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SEO Companies 2003
by André le Roux
Dec. 2002

NOTE: For an updated discussion of SEO companies, please refer to the current version of the Search Engine Yearbook.

Outsourcing SEO To Specialized SEO Companies

According to a recent study in the U.S., only about 20% of businesses outsource SEO to specialized SEO companies. The other 80% either do not know that there is such a thing as search engine optimization or they believe that they have the skills to do it in-house. Perhaps that is why so many companies are hard to find on the search engines.

The problem is that your in-house expert probably does not know enough. Search engine optimization used to be fairly easy, but today the search engine industry is

  • extremely complex
  • extremely competitive and it
  • changes daily.

Your in-house expert could make mistakes like using "free for all" pages or resubmitting your site too often. He could end up getting your site dropped from the search engines. If he uses practices such as cloaking, he could get your site permanently banned from the search engines. This costs you money in lost sales. Nine out of ten times you'll do better if you outsource. One of the drawbacks of outsourcing search engine optimization is that the expense is a recurring one. Having your site optimized every time it changes significantly can become expensive. Whether or not it's worth it will depend on your site and sales copy. If your site consistently converts visitors into customers, you can afford to spend money on acquisition.

This is important.

If your site is a sales getter, you can afford to pay for traffic, because you know that a percentage of your visitors will become customers. If you'd like to learn more about creating a site that consistently gets the sale, I strongly recommend getting your hands on Ken Evoy's popular e-book called "Make Your Site Sell" (recently updated). It is the definitive work on selling online. Nothing else comes close.

The Truth About SEO Companies

Let me start off by saying that I’m not against the idea of hiring an SEO company – even though it may sound that way sometimes. There are many reputable SEO companies who know more about search engines than I do.

Ok, that said, here’s the reality:

On the Internet, almost anyone can learn almost anything. It's a small step from there to selling that new knowledge - either as an e-book, on a subscription basis or on a consultation basis. That's part of the beauty of the Internet, but it's also part of the problem. There are many SEO companies that really know what they’re doing, but for every reputable, serious search engine optimization company, there are 3 that don't know enough to be selling it.

Most people who hire SEO companies cannot tell the difference.

  • On face value, the basement operator's site looks professional.
  • On further investigation, it often sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.
  • Some of these "SEO companies" even charge ridiculously high prices to add perceived value to their services.

They are not always out to mislead their customers. Some of them really believe that they know how to maximize visitors to your site, but they make mistakes that will cost you visitors & money.

So how do you distinguish?

The rest of this section takes the guesswork out of choosing your SEO company. On the next page we’ll start off by looking at 4 warning signs. Read this entire section - from here to the end. When you get there in 20 minutes or so, you’ll know exactly what to look for.

Four Warning Signs

The “warning signs” I list here are my own. Obviously lists like these irritate many reputable SEO companies, because it makes their
customers apprehensive – sometimes more apprehensive than necessary. So take this for what it is: Only my objective opinion. Most of the warning signs listed here have to do with ethics. If you’re not particularly concerned with how your SEO company gets traffic – only that they do – then read this carefully: Unethical optimization can get your site de-listed or even banned from the
search engines. When that happens, the cost to you is enormous while they get away with only another slight dent in their reputation. You’re not just trusting them with getting traffic; You’re trusting them with your brand name.

(If you’re an SEO company and disagree with any of these or would like to add to it, please share your thoughts.)

1. Spam marketing
As a general rule, don’t do business with SEO companies (or anyone) that uses spam as a marketing tool. Using spam is simply unethical – not the type of people you want to trust your site with. If you receive spam saying something like “I noticed you’re not listed in some of the search engines… bla bla bla”, write the company’s name on your “bad guy” list.

2. Mass submit
If they offer to submit your site to “thousands of search engines”, they’re trying to impress you with something you do not need. There are only a handful of search engines that really matter.

3. Lack of transparency
If they are unwilling to explain how they will get traffic to your site it usually means that they use techniques that are not within the rules. Some SEO companies may argue that secrecy is necessary in order to protect trade secrets. I disagree. The kind of SEO that gets long-term results is simply about doing it right. There are no “tricks” and no "secrets" in serious SEO.

4. Not listed at Google
Being listed at Google is (at the moment) the most important thing in SEO. If your SEO company’s site is not listed at Google, they are either completely clueless or their site was dropped from the Google database because they tried to cheat.

Questions To Ask SEO Companies

This is where it gets interesting.

Armed with this info, you are able to actually test SEO companies. You do not have to rely only on the sales copy you found on their web sites. Here are a couple of tough questions to ask.

Before we look at the questions, read this paragraph carefully: There are many SEO companies. There are so many that you can afford to show 100 of them the door if they do not convince you that they know what they're doing. There are always more where they came from. These questions are not difficult and they’re about crucial elements of SEO, so there’s no compromise. If they stumble over these, walk away. Let's begin. Here are questions every SEO should be able to answer:

What is link popularity and why do I need it?

A site's "link popularity" refers to its number of incoming links - in other words the number of links to it from other web sites. You need it because search engines measure it (and the quality of the links) and use that info when ranking sites. Without it your site probably won't rank well. Link popularity is crucial. More and more search engines measure link popularity when determining how relevant your site is for a certain search. The thinking is that, if many sites link to yours, you probably have a good site with lots of useful information.

Any SEO worth his salt should be able to suggest ways to improve your site's link popularity. There are right ways and wrong ways to do this that we looked at in Section 3.

Here’s a quick recap:

  • Links from FFA pages: This one doesn’t work. It could HURT your good standing with the search engines. If your SEO company suggests using them, he does not know enough.
  • Link-share services: This one used to work. The idea is that you join a “club” where everyone links to everyone. Most search engines now penalizing sites that use this technique.
  • Reciprocal links: This is a bit of a gray area. Search engines are still deciding how they feel about these. The important thing at the moment is that you only exchange links with sites that are on a related topic.
  • Editorial links: This is the most effective long-term strategy. It involves creating unique, valuable content for your site so that other webmasters will want to link to you.

Armed with this answer, judge whether he knows what link popularity is, how important it is and how to improve it. There's no compromise here. Link popularity is vital - that's why it's question number one. If he "will come back to you on this one", thank him for his time.

How does keyword targeting work? What words will my prospective customers enter in the search box?

Web sites can be optimized for specific keywords. The trick is in targeting the right keywords. There are ways to see what words people use when searching (referred to as "keyword usage"). This can then be weighed against the number of sites competing for that keyword. For more on this, refer to the Basics of SEO earlier in
this section and SEO Facts in Section 3.

You could use "sex" as a keyword. Just make your site title something like "Mario's Bookkeeping Services SEX SEX SEX". After all, it's the number 1 search term. Right? Yes, it's the number 1 search term, but

  • it's probably difficult to sell your bookkeeping services to horny teenagers and
  • there are too many sites competing for those top keywords.

What you really want is targeted traffic. People who are actually looking for what you offer. Selling bookkeeping services becomes so much more doable when you're selling it to people who typed "bookkeeping services”. A small amount of targeted traffic will result in more sales than huge amounts of untargeted traffic. You’ll also save on hosting fees because you won’t need so much bandwidth.

All your SEO company needs to find out is whether they type "bookkeeping services" or "bookkeeping companies". If your SEO company cannot suggest some kind of scientific method of keyword research, he's wasting your time. This is important. I learned the hard way that proper keyword selection gets you twice the traffic for half the effort / money. Get him to explain how he collects information on actual search term usage.

Guarantees In SEO

There’s quite a debate on at the moment about guarantees in SEO. Those SEO companies opposed to the idea say that nobody can guarantee top placement. Of course they are right. Search engines change their algorithms continuously, making it impossible to say for sure that a site will get top placement.

On the other hand, it should be up to the SEO company to decide. If he/she is willing to refund your money if they can’t produce, then that’s just fine. It shows confidence and takes the risk off the shoulders of the customer.

Be careful though.

Get them to explain exactly what they guarantee. Some unethical SEO companies will guarantee top placement in PPC search engines – which is a little ridiculous. Anyone willing to spend money can do so. Others will simply redirect traffic to your site from pages that already rank well – as opposed to optimizing your site for keywords relevant to your product(s).

Contracts In SEO

Insist on a written contract. That way you have legal grounds in case the SEO company cannot deliver what they promise. Your contract should include a money-back guarantee. Again, many reputable SEO companies may not be willing to guarantee placement (see previous heading). That’s for them to decide. My feeling is that your SEO company should at least offer a conditional money-back guarantee – conditions may include things like your site being dropped from a search engine etc.

Your contract should also include pricing details. Make sure you understand (and have in writing) where the money goes and what the final cost will be. If your SEO company is secretive about this, I recommend that you walk away.

Finding SEO Companies

Special Directories Of SEO companies

SEM List

SEO Consultants

SEO companies Listed @ Web Directories



Start with the 2 specialized directories. They’re smaller but higher quality.

How To Report Dishonest SEO Companies

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission handles complaints about dishonest business practices. If you feel deceived by your SEO company, consider filing a complaint.

There are three ways:

1. Online
Visit and click the “File a Complaint Online” link.
2. Phone
Call 1-877-FTC-HELP
3. Regular Mail
Write to:
Federal Trade Commission
Washington, D.C. 20580

If you’re outside the US, try

SEO Companies 2002
by André le Roux
Dec. 2001

Outsourcing SEO to specialized SEO companies

So, you've decided to entrust your SEO to the experts.

Not a bad call - if you have the money - and if you know the pitfalls.

I can't help you with the money, but here are the pitfalls:

Just before we get to them…

In this little guide, I'll tell you which questions to ask. Its best to talk face to face to these guys. If your SEO "professional" hesitates on one of the questions below or says, "Don't worry Mr. Smith, that doesn't matter", bid him a good day. There are hundreds more were he came from.

Let's go:

1. Site accessibility

Your site has to be accessible to search engine spiders. This is so obvious that you'd expect SEO professionals to see to that before they do anything else.

Almost 50% of them don't. Whether that's due to incompetence or haste does not matter.

The important thing is that you ask them about site accessibility up front.

· If your site uses frames, what are they going to do to make sure the spiders index everything?
· What do they know about dynamic content and its effect on accessibility?
· What about image maps?
· What about layers?

2. Keyword targeting

Tell him which keywords you think your potential customers will probably use to find you - and ask him what he thinks. If he says "Whatever you want Mr. Smith", bid him a good day.

If he knows what he's doing, he should suggest some kind of scientifically sound analysis. Ask him about checking keyword usage and weighing the results up against the number of competing web pages.

3. Minimum requirements

Here's a question that will get 95% of SEO companies scratched off your list - but that's OK - you want a real pro, right? Ask him if there are any minimum requirements when you submit a page to directories.

Many people NEVER get into Yahoo - even after paying the $299 annual submission fee - because their sites don't meet the minimum requirements.

For Yahoo, your site should at least:
· have a privacy policy
· display a physical address
· be compatible with both Internet Explorer and Netscape
· not be under construction

4. Link popularity

The importance of link popularity is explained in detail on page 107. See what he knows.

To recap, there are 4 ways to get inbound links to your site:

1. Free For All (FFA) link pages
2. Link-share services
3. Ask for links
4. Editorial links

Of these, only numbers 3 and 4 work - although many SEO companies still advocate the use of numbers 1 & 2.

You should probably not be to hard on him if he can't think of 4 ways to get inbound links. Let him explain how he's going to improve your site's link popularity and decide if he knows what he's talking about.

If he says it's not important, if he doesn't know what you're talking about or if he suggests using technique #1 or 2, bid him a good day.

5. Stealth technology

In SEO, stealth technology enables webmasters to hide the true content of their pages from the search engines. The optimized page that the search engine sees is different from the regular page that the site visitor sees.

There's a big debate on around the ethical issues involved. See the section on cloaking above for more on that.

The most common types of stealth include cloaking and cascading style sheets (CSS). Both cloaking and CSS have legitimate uses, so we should be careful here.

The main problem with stealth is that, if the search engine catches you using stealth to gain an unfair advantage, your site (domain) will probably be banned from the engine - for life.

This is terribly important:

If your site is banned, all your marketing efforts up to that point - both online and off - will be down the drain. You'll have to get a new domain name & trademarks. Anything that mentions your domain, including letterheads, company logo - even the stickers on company cars - it all has to go.

Add to that the fact that most of your loyal customers have probably bookmarked your site and that that link will now not work. Disaster!

The bottom line: Stealth is not worth the risk.

Some SEO companies claim that they can use stealth effectively. Maybe they can. In my opinion, search engines will continue to find new ways to expose sites that use stealth. If your SEO company offers it, don't show them the door, but decline.

6. Selling what you don't need

Unfortunately, many SEO companies don't hesitate to profit from their customers' lack of experience. Fortunately, you have this book :-) Here's what you don't need:

  • Regular resubmission
    Once your site is indexed, the search engine could perceive resubmissions as spam. Your site should only be resubmitted after a major change in the content or structure of the site.
  • Mass submit
    You don't need to have your site indexed at 1000 search engines. There are about 10 important international engines that'll be responsible for 99% of your search engine traffic. Google and Yahoo alone will probably be responsible for 50 to 80%. Apart from the major engines, your site should be submitted to relevant topical engines. If your product or service is available only in your country, a couple of local engines should also know about you.

If they offer either regular resubmission or mass submit, they're either stupid or dishonest. Bid them a good day.


Expensive is not necessarily better. I suggest that you interview at least 5 SEO companies. Don't talk money yet. Just get an idea of what's available. Next, make a list of what your company needs, for example, to be listed in local, international and topical engines, to have 50 pages optimized etc.

Send your list to SEO companies and get quotes from them.

If you're a small company, you might be forced to go with standard packages. Shop around. You'll find that some companies charge 10 times what others do - for exactly the same service.

For a comprehensive list of SEO companies, try the "Search Engine Placement Improvement" directory at Yahoo:

Search Engine Book: Search Engine Year BookThis page is based on information contained in the Search Engine Yearbook 2003. For more detailed search engine information & help, please refer to the current version of the book.

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