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What Do I Look for in an SEO Consultant?

While search engine optimization has been around since the moat of the academic/military ivory towers of the Internet was breached years ago, the elements of the practice have remained largely unchanged. Many practitioners are still using techniques from when the 1996 Web (see the Apple homepage from that year below) with talk of keywords and page formatting and blast service link building.

Apple Website 1996


It does not take much surfing to see that we don’t live in that Web world any more. Cheap hardware, smarter machines bigger data pipes, smaller screens, graphic designers, user experience architects bring us a Web that now looks like this:

Apple Website 2010


Soon everyone, not just the pornography industry, was trying to scam the search engines. In their defense, search got smarter until, with the advances in hardware and algorithmic computer science, they became very smart. Consequently, search engine optimization had to become smart and strategic (more on strategic SEO in another post).

Like millions of others, I belong to a number of professional SEO groups on Linked-in. Most of the posts are from SEO practioners and qualify as shameless self-promotion. Occasionally, a civilian posts an honest question, like the one that became the title of this blog, and it seemed like a good starting point for my debut. These are not meant to be “tablets from the Mount.” They just work for my clients. I would very much like to hear how your experiences with search engine optimization worked for you.

Questions to ask yourself or the prospective SEO consultant:

*) Will I know more after the consult delivers the initial meeting than I did before? I try to set my client’s expectations by giving them a framework of understanding. This entails a brief primer on how search engines work and, most importantly, why they work that way. The Semantic Web has been here for quite some time and semantics are a fundamental start for any search optimization engagement.

*) Is the approach strategic? Many SEO consultants are still relying on the brute techniques that hold over from the early days of search engines. Anyone who has used a search engine in the last 10 minutes knows that things have changed. Yes, there is still a need to have the query term in the content and yes placement does have impact (browser title, headings, etc). Links do still count. However, search engines are a lot smarter these days. Context has achieved a strong position. Link quantity is no longer a key driver in relevance ranking. The quality of the link is now a factor. And don’t even think about buying them.

*) s the approach holistic? SEO success is based on a broad array of factors, content, linking, page code, visibility to search technology, user behavior and more. If your consultation does not contain a performance review (against a competitor or two of your choosing if preferred), metadata strategy, content strategy, linking strategy and page code recommendations, you are not getting a comprehensive treatment to search issues.

*) Will the SEO report contain clear, concise, prescriptive and actionable steps? Ask to see a sample of their deliverable. I read a report with recommendations that alternated between the incomprehensible to unachievable. I think the consultant was asking the client to completely re-architect their content structure with dubious justification. So, now the client is looking for another SEO consultant to translate the initial investment into practical and actionable steps.

*) Do they speak in absolutes? (i.e. “no JavaScript” and “must have H1 heading on the page”) There are few absolutes in SEO and there is always a workaround. If you like having your messaging in Flash, the SEO consultant should be able to find a workaround. If you need iFrames, the consultant should be able to compensate.

*) Will I know how to keep your site optimized after the consultant goes away? This is the hoary old “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” rule. As a consultant, I want you to be able to sustain the work that I’ve delivered. This means teaching YOU how to: craft good and Description metadata, read your site analytics tea leaves, use online tools to study customer behavior around key phrases that pertain to your product or service.

*) Will the consultant available for follow up questions? Likely, we’ve all had “movie response” (thinking up the perfect retort after the conversation has ended). This is often the case when delivering complex reports with questions that come up long after the meeting has ended. If your consultant bills for time to answer reasonable questions that emerge after you’ve had time to digest the report or start on the recommendations, they may not be right for you.

Oh, and before you take any consultant’s advice about software products that they recommend, make sure that the consultant can demo their own version of the product as well as the software manufacturer. If your consultant is not using the software themselves, how can they recommend it for you?

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