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Online search results have lately been a hot topic among many in the small business community -- between predicting the impact of Microsoft's Bing (and the software giant's deal to gang up on Google with Yahoo!) and the recent unveiling of Google Caffeine, search engine optimization (SEO) experts have their work cut out for them. When it comes to online search marketing, there are two dominant schools of thought: the do-it-yourself proponents, who maintain that decent search engine rankings can be achieved by anyone given a little hard work; and the "outsource it" crowd, who prefer handing the reins to a professional SEO consultant or online marketing service.
While both are viable options, some in the DIY camp hold to their opinion because of the bad rap many online marketing companies have managed to garner: One now-defunct SEO company received 82 complaints with the Washington Attorney General's Office alone before it was forced to close. Search engine marketing companies have been the subject of various lawsuits, Federal Trade Commission investigations, and Better Business Bureau complaints. This doesn't mean using a third party online marketing firm is necessarily a bad idea, though, it just means that you need to be smart about who you choose to work with. Here's a quick rundown of what you need to know before hiring an SEO firm.
What Does An SEO Company Do? SEO companies employ techniques designed to boost your Web site's ranking on search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc.). Unlike pay per click services, many SEO offerings can't be tracked in terms of exact ROI -- many techniques are used together to drive overall Web traffic. Most SEO companies provide some or all of the following services:
- Web site and Server Audit - Most SEO firms start here, making sure that search engines are able to properly index your site. This can include making changes to your site map and other revisions.
- Manual Submission - SEO companies regularly submit your site to search engines for indexing. Note that some in the SEO community feel this process isn't strictly necessary.
- Link Building - Links from other sites that "point to" your site are a valuable part of any SEO effort.
- Keyword Research - What search queries are your target customers entering? What words (if any) do your competitors have a stronghold on? Keyword research is both a science and an art -- most SEO companies use proprietary software programs to help them determine which popular keywords are worth "targeting" and then work with you to incorporate those terms into your site's text and external links.
- Content Writing - The firms will help you create new or revised site content based on keyword research.
- Tracking and Maintenance - Search engine ranking is only temporary. The relevant keywords can change and the search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms. That means maintaining a high ranking requires monitoring and ongoing effort.
Of course, specific companies will provide additional services or specialize in a particular area. But a basic SEO contract should address most of the services above.