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April 5, 2007

SEO Companies are Like Sextuplets

10+ tips to help with RFPs and picking the right search partner.

Hiring an SEO company these days is like being a judge in a beauty pageant where the final participants are sextuplets. Everything on the surface looks the exact same. Same goes with SEOs – you won’t know if one company can get you a top 10 for a competitive term until you get to work with them for a while.

I have received NUMEROUS RFPs lately and as I read them I can tell that the people writing them spend some MAJOR time assembling them. I almost feel bad for them, as you can just tell that they really spent time trying to ask just the right questions, only to get back responses that must sound so similar.

These are some typical questions we see in RFPs:

  • How many people are in your firm?
  • Give examples of terms you have optimized for.
  • Provide references of previous clients.
  • What is your process?
  • How do you bill for services?
  • Do you offer guarantees?

While most of these questions don’t matter much, let’s break down a few.

How many people? The SEO firms that I think are the best are smaller. If I couldn’t do SEO anymore and I had to ask someone to do it for me, I could name three or four smaller shops, each with under 10 people on staff (I think). I would at least ask these firms for a reference. I wouldn’t go to iProspect, iCrossing, 360i, or any of the other big I’s. It’s nothing against them, but I think I would get better service and more passion from the smaller shops.

Terms, Rankings and References
These questions can be a big farce. Any SEO can get a good ranking for SOME term. The questions should revolve around what the RIGHT terms are. The right ones lead to ROI.

There are other factors to think about as well. If a term is TOO competitive for an entry level or mid level SEO, are they going to target it for you, knowing that they may only get in the 40’s or 50’s? How much patience do you have while they keep trying to get you up there? Are you willing to wait 6, 9, 12, 18, 24 months? Or will they not include overly competitive terms just so they can point to the success of only getting rankings for really easy terms?
References – We’ve all got some. Most of them will say good things about us. It is worth calling references to do your due diligence, but we all have a few good ones. It might be wise to ask for several.
Guarantees – Oh the Catch 22! We sometimes offer certain guarantees only because we don’t want people’s money if we can’t produce tangible ROI. But sometimes the ROI is out of our hands.
What if your product stinks, your prices are too high, or your site doesn’t connect with customers?
Many guarantees are about rankings (i.e. Guaranteed to have a top 10 in 2 months) Does that guarantee cover terms that are going to drive traffic, sales and leads? When looking at SEO firms, make sure a guarantee connects with how you will be judged by your managers, and it may not just be rankings.
At the end of the day, when hiring an SEO company you have a group of people all saying basically the same things, all of which probably sound like the adults in Charlie Brown’s life… Wah, Wah, Wah!!!
So what are you to do? You need a SEO now you are having a hard time picking!
Most companies are behind square one when it comes to differentiating between SEO vendors. They all look the same and say the same things. What SEO Company is going to answer an RFP without positive references and some rankings to show? What about those guarantees?
So you need to be pretty savvy to pick the right company to employ. Don’t fall glitz and glamour alone. Here are 5 quick tips:
1) If they have rankings for web sites where the keyword is in the domain, then don’t be so impressed with rankings. Domain names can be powerful SEO tools so a Top10 under the same keywords as found in the domain might not be indicative of a well earned placement.

2) Use Keyword Discovery, Wordtracker, Google AdWords Sandbox, and the Overture Keyword Suggestion Tool (when it is working) to see if the keywords associated with rankings they tout for themselves or previous clients actually get good search volume. You can check the competitiveness of keywords using the keyword difficulty tool at SEOmoz.

3) Look at the web site they optimized, is it butchered to achieve those high rankings or does it still read well and connect with users? Getting a first place ranking for a term, but butchering a site to do it is the desired result for the SEO, and certainly not your desired outcome.

4) Get an idea if they know how much traffic, leads and/or sales result from their rankings.

5) Talk to representatives from each SEO firm on the phone or in person to get a better sense of who they are as people and what their firm’s ethical stances might be.

6) GO WITH YOUR GUT! If your stomach gauge says something is wrong, it probably is. There are plenty of other SEO firms working the Internet.
Where does this leave you, the person needing to select a SEO company?
To be honest, most people don’t have the background knowledge to properly judge a search marketing firm. There are too many factors and usually a wide information gap. Ultimately it comes down to gut…while we don’t mean the sappy “You complete me” gut feeling, there must be a “Vibe” with the SEO. They have to have a good sense about what kind of business you operate, your business model, and your revenue model. The SEO firm you select should consider itself your representative.
Here are a few things to consider while talking with a SEO firms.
• Do they seem to be fair people who won’t hold you to contracts if things don’t work out well?

• Do they have a passion for the job?

• Do they analyze impact down to page views, leads, sales, etc?

• Are they so big that getting anything done is going to be painful and require a contract review every time by layers of management?

• Will delays on their end affect your business?

• Are they so small that you can’t get things done if certain people aren’t in the office to take a call?
None of these questions are standard RFP questions, and most of them you’ll only find out after working with a company for a while.
6 Ways to protect yourself from a bad SEO:

The tough part is that you won’t know who’s good and who’s not until after 6 months or so. 6 months is a long time to wait just to find out that you’ve made the wrong decision. Here are some tips:

• Google them, see what others are saying about them

• Check other sources as well such as Technorati, Digg, or any of the search engine forums

• Do they make some buzz in the industry? The SEO industry is a fairly tight group. Most good SEOs are known by others. Does the firm in question make a LOT of buzz, very little buzz, or none at all?

• Put some kind of mutually agreed upon milestones in place so that you have recourse if things aren’t working as planned to re-evaluate the relationship. A good SEO won’t hold you hostage if things aren’t working as planned. Six months is a good basic milestone.

• See if they are willing to put a little flesh in the game, putting their money where their mouth is. Some SEOs will work solely on commission, getting paid only for top placements. (please note, these SEOs tend to charge a great deal for their services)

• Give an SEO an uncompetitive term that gets little search volume (use one of the tools above), and see if they are honest enough to come back and say, “There just isn’t enough search volume to warrant a full scale SEO campaign.” If someone comes back with a quote for a poorly performing keyword or term, be wary.

• SEO is definitely a diminishing returns kind of business so many jobs won’t need an ongoing retainer or maintenance after the initial contract term has expired. If it does make sure you have critical key metrics in place to ensure ROI for you is still there.

Author:  Over the past 8+ years, Wil Reynolds has dedicated himself to doing two things well: driving traffic to sites from search engines and analyzing the impact that traffic has on the bottom line of companies. Wil’s career began at a web marketing agency in 1999, where he spearheaded the SEO strategies for companies like Barnes & Noble, Disney, Harman Kardon, Debeers, Doubleclick, Hotjobs, and Mercedes Benz USA (to name a few). Today, Wil and his team of SEO Consultants at SEER Interactive, assist clients in maximizing their visibility and sales using search engines.