There's a big difference between having a nice-looking website and one that generates leads. Search engine optimization (SEO) is an art - and an expensive one at that. There are a lot of firms masquerading as SEO experts when their real specialty is simply building attractive websites.
What to Look For
There is a lot that goes into SEO, far more than I can discuss in one blog post. Here are 4 simple checks to find out if your SEO consultant can deliver on the promise of increasing your website's rankings:
- What terms do they pursue? Ask your SEO consultant what terms they target for their own business. Then, type those terms into Google to see where they rank. If your consultant does not show up on the first two pages, ask them about it, especially if they claim that they can get your site highly ranked. When it comes to SEO, the sentiment that the cobblers children have no shoes - meaning that the SEO consultant has not had time to get their own site ranked - may actually be a sign foretelling the results they will provide for you.
- Does anyone search on those terms? Just because a company is ranked well for a specific term doesn't mean that it is a good keyword to pursue. Go to Google's Keyword Planner tool to create a campaign using the terms your SEO consultant provided. You don't have to pay to launch a campaign - you're just using the free tools they provide. Google will give you an estimate on the number of searches being done on that keyword each month. It may show you daily estimates so you can multiply the numbers by 30 to convert it to a monthly estimate. If there are little to no searches for a particular term, the chance of getting a lead from being well-ranked for that term is nil.
- How will they pick keywords to pursue for you? You should ask the consultant which tools they intend to use to help you identify the right keywords. I personally like SEM Rush and SpyFu for estimating search engine traffic and pay-per-click ad competition. They are affordable and easy to use. Moz is another popular one and they have a useful SEO guide for beginners so you can familiarize yourself with the very basics of what your consultant should be doing. There are many other tools that are equally or more capable. You want to find terms with a sufficient amount of search volume and low competition so that you have a reasonable chance of getting ranked well. If the SEO consultant doesn't use a tool, run!!! You don't want someone who simply guesses keyword terms for you to target. While different tools yield different data, you need to base your SEO investment on available data, not guesswork.
- What is their link building strategy for you? You can have a page that contains all the right keywords and still not get much traction if nobody links to you. Google's algorithm takes into account what other people think of your site. If 50 popular websites linked the term "IT services" from their page to yours, your ranking would increasing dramatically very quickly. It is very important to include a link building strategy as part of any good SEO effort. You can increase the number of links pointing to you by using a long tail keyword strategy - that is, creating many pages that address various IT topics in greater detail. This creates content that others may want to reference on their sites or blog posts, thereby creating more inbound links for a variety of related terms that will help your rankings.
How to Do a Reference Check
When you ask the consultant for a reference from an existing client, find out when they started their SEO efforts. Look for a reference that has been working with the consultant for over 6 months since it can take some time to build ranking momentum.
The tools I mentioned above allow you to type in a website address and get an analysis of terms they rank for (Tip: type in your own website address to see where you stand).
Look at whether these terms gets many searches to see if the investment is likely to turn up any viable leads. If you think the terms they rank well for do not align with what they probably should rank well for, ask them about it. There may be a good reason they pursued these other terms.
Watch for This Danger Sign
Avoid hiring an SEO consultant that tells you they specialize in working with local IT companies to increase their rankings. This is very dangerous for you because there is an inherent conflict of interest.
If the consultant does their best to get another client ranked for a competitive term like "IT support <your town>" and you want to be found for the same exact term in the same geographical area, you will be in direct competition with their other client. There is only one top spot on Google and it's impossible for the SEO consultant to serve both of you impartially.
Look for a company that has done a solid job for other professional service businesses that do not compete with yours.