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Proof: Choosing An SEO Firm is Exactly Like Buying a Car

November 3rd, 2010 | | SEO Management

Say, Jessica, you work at a search marketing agency. You sit around all day and look at peoples’ websites and play with Analytics data. What do you know about how I should choose an SEM agency? You don’t know how it feels to be me!

It’s true, true. I’ve never been on the “shopping around” end of searching for SEO services- but I have been on the “selling” side of that equation, as well as on the “say HUH your former SEO firm did WHAT” side of the client-relationship equation. And being in those places has given me a pretty solid understanding of what it is essential that a company searching for an SEO manager learns about, and from, any company they’re considering, as well as what they need to make sure their potential manager knows about their own business.

And like most of us: I’ve purchased several cars. And no matter how many times I do it, it’s kind of scary. It’s a big deal! That’s a lot of investment! I…don’t know anything except I want it to be fast, and purple and never break. And I’d like to pay as little as possible. But when it comes down to it, finding an SEO firm is a lot like finding the best car for you for the best price. Let me explain why:

If you don’t know exactly what you need, you’re screwed.

You should always start with a list of “things that make a good X”: a list of standard services or features that you can expect from a reputable car or SEO dealer.  Research online, ask business acquaintances, and gather as much information as you can about what is available and how it relates to your needs.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t always keep your ears and eyes open for new options you’re not yet aware of. But it does mean that if you don’t understand exactly what the feature being offered is and how it works, you don’t get to use it as a decision-making factor until you’ve gotten all of the info on it and taken a minute to think about it. An SEO firm offers you anchor text optimization for $200/month, the car dealer offers you paint sealant for $150. Do either of those things matter? Do you need them? Do you know?! If not, it’s okay! Don’t feel pressured to make decisions about things you don’t understand. Take time, get opinions or second offers, and then go back to the one you want to do business with, knowing exactly what you want.

If you don’t know your own standards, you’re screwed.

Not every car salesman in the world is going to try to take advantage of you. And neither is every SEO firm. But the problem is: when you’re dealing with an industry you’re pretty unfamiliar with, it becomes about 9000% easier to get the very short end of the stick. Fortunately, the truth is that no matter how unfamiliar you may be with an industry, product, or service, you still know what your personal quality standards are! I feel like we’d all refuse to touch a car with leaking gas can and dog pee stains on the backseat, so just…apply that same standard of quality to your website! Do you want an SEO firm who will carefully proofread and edit all of the copy and linking they do for your site, and ensure it meets with your approval? Or a three-country-relay outsource that’s posted on your site after an editor with 674 other pages to approve and post today glances at it? You need to understand the quality you’re going to get for the price you pay, and make sure that your standards don’t get sacrificed for economy.

It’s your ride…I mean, it’s your website. It’s your business. No matter how trustworthy and exceptional your SEO firm is, ultimately, the website is the portrayal of yourself and your business you’re showing the world. Whatever level of control you need to have over it, make sure the firm is aware from the outset, to avoid both quality issues and creative control issues later on in your relationship.

You have to respect what you don’t know.

Truth be told, when most of us go to buy a car or go to hire an SEO firm, we know what we want. We have “goals” (I want a new Jeep Grand Cherokee and it’s gotta be PURPLE and it’s gotta have a black leather interior and please also if it could have heated seats and a self-starter, I live in Indiana and it’s getting cold out for heavenssakes). But often, we aren’t 100% sure how we’ll reach those goals. We might have to modify our goals a little bit based on the reality of what’s possible (Huh? My specially modified non-production color Grand Cherokee is going to be $14,000 more than the one on the lot here?). And that’s fine! It’s a natural part of the learning and negotiating process. You’re going to have to remember that search engine optimizers are not magicians, they’re just people who understand the rules of making stuff popular online. Again: ask around to make sure that you’re not being lied to by an undermotivated SEO agent, but be aware that sometimes you’re going to have expectations that aren’t based on the reality of what SEO can do, and be willing to change your expectations (within a comfortable range for yourself and your business) when you gain that understanding.

Realize that sometimes pretty is worth it…sometimes it’s not.

This is self-explanatory in terms of cars. Paying $14,000 more for a purple Jeep when I like charcoal grey just fine would be a terrible decision for me. Tempting, but terrible. In SEO, this can be a bit trickier. Sometimes agencies which offer very polished, very standardized packages can offer those options because they are large companies with very large client recruitment and advertising budgets, and the presentation isn’t at all reflective of their actual search engine optimization capabilities. An agency which offers you useful information in a straightforward, organized manner from the outset and takes your personal preferences into consideration during your negotiations is likely to continue doing so. A freelancer who has excellent references but a terrible sales pitch and faxes you a contract with the name of their previous client whited out? Maybe will do an excellent job of the work, but you can expect communication might be complicated. You have to use your own judgment to determine whether the level of professionalism portrayed by each properly reflects their capabilities, as well as determine whether the firm or individual’s communicative style will work with your internal business strategies.

Always remember just because you’re confused in your meeting with the car salesman or the SEO agency pitchman, don’t panic! That’s why we have the internet. Take a time out, make sure you’re being thorough and being true to your needs, and it will work out just fine.

Jessica is an Account Supervisor at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.

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