Finding The Best SEO/Marketing Provider For You
Shopping for professional support is inherently challenging. If we knew enough about the subject of expertise, whether it be law, accounting, medicine, or marketing, we probably wouldn’t be needing to hire another to do it for us. Our lack of knowledge makes it difficult to discern quality and compatibility. This article intends to us help those who are shopping for Internet marketing support- including Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Hopefully our insider eyes can shed some light on your process, pointing you to what is important and helping you avoid the smoke and mirrors of some companies’ message.
DON’T CONFUSE QUANTITY WITH QUALITY
A quick sign of a mediocre marketing provider is when everything is communicated in terms of quantity. For example, they offer submission to 100 Internet directories, make 50 blog comments per month on your behalf, post 10 times per day to your Twitter and 3x per day to your Facebook, and then write 10 blogs per month on your behalf.
At first glance it sounds like you’ve got a team really dedicated to your success. The numbers sound impressive, and it seems to justify what they are charging. But, it doesn’t work like that.
These firms don’t offer SEO strategists working to optimize your campaign based upon who you are, the market that you compete in, and the position of your competitors. They don’t have anyone on staff to listen to you and understand, to see the holes in your suggested keywords and to introduce better ones that are more effect.
And, most of all, they have no discernment of quality. One well-written blog post per month has 1000x the value of two blogs per week that are just part of checking the blog off of the to-do list. The value isn’t in how many blogs you write, it is in the quality of your writing. One blog that goes viral is worth a lifetime of hum-drum blogging. Do they even think about the viral potential of the blog? Do they know how to write it for such purposes? Do they know how to then push it out so that it captures critical mass? Blogging is not a part of every SEO package, but it is an easy example to understand.
SEO and marketing, like all professional endeavors, requires great intelligence, dedication, experience, and technical know-how. Don’t settle for anything less.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE BUYING ON-SITE AND OFF-SITE SEO
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has two components:
1. On-site SEO entails the proper implementation of title tags, urls, meta-descriptions, image names and descriptions (“image alt attributes”), and an internal linking strategy. Don’t worry if I lost you there- I am just saying is that there are changes that need to be made on your website, often invisible changes in the code, that have huge effects on your search engine position.
2. Off-site SEO includes link building which is the activity of procuring links from other websites. These links are best procured from sites that have SEO strength, are well-reputed, and share similar keyword sets.
On-site SEO is done more efficiently by a firm that specializes in your industry. However, off-site SEO demands a marketing firm that specializes in your industry unless your budget is huge and you don’t mind paying them to learn on the job.
Our firm, for example, uses our industry connections and our large network of “design and build” sites to get valuable links that Google and the other search engines trust. And, we constantly develop new relationships to expand our link network and to find the links that count the most for you. All of this activity complements the on-site SEO and will dramatically raise your search engine position for the targeted keywords.
When you hire an SEO firm make sure you are crystal clear as to what they are offering you in terms of on-site and off-site SEO. Many firms, especially those with too-good-to-be-true prices, only offer on-site SEO. On-site SEO independently won’t do you any good. You want not just a comprehensive on-site and off-site SEO campaign, you want it done through the eyes of an astute marketer. Just as you wouldn’t want a cabinet maker to design a kitchen, you wouldn’t want an SEO-only person to design your marketing campaign/angle/approach.
DON’T ASSUME LARGE FIRMS ARE BETTER
SEO efforts are not all created equal. The most superficial of efforts are plugging your site into a program, getting a few suggestions, doing them, and saying it is complete. This is the type of service you’d be getting if you purchase it through GoDaddy or another domain registrar or hosting company. Some advertise SEO from $6/month! You can imagine what you’ll get for that.
The largest companies tend to offer SEO as an additional stream of income and they are often completely unconcerned about results. They promise all and deliver little.
Beyond the GoDaddys of the world are large SEO/marketing companies. Working with these companies is often a minor nightmare. During the sales process you deal with someone who promises the world. Then the moment you sign you are handed over to an over-stretched project manager whose single aim is to put out fires. They don’t have the technical understanding to strategize effectively, they don’t have the time to truly care and act on your behalf, and they don’t have the support from the company to provide you with exceptional services.
As an SEO consultant I’ve been hired by companies who are locked into an SEO contract with this type of firm, and my client pays me to try to get the most out of them. It is never an easy process. When I call their project manager I find someone who consistently doesn’t understand the complexities of SEO. My suggestions are considered threatening as they challenge their profit taking. It is a major time investment to do quality SEO and the firms that are primarily profit-centric have no interest in spending the majority of your monthly budget on your success. Every moment they are choosing between your success or their success. It is a disheartening situation.
CHOOSE A PROVIDER THAT SPECIALIZES IN YOUR INDUSTRY
Marketing firms are in two businesses simultaneously. First of all we are marketers. That is our core passion and skill-set. We are educated and professionally aligned with other marketers. Our second industry is the industry in which we market in. This requires a whole new level of education, experience, and professional engagement.
An generalist SEO or marketing firm does not deliver the Highest return on Investment (ROI). How could it? Every time that they sit down to organize and strategize for a new client they must face the steep learning curve of the new vertical. It takes thousands of hours to gain mastery over a particular vertical and they are often starting at zero or close to zero. They have to start learning Houzz from scratch, whereas I have been interviewed by journalist on Houzz marketing strategies. Who is going to get more out of each hour spent on your account?
When you hire an expert in your vertical/industry you are purchasing everything in them- everything they have already learned, developed, and discovered. The trial-and-error process happened long ago and now they have “best practices.”
For example, when we make a website for an interior designer we are not starting from scratch. We start with years of experience. We already know what is essential for SEO purposes, what is required for optimal portfolio viewing, etc.
Your ideal provider is a specialist in the skill-set (SEO/marketing) and in your industry/vertical.
“Vertical” is a market segment that meets the needs of a particular type of customer. In other words, vertical markets are a way to organize businesses based on their industry or specialized needs.
In Internet marketing, verticals relate to keywords and shared marketing platforms. We serve a vertical that can best be described as the “design and build” vertical. Our core clientele are interior designers, however we are equally effective in serving architects, landscape architects, construction/builders, building supplies, and the like. They all share overlapping keywords, overlapping media publications, and overlapping marketing platforms (including websites like Houzz). Whether targeting residential or commercial services, or products to the trade or to consumers, they all fall under the design vertical.
While our parent company, Kenneth Lewis and Associates, does serve other verticals, there is no way that they can deliver the same high ROI for a client from a previously unexplored industry as we can do here with our designated home design marketing team and the proprietary strategies we use. Specializes matters.
What I can do for an interior designer on $450/month I would need $2-3k/mo to do for a restaurant, car dealer, or lawyer. But, when you call a general SEO firm they won’t know or tell you that much of your monthly retainer will go to their learning about your industry.
CONFIRM THE PROVIDER’S SUCCESS
There are ten positions on the first page of Google search results. If your SEO campaign is to be effective you need to be one of those ten. If you are in a small town you should ideally be in one of the top positions. If you are in a major city you will likely be successful in marketing just by being on the first page. Whatever your goals are, make sure that the provider you are looking to use has succeeded in your vertical in the past.
For example, when you search for “San Francisco interior designer”, “New York Interior Designer”, “Miami Interior Designer”, “Washington DC Interior Designer”, etc, you will find our clients at the top of search. We have first page positions for all of these towns. Some of our clients are even in the number one positions for these highly competitive markets. And, using our proprietary methods we often have multiple positions for our clients on the first page.
Keep in mind that a client’s position has to do with many factors within an SEO firm’s control (on-site tags and practices, external link building, etc) and many factors outside of the SEO firm’s control (past media mentions of the client, the quality of their website, the value/quality of their client’s products or services, and the budget for the SEO campaign).
Before you hire an SEO/marketing firm make sure they’ve achieved success for a business just like yours. Don’t be fooled by a logo they proudly show off of a multinational corporation that they once served. You aren’t looking to hire a marketing firm with Coca-Cola as a client. You want one that has clients like you.
INCLUDE PROFESSIONALS IN YOUR PURCHASE PROCESS
Given your lack of SEO and Internet marketing knowledge it is best that you don’t primarily depend upon your discussions with potential marketing providers to make your decisions. Especially when dealing with large firms, they have salespeople who are trained to sell to you- not to educate you and support you. Don’t make such an important decision based upon how convincing the person is on the phone.
There are two options on how to leverage expert knowledge in your selection of a marketing provider:
First of all, sincere marketing professionals should be open to talking through your options with you. In our case, we welcome prospective clients to share with us the pros and cons they see of our offerings and the offerings of others, and we happily shed light on the situation.
For example, I had a prospective client show me the SEO offerings of another marketing firm and she told me she was leaning towards them. I reviewed their offerings and saw that they were using old SEO techniques that could lead to penalties from Google. And, I noticed all kinds of gaps in what they were presenting which showed that they don’t have SEO expertise. Basically, the company was a branding guy who was trying to widen his scope of offerings and he was thus relying upon borrowed knowledge and likely an outside SEO provider. I not only provided her with my analysis, I cited industry sources to show her that my understanding comes from a rigorous process based upon facts and evidence. (I am a practitioner of evidence-based Search Engine Optimization).
A second option would be to hire an SEO consultant that you are not considering hiring as your provider to do an audit of the two top firms that you have identified. Ask for a $500 audit and ask him/her to analyze the two companies, the offerings of their packages, and their client results. It would be money well spent. It is not different than hiring a home inspector to watch over the contractor who is building your home. You need an advocate, especially when you don’t understand the technicalities.
So, either allow your top choices the opportunity to speak to the offerings of each other, or hire a professional consultant to do an analysis for you.
MAKE SURE THE PROVIDER IS RECOMMENDED BY PROFESSIONALS IN YOUR INDUSTRY
Recommendations are hugely important. You want recommendations of existing professionals in your vertical who know and trust your provider.
In general, there is no need to ask for references these days. References can be found quite easily. Look at the provider’s LinkedIn page and see what people have shared. Look at a client list or testimonials on the provider’s website. And, if you have questions don’t hesitate to call anyone who has a public connection to the provider.
If you ask a provider for recommendations they will simply give you a list of their closest, most satisfied clients. That doesn’t tell much, except for their capacity to make some clients happy. You want a provider who makes most or all of their clients happy. That requires doing a little digging.
If you google the name of the provider- both the company and the individual- you’ll likely find many of their clients. Look at the title tags of the client’s homepage to see what the targeted keywords are and then google those keywords. Does the client’s site come up at the top?
If you cold call clients to ask about a marketing provider make sure you are talking to the right person in the company. And, if the provider is doing their job you’ll hear it coming across with gratitude. There are two types of questions to ask: those about success, meeting sales goals, achieving a solid ROI, and those about responsiveness, professionalism, and dedication.
We all know when people are taking care of us. So, just ask them. “Are they taking care of you?” Even an email with that one question would do wonders in terms of knowing what you are getting into.
DON’T SIGN A CONTRACT TARGETING SPECIFIC AMOUNTS OF KEYWORDS
Many firms will promise you that they’ll target X keywords for Y dollars. It is a losing strategy because:
1. If they can easily attain those goals (which is possible in less competitive markets) then after the goal is achieved your monthly investment will turn into their profit rather than being utilized for constant improvement and expansion.
2. It supports them in overlooking the holistic needs of your marketing and branding and to just focus on one narrow dimension. Thus, they would overlook all of the great opportunities for expanding your website’s position and traffic because they are wearing blinders.
3. They will set up your SEO in a way that actually works against you for all other possible search terms as their self-interest is to narrowly succeed.
SIGN A CONTRACT THAT DETERMINES A FIXED MONTHLY RETAINER
You want a contract with a fixed monthly retainer because:
1. You have open-ended goals for business success and want a marketing provider who matches that vision.
2. You want the provider to always be looking at what your firm needs for improvement, not to stop working once the agreed upon goals have been completed.
3. You want nothing overlooked as marketing success requires wide-vision.
LONG-TERM CONTRACTS ARE NEEDED FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS
You want to sign a long-term contract because :
1. SEO is a long-term endeavor and both sides need to be committed to the long-haul in terms of responsibilities, expectations, and benefits.
2. Companies that claim quick SEO results often use tricky “black-hat” SEO methods that could lead to your site getting penalized. And, by not committing to them for the long term, you are encouraging them to take higher risks.
3. SEO campaigns require a tremendous amount of upfront effort and a long-term contract ensures the provider that their initial labor investment will be paid off over the upcoming year. We often use 40% of the first year’s retainer in the first 2-3 months. We can only do that knowing that we’ve got the year’s budget to draw from.
4. Marketing is best done with big picture vision- seeing the development of the campaign over time. This requires long-term engagement.
5. Long-term contracts create long term relationships which is essential for your success. Your marketing provider is an invaluable source for helping you handle all of the offers and opportunities that come your way. Should you put the Houzz badge on your homepage? Should you advertise in a new online design magazine? Do you need to be on this new directory? How to get your blogs read by more people? How to most effectively announce your new associate? How to create buzz around your new design award? Having a marketing provider on your team allows all of these questions to be properly addressed, and collectively these little situations have a huge impact on your greater marketing efforts.
DON’T JUDGE SUCCESS BASED UPON TRAFFIC LEVELS
Often business owners think that the success of a website is determined by traffic volume. While traffic volume is part of one’s success, it is clearly not the sole determinant.
For businesses without online sales, meaning without online shopping carts and payment systems, it is hard to track Internet sales. In the case of an interior design firm I recommend that a marketing campaign be judged based upon the quantity of qualified leads and new projects that arises. Traffic numbers are easily rigged (you can buy traffic). And, traffic numbers don’t reflect how well the marketing company targeted one’s demographic.
If I drive price conscious furniture buyers to an interior designer’s website because it is an easy way to increase traffic numbers, but if these visitors tend to leave the page quickly (“bounce” or “drop off” as we call it) then they not only aren’t of value to the designer, but they actually hurt the designer by having Google label the site as having a “high bounce rate.” This means that the wrong traffic to your site can weaken your search engine position.
Keep in mind that while an SEO firm can increase traffic to your site through the process of making your site place higher in search engine results, if the content and design of the website isn’t supportive your phone won’t be ringing. Therefore, any sincere SEO firm would provide a thorough analysis of your site and provide you with options for your programmer to implement, suggestions that they can implement, or the advice to create a new website altogether.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR MARKETING NEEDS ARE
Do you just want Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? What does that mean? Do you want someone to get your existing site to the top of the search engines, or are changes necessary to the site so that it speaks better to Google and to potential clients?
The basics of your Internet Marketing campaign include:
2. Website design and development,
3. Website content and blogging,
4. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so that your site can be found,
5. Social Media Marketing,
6. Industry Specific Directories and Social Media (Houzz, i-d-d.com, etc)
A successful marketing campaign integrates these all. Best practice is to hire a marketing strategist to coordinate your entire campaign. Any client-centered firm can provide all of these services or can work with your existing providers to create an integrated campaign. For example, clients come to us often with a web designer they love or a blogger that they enjoy working with. We include them onto our team for their account, and thus integrate their marketing into one whole.
HIRE A STRATEGIST FOR YOUR MARKETING, NOT A TECHNICIAN
To relieve yourself of the burdens of marketing your business you’ll need to hire yourself a marketing strategist. An integrated marketing campaign requires having someone to manage it. Your needs have to be determined, research must be done on your keywords and market, your current online presence must be analyzed, strategy needs to be set, and then the initiatives need to be implemented. If you only hire technicians, let’s say a web designer or a blog writer or an SEO guy, then you only have the last of those steps fulfilled.
Using an analogy… hiring a marketing strategist or consultant buys you an orchestra leader. Without hiring someone to orchestrate the many contributors to the marketing effort, you will have to do it.
When hiring a firm to provide marketing services for you ask them how they intend to orchestrate your total campaign. Who is the conductor? How many members in the orchestra? Can you bring your own musicians? (your web designer or blogger, for example).
DON’T UNDER INVEST
The best investment is not the lowest investment. The value in increased revenues of having a top position in the search engines more than justifies the cost of the marketing campaign.
For service providers, such as interior designers, it often strikes me as strange that one would invest years in their professional education often followed by years of apprenticeship in the form of working for a seasoned firm to only start their own business and not invest in getting the word out of their services.
If design is your passion and if it is how you want to be spending your days, to under invest in marketing is to deny yourself from enjoying your passion and purpose. People only hire those that they know about- thus the power of SEO and marketing!
Every moment that you and your team are without projects is wasted time that you can’t get back.
If you charge $100/hour, that is a potential income of $4000/week or $16,000/month. How much is it worth to you to get that income? Even if you cut those numbers into half for 20 hours of consultation work per week you are still looking at an $8,000 month. How much would you invest to earn that $8k or $16k month?
Look at how much you make per hour and then try to come to a number that would determine how much you think it is worth to you to keep yourself busy. See your marketing budget as an investment in your creativity, passion, and prosperity.
Your Internet budget is as essential as your basic utilities. To run your office you need electricity, an Internet connection, and an Internet marketing budget. When invested wisely it will bring in great returns and the monthly expense should feel light and non-invasive. If it feels heavy your campaign isn’t working for you.
Our marketing packages for interior designers typically run between $450-950/month. It is a tiny price to pay for the prosperity and opportunity that comes with it. And, our campaigns are scalable so they can expand based upon your needs. So, the more prosperous your practice becomes, the more we can take pressure off of you by having our polished professionals tend to all of the details for you.