Look Before You Leap – What to Look For and Look Out For When Choosing an SEO/SEM Firm

In the last couple of years, search engine marketing (SEM) has exploded as a viable form of marketing. We are seeing a growing trend of more companies shifting their advertising budgets towards the Internet. Some of that is spent in the form of paid advertising, such as pay per click or pay for inclusion, while some is allocated towards gaining better positioning in the organic or unpaid search results. This process of improving one’s position in the organic search results when certain keywords or phrases are searched for is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short.

This new trend in online marketing has spurned the emergence of numerous companies offering services that help companies turn searchers into customers. It is like the gold rush of ‘49 with firms trying to capitalize on the ever-growing number of businesses looking to find their place on the search engines. However, with the abundance of growth also comes the lack of any standards among SEO companies. While some SEOs strictly abide by search engine guidelines and terms of service, others will push the envelope and incorporate techniques that may accomplish the end result, but put the client at risk of penalization or even banishment by search engines.

As a company looking to hire a SEO firm to improve your web site visibility in the search engines, as well as increase traffic and conversions, what positives do you look for? What negatives do you need to watch out for? We will explore some of the major issues related to this question. First we will reveal some negatives to watch out for and then we’ll look at some positives to look for when choosing a SEO company.

Cold Calling & Email Spam

Everyone has probably received at least one cold call from an “SEO” in recent times. I know I have had my share. In fact, a week doesn’t go by that I don’t get a phone call or an email from some so-called SEO who wants to help me get better positioning in the search engines. With phone calls, I usually listen their line for a minute or two and then I ask them if they have really taken a good look at my site because if they had, they would realize that I am an SEO as well. That usually ends the conversation right there or a plea asking me to outsource work to them. Yeah right!

Is cold calling or sending an unsolicited email a bad thing then? Probably not in and of itself, but the fact is that the majority of top SEO firms that provide spam-free, ethical search engine marketing services do not cold call and do not send out unsolicited spam. They are plenty busy without doing this. Therefore I have to wonder about the ones that do if they are 1.) hard up for work, 2.) brand new at SEO, or 3.) running some kind of scam. Therefore you should be instantly leery when receiving a phone call or email from a so called SEO because the really good ones don’t need to market in this way.

To give you an example, a major spammy SEO that recently had the majority of their clients’ sites banned by Google and Yahoo employs around 200 telemarketers who call people all day long with a slick sales presentation. This has enabled them to acquire thousands of clients and yet their own web site has been banned from Google for some time. They also have bad press about them spread out all over the Internet. There is even a pending class-action lawsuit being formed against them for their shady marketing practices. Despite all this, they continue to cold call and send spam email.

So my advice should you receive a cold call from an “SEO” is to hang up the phone. If you get an unsolicited email, simply delete it. It may or may not be a scam but the odds are in favor that it is.

Unethical SEO Practices – Spam

There is a lot of debate today as to what is spam and what isn’t, what is ethical and what isn’t. Some SEOs define spam as anything you do to affect someone’s ranking on the search engines. I think this is a ridiculous view to take. The reason being is that spam by its very nature is deceptive and intrusive. You have seen it with email. Search engine spam is no different. Therefore to say anything you do to a site to affect rankings is spam is simply ludicrous.

Then what does define spam? It is really pretty simple – anything that is deceptive or intrusive. Here are a few of the more widely known spam practices.

Cloaking – This is the technique of delivering one thing to a search engine and something else to the end user. Some people do this by IP delivery where they identify a search engine spider at the server level and feed it a different page than they would a regular end user. Another method is to use a frameset set to zero and then hide one page within the <noframes> tag and deliver a completely different page to the end user. This is referred to as “poor man’s cloaking”.

Hidden Text – People are getting more sophisticated with ways to hide text. In the old days they would simply make the text too small to read such as using 1 point font or make it the same color as the background. Now that search engines have built in algorithms to combat that, spammers are using cascading style sheets (CSS) to hide text or using <div> tags set to not display text on the page but search engines still index it. Is it wrong to do this if the text you are hiding is relevant to your site? Technically, yes. It is breaking the search engine’s guidelines so that if they want, they can penalize or even ban your site. It doesn’t always happen but many times it does.

Doorway Pages – Many times an “SEO” will want to crank out machine generated doorway pages. They plug a few keywords into a piece of software and the software proceeds to generate pages that solely exist to rank well in the search engines. Sometimes these pages are very ugly, containing paragraph after paragraph or meaningless text while other times they are appealing to the eye. Most the time they are orphaned pages meaning they are not part of your regular navigational structure while other times they are linked with hidden links or incorporated into link farms.

The bottom line is that if you have a site with existing content, you should be able to optimize those pages rather than cranking out hundreds of useless doorway pages. Once optimized, your existing pages will often perform much better than a machine generated doorway page anyway.

One more thing on doorway pages – don’t be fooled by the different names they are called. I have seen them call advertising pages, gateway pages, attraction pages and more recently SEE (search engine entry) pages. They are still doorway pages and can endanger your site of being penalized by search engines.

Link Farms – Link farms are typically a network of sites that are all interlinked to one another and have no other benefit but to try to boost the link popularity of the sites they are linked to. Link farms are mostly used to try to increase the Google PageRank of a site. The problem with this is that Google is constantly trying to employ ways to combat any measure that is taken to deceptively influence the PR of a site. Therefore if they identify a particular link farm, all they have to do is ban it and there goes all your links.

What defines deceptive linking then? Anything that is not likened to the natural linking process that occurs on the Internet. The natural linking process goes something like this: I have a fan site about NASCAR so I link to the official NASCAR site as well as some individual racer web sites sites and so on and so forth. That is a natural linking process. I like your site and find that it would be a good resource for my visitors so I link to it. The unnatural process usually occurs when you have a bunch of unrelated sites that are linked to one another. A site that sells flowers is linked to a site that sells data communication equipment or a site that offers resources on raising children is linked to a web hosting company. Search engines have become smart enough to know that this is not normal and when they find a pattern of all these un-related sites linking to one another, they may look at it as a link farm.

Therefore you definitely want to avoiding link farm schemes. You only set yourself up for scrutiny from the search engines.

Mirror Sites and Duplicate Content – This often entails setting up multiple domains with the same content or in the case of duplicate content, having page after page of essentially the same information but with different keywords inserted here and there. You see the duplicate content method a lot with travel orientated sites. They write a “template script” then drop in regional terms such as state or city names. Google will simply remove duplicate content but the Yahoo engine is more likely to apply a duplicate content penalty. Once they do this, it is next to impossible to get it removed.

SEO Hosted Sites – All I will say about this one is that if any SEO says they will host content for you on their own site or create a new site for you of which they will control, run for your life! Never pay a company for something that you cannot control. It will only allow them to hold you hostage to ongoing payments because when you stop paying, they shut the sites down or even worse, direct the traffic they were getting to your competitors. They wouldn’t, would they? You bet they would!

Those are some of the most recognized spamming techniques that ‘unethical’ SEOs employ. There are many others as they are always trying to come up with new ways to trick the search engines. If only they would put those efforts into trying to make a client’s site better, their marketing efforts would be more purposeful.

So when hiring an SEO, ask them if they employ any of these methods. Some will admit that they do while others will not. In this case, look at some of their client’s sites and see if you can spot any of these tricks being employed. Do a search for their company name on a search engine. See if there is any bad press on them and if so, investigate it. Look them up on the Better Business Bureau. See what their record looks like.

What To Look For in a SEO?

First and foremost look for a company that does not employ any of the techniques spoken of above. Look for a company that is a proponent of “ethical” search engine marketing practices. You want to hire a company that will abide by the search engines’ published list of guidelines so as to not put your site at risk. You want a SEO that is going to help improve your existing site, not build a new one or add on unnecessary pages.

Watch out for guarantees. There is not a SEO on the planet that can guarantee you a certain position in the search engines. You know why? Because they do not control them. Therefore look for a company who may provide a level of service guarantee but who will not guarantee you specific positioning such as first place of first page, top 10, etc.

Look at their affiliations. Do they belong to the Better Business Bureau? Do they belong to any of the search engine marketing or online advertising trade associations? Who are their clients? Are their clients reputable? You can usually get a good indication of a company’s reputation by seeing who they align themselves with or who they don’t.

Look for companies that have industry experts on staff. Does anyone from their staff have articles that have been written and published? Have they written any books? Do they speak at major conferences? Are they moderators at search engine marketing forums? If involved with forums, what do they write? You can learn a lot about an individual or their company by reading their forum posts.

Look for companies that have a code of ethics or anti-spamming policies published on their web sites. Spammers typically do not publish ethics or anti-spam policies otherwise they would have to abide by them.

Finally how long have they been around? A year? Two years? Seven years? Ten years? The longevity of a company’s existence is a good indication of how good they are at what they do.

In summary, hiring an SEO is a very important decision. You have worked hard to build a quality site and to establish your brand. Now you need to get in front of the eyes of people actively searching for your products and services. It is not an easy task. It is often a slow process. So don’t take shortcuts and employ a company that will cheat their way to the top. Their methods may work for awhile, but when you get caught, the penalties imposed can be devastating to your business model, your revenue stream and most importantly, your brand.

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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