Search engine optimization--the canny use of keywords and other techniques designed to shoot a website to the top of a search--is the make-or-break factor for many new businesses.
It is also the web's unfolding, and unregulated, frontier. There are countless SEO strategists, consultants and self-professed experts who will claim they can beam your site up into Google's top 10 search results--for a price, of course. Consultants commonly charge upward of $200 an hour, and most will pressure you to sign a contract that keeps them on retainer for months--at prices as steep as $12,000 a month. Unscrupulous SEO firms not only make promises they can't keep, the worst of them also use shady practices that might produce no traffic, deliver the wrong traffic or even get you banned from planet Google.
"The SEO business is 80 percent scam," says Peter Kent, an internet marketing strategist and author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies. "It's very, very difficult to find a good firm."
For the startup owner who isn't well versed in webspeak, hiring an SEO consultant is one of the more vulnerable moments in launching a new business. So before shelling out thousands of dollars, it's essential to understand what they do, when you need one (and when you don't), how much you should pay, what you should you expect--and when you should fire them.
First, experts generally agree that SEO firms are most worthwhile at the development stage of a website. For example, for $225 an hour, Kent will take a spin around your site, looking for the elements that will get you to the top of a search--clean URLs, site maps, heading tags, page titles. Ideally, he says, someone like him helps lay a solid, searchable foundation for a site as it's being constructed. Beyond that, Kent and other experts don't see much value in contracting with an SEO firm. "Once you optimize the website and everyone on the team understands what needs to be done, there should be no cost moving forward," he says.
SEO firms that ask for a lump sum payment as well as a monthly retainer--or worse, a long-term contract--are suspect. Yet such deals are common.
Executives at Optimal Fusion, a Los Angeles-based marketing agency, found that out the hard way. The company hired and fired roughly 20 SEO firms in the years after opening its doors in 2005. It paid as much as $12,000 a month for what Optimal president Joel Bess calls, bluntly, "bullshit."
"They weren't getting us ranked anywhere," Bess says. "They would send us reports and say we were ranked. But we were ranked No. 44 [on Google] for the search term 'Internet advertising in America.' When was the last time someone actually searched for the words 'Internet advertising in America?' " Frustration finally led Bess to learn the SEO game for himself. He hired an ex-Google engineer to teach Optimal's team members in a half day what SEO firms said would take at least six months of contracted work to achieve. That not only helped their business, it also gave them expertise to share with clients, which include as-seen-on-TV products such as the Snuggie blanket and Sham Wow, the super-sucking sponge. "If you're trying to rank the word 'Ab Circle Pro,' don't write on the title 'exercising is fun,' " Bess says.