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Online Presence: Search Engine Optimization

Getting the most bang for your buck
By Joe Dysart

Top Search Engines

While there are many web e-marketing firms promising a significant boost to a pet store’s rankings on the search engines, finding one that actually delivers demands some careful shopping, industry experts say.

The still-maturing industry—known as search engine optimization (SEO)—is unfortunately full of legions of scammers who prey on marketers and entrepreneurs, reports Tom Pick, founder of WebMarketCentral.

The trick, Pick and other insiders insist, is to carefully poke through an SEO proposal and unearth the telltale signs that separate the legitimate players from the scoundrels.

Granted, this vetting process can be tedious. However, the payoff can be substantial. Entrusting SEO to the right hands (essentially, the art of programming a website with the precise combination of keywords and number of links from highly recognized websites) can spell significant revenue increases for any pet product retailer or service provider.

Probably the top priority in any selection process, according to Pick, is to secure references from the SEO firm under evaluation, and talk with those references about the quantifiable improvements they’ve experienced in their own rankings on the major search engines, such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN.

Resources

Google—SEO guide
googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html 

SearchEngineLand
www.searchengineland.com

SearchEngineWatch
www.searchenginewatch.com

TopRank Online Marketing
www.toprankmarketing.com

Web Market Central
www.webmarketcentral.com/tom_pick.htm

Equally important, adds Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, are accounts that tell similar stories.

“Case studies, testimonials and references should be a built-in component of SEO client lifecycle management,” Odden says. “When prospects see you publishing success stories of existing clients, they’re more likely to expect the same for themselves after they hire the agency.”

Time-tested SEO firms also tend to offer businesses the option of a complete e-marketing package, Odden adds. A retailer inquiring about SEO, for example, may also need help with an overall online marketing strategy, web analytics, e-marketing training for staff and similar concerns.

“Any SEO firm that’s been around for more than a few years is offering complementary services,” Odden says.

Openness is also a must. A decent SEO firm will be more than willing to share info with a retailer about all the changes it makes and plans to make to the company’s website, as well as offer insight as to why it believes those changes will work.

“I don’t know how an SEO consultant or agency could properly implement an SEO initiative for a company website without sharing all the changes made, and offering recommendations and the reasoning,” Odden explains.

Other signs an SEO firm is legit include an SEO strategy that is tightly integrated with a company’s press relations, and one that closely studies what successful pet-store competitors are doing right to climb higher in search-engine rankings.

Conversely, a shyster alert should sound if an SEO company comes off as secretive or refuses to explain clearly its strategy and/or the specific changes it plans to make to a retail website, according to Google’s SEO guide (see resources below).

Also, be wary of an SEO firm that promises a No. 1 ranking on Google for your store. Google categorically states in its SEO guidelines that no one can promise such a ranking and that no SEO firm has a “special relationship” with Google or can offer a “priority submit” to the search engine.

SEO ne’er-do-wells also try to trick newcomers into believing that suddenly high rankings in “sponsored links” on the search engines are the result of good SEO. Not true. Sponsored links are strictly pay-for-placement affairs. If a company pays enough money, it becomes the top sponsored link on Google or any other search engine, for as long as it desires.

The problem is that link will disappear the moment the company stops paying for it. True SEO involves expertly programming a website with the right keywords and links so that the client’s link naturally earns a high place in the search returns of Google (and others), creating “organic” links.

Another major red flag is when an SEO firm refuses to work cooperatively with other client departments, such as IT or marketing. An SEO strategy can only be successful if every department it affects understands its underlying rationale.

Other sleights of hand to be wary of include progress reports from an SEO company that read like Greek; offers of SEO services that arrive in a spam folder; and SEO companies that promise great returns on the search engines, but don’t appear on Google or other major search engines.

Google also suggests a battery of questions as a litmus test for a prospective SEO firm, including:

  • Do you follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines?
  • What kind of results do you expect to see, and in what timeframe? How do you measure your success?
  • What are your most important SEO techniques?
  • How can I expect to communicate with you?

Of course, some firms decide to forgo the SEO selection process altogether, and simply bring the service in-house. Fortunately, if this is the path for your store, there are plenty of resources, such as SearchEngineLand, which is run by Danny Sullivan who is considered a world authority on searches. Other excellent sources include Search Engine Watch and Pick’s WebMarketCentral. <HOME>

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.


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