for references from clients of the potential agency.
- Understand what the SEO is doing with your money.
- Avoid companies that require you to link to them.
- Understand what they plan on doing to your site.
If you hear any of these phrases, run!
- Guaranteed Ranking
- Special Relationship with Google
- Throwaway Domains
- Doorway Pages
- Free For All Links
- Link Farm
- Priority Submit
- Submit Site to Thousands of Search Engines
- Shadow Domains
- Automated Submission
- Keywords in the Address Bar
For more information on the subject, here’s some suggested reading from some solid resources:
This is a good list of questions to ask an SEO firm from Search Engine Roundtable.
A great, but more technical list of SEO questions was posted at SEOmoz.
Posted by Jim Stowe II