Within the Internet and technology space I’m always amazed at how some simple things can be made to sound very difficult. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one such topic. People who practice SEO seem to speak about it as if it were some black art. That only they master all of the little tips and tricks that can skyrocket a page to the top of the search engine results page. But as you begin to peel the onion you begin to realize there’s no magic. The emperor has no clothes so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, there is a strategy behind SEO and if one is concerned about high search engine rankings they should follow some of the SEO best practices but beyond that . . . there are no tricks or magical spells that can be cast on your webpages to make them any more likely to show up at the top of the search requests.
Some will say that I’m not a SEO expert so perhaps I don’t understand SEO. They would be half correct; I’m not a SEO expert but I do understand how search works as a technology which makes most of SEO common sense. I’ve subscribed to SEO lists and purchased books from the “pros” in the field so I’m not completely ignorant of how SEO works. I know that there seem to be two major camps of SEO consultants; those who give advice on how you can do your own SEO but also offer to do it for you for a fee and those who talk like what they do is secret magic that only they have the power to conjur up. For instance, take the following column written by a SEO consultant explaining why SEO is so expensive. I’ve clipped and added my responses to the meat of the article but if you care to read it in full you can do so at the URL below.
This will explain why professional optimization is not cheap:
1. Keyword phrase identification. Finding that handful of perfect terms capable of turning a sale is the first order of business and it gobbles up vast amounts of an SEO expert’s time. And here’s a surprise: coming up with a list of 100 keywords that apply in general is far easier than developing a short list of the most relevant, hardest-working ones.
I’ll agree this can be time consuming and you may have to really change the way you think about your company but the reality is, just think like someone who would be searching for your product or services. In my spare time I like to teach scuba diving so I set up a page to advertise my services. As I’m writing this my site shows up in the second spot if you type “scuba lessons” into Google. I could have picked all kinds of other keywords but when I asked friends of mine what words they would use to search for scuba diving lessons that’s the response I received. So I used every opportunity I could to use “Scuba Lessons” on the site. I also watch my log files to see what search terms people have used to find my site and I often adjust things as I notice trends in search patterns. There are also tools you can use that recommend keywords. Do you really need to pay someone a couple of grand for this?
2. Web design consultation. If your site layout isn’t spider-friendly, no amount of SEO finesse will solve your traffic problems. So a search engine expert also has to be up on web design issues and know how to fix the trouble spots.
What is spider friendly? Well, don’t create and all Flash website. Use the “alt” tags in your images and make sure your links and bolded text are used effectively to highlight your keywords. Spooky, huh?
3. SEO copywriting. It isn’t enough to drive herds of traffic to your site. The masses need to be informed and sold once they get there. That’s where SEO copywriting comes in. (Bargain optimizers always scrimp on this one.)
I’ll admit, this one, much like keyword selection, takes some brain cycles. Copywriting is an art to begin with and that’s why many companies employ experts to write their copy. Do you need a SEO copywriter? Depends. Can your copywriter remember to mention keywords naturally within the copy? It’s going to be a rare breed of person who is an expert at copywriting AND is also a SEO expert. Of course, most likely, they aren’t so they hire regular copywriters and teach them to mention keywords as often as possible in the copy. And, of course, you’ll be paying a premium over regular copywriting rates if you hire a SEO firm to do that for you.
4. HTML optimization. Keyword phrases also play a starring role in your HTML tags. Knowing which tags are hot and which are not (in the eyes of the engines) is the purview of a truly clued-in search expert.
I guess clued-in experts are the only people who can figure out that a search engine might place more emphasis on a word that’s been bolded or included in a link description.
5. Site registration. This does not mean submitting to Google and the Open Directory Project, then going for lunch. SEO pros know which engines and directories are the movers and shakers, which minor ones are becoming forces to be reckoned with, and where your site stands in the rankings of each. A full-time job in itself. (Note: Jayde.com and exactseek.com should be on your list to get listed with)
What? Get in Google and DMOZ (the Open Directory Project) and that’s 80%+ of the search market since most of the search engines get their search data from the same sources. If you want the other 20% of the search engines go to a search engine optimization website and/or message board and ask what the hot search engines are. Chances are the list you get won’t be any longer than 6 – 10 search engines outside of DMOZ and Google.
6. Link partnership building. Have you tried it yet? It’s not easy locating quality sites related to but not competing with yours who are willing to give up valuable real estate for your link. It takes solid research, smooth negotiating skills, and a large investment of time to develop a base of reputable, relevant link partners that will make the search bots take notice.
Sure it takes time but do you need to pay someone $100+ an hour to do a job you can get an intern to do? Ok, maybe you don’t want them negotiating deals with other websites but they can hunt down quality websites for you or someone else to target for cross linking opportunities. Besides, is some SEO consultant going to know your business better than you?
7.Monitor traffic. Notice I said “monitor traffic” not just “monitor rankings”. Since conversions are the bottom line for most e-businesses, a good search engine optimization company will include comprehensive ROI tracking so you can see exactly what your SEO dollar is producing for you.
First off, you should always be just a little bit cautious when someone is offering to tell you how successful they have been for you. The real value here is if they can provide you with an intelligent way to measure ROI and then possibly give you some third-party tools to measure it yourself. At the most basic level you can just look at your visitor vs. conversion rate. If you want to get more sophisticated you can tag visitors with cookies and start to measure which keywords produced the most conversions or which search engine is producing the most conversions. You can drill down even further but the bottom line is there’s no rocket science going on.
All in all, SEO is valuable. It really is. Most people find websites via search engines and the higher you rank the higher the chance that they’ll click on your link and come to your website. It’s not a one time effort. It’s something you need to constantly work on and tweak as times and search engine spidering/indexing change. But it’s not rocket science nor is it some magical skill that only these highly paid consultants can provide. I don’t mean to pick on this one guy who I’ve singled out but his article was the typical vague sort of stuff most SEO consultants respond with when you ask them how they do what they do. Keeping it vague and myseterious is how they can charge top dollar for something that you shouldn’t be paying any more than you would pay an HTML programmer for. If you want to learn all of their secrets, I recommend Shari Thurow’s Search Engine Visibility book which in less than 300 pages will basically teach you everything that a SEO knows (maybe even more).